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Software Errors

We usually think of hardware faults as being random and independent from each other: one machine’s disk failing does not imply that another machine’s disk is going to fail. There may be weak correlations (for example due to a common cause, such as the temperature in the server rack), but otherwise it is unlikely that a large number of hardware components will fail at the same time.

Another class of fault is a systematic error within the system [8]. Such faults are harder to anticipate, and because they are correlated across nodes, they tend to cause many more system failures than uncorrelated hardware faults [5]. Examples include:

  • • A software bug that causes every instance of an application server to crash when given a particular bad input. For example, consider the leap second on June 30, 2012, that caused many applications to hang simultaneously due to a bug in the Linux kernel [9].
  • • A runaway process that uses up some shared resource—CPU time, memory, disk space, or network bandwidth.
  • • A service that the system depends on that slows down, becomes unresponsive, or starts returning corrupted responses.
  • • Cascading failures, where a small fault in one component triggers a fault in another component, which in turn triggers further faults [10].

The bugs that cause these kinds of software faults often lie dormant for a long time until they are triggered by an unusual set of circumstances. In those circumstances, it is revealed that the software is making some kind of assumption about its environment—and while that assumption is usually true, it eventually stops being true for some reason [11].

There is no quick solution to the problem of systematic faults in software. Lots of small things can help: carefully thinking about assumptions and interactions in the system; thorough testing; process isolation; allowing processes to crash and restart; measuring, monitoring, and analyzing system behavior in production. If a system is expected to provide some guarantee (for example, in a message queue, that the number of incoming messages equals the number of outgoing messages), it can constantly check itself while it is running and raise an alert if a discrepancy is found [12].

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