Toward an Understanding of Software Code Cloning as a Development Practice
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Code cloning is the practice of duplicating existing source code for use elsewhere within a software system. Within the research community, conventional wisdom has asserted that code cloning is generally a bad practice, and that code clones should be removed or refactored where possible. While there is significant anecdotal evidence that code cloning can lead to a variety of maintenance headaches --- such as code bloat, duplication of bugs, and inconsistent bug fixing --- there has been little empirical study on the frequency, severity, and costs of code cloning with respect to software maintenance. This dissertation seeks to improve our understanding of code cloning as a common development practice through the study of several widely adopted, medium-sized open source software systems. We have explored the motivations behind the use of code cloning as a development practice by addressing several fundamental questions: For what reasons do developers choose to clone code? Are there distinct identifiable patterns of cloning? What are the possible short- and long-term term risks of cloning? What management strategies are appropriate for the maintenance and evolution of clones? When is the ``cure'' (refactoring) likely to cause more harm than the ``disease'' (cloning)? There are three major research contributions of this dissertation. First, we propose a set of requirements for an effective clone analysis tool based on our experiences in clone analysis of large software systems. These requirements are demonstrated in an example implementation which we used to perform the case studies prior to and included in this thesis. Second, we present an annotated catalogue of common code cloning patterns that we observed in our studies. Third, we present an empirical study of the relative frequencies and likely harmfulness of instances of these cloning patterns as observed in two medium-sized open source software systems, the Apache web server and the Gnumeric spreadsheet application. In summary, it appears that code cloning is often used as a principled engineering technique for a variety of reasons, and that as many as 71% of the clones in our study could be considered to have a positive impact on the maintainability of the software system. These results suggest that the conventional wisdom that code clones are generally harmful to the quality of a software system has been proven wrong.