Variability-Modelling Practices in Industrial Software Product Lines: A Qualitative Study
Nair, Divya Karunakaran
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Many organizations have transitioned from single-systems development to product-line development with the goal of increasing productivity and facilitating mass customization. Variability modelling is a key activity in software product-line development that deals with the explicit representation of variability using dedicated models. Variability models specify points of variability and their variants in a product line. Although many variability-modelling notations and tools have been designed by researchers and practitioners, very little is known about their usage, actual benefits or challenges. Existing studies mostly describe product-line practices in general, with little focus on variability modelling. We address this gap through a qualitative study on variability-modelling practices in medium- and large-scale companies using two empirical methods: surveys and interviews. We investigated companies' variability-modelling practices and experiences with the aim to gather information on 1) the methods and strategies used to create and manage variability models, 2) the tools and notations used for variability modelling, 3) the perceived values and challenges of variability modelling, and 4) the core characteristics of their variability models. Our results show that variability models are often created by re-engineering existing products into a product line. All of the interviewees and the majority of survey participants indicated that they represent variability using separate variability models rather than annotative approaches. We found that developers use variability models for many purposes, such as the visualization of variabilities, configuration of products, and scoping of products. Although we observed that high degree of heterogeneity exists in the variability-modelling notations and tools used by organizations, feature-based notations and tools are the most common. We saw huge differences in the sizes of variability models and their contents, which indicate that variability models can have different use cases depending on the organization. Most of our study participants reported complexity challenges that were related mainly to the visualization and evolution of variability models, and dependency management. In addition, reports from interviews suggest that product-line adoption and variability modelling have forced developers to think in terms of a product-line scenario rather than a product-based scenario.