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Communications of the ACM

Inside risks

Toward Total-System Trustworthiness

shapes and binary code and circuit board traces, illustration


Communications' Inside Risks columns have long stressed the importance of total-system awareness of riskful situations, some of which may be very difficult to identify in advance. Specifically, the desired properties of the total system should be specified as requirements. Those desired properties are called emergent properties, because they often cannot be derived solely from lower-layer component properties, and appear only with respect to the total system. Unfortunately, additional behavior of the total system may arise—which either defeats the ability to satisfy the desired properties, or demonstrates that the set of required properties was improperly specified.

In this column, I consider some cases in which total-system analysis is of vital importance, but generally very difficult to achieve with adequate assurance. Relevant failures may result from one event or even a combination of problems in hardware, software, networks, operational environments, and of course actions by administrators, users, and misusers. All of the interactions among these entities need to be considered, evaluated, and if potentially deleterious, controlled by whatever means available. The problem to be confronted here is trying to analyze an entire system as a composition of its components, rather than just considering its components individually. In many cases, system failures tend to arise within the interactions and interdependencies among these components, depending on whether a system was designed modularly to minimize disruptive dependencies, with each module carefully specified.


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