Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cyclomatic Complexity

The cyclomatic complexity of a section of source code is the count of the number of linearly independent paths through the source code. For instance, if the source code contained no decision points such as IF statements or FOR loops, the complexity would be 1, since there is only a single path through the code. If the code had a single IF statement containing a single condition there would be two paths through the code, one path where the IF statement is evaluated as TRUE and one path where the IF statement is evaluated as FALSE.

Cyclomatic complexity is normally calculated by creating a graph of the source code with each line of source code being a node on the graph and arrows between the nodes showing the execution pathways. As some programming languages can be quite terse and compact, a source code statement when developing the graph may actually create several nodes in the graph (for instance, when using the "?:" ternary conditional operator in C, C++, C# and Java).

In general, in order to fully test a module all execution paths through the module should be exercised. This implies a module with a high complexity number requires more testing effort than a module with a lower value since the higher complexity number indicates more pathways through the code. This also implies that a module with higher complexity is more difficult for a programmer to understand since the programmer must understand the different pathways and the results of those pathways.

One would also expect that a module with higher complexity would tend to have lower cohesion (less than functional cohesion) than a module with lower complexity. The possible correlation between higher complexity measure with a lower level of cohesion is predicated on a module with more decision points generally implementing more than a single well defined function. However there are certain types of modules that one would expect to have a high complexity number, such as user interface (UI) modules containing source code for data validation and error recovery.

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