Deriving Formal Specifications from Natural Language Requirements

Deriving Formal Specifications from Natural Language Requirements

María Virginia Mauco, María Carmen Leonardi, Daniel Riesco
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-026-4.ch161
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Formal methods have come into use for the construction of real systems as they help to increase software quality and reliability, and even though their industrial use is still limited, it has been steadily growing (Bowen & Hinchey, 2006; van Lamsweerde, 2000). When used early in the software development process, they can reveal ambiguities, incompleteness, inconsistencies, errors, or misunderstandings that otherwise might only be discovered during costly testing and debugging phases. A well-known formal method is the RAISE Method (George et al., 1995), which has been used on real developments (Dang Van, George, Janowski, & Moore, 2002). One tangible product of applying a formal method is a formal specification. A formal specification serves as a contract, a valuable piece of documentation, and a means of communication among stakeholders and software engineers. Formal specifications may be used throughout the software lifecycle and they may be manipulated by automated tools for a wide variety of purposes such as model checking, deductive verification, animation, test data generation, formal reuse of components, and refinement from specification to implementation (van Lamsweerde, 2000). However, one of the problems with formal specifications is that they are hard to master and not easily comprehensible to stakeholders, and even to non-formal specification specialists. This is particularly inconvenient during the first stages of system development when interaction with stakeholders is very important. In practice, the analysis often starts from interviews with the stakeholders, and this source of information is heavily based on natural language as stakeholders must be able to read and understand the results of requirements capture. Then specifications are never formal at first. A good formal approach should use both informal and formal techniques (Bjorner, 2000). The requirements baseline (Leite, Hadad, Doorn, & Kaplan, 2000), for example, is a technique proposed to formalize requirements elicitation and modeling, which includes two natural language models, the language extended lexicon (LEL) and the scenario model, which ease and encourage stakeholders’ active participation. However, specifying requirements in natural language has some drawbacks related to natural language imprecision. Based on the previous considerations, we proposed a technique to derive an initial formal specification in the RAISE specification language (RSL) from the LEL and the scenario model (Mauco, 2004; Mauco & Riesco, 2005a; Mauco, Riesco, & George, 2004). The technique provides a set of manual heuristics to derive types and functions and structure them in modules taking into account the structured description of requirements provided by the LEL and the scenario model. But, for systems of considerable size this manual derivation is very tedious and time consuming and may be error-prone. Besides, maintenance of consistency between LEL and scenarios, and the RSL specification is a critical problem as well as tracking of traceability relationships. In this article, we present an enhancement to this technique, which consists in the RSL-based formalization of some of the heuristics to derive RSL types from the LEL. The aim of this formalization is to serve as the basis for a semiautomatic strategy that could be implemented by a tool. More concretely, we describe a set of RSL-based derivation rules that will transform the information contained in the LEL into abstract and concrete RSL types. These derivation rules are a useful starting point to deal with the great amount of requirements information modeled in the LEL, as they provide a systematic and consistent way of defining a tentative set of RSL types. We also present some examples of the application of the rules and discuss advantages and disadvantages of the strategy proposed.
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In spite of the availability of other notations such a tables, diagrams, and formal notations, natural language is still chosen for describing the requirements of a software system (Berry, Bucchiarone, Gnesi, Lami, & Trentani, 2006; Bryant et al., 2003; van Lamsweerde, 2000).

Key Terms in this Chapter

RAISE Method: The RAISE method encompasses formulating abstract specifications, developing them to successively more concrete specifications, justifying the correctness of the development, and translating the final specification into a programming language, and it is based on a number of principles such as separate development, step-wise development, invent and verify, and rigor. RAISE is an acronym for “rigorous approach to industrial software engineering,” and it gives its name to a formal specification language, the RAISE specification language, the associated method, and a set of tools.

Formal Specification: It is the expression, in some formal language and at a some level of abstraction, of a collection of properties some system should satisfy. A specification is formal if it is expressed in a language made of three components: the syntax (rules for determining the grammatical well-formedness of sentences), the semantics (rules for interpreting sentences in a precise, meaningful way in the domain considered), and the proof theory (rules for inferring useful information from the specification.

RAISE Specification Language (RSL): It is a formal specification language intended to support the precise definition of software requirements and reliable development from such definitions to executable implementations. It supports specification and design of large systems in a modular way, and thus it permits separate subsystems to be separately developed. It also provides a range of specification styles (axiomatic and model-based; applicative and imperative; sequential and concurrent) as well as it supports specifications ranging from abstract (close to requirements) to concrete (close to implementations).

Universe of Discourse (UofD): It is the overall context in which the software will be developed and operated.

Requirements Engineering: It comprehends all the activities involved in eliciting, modeling, documenting, and maintaining a set of requirements for a computer-based system. The term “engineering” implies that systematic and repeatable techniques should be used to ensure that system requirements are consistent, complete, relevant, etc.

Requirements: They are descriptions of how the system should behave, or of a system property or attribute. They are defined during the early stages of a system development as a specification of what should be implemented. They should be statements of what a system should do rather than a statement of how it should do it.

Formal Methods: This term refers to the variety of mathematical modeling techniques that are applicable to computer system (software and hardware) design. Formal methods may be used to specify and model the behavior of a system and to mathematically verify that the system design and implementation satisfy system functional and safety properties. These specifications, models, and verifications may be done using a variety of techniques and with various degrees of rigor.

Requirements Baseline: It is a mechanism proposed to formalize requirements elicitation and modeling. It is a structure which incorporates descriptions about a desired system in a given application domain. Although it is developed during the requirements engineering process, it continues to evolve during the software development process. It is composed of five complementary views: the lexicon model view, the scenario view, the basic model view, the hypertext view, and the configuration view.

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