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In computer programming and software engineering, software brittleness is the increased difficulty in fixing older software that may appear reliable, but fails badly when presented with unusual data or altered in a seemingly minor way. The phrase is derived from analogies to brittleness in metalworking.
When software is new, it is very malleable; it can be formed to be whatever is wanted by the implementers. But as the software in a given project grows larger and larger, and develops a larger base of users with long experience with the software, it becomes less and less malleable. Like a metal that has been work-hardened, the software becomes a legacy system, brittle and unable to be easily maintained without fracturing the entire system.
Brittleness in software can be caused by algorithms that do not work well for the full range of input data. A good example is an algorithm that allows a divide by zero to occur, or a curve-fitting equation that is used to extrapolate beyond the data that it was fitted to. Another cause of brittleness is the use of data structures that restrict values. This was commonly seen in the late 1990s as people realized that their software only had room for a 2 digit year entry; this led to the sudden updating of tremendous quantities of brittle software before the year 2000. Another more commonly encountered form of brittleness is in graphical user interfaces that make invalid assumptions. For example, a user may be running on a low resolution display, and the software will open a window too large to fit the display. Another common problem is expressed when a user uses a color scheme other than the default, causing text to be rendered in the same color as the background, or a user uses a font other than the default, which won't fit in the allowed space and cuts off instructions and labels.
Very often, an old code base is simply abandoned and a brand-new system (which is intended to be free of many of the burdens of the legacy system) created from scratch, but this can be an expensive and time-consuming process.
Some examples and reasons behind software brittleness:
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