Cooperative Bug Isolation

This is my doctoral dissertation, submitted in partial satisfaction of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Computer Science in the Graduate Division of the University of California, Berkeley.

It is an honor to have received the 2005 ACM Doctoral Dissertation Award in recognition of this work.


Debugging does not end with deployment. Static analysis, in-house testing, and good software engineering practices can catch or prevent many problems before software is distributed. Yet mainstream commercial software still ships with both known and unknown bugs. Real software still fails in the hands of real users. The need remains to identify and repair bugs that are only discovered, or whose importance is only revealed, after the software is released. Unfortunately we know almost nothing about how software behaves (and misbehaves) in the hands of end users. Traditional post-deployment feedback mechanisms, such as technical support phone calls or hand-composed bug reports, are informal, inconsistent, and highly dependent on manual, human intervention. This approach clouds the view, preventing engineers from seeing a complete and truly representative picture of how and why problems occur.

This dissertation proposes a system to support debugging based on feedback from actual users. Cooperative Bug Isolation (CBI) leverages the key strength of user communities: their overwhelming numbers. We propose a low-overhead instrumentation strategy for gathering information from the executions experienced by large numbers of software end users. Our approach limits overhead using sparse random sampling rather than complete data collection, while simultaneously ensuring that the observed data is an unbiased, representative subset of the complete program behavior across all runs. We discuss a number of specific instrumentation schemes that may be coupled with the general sampling transformation to produce feedback data that we have found to be useful for isolating the causes of a wide variety of bugs.

Collecting feedback from real code, especially real buggy code, is a nontrivial exercise. This dissertation presents our approach to a number of practical challenges that arise in building a complete, working CBI system. We discuss how the general sampling transformation scheme can be extended to deal with native compilers, libraries, dynamically loaded code, threads, and other features of modern software. We address questions of privacy and security as well as related issues of user interaction and informed user consent. This design and engineering investment has allowed us to begin an actual public deployment of a CBI system, initial results from which we report here.

Of course, feedback data is only as useful as the sense we can make of it. When data is fair but very sparse, the noise level is high and traditional manual debugging techniques insufficient. This dissertation presents a suite of new algorithms for statistical debugging: finding and fixing software errors based on statistical analysis of sparse feedback data. The techniques vary in complexity and sophistication, from simple process of elimination strategies to regression techniques that build models of suspect program behaviors as failure predictors. Our most advanced technique combines a number of general and domain-specific statistical filtering and ranking techniques to separate the effects of different bugs and identify predictors that are associated with individual bugs. These predictors reveal both the circumstances under which bugs occur and the frequencies of failure modes, making it easier to prioritize debugging efforts. Our algorithm is validated using several case studies. These case studies include examples in which the algorithm found previously unknown, significant crashing bugs in widely used systems.

Full Dissertation

The full dissertation is available as a single PDF document or a single PostScript document. A suggested BibTeX citation record is also available.

Professionally printed and bound copies are available for purchase through ProQuest/UMI.

A revised and extended version of this dissertation has been published as Volume 4440 in Springer’s Lecture Notes in Computer Science series.

Supplemental Results

Section 4.6 [Case Studies] refers to supplemental results available on an archival DVD accompanying the dissertation. These results are also available for browsing online.