A specification is a contract between a client of some unit of code and the implementer of that code. The most common place we find specifications is as comments in the interface (.mli) files for a module. There, the implementer of the module spells out what the client may and may not assume about the module's behavior. This contract makes it clear who to blame if something goes wrong: Did the client misuse the module? Or did the implementer fail to deliver the promised functionality?

Specifications usually involve preconditions and postconditions. The preconditions inform what the client must guarantee about inputs they pass in, and what the implementer may assume about those inputs. The postconditions inform what they client may assume about outputs they receive, and what the implementer must guarantee about those outputs.

An implementation satisfies a specification if it provides the behavior described by the specification. There may be many possible implementations of a given specification that are feasible. The client may not assume anything about which of those implementations is actually provided. The implementer, on the other hand, gets to provide one of their choice.

Writing Specifications

Good specifications have to balance two conflicting goals; they must be

  • sufficiently restrictive, ruling out implementations that would be useless to clients, as well as

  • sufficiently general, not ruling out implementations that would be useful to clients.

Some common mistakes include not stating enough in preconditions, failing to identify when exceptions will be thrown, failing to specify behavior at boundary cases, writing operational specifications instead of definitional and stating too much in postconditions.

Writing good specifications is a skill that you will work to master the rest of your career. It's hard because the language and compiler do nothing to check the correctness of a specification: there's no type system for them, no warnings, etc. (Though there is ongoing research on how to improve specifications and the writing of them.) The specifications you write will be read by other people, and with that reading can come misunderstanding. Reading specifications requires close attention to detail.

Specifications should be written quite early. As soon as a design decision is made, document it in a specification. Specifications should continue to be updated throughout implementation. A specification becomes obsolete only when the code it specifies becomes obsolete and is removed from the code base.

Clear specifications serve many important functions in software development teams. One important one is when something goes wrong, everyone can agree on whose job it is to fix the problem: either the implementer has not met the specification and needs to fix the implementation, or the client has written code that assumes something not guaranteed by the spec, and therefore needs to fix the using code. Or, perhaps the spec is wrong, and then the client and implementer need to decide on a new spec. This ability to decide whose problem a bug is prevents problems from slipping through the cracks.

Abstraction by Specification

Abstraction enables modular programming by hiding the details of implementations. Specifications are a part of that kind of abstraction: they reveal certain information about the behavior of a module without disclosing all the details of the module's implementation.

Locality is one of the benefits of abstraction by specification. A module can be understood without needing to examine its implementation. This locality is critical in implementing large programs, and even in in implementing smaller programs in teams. No one person can keep the entire system in their head at a time.

Modifiability is another benefit. Modules can be reimplemented without changing the implementation of other modules or functions. Software libraries depend upon this to improve their functionality without forcing all their clients to rewrite code every time the library is upgraded. Modifiability also enables performance enhancements: we can write simple, slow implementations first, then improve bottlenecks as necessary.

The client should not assume more about the implementation than is given in the spec because that allows the implementation to change. The specification forms an abstraction barrier that protects the implementer from the client and vice versa. Making assumptions about the implementation that are not guaranteed by the specification is known as violating the abstraction barrier. The abstraction barrier enforces local reasoning. Further, it promotes loose coupling between different code modules. If one module changes, other modules are less likely to have to change to match.

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