Feb 6

I’ve become quite addicted to writing tests during my development tasks. I’ve had wanted to dig into test-driven development for quite some time, but it was the seamless integration of Test::Unit, Ruby’s unit testing module, in Eclipse that got me going initially. I then did some unit testing with Common Lisp packages and am currently heavily using pyunit and python doctests (mostly in the context of zope testing). Writing tests has become my second development nature: It gives you that warm fuzzy feeling that you have that little safety net while modifying code.

However, there are times when terminology comes along and gives you a headache. A terminology I’ve learned about during the last year is the difference between unit testing, integration tests and functional tests (for an overview see wikipedia on software testing). But as you can see for instance in this article on integration tests in Rails, it’s not always easy to agree on what means what — Jamis and/or the Rails community seem to have the integration/functional distinction entirely backwards from what, for instance, the Zope community (on testing) thinks.

Now, one might argue that terminology doesn’t matter much given that you do write tests at all, but it’s not so easy. For instance, if your “unit test” of a given class requires another class, is that still unit testing or is it integration testing? Does it even make sense to talk about unit-testing a class? A class on its own isn’t that interesting after all, it’s its integration and interoperation with collaborateurs were the semantics of a class and its methods become interesting. Hence, shouldn’t you rather test a specific behaviour, which probably involves those other classes? And what now, if your code only makes sense when run on top of a specific framework (Zope, Rails, you name it)? Michael Feathers argues convincingly in his set of unit testing rules that any such tests are probably something else.

Ultimately these questions directly pertain to two aspects: code granularity and code dependencies — and remember, test code is code after all. These are directly related, of course: if your code is very fine-grained, it’s much more likely that it will also be much more entangled (although the dependency might be abstracted with the help of interfaces or some such, you still have the dependency as such). And as a consequence, your test code will have to mimick these dependencies. On the contrary, if your code blocks are more coarse-grained (i.e. cover a greater aspect of funcionality), you might have less (inter-)dependencies, but you won’t be able to test functionality on a more fine-grained level. As Martin Fowlers excellent article Mocks aren’t stubs discusses in detail, one way to loosen these connections between code and tests is to use mock objects or stubs. Fowlers article also made clear to me that I’ve used the term “mock object” wrongly in my post on mock objects in Common Lisp: dynamically injecting an object/function/method (as a replacement for a collaborator required for the “code under test”) that returns an expected value means using a stub, not a mock — another sign of not clearly enough defined terminology (btw, the terminology Fowler is using is that of G. Mercezaos xunit patterns book).

It’s worth keeping these things apart because of their different impact on test behaviour: mocks will force you to think about behaviour whereas stubs focus on ‘results’ of code calls (or object state if you think in terms of objects being substituted). As a result, when you change the behaviour of the code under test (say you’re changing code paths in order to optimize code blocks) this might (mocks) or might not (stubs) result in changes to the test code.

It’s also worth thinking about mocks and stubs because they also shed a new light on the question of test granularity: when you’re substituting real objects in either way, you’re on your way to much more fine-grained tests, which implies that you loosen the dependency of your tests: You can now modify the code of your collaborateur class without the test for your code under test breaking. Which brings us back full circle to the distinction between unit tests and integration tests: you now might have perfect unit tests, but now you’re forced to additionally tests the integration of all the bits and pieces. Otherwise you might have all unit tests succeed but your integrated code still fails. Given this relationship, it seems immediately clear that 100% test coverage might not be the most important issue with unit tests: you might have 100% unit test success, but 100% integration failure at the same time — if you don’t do continuous integration and integration tests, of course. Now what’s interesting is that it might be possible to check test coverage on code paths, but it might not be easy to check integration coverage. I would be interested to learn about tools detailing such information.

Recently I had another aha moment with regard to testing terminology: Kevlin Henney’s presentation at this years german conference on object oriented programming, the OOP 2009, on know your units: TDD, DDT, POUTing and GUTs: tdd is test driven development, of course. The other ones might be not so obvious: “guts” are just good unit tests and “pout” is “plain old unit testing”. I saw myself doing tdd, but come to think of it, I’m mostly applying a combination of tdd, pout (after the fact testing) and ddt: defect driven testing. I find the introduction of a term for testing after the code has been written interesting because it provides a way to talk about how to introduce testing in the first place. Especially defect driven testing, the idea to write a test to pinpoint and overcome an erroneous code path, might be a very powerful way to introduce the habit of regularly writing (some) tests for an existing large code base. So you avoid the pitfall of never being able to test “all this lots of code because there is never the time for it” and you might also motivate people to try writing test before code. And on this level, it might at first not be that relevant to make the distinction between integration and unit tests to clear: start out with whatever is useful.

Posted by Holger Schauer

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