Thursday, December 17, 2009

Debugging 101: Assumptions

Story time: this weekend I was configuring a router for my wife's uncle. I needed a live upstream network connection to test it, and happened to have a spare cable plugged into my main router — a gray cable, that I'd used recently for a computer without wireless, which was coiled neatly next to my equipment rack.

I plugged this cable into the new router, and nothing happened. “Oh, that's right, the connector has a broken tab, it probably needs to be pushed back into its socket.” After five minutes of unplugging and replugging the cable, and testing it on my laptop, I decided that the cable simply wasn't working anymore, and grabbed another off the shelf. I configured the router and that was that … until I sat down at my desktop computer and couldn't connect to the Internet.

I had violated the first rule of debugging: don't assume.

In this case I assumed that the gray cable I was busy plugging and unplugging at my main router was the same gray cable that was plugged into the new router. In fact, it was the gray cable that was attached to my desktop computer. The end of the neatly coiled spare cable had long-ago fallen onto the floor (it was missing the tab on its connector, remember).

There were plenty of clues staring me in the face. For one thing, the “spare” cable was zip-tied to my equipment rack. When I saw this, I actually said to myself “why did I do that?” Another clue was that only three “connection” lights were lit on the main router. Oh, and then there was the fact that I had two gray cables lying next to each other. But I ignored these clues.

That's the nature of assumptions: once you believe something, you won't let go of that belief until you have incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. Perhaps this was a good thing for early human evolution: it's best to assume that rustling in the brush is something that plans to eat you until you see otherwise. Those who abandoned their assumptions too quickly were removed from the gene pool.

But to a software developer, it's a trait that gets in the way of debugging. Fortunately, there are a few tricks to break assumptions … as long as you remember to use them before the assumption takes hold.

More on those tomorrow.

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