Are code assertions considered harmful?

Cameron Paine cbp at
Sat Nov 8 05:34:21 GMT 2003

I'm interested in opinions from a group of seasoned designers and

I'm hunting some undocumented features in libsmbclient that are really
laying my project's financial and time lines to waste. I guess I should
have done a thorough code review before I committed to using the library
so I guess that after 25 years at this I'm still able to be ambushed. ;-)

Anyway, I'm trying to improve the worst excesses of the code and am
being hamstrung by the paucity of documentation. It seems that the
interface contracts for most of the functions in the library--both
internal and exported--are seldom written down. I guess those of you
who have worked on this code are in physical proximity and/or have
developed good interpersonal communication and the nod and wink
approach has reduced the time to implement. However as a latecomer
who wants to: a) get his project delivered thereby reducing his
financial exposure and; b) return the fruits of this labour to the
community, the opacity of some of the contracts is really taking a

To my question then: why are assertions considered unhelpful? I have
found none so far and several of the thorny features I've found
would have been detected if the original coder had stated his
assumptions, as code, using assert() or an equivalent. Twice I've
been tempted to put a couple in but I've baulked because this does
not seem to be the "Samba Way".

Also, I understand the traditional (and lame IMO) argument for not
documenting code. And yes, I can read C better than I can read my
own handwriting. However, when the code implements conflicting
behaviours, how can the maintainer know which was the intended one
and which one slipped through the cracks in the testing regime.

While on the subject of code commentary, what is the attitude of
the team to others adding commentary to their code? So far I've
amassed a dozen pages of explanatory notes that I'm keeping
separate from the code. I'm doing this primarily so I don't
pollute the code with (possibly incorrect) statements about
intended behaviour. I could mitigate against this by documenting
what the code does (not what people seem to assume that it does)
but that may then create conflicts with the small amount of doco
that does exist.

I'd really appreciate your thoughts and your guidance.

Cameron Paine

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