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Minimizing Delta Debugging Algorithm

Erlang implementation of the minimizing delta debugging algorithm (ddmin) as described in Simplifying and Isolating Failure-Inducing Input (PDF) from the fine folks of the software engineering chair of Saarland University.

No worries, you don't have to read the paper to understand what's going on.

What does it do?

In a nutshell, the delta debugging algorithm is supposed to find the minimal difference between a passing and a failing test case for a given input. That means having a failing test for a given input, the ddmin will produce a minimal test case to reproduce the error. Therefore, simplifying the debugging work required to fix the cause of the error.

How does it do it?

The ddmin uses a divide and conquer approach by splitting input data into smaller chunks and checking if a smaller input reproduces the error the same way as the larger input does. Ultimately, the ddmin is supposed to find the minimal input to reproduce the error.

Let's look at an example:

foo([7|_]) -> throw(expected_error);
foo([_|T]) -> foo(T);
foo([]) -> done.

This inherently useless function shall serve us for demonstration purposes. For the input [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8] ddmin proceeds the following way by applying foo on different input configurations:

  step | delta | test case                | test
   1   |   1   | [1, 2, 3, 4] .  .  .  .  | pass
   2   |   2   |  .  .  .  . [5, 6, 7, 8] | fail
   3   |   1   |  .  .  .  . [5, 6] .  .  | pass
   4   |   2   |  .  .  .  .  .  . [7, 8] | fail
   5   |   1   |  .  .  .  .  .  . [7] .  | fail  (minimal input)
result |                           [7] 

In order to run ddmin you only have to implement a test function. The test function for the foo case could look like:

TestFun = fun(Circumstances) ->
            catch _:expected_error -> fail;
                  _:_ -> unresolved

During execution ddmin applies TestFun to each delta seeking the smallest failing input. Note that the test function must have the following type:

-type circumstance() :: term().
-type test() :: fun(([circumstance()] | []) -> pass | fail | unresolved).

The unresolved return value helps to determine cases where an unexpected error occurred.

Furthermore, ddmin resizes the chunks in case it cannot find a smaller failing test case. In the worst case almost all combination of chunks will be exercised but in the best case the overall complexity is that of a binary search.

Run ddmin like this:

> ddmin:ddmin(TestFun, [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8]).

How is that different from what QuickCheck/PropEr does?

It's not that different. The quickcheck approach lets you write generators for input data and automatically reduces this generated data to find minimal counterexamples that fail the properties you have defined. For the quickcheck approach you need a clear understanding how to model the inner workings of what you want to test.

Delta debugging allows a more exploratory approach. You can use delta debugging on any input data that you can chunk, including:

  • plain text (e.g. lines, words, characters),
  • structured data like HTML/XML tags, YAML, binary formats,
  • messages to a certain process collected from a trace to facilitate a record-replay approach. This approach is show-cased with a simple test (see test/record_replay_test.erl).

It remains up to the user to find a reasonable chunking method for input data.

Furthermore, a minimal test case can help to improve the quickcheck generators and properties you have defined so far.


Let me know if you find this interesting. Feedback is more than welcome.