Syllabus

Course Description

Software is becoming ever more complex and difficult to understand, at the same time as it is used ever more pervasively. It is hopeless to understand how software systems work (or why they do not work!) without automated assistance. Programmers need tool assistance during design, implementation, testing, debugging, and modification ("maintenance"). This graduate seminar will investigate a variety of program analysis techniques that address these software engineering tasks.

Static analysis topics include abstract interpretation (dataflow), type systems, model checking, decision procedures (SAT, BDDs), theorem-proving. Dynamic analysis topics include testing, fault isolation (debugging), model inference, and visualization. While the course focuses on the design and implementation of programming tools, the material will be useful to anyone who wishes to improve his or her programming or understand the state of the art.

Students are expected to read classic and current technical papers, actively participate in class discussion, perform small exercises that provide experience with a variety of tools, and complete a team research project. Sample projects will be provided, but students are also free to propose their own, particularly ones motivated by their own problems experienced while programming. Examples include proposing and evaluating a fundamental new technique; developing and assessing new algorithms to replace currently-used ones; translating a methodology to a new problem domain; evaluation of proposed techniques (for instance, via a user study); and applying known techniques to new problem domains, such as operating systems, networks, embedded systems, security, biology, aerospace, etc.

Prerequisites

6.170 and 6.042J, or instructor's permission. 6.035 or 6.821 is helpful but not required.

Course Structure

6.883 is a graduate paper-reading seminar. Each class session will begin with a brief discussion and presentation of material, after (or during) which the floor will be open to rebuttals, discussion of related work, criticism, brainstorming about follow-on research, etc. At this level in your career, you should no longer be a passive listener to lectures but an active participant in the discussion.

To help you prepare, you will write a one-paragraph commentary on each paper no later than 9 AM on the day before the class meets to discuss the paper. You will submit your commentary for viewing by the instructor and by other students. The commentary should reflect your understanding and analysis of the issues raised by the paper, and should also help direct (both your and others') preparation for in-class discussion.

You may write the commentary in whatever style you prefer that meets the goals listed above. One good format for the commentary is to critique the paper, listing the following three points: its biggest contribution (and, briefly, why that result was not already obvious), its biggest mistake (in motivation, methodology, algorithm, data analysis, conclusions, or some other area), and the biggest question that it raises (or the most interesting and important follow-on work that it suggests). Another acceptable format is to summarize the paper, describing its thesis, approach, and conclusions, and stating why it is significant. The commentary should also list questions that you have about the paper, such as about technical points or connections to related work.

If you read the paper and there are issues you do not understand, then by all means ask questions about them and we will all gain by the discussion. Remember, if you have a question, it is likely that many other people have the same question but are too shy (or vain, or insecure) to ask it; they will appreciate your raising the point. However, do come to class prepared: carefully read the paper and get as much as you can out of it on your own. Doing so will make the class time that much more productive.

Each student will present one paper during the semester. (The presentations will be done by pairs of students if there are enough students registered.) The lecturer will present the other papers. Presenters will meet with the lecturer a week before the class meeting to receive feedback and improve their presentation.

Grading

Grades will be assigned based on the project (this is the largest factor), class participation (during class meeting) and occasional homework. As this is a graduate class, the class is likely to be A-centered, but students are not guaranteed a grade of A (or even a passing grade).