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Best Practices for Scientific Computing

Shantanu and I gave a short talk titled "Software Carpentry for Scientists" for the graduate students of Chemical Engineering department, IISc, this Friday. We gave a short introduction to Git, TDD, Numpy/Scipy, etc and mentioned a few things from Greg Wilson et al's paper.

I promised to revert to them with links to a few resources. I figured it would be more beneficial, if I just put it in a publicly available place.

A summary of the paper by Greg Wilson et. al., is below.

Summary of paper by Greg Wilson et. al.

  1. Write programs for people, not computers
    • a program should not require its readers to hold more than a handful of facts in memory at once.
    • names should be consistent, distinctive and meaningful.
    • code style and formatting should be consistent.
    • all aspects of software development should be broken down into tasks roughly an hour long
  2. Automate repetitive tasks
    • rely on the computer to repeat tasks
    • save recent commands in a file for re-use
    • use a build to automate scientific work-flows
  3. Use the computer to record history
    • software tools should be used to track computational work automatically.
  4. Make incremental changes
    • work in small steps with frequent feedback and course correction
  5. Use version control
    • use a version control system
    • everything that has been created manually should be put in version control
  6. Don't repeat yourself (or others)
    • every piece of data must have a single authoritative representation in the system
    • code should be modularized rather than copied and pasted
    • re-use code instead of rewriting it
  7. Plan for mistakes
    • add assertions to programs to check their operation
    • use an off-the-shelf unit testing library
    • use all available oracles when testing programs
    • turn bugs into test cases
    • use a symbolic debugger
  8. Optimize software only after it works correctly
    • use a profiler to identify bottlenecks
    • write code in the highest-level language possible
  9. Document design and purpose, not mechanics
    • document interfaces and reasons, not implementations
    • refactor code instead of explaining how it works
    • embed the documentation for a piece of software in that software
  10. Collaborate
    • use pre-merge code reviews
    • use pair programming when bringing someone new up to speed and when tackling particularly tricky problems
    • use an issue tracking tool

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