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Definition and Guide

linter developer's guide

A linter is a developer tool that analyzes source code for errors, vulnerabilities, and stylistic issues to improve code quality.

Table of Contents

  • What is a linter?
  • Why is a linter important?
  • How does a linter work?
  • The steps a linter follows
  • Benefits of linters
  • More than a linter: SonarLint

What is a linter?

In essence, a linter serves as a valuable developer tool for improving and enhancing code quality. It achieves this by analyzing static source code to identify and flag issues that can lead to bugs, vulnerabilities, and code smells. 

A linter will scan source code looking for errors, defects, stylistic issues, and questionable constructs.

The term "linter" stems from the origins of a tool known as "lint," which was initially developed by Stephen C. Johnson in 1978 at Bell Labs. Originally designed to analyze C source code, this utility paved the way for the modern concept of linting. 

Today modern linters are available for almost all programming languages and are used to improve code quality and maintainability.

Why is a linter important?

A linter is an important tool for any developer, as it simplifies their tasks and ensures the quality of the code they create. 

It achieves this by identifying and offering suggested resolutions to problems before they are pushed into production. 

Modern linter's capabilities may extend beyond issue detection, contributing to enhancing code readability, maintainability, and overall consistency.

How does a linter work?

A linter works through the analysis of a program's source code, where it directly compares the code to a predefined set of rules. 

Whenever the source code deviates from these rules, the linter notifies the user about the issue. 

A linter will often integrate with other developer tools as part of the development workflow. 

These rules that linters use to analyze code can often be tailored, and depending upon the specific linter can range from broad and general checks to more specific and intricate evaluations of the code. 

Linters empower developers to uphold coding standards and enhance their code quality through systematic and dynamic checks.

The steps a linter follows

Parsing the source code

The linter is given source code to analyze which is then broken down into separate tokens that are the basic elements of programming languages (keywords, identifiers, operators, etc.) 

Linters excel at identifying syntax errors in interpreted languages like JavaScript. 

These tokens are then utilized to build an Abstract Syntax Tree (AST), which is a tree-like model of the syntactic code structure. The AST shows the hierarchy and connections of the code's various parts.

The linter then checks the analyzed code against a set of defined guidelines and standards. 

It may also search for specific code patterns that may be indicative of an issue. 

It will identify lengthy functions or complex code segments based on objective metrics like cyclomatic complexity.

Reporting issues

Once a linter has identified a rule violation or suspect pattern this is flagged to the user. 

This usually takes the form of providing specific details to help the developer examine the issue such as line number, nature of the issue, and possible remediations.

Benefits of linters

Linters play an important role in software development by analyzing code for possible issues and flagging these to the developer for potential remediation. 

The result is code that is clean i.e. code that’s easily understandable, portable, and capable to change through structure and consistency but which remains maintainable, reliable, and secure for performance demands.

Recognized benefits of a linter include:

Improved code quality

Linters can assist developers in detecting and correcting issue in the code ensuring the overall improved quality of the source code. 

They can catch syntax errors early on in development to prevent bugs and other issues from making it into production plus enforce coding style requirements to enable adherence to consistent best practices. 

By establishing a common coding style and structure, linters can assist with Clean Code, that is, improving code readability and understandability. 

By utilizing certain constructs and patterns, linters can assist with the adoption of best practices in coding. 

A linter may also assist in the education of developers through the promotion of coding best practice, and by providing explanations of why a flagged issue is such. 

This can be particularly beneficial to less formally experienced team members.

Increase developer velocity and productivity

Linters can speed up developer productivity by providing essential real-time feedback during the development process as issues arise. 

The early detection of issues prevents them from becoming a potentially more critical challenge later. 

Enhancement of collaboration and teamwork

Common coding standards can be applied throughout the entire team or organization making cooperation and expectations more transparent and efficient. 

Linters can aid development teams in learning and grasping best practices and language complexities by explaining the concerns with the code. 

They can also help ensure team decisions that are taken regarding which issues are a priority and which should not be fixed are transparent to all team members.

Enhanced security

Without question, this is a critical aspect of any modern application. 

If this becomes an issue, the implications can be disastrous in terms of finances, reputations, and international laws (GDPR, CCP). 

Linters can help detect and identify code patterns that could possibly lead to security vulnerabilities. 

They can be customized to specific security standards guaranteeing the source code meets industry or regulatory requirements and guidelines such as OWASP Top 10 and MISRA C++ 2023 to help protect applications from malicious attacks like SQL injection or cross-site scripting, buffer overflows, etc. 

By using secure coding guidelines, linters can flag the use of functions or methods that are known vulnerabilities or deprecated, driving developers to choose more secure alternatives. 

Security measures can be customized to specific programming languages or frameworks depending on the need.  

Contribute to reduced costs

With the ability to detect and handle issues early before they become a problem, linters can positively impact the time and expense associated with debugging. 

Future concerns can be avoided by adopting best practices and avoiding costly future issues. 

The term “shift-left” is often used in the same breath as linters, as they enable the developer to ensure quality code directly during the creation process.

More than a linter: SonarLint

SonarLint is a free IDE extension to find and fix coding issues in real-time, flagging issues as you code, just like a spell-checker. 

More than a linter, it also delivers extensive features and rich contextual guidance to help developers understand why there is an issue, assess the risk, and educate them on how to fix it. 

SonarLint capabilities go beyond traditional linting. It covers over 20 languages making it possible to download and use a single linter for all development activities. 

Specifically designed to help developers improve their skills, and learn while they create code, it goes beyond traditional linters to act as a developer’s coding companion, whichever IDE they work in.


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