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What Is Defensive Programming?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 16, 2024
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In a digital landscape where software failures can cost the economy billions annually—$2.4 trillion in 2022 alone, according to a report by the Consortium for IT Software Quality (CISQ)—defensive coding emerges as a critical strategy for developers. This proactive approach to programming emphasizes the anticipation and prevention of potential issues, aiming to fortify software against user errors and unexpected inputs. 

A study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) suggests that software bugs could be reduced by 50% through improved testing, a cornerstone of defensive coding. By crafting code that remains robust under unforeseen circumstances, developers not only enhance stability but also contribute to significant cost savings in the long run. 

In many ways, the concept of defensive programming is much like that of defensive driving, in that problems are considered before they arise. One common method for attempting to do this is through the creation of code that is meant to deal with any possible scenario thrown at it. Programmers typically try to determine ways in which users are likely to enter input or try to use software that may be outside of expected parameters. The use of defensive programming is built upon the foundation of the code itself, which is designed to be able to handle strange input without crashing or encountering an error event.

Seemingly in contrast with this element of defensive programming, however, well written code needs to be devoid of unnecessary entries. The more lines of code that are part of a program, the more opportunities there are for errors to be introduced. Defensive programming practices typically encourage developers to eliminate unnecessary code and streamline programs whenever possible. A balance must be struck, therefore, between programming that accounts for unexpected scenarios and code that contains too much unnecessary content without providing a benefit.

Testing is one of the most important aspects of defensive programming. Despite a great deal of effort put into ensuring code is perfect, developers almost always miss a mistake or create code with unexpected results. Thorough testing by professional testers allows a developer to have hundreds of hours of product use to find errors before software is released.

The code itself that is created in defensive programming is also a vital aspect of this process. Not only should it be streamlined as much as possible, but it should also be presented in a way that is clear and concise. Audits are often used by a developer to review code that has been created. This allows other programmers to see the work that has been done, and readable code is important for this to be a realistic part of development.

FAQ on Defensive Programming

What is defensive programming?

Defensive programming is a method of designing software in a way that ensures its continued function under unforeseen circumstances. It involves anticipating potential errors or issues that could arise during the program's operation and implementing safeguards to handle these situations gracefully. This approach emphasizes robustness and reliability, often incorporating extensive error checking, input validation, and contingency code to prevent crashes and security breaches.

Why is defensive programming important?

Defensive programming is crucial because it helps to create software that is less prone to bugs and vulnerabilities, which can lead to a better user experience and increased security. By expecting the unexpected, developers can protect their programs from unpredictable inputs or user behaviors that could otherwise cause failures. This proactive stance is particularly important in critical systems where reliability is paramount, such as in financial, healthcare, or infrastructure software.

How does defensive programming differ from other programming approaches?

Defensive programming is distinct from other programming approaches in its focus on preemptive measures and resilience. While all good programming practices involve some level of error handling, defensive programming goes further by actively anticipating and planning for potential problems. It contrasts with more optimistic approaches that might assume ideal conditions, and with aggressive programming, which may prioritize performance or minimalism over safety and error tolerance.

Can defensive programming impact the performance of software?

Defensive programming can sometimes impact the performance of software due to the additional checks and balances it introduces. However, the trade-off is often considered worthwhile for the increased reliability and security it provides. In many cases, the performance impact can be minimized through careful design and optimization. Ensuring that the software can handle unexpected situations without failing is generally seen as more important than a slight decrease in speed.

What are some common techniques used in defensive programming?

Common techniques in defensive programming include input validation to ensure that data meets certain criteria before processing, consistent error handling to manage exceptions gracefully, and assertions to check for conditions that must be true for the program to function correctly. Additionally, writing comprehensive unit tests to cover a wide range of scenarios, using fail-safe defaults, and implementing redundancy where necessary are also key strategies in this approach.

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