Program Comprehension Support for Assembly Language: Assessing the Needs of Specialized Groups




Baldwin, Jennifer Ellen

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Advances in software engineering and programming languages have had an impact on productivity, time to market, comprehension, maintenance, and evolution of software. Low-level systems have been largely overlooked in this arena, not only because of their complexities, but also the "bare bones'" culture of this domain. This dissertation investigates the program comprehension needs of two stakeholder groups using different assembly languages: a mainframe development group and a malware analysis group. Exploratory interviews and surveys suggest that the groups' needs may be similar at a high-level. However, a detailed study involving requirements elicitation and case studies, reveals that the truth is much more complicated. As a proof of concept, we have created the AVA (Assembly Visualization and Analysis) framework, which is independent of the underlying assembly language. Despite this independence, tools within AVA could not be applied with equal efficacy, even just within these two groups. This dissertation shows that there exist fundamental differences not only in the highly-specialized nature of each group's work, but also in the assembly languages themselves. This reality necessitates a disjoint set of tools that cannot be consolidated into a universally applicable framework.



Assembly Language, Requirements Elicitation, Program Comprehension