Dan Stroot

Engineering Software is Nothing Like Engineering a Bridge

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3 min read

When an engineer designs a bridge, they begin with the load the bridge is intended to bear, and they calculate the various stresses caused by wind, earthquakes, etc. As they choose materials to construct the bridge they have the oportunity to look up a material's properties in a "strength of materials" book, including its ability to withstand an applied load without failure or deformation.

In mechanical engineering one usually deals with smooth functions. As the load increases the material width or thickness needed increases proportionally. A small error (usually) results in a small propensity for failure.

The engineering process also adds a safety factor. In engineering, a "factor of safety" (FoS), expresses how much stronger a system is than it needs to be for an intended load. In a vast oversimplification, if we calcuate that a steel beam must be 12 inches wide to bear the load, let's double it to 24 inches "just in case" for safety purposes.

Bridges (all structures really) are intentionally built much stronger than needed for normal usage to allow for small miscalculations, emergency situations, unexpected loads, misuse, and degradation.

Engineering software is completely different

Software is discrete; a single small error can result in a disproportionately large failure. A single typo in a 100,000-line program can cause it to fail catastrophically. Yes, even getting a thousandth of a percent of a program wrong can cause total failure. (How a single line of code brought down a half-billion euro rocket launch)

In software development the margin of error is literally undefined behavior.

No bridge ever collapsed because the engineer got a thousandth of a percent of the building material’s properties wrong, or made a calculation a thousandth of a percent off.

Software engineers fly blind when it comes to materials. We can't consult a book that will tell us how "thick" our website must be to support 100,000 users. We also frequently design with no real concept what our loads will actually be. If we are creating a new website chances are the initial volumes will be an order of magnitude lower, or higher, than we were told to expect. If it becomes popular it will have further, higher orders of magnitude higher traffic than planned.

On the positive side, the cost of changing a structure in virtual space is several orders of magnitude lower than changing a structure in physical space. In addition, software projects usually allow us to build reusable components that have tests that ensure certain behaviors - then we rerun them in various environments to make sure our assumptions still hold. We can also more reliably simulate behavior and load before we ship, which means we can load test our site before going live.

Engineering safe and secure software

In the physical world, attacking actual infrastructure like a bridge exposes the threat actors to risk - they have to be physically present (at some point). Terrorists and nation-states are willing to take that risk, whereas in the virtual space both nation states & private actors participate.

The nature of the Internet allows attackers to strike from anywhere and maintain anonymity. Attackers can replicate an attack easily without much additional effort/cost on their part. Attackers can even purchase "blueprints" for an attack that are basically the code for the attack itself. The financial motive is particularly important because it funds the ever growing arms race between offense & defense.

Assessing the security of software via the question "is it secure?" is like assessing the structure of a bridge by asking the question "has it collapsed yet?" -- it is an important question, to be certain, but it also profoundly misses the point.

As discussed, engineers design bridges with built-in safety margins to guard against unforeseen circumstances (unexpectedly high winds, corrosion causing joints to weaken, a traffic accident severing support cables, et cetera); secure and reliable software could (and should) likewise be designed to tolerate failures within individual components and limit the potential damage.

The concept of "security in depth" is not new to network administrators; software engineers also apply the same engineering principles within individual applications as well. In the real world it can mean the difference between being compromised or not.

Software failure scenarios

Engineers who design bridges also design for lifespan. It's not discussed often but all structures, including bridges, will eventually fail.

"We design these things to fail at some regularity because to do otherwise would require an over-investment of resources."

Software engineers design for scalability and reliability and hope their software can stand the test of time. Software doesn't rot, weather, or rust. A working algorithm is a working algorithm. However, most software changes so rapidly that its lifespan ends up being lower than a physical structure.


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