Tricorder: Building a program analysis ecosystem

Caitlin Sadowski, Jeffrey van Gogh, Ciera Jaspan, Emma Söderberg, Collin Winter
[doi] [Google Scholar] [DBLP] [Citeseer]
Read: 21 September 2020

2015 IEEE/ACM 37th IEEE International Conference on Software Engineering
Volume 1
Pages 598-608
May 2015
Note(s): google, usability
Papers: potvin:cacm:2016, chou:bugs:2005, wright:icsm:2013, sadowski:icse:2015, sadowski:cacm:2018

This paper describes the experience of deploying a static analysis infrastructure at Google. This infrastructure (“Tricorder”) had to support multiple languages, tens of thousands of users, large code scale, etc. Most importantly though, it had to be accepted by developers if it was going to provide any benefit.


False positives

The most important issue was probably the handling of the false-positive rate. While a tool developer might have a technology-driven definition of false positives; to a tool user

a false positive report is any repont that they did not want to see.

Tricorder’s user interface has a “NOT USEFUL” button for reporting false positives and the false positive rate is continuously monitored.

It seems that the preferred form of report includes a suggested fix that the engineer can automatically add to their change. As well as being easier to do, the suggested fix can help explain the report and puts a focus on actionable reports. Of course, not all analyses can support this. For example, a tool that detects missing documentation can hardly write the documentation for you.

Enable user contributions

Given the scale and language diversity of the codebase/programmers, Tricorder makes it easy for programmers to create their own static analyses. The Tricorder team’s contract with analysis developers is that they have to keep the false positive rate sufficiently low.

Our experience is that pride-in-work combined with the threat of disabling an analyzer makes the authors highly motivated to fix problems in their analyzers.

The Tricorder team helps them figure out what has gone wrong by establishing feedback loops, etc. Often the reason that a report is not useful is because of the way the report is worded.

Integration into code review

Tricorder is integrated into the code review system to take advantage of engineers being in a change mindset during review and to take advantage of the peer pressure of having their code and any reports visible to other engineers.

Tools with a higher false positive rate are run nightly and their results are surfaced during code browsing, etc. These are to support a dedicated cleanup team who work on global code health.


To avoid engineers in the same team seeing different reports, customization is only supported on a per-project basis, not on a per-user basis. This puts more pressure on the false positive rate and encourages a focus on high priority issues.


The evaluation is based on data gathered during use by instrumentation in the tools. They show things like the overall “not useful” click rate over time, drill down into individual analyses, discuss spikes and trends. They show the number of occurrences of some coding pattern over time as an analyzer started reporting that as an anti-pattern.


  • Make data driven improvements
  • Developers do not like false positives
  • Empower users to contribute
  • Workflow integration is key
  • Code review is an excellent time to show analysis results
  • Project customization, not user customization
  • Big impact for relatively simple checks (the analyses they describe do not use control or data-flow information, pointer analysis, whole-program analysis, abstract interpretation, etc.
  • Analysis tools should fix bugs, not just find them
  • Analysis tools should be shardable (i.e., usable with map-reduce)