Principles of Automated Testing

 2 years ago
source link: https://www.lihaoyi.com/post/PrinciplesofAutomatedTesting.html
Go to the source link to view the article. You can view the picture content, updated content and better typesetting reading experience. If the link is broken, please click the button below to view the snapshot at that time.

Principles of Automated Testing

Posted 2017-07-15

Automated testing is a core part of writing reliable software; there's only so much you can test manually, and there's no way you can test things as thoroughly or as conscientiously as a machine. As someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time working on automated testing systems, for both work and open-source projects, this post covers how I think of them. Which distinctions are meaningful and which aren't, which practices make a difference and which don't, building up to a coherent set of principles of how to think about the world of automated testing in any software project.

About the Author: Haoyi is a software engineer, and the author of many open-source Scala tools such as the Ammonite REPL and the Mill Build Tool. If you enjoyed the contents on this blog, you may also enjoy Haoyi's book Hands-on Scala Programming

I probably care more about automated testing than most software engineers. At a previous job, I agitated-for and rolled-out Selenium integration tests as part of the development process across engineering, developed static-analysis "tests" to block silly mistakes and code quality issues, and led projects to fight the flaky test scourge to help Make The CI Build Green Again. In my open source work, e.g. in projects like Ammonite or FastParse, my ratio of test code to "main" application code often is about 1 to 1.

A lot has been written of the practice of automated testing: about Unit Testing, Property-based Testing, Integration Testing, and other topics. Unsurprisingly, much of the information you can find on the internet is incomplete, at odds to one another, or only applies narrowly to certain kinds of projects or scenarios.

Rather than talking about individual tools or techniques, this post attempts to define a way of thinking about automated testing that should apply broadly regardless of what software project you are working on. Hopefully this should form a foundation that will come in useful when you end up having to lift your gaze from the daily grind of software development and start thinking about the broader strategy of automated testing in your project or organization.

The Purpose of Automated Tests

The purpose of automated tests is to try and verify your software does what you expect it to do, now and into the future.

This is a very broad definition, and reflects how there are very many different ways to try and verify your software does what you expect:

  • Calling a function on known inputs and assert-ing on the expected result

  • Setting up a staging website and checking that the web pages, together with all the systems behind it, can perform simple operations correctly

  • Fuzzing your system with large amounts of random input and just seeing if it crashes

  • Comparing the behavior of your program against a known-good reference implementation and ensuring it behaves identically

Note how the stated goal doesn't say a word about "unit" or "integration" testing. That is because those are almost never the end goal: you want tests that automatically check that your software does what you want, by whatever means necessary. "unit" or "integration" tests are only one distinction out of many different ways of approaching automated testing, several of which we will cover in this post.

Now that we've defined the high-level goal, the rest of this post will go into much more detail about the intricacies and trade-offs inherent to the different ways we can try and achieve it.

Unit vs Integration tests

When you are working on automated tests, some arguments always come up:

  • Are we writing unit tests or integration tests?

  • Should we be writing unit tests or integration tests?

  • How do we define "unit tests" or "integration tests"?

There is an endless number of "one true way"s of distinguishing between unit and integration tests, all of them different. Rules like:

  • Unit tests must run entirely in a single process

  • Unit tests are not allowed to execute code in more than one file: all imports must be mocked

  • Unit tests are any test that don't cross the client-server boundary

However, I think such discussion often lacks perspective. In reality, the exact point where you draw the line is arbitrary. Every piece of code or system is a unit integrating smaller units:

  • A cluster that integrates multiple physical or virtual machines

  • A machine (virtual of physical) that integrates multiple processes

  • A process that integrates multiple other subprocesses (e.g. databases, workers, etc.)

  • A subprocess that integrates multiple modules

  • A module or package integrating multiple smaller modules

  • A module integrating individual functions

  • A function integrating primitives like Ints using basic arithmetic

Every piece of code or system could be thought of as a "unit" to be tested, and every piece of code or system could be thought of as an "integration" of other smaller units. Basically all software ever written is broken down hierarchically in this way.

                           |         |
                           | Machine |
                           /         \
                _________ /           \ _________
               |         |             |         |
               | Process |             | Process |
               |_________|             |_________|
               /                       /         \
              /              ________ /           \ ________              
            ...             |        |             |        |             
                            | Module |             | Module |             
                            |________|             |________|
                            /        \                      \
                __________ /          \ __________           \ __________ 
               |          |            |          |           |          |
               | Function |            | Function |           | Function |
               |__________|            |__________|           |__________|
               /          \            /          \           /          \
              /            \          /            \         /            \
            ...            ...      ...            ...     ...            ...

Earlier we defined that the purpose of automated testing is "to try and verify your software does what you expect", and in any piece of software you'll have code at every level of this hierarchy. All of that code is your responsibility to test and verify.

For consistency with existing terminology, I will call tests for code low in the hierarchy (e.g. functions integrating primitives) "unit" tests, and tests for code high in the hierarchy (e.g. a cluster integrating virtual machines) "integration" tests. But those labels are simply directions on a spectrum, and there isn't a bright line you can draw between the "unit" and "integration" labels that applies to every project.

                      Most tests somewhere in between
  Unit <------------------------------------------------------------> Integration
              |           |           |            |          |
          Functions    Modules    Processes    Machines    Clusters

What really matters is that you are conscious of the way your software is broken down hierarchically, and that automated tests can live at any level in the code hierarchy and any point in the unit-integration spectrum.

Being on a spectrum doesn't mean that the distinction between "unit" or "integration" tests is meaningless. While there is no bright line between the two extremes, tests towards each end of the spectrum do have different properties:

Unit Integration Low in the hierarchy High in the hierarchy Fast Slow More Reliable More Flaky Little setup required Lots of setup required Few dependencies Many dependencies Few failure modes Many failure Modes Specific failure messages Generic failure messages
  • Unit tests tend to be faster, since they exercise less code that needs to run.

  • Unit tests tend to be more reliable, since they exercise less code that may have non-deterministic failures

  • Unit tests need less set up beforehand, since they have fewer dependencies

  • Unit tests tend to fail in relatively specific ways ("function was meant to return 1, returned 2") with few possible causes, whereas integration tests tend to fail with broad, meaningless errors ("could not reach website") with many different possible causes

What does this mean to you, as a test writer?

The distinction between "unit" and "integration" tests is up to you to define

A library of algorithms is likely to have a different definition of "unit" and "integration" tests than a website, which may have a different definition of "unit" and "integration" tests than a cluster deployment system.

  • The library-of-algorithms may define "unit" tests as tests which run one function on tiny inputs (e.g. sorting a list of zero, one, two or three numbers) while "integration" tests use multiple functions to construct common algorithms

  • The website may define "unit" tests as anything that doesn't touch the HTTP API, and "integration" tests as anything that does.

  • Alternately, a website it may define "unit" tests as anything that doesn't spin up a browser (up-to-and-including API interactions) and "integration" tests as those that spin up a browser using Selenium to interact with the server through the UI/Javascript

  • The cluster-deployment-system may define "unit" tests as anything that doesn't physically create virtual machines, up to and including tests using HTTP APIs or database-access, while "integration" tests are those that spin up a real cluster in a staging environment

While there are differences (e.g. an algorithm-library's integration tests may run faster than a cluster-deployment-system's unit tests) in the end all these systems have tests that range from the "more unit" to "more integration" ends of the spectrum.

Thus it is up to the project owner to draw the line between them, and then build up practices around that line. The bullets above should give you some an idea of where the line could be drawn in various projects, and practices around that line could be things like:

  • Unit tests must be run before-commit while only integration tests are only run once a day during a nightly-build

  • Integration tests run on a separate CI machine/cluster from Unit tests due to their different setup requirements

There could be value in splitting up the spectrum of tests into more fine-grained partitions. Again, it is again up to the project owner to decide how many lines to draw, where to draw them, what each group of tests is called (e.g. "unit", "integration", "end to end", "functional"?) and how they are treated within your project.

There is no universal classification of "unit" and "integration" tests that is meaningful across the huge range of software projects that people work on, but that does not mean the distinction is meaningless. It simply means that it is up to each individual project to draw the line in a way that is meaningful and useful.

Tests at every level of the hierarchy

Every piece of software is written hierarchically, as units integrating smaller units. And at every level, it is possible for the programmer to make a mistake: ideally a mistake that our automated tests would catch.

Hence, rules like "only write unit tests, not integration tests" or "only write integration tests, not unit tests" are overly restrictive.

  • You cannot just write unit tests. It doesn't matter if every individual function is heavily tested but your module combines your functions in an incorrect way, or if every individual module is heavily tested but the application-process is using the modules incorrectly. While it is great to have a test suite which runs really fast, it's useless if it can't catch bugs introduced at upper layers of your program hierarchy.

  • You shouldn't just write integration tests. In theory it works, code at a upper layer in the hierarchy exercises code at layers beneath it, but you would need a large number of integration tests to sufficiently exercise various cases in the low-level code. e.g. if you want to check a single function's behavior with 10 different sets of primitive arguments, using integration tests to test it may mean you end up setting-up and tearing-down an application process 10 times: a slow and and wasteful use of your compute resources.

Instead, the structure your tests should roughly mirror the structure of your software. You want tests at all levels, proportionate to the amount of code at that level and how likely/serious it is to be wrong. This guards against the possibility for errors to be introduced at any level in the hierarchy of your piece of software.

How to Prioritize Tests

Automated tests serve two main purposes: making sure your code isn't already broken (perhaps in some way that's hard to catch via manual testing) and making sure that working code doesn't become broken at some point in the future (regressions). The former may be caused by an incomplete implementation, and the latter due to mistakes as the codebase evolves over time.

Thus, it doesn't make sense to have automated tests for code that isn't likely to be broken, code whose breakage isn't important, or code which is likely to disappear entirely before someone causes it to break.

It's more an art than science to decide how much testing a system or piece-of-code needs, but some guidelines may be:

  • Important things need more testing! Your password/authentication system definitely should be heavily tested to ensure bad passwords don't let people log in anyway, more so than other random logic in your application.

  • Less important things, may need less testing or no testing at all. Maybe it doesn't matter if your web-upsell-modal-thingy doesn't appear for a few days until the next deploy, and maybe the only way to properly test it is via expensive/slow/flaky Selenium integration tests. If so, the Cost of Tests may dictate that you simply should not have automated tests for it.

  • Code under active development needs more tests, while code not under development need less. If a scary piece of code has been untouched for years, it is unlikely to become broken if it wasn't before. Now, you may want tests to make sure it is not already broken, but you won't need tests to guard against regressions and "new" breakage.

  • APIs that aren't going to disappear should be tested more than APIs that might. You should focus more effort in testing the stable interfaces within your application, rather than testing unstable code that may be gone entirely in a week. Combined with the above guideline, the code that deserves the most testing has a stable API but has internals undergoing heavy development.

  • If the complexity in your code is in awkward places (inter-process, browser-server, with database interop, ...) you should make sure you test that logic, no matter how awkward. Do not just test the "easy" things: it doesn't matter how well individual functions are tested if the gnarly/fragile code tying them together ends up broken.

Many of these points are subjective, and cannot be determined purely from the code itself. Nevertheless, these are judgements you have to make when prioritizing where to focus your efforts writing automated tests for your codebase.

Tests are code

Tests are code like any other: your test suite is a piece of software that checks that your "main" software behaves in certain ways. Thus, your test code should be treated like any other proper piece of software:

  • Common test logic should be refactored out to helpers. If there's a bug in some common test logic, it's great to be able to fix it in one place rather than digging through copy-paste boilerplate over the test suite to apply fixes.

  • Tests should have the same code-quality standards applied as normal code: proper naming, formatting, comments, inline-docs, code organization, coding style and conventions.

  • Tests need to be refactored to maintain code quality. Any code gets messy and hard to handle as it grows, requiring refactoring to keep things neat and DRY and well-organized. Test code is no different, and as it grows and changes to support testing the growing/changing feature-set of the main application, it needs periodic refactoring to keep things DRY and maintain code quality.

  • Your test suite should be agile and flexible. If the API being tested changes, it should be quick and easy to change your tests. If a chunk of code is deleted, you should feel free to delete the corresponding tests, and if the code is re-written it should not be hard to re-write the tests to match. Proper abstractions/helpers/fixtures help make sure that modifying and re-writing parts of your test suite isn’t burdensome.

  • If your test abstractions/helpers/fixtures grow complex, they themselves should be tested, at least minimally.

Not everyone agrees with these guidelines. I have seen people who argue that tests are different from normal code. That copy-paste test code is not just acceptable, but preferable to setting up test abstractions and helpers to keep things DRY. The argument being it's simpler to see if there's a mistake in the tests when there's no abstraction. I do not agree with that point of view.

My view is that tests are code like any other, and should be treated as such.

DRY data-driven tests

Tests are code, and code should be DRY and factored such that only the necessary logic is visible and you don't have repeated boilerplate. One good example of this is defining test-helpers to let you easily shove lots of test cases through your test suite, and at-a-glance be able to see exactly what inputs your test suite is testing. For example, given the following test code:

// Sanity check the logic that runs when you press ENTER in the REPL and
// detects whether a set of input lines is...
// - Complete, and can be submitted without needing additional input
// - Incomplete, and thus needs additional lines of input from the user
def test1 = {
  val res = ammonite.interp.Parsers.split("{}")
def test2 = {
  val res = ammonite.interp.Parsers.split("foo.bar")
def test3 = {
  val res = ammonite.interp.Parsers.split("foo.bar // line comment")
def test4 = {
  val res = ammonite.interp.Parsers.split("foo.bar /* block comment */")
def test5 = {
  val res = ammonite.interp.Parsers.split(
    "val r = (1 until 1000).view.filter(n => n % 3 == 0 || n % 5 == 0).sum"
def test6 = {
  val res = ammonite.interp.Parsers.split("{")
def test7 = {
  val res = ammonite.interp.Parsers.split("foo.bar /* incomplete block comment")
def test8 = {
  val res = ammonite.interp.Parsers.split(
    "val r = (1 until 1000.view.filter(n => n % 3 == 0 || n % 5 == 0)"
def test9 = {
  val res = ammonite.interp.Parsers.split(
    "val r = (1 until 1000).view.filter(n => n % 3 == 0 || n % 5 == 0"

You can see that it's doing the same thing over and over. It really should be written as:

// Sanity check the logic that runs when you press ENTER in the REPL and
// detects whether a set of input lines is...
// - Complete, and can be submitted without needing additional input
// - Incomplete, and thus needs additional lines of input from the user

def checkDefined(s: String) = {
  val res = ammonite.interp.Parsers.split(s)
def checkEmpty(s: String) = {
  val res = ammonite.interp.Parsers.split(s)
def testDefined = {
  checkDefined("foo.bar // line comment")
  checkDefined("foo.bar /* block comment */")
  checkDefined("val r = (1 until 1000).view.filter(n => n % 3 == 0 || n % 5 == 0).sum")
def testEmpty = {
  checkEmpty("foo.bar /* incomplete block comment")
  checkEmpty("val r = (1 until 1000.view.filter(n => n % 3 == 0 || n % 5 == 0)")
  checkEmpty("val r = (1 until 1000).view.filter(n => n % 3 == 0 || n % 5 == 0")

This is just a normal refactoring that you would perform on any code in any programming language. Nevertheless, it immediately turns the boilerplate-heavy copy-paste test methods into elegant, DRY code which makes it obvious-at-a-glance exactly what inputs you are testing and what their expected output is. There are other ways you could do this, you could e.g. define all the Defined cases in an Array, all the Empty cases in an Array, and loop over them with asserts:

def definedCases = Seq(
  "foo.bar // line comment",
  "foo.bar /* block comment */",
  "val r = (1 until 1000).view.filter(n => n % 3 == 0 || n % 5 == 0).sum"

for(s <- definedCases){
  val res = ammonite.interp.Parsers.split(s)

def emptyCases = Seq(
  "foo.bar /* incomplete block comment",
  "val r = (1 until 1000.view.filter(n => n % 3 == 0 || n % 5 == 0)",
  "val r = (1 until 1000).view.filter(n => n % 3 == 0 || n % 5 == 0"

for(s <- emptyCases){
  val res = ammonite.interp.Parsers.split(s)

Both refactorings achieve the same goal, and there are countless other ways of DRYing up this code. Which style you prefer is up to you.

There are a lot of fancy tools/terminology around this idea: "table-driven tests", "data-driven tests", etc.. But fundamentally, all you want is for your test cases to be concise and the expected/asserted behavior obvious-at-a-glance. This is something that normal code-refactoring techniques are capable of helping you achieve without any fancy tooling. Only after you've tried to do this manually, and found it lacking in some way, then is it worth starting to look at more specialized tools and techniques.

Testing DSLs

There are a variety of testing DSLs that let you write tests in a very different way from normal code. I find general-purpose testing DSLs generally unhelpful, though there are use cases for DSLs specialized to a particular narrow use case.

General-Purpose Testing DSLs

These include external DSLs like the Cucumber family, which provide a whole new syntax to write your tests in:

Scenario: Eric wants to withdraw money from his bank account at an ATM
    Given Eric has a valid Credit or Debit card
    And his account balance is $100
    When he inserts his card
    And withdraws $45
    Then the ATM should return $45
    And his account balance is $55
Scenario Outline: A user withdraws money from an ATM
    Given <Name> has a valid Credit or Debit card
    And their account balance is <OriginalBalance>
    When they insert their card
    And withdraw <WithdrawalAmount>
    Then the ATM should return <WithdrawalAmount>
    And their account balance is <NewBalance>

      | Name   | OriginalBalance | WithdrawalAmount | NewBalance |
      | Eric   | 100             | 45               | 55         |
      | Pranav | 100             | 40               | 60         |
      | Ed     | 1000            | 200              | 800        |

To internal/embedded DSLs like Scalatest, which twist the host language's syntax into something english-like, to let you write tests:

"An empty Set" should "have size 0" in {
  assert(Set.empty.size == 0)

"A Set" can {
  "empty" should { 
    "have size 0" in {
      assert(Set.empty.size == 0)
    "produce NoSuchElementException when head is invoked" in { 
      intercept[NoSuchElementException] {
    "should be empty" ignore { 
val result = 8
result should equal (3) // By default, calls left == right, except for arrays
result should be (3)    // Calls left == right, except for arrays
result should === (3)   // By default, calls left == right, except for arrays

val one = 1
one should be < 7       // works for any T when an implicit Ordered[T] exists
one should be <= 7
one should be >= 0

result shouldEqual 3    // Alternate forms for equal and be
result shouldBe 3       // that don't require parentheses

My view of such DSLs is that they are generally not worth the effort. They provide an added level of indirection & complexity, whether through a special syntax/parser/interpreter in the case of Cucumber, or through special extension methods/syntax in the case of Scalatest. Both of these make it harder for me to figure out what a test is testing.

I see such syntaxes as generally inferior to just using asserts and normal helper-methods/for-loops/etc. to write tests. While they often provide additional features like nice error messages, these days test frameworks like PyTest or uTest are also able to provide such "nice" errors using plain-old-asserts:

$ cat test_foo.py
def test_simple():
    result = 8
    assert result == 3

$ py.test test_foo.py
=================================== FAILURES ===================================
_________________________________ test_simple __________________________________

    def test_simple():
        result = 8
>       assert result == 3
E       assert 8 == 3

test_foo.py:3: AssertionError
=========================== 1 failed in 0.03 seconds ===========================

As mentioned earlier, I think that Tests are code, and thus the normal code-writing-tools like functions, objects and abstractions you use when writing normal code works just fine for writing tests. If you aren't using Cucumber-like external DSLs or Scalatest-like embedded-english-like DSLs to write your main project, you should not be using such things to write your test suite.

Specialized Testing DSLs

While I think general purpose testing DSLs like Scalatest or Cucumber are not a good idea, specialized testing DSLs (e.g. narrowly defining the inputs/outputs of a test case) do have a purpose.

For example the MyPy project uses a special syntax to define the input/output of test cases for it's python type checker:

[case testNewSyntaxBasics]
# flags: --python-version 3.6
x: int
x = 5
y: int = 5

a: str
a = 5  # E: Incompatible types in assignment (expression has type "int", variable has type "str")
b: str = 5  # E: Incompatible types in assignment (expression has type "int", variable has type "str")

zzz: int
zzz: str  # E: Name 'zzz' already defined

Where the # E: comments are asserts that the typechecker will raise specific errors at specific locations when checking this file.

My own Ammonite project has its own special syntax to assert the behavior of REPL sessions:

@ val x = 1
x: Int = 1

@ /* trigger compiler crash */ trait Bar { super[Object].hashCode }
error: java.lang.AssertionError: assertion failed

@ 1 + x
res1: Int = 2

In both of these cases, the DSL is narrowly scoped, to the extent where it is "obvious" what it is testing. Furthermore, these DSLs are only necessary when the "noise" of normal code becomes too great. For example, defining the above Ammonite test case in "normal code" looks something like

checker.run("val x = 1")
checker.assertSuccess("x: Int = 1")

checker.run("/* trigger compiler crash */ trait Bar { super[Object].hashCode }")
checker.assertError("java.lang.AssertionError: assertion failed")

checker.run("1 + x")
checker.assertSuccess("res1: Int = 2")

Here, you can see that the Ammonite REPL-test-case DSL is a clear improvement in readability compared to writing the tests in "normal" code! It is in these cases, where a DSL actually reduces the amount of noise/ceremony beyond what normal code can do, where you should reach towards a specialized DSL. In all other cases, and certainly as a default, your tests should be written in the same style of code as the main codebase it is testing.

Example vs Bulk tests

Example tests are those which walk your code through a single (or small number of) example, with careful asserts along the way to make sure it's doing exactly the right thing. Bulk tests, on the other hand, are those which shove large amounts of examples through your code, with a less thorough examination of how each case behaves: just making sure it's not crashing, with perhaps a rough check to make sure it's not completely misbehaving. Fuzz Testing or Property-based Testing are two common approaches within this category.

Like the distinction between Unit vs Integration tests, Example vs Bulk tests are a spectrum, with most tests falling somewhere in the middle. The DRY data-driven tests above, for example lie somewhere in the middle: covering more than one set of input data with the same set of checks, but not the hundreds or thousands of different inputs normally associated with fuzz tests or property-based tests.

The Example vs Bulk spectrum is orthogonal to the Unit vs Integration spectrum, and you can easily find examples towards every extreme in the two spectrums:

Unit Integration Example Feeding [1, 0] into a sorting algorithm and ensuring it becomes [0, 1] Clicking through a single flow on a website and making sure a particular flow works Bulk Feeding large amounts of random numbers into a sorting algorithm and ensuring it ends up sorted Clicking around a website randomly overnight to make sure no 500 errors appear

Example Tests

Example tests are often what people first think of when they hear "automated testing": tests that use an APIs in a certain way and check the results. Here's one such test from my FastParse library, which tests a trivial parser that parses a single character a:

import fastparse.all._
val parseA = P( "a" )

val Parsed.Success(value, successIndex) = parseA.parse("a")
  value == (), 
  successIndex == 1

val failure = parseA.parse("b").asInstanceOf[Parsed.Failure]
  failure.lastParser == ("a": P0),
  failure.index == 0,
  failure.extra.traced.trace == """parseA:1:1 / "a":1:1 ..."b""""

As you can see, this takes takes multiple steps:

  • Defining a parser
  • Using it to parse different strings
  • Checking that it succeeds and fails when it should succeed or fail
  • Checking that the contents of each success and failure are what we expect

This is not unlike what you would do poking around in the REPL, except in a REPL we would simply eyeball the values returned by the library while here we use asserts.

Often, example tests are paired with manual testing: you poke around in a REPL or run the main method during development to make sure the feature works. Then you add a test that does basically the same thing to the test suite to ensure the feature keeps working and avoids regressions. If you do TDD, you may write the test first, but everything else remains the same.

Example tests are good documentation: often, just from reading a few examples, it's relatively clear what a module does and how it is expected to be used. Example tests are great for covering the "expected" success and failure cases, those that you probably already tested manually. However, they are not enough to cover "unexpected" cases. You can make it easier to cover a bunch of input/output test cases via DRY data-driven tests, but in the end you are still limited by what examples you can imagine, which are only a subset of all the possible inputs. That is where Bulk tests come in.

Bulk tests

Bulk tests are those that check many more cases than you can cover via manual testing: rather than running a piece of code once and checking what it does, bulk tests run the code with 100s of 1000s of different inputs. This lets you cover unexpected cases you never thought to test manually, or add to your Example tests.

There are well-known approaches like Fuzz Testing or Property-based Testing that are ways of performing bulk tests, and frameworks like frameworks like QuickCheck or ScalaCheck that help with this, and and provide a lot of bells and whistles, but in the end bulk testing boils down to something like this:

for i in range(0, 9999):
    for j in range(0, 9999):
        result = func(i, j)

Here, we're calling func with a hundred million different inputs, with a simple sanity_check function that doesn't know all the expected outputs for each input, but can check basic things like "output is not negative". At the same time, we are checking that func doesn't throw an exception or loop forever on some input.

What to Bulk Test

Bulk test are slower than single example tests, due to the number of inputs they test. Thus their Cost of tests is much higher, and they should be used with care. Nevertheless, for functionality where the range of possible inputs is large and it's hard to manually pick example tests to cover all edge cases, they can be worth the cost. Examples include:

  • Mathy algorithms with lots of while-loops, if implemented incorrectly, tend to end up in infinite loops when certain combinations of numbers are input

  • Programming language analyzers, where the range of possible input programs is large and often includes code patterns you didn't expect

  • Log file parsers, where often due to the messy-and-unstructured nature of logs it's hard to know exactly what kind of patterns you need to accept or reject

In such cases, feeding in large amounts of varied test-data helps suss out edge cases you may not have thought of yourself. The test data could be a wide range of random numbers, sample programs sourced from the internet, or a days worth of logs pulled from your production environment.

How to Bulk Test

When dealing with such large sets of inputs, "correct" isn't defined by an equally big set of expected outputs. Rather, "correct" is usually defined by a relationship between the input and output that you expect to to be true regardless of what the input is:

  • "any input does not cause program to throw an exception or loop forever".

  • "the output list of a sorting function must contain all values in the input list exactly once, and the output list must be sorted"

  • "all lines parsed from my sample log file must contain a date between X and Y, and no other lines in that log file must contain the flag USER_CREATED"

Usually, the checks you do in these bulk tests are simpler and much less precise than the checks you would do in example tests. It's not practical to run your log-file parser against a log dump and try and assert the thousands of values returned precisely match a thousands-long list of expected values: you are just as likely to make an error in entering your expected-output as you are in the logic of the parser itself! Nevertheless, we know that some properties should always hold true, regardless of exactly what values come out of your program. Those properties are what bulk tests are meant to test for.

Apart from generating a huge pile of input data using for-loops, you can often find lots of real-world input-data to feed into your code. If we are testing a program meant to process Python source code, for example, such a bulk-test may look like

repos = [
for repo in repos:
    clone_repo("https://github.com/" + repo)
    for file in os.walk(repo):
        if file.endswith(".py"):  
            result = process_python_source(file)

Bulk tests are often much slower than example tests: perhaps taking seconds or minutes to run, instead of milliseconds. Furthermore, bulk tests tend to be opaque and unreadable: when you're generating thousands of test values or loading thousands of test inputs from the internet, it's not clear which inputs are the actual edge cases and which inputs are common and uninteresting.

Minimizing Bulk Tests to Example Tests

Thus it is often worth minimizing the bulk test cases that cause bugs and adding them to your example test suite. This means your example tests end up containing a good selection of the edge cases that occur in the bulk test data. This serves as good documentation for edge cases that someone modifying the program code should pay attention to, and lets them can quickly run tests for the "most important" edge cases to check for basic correctness in milliseconds rather than waiting seconds or minutes for bulk tests to run.

My own FastParse library has a test suite in this fashion: with an expansive (and expensive!) bulk tests suite that spends several minutes pulling in thousands of source files from the internet, parsing them, and performing basic checks ("any file that the existing parser can successfully parse, we can parse too"). This is paired with a large collection of DRY data-driven example tests. These contain minimized examples of all the issues the bulk tests have found, and run in less than a second.

Again, there are Property-based Testing tools like QuickCheck or ScalaCheck that help with writing this kind of bulk test. They make it easy to generate large quantities of "representative" data to feed into your functions, to automatically find "small" failing inputs, that are easier to debug, and have many other nice things. However, they aren't strictly necessary: sometimes, a few for-loops, a dump of production data, or a few large inputs found "in the wild" are enough to serve this purpose. If you are finding the quick-n-dirty methods of performing bulk tests lacking, only then should you start looking for more sophisticated tools.

Cost of tests

Tests are not free: after all, someone has to write them! Even after they're already written, tests are still not free! Every test imposes an ongoing cost on your test suite. Each test:

  • Makes your test suite slower
  • Makes your test suite flakier
  • Will need to be maintained: updated when the main code changes, grepped through during refactorings, etc.

These aren't theoretical concerns:

  • I've worked with codebases with tens of thousands of tests we ran hundreds of times a day: even a 1 in a million chance of flakiness per-test was enough to create several false-positives each day, confusing and frustrating our engineers. Test runs were costing 6-figure sums every month, and the millions of lines of code we maintained actively slowed us down.

  • In my open source work, some projects take a half-hour to run tests in CI (across 5 parallel workers!), and I've been frustrated with flakiness causing false red-builds.

Parallelizing your tests over multiple machines can speed up slow tests, but costs $$$, more than just running the tests on a single machine due to the per-machine setup overhead.

Automated tests can be "not worth it" if they take forever to run, are not reliable, are difficult to maintain and/or cover things which are of low priority to test. Such tests are actively harmful: they should not be written, and if already written should be deleted. I have personally deleted many such tests, e.g. selenium tests for an web upsell experiment that:

  • Added 15 minutes to our test suite: selenium tests easily take a minute each, and this tested many cases through selenium

  • Flaked a several every day

  • Tested a feature that would have been noticed immediately if it wasn't behaving correctly: the experiment already has all the logging for AB testing and tracking users' engagement with it

  • Wouldn't really have mattered if it broke for a day: no data lost, no functionality broken, no user would have even noticed

  • Even if they did matter, they weren't likely to catch any bugs or regressions in the 2-3 weeks before the experiment was going to be discarded anyway

In such cases, you should thank the authors for trying their best to be good engineers and testing their code, but nevertheless delete those tests if they are not pulling their weight.

In my open source work on Ammonite, I similarly ended up deleting many entries from my {Scala-Version x JVM-Version} test matrix that were adding tens of minutes to the test suite but were unlikely to catch any bugs that weren't already caught by other entries in the matrix. While it would be "nice" to run tests on the product of every Scala version and every JVM version, in practice it was costing enough time and catching sufficiently few bugs that it was not worth it.

Refactoring to reduce the cost of tests

Apart from not-writing or deleting tests whose cost is too high, you can also put in effort to try and reduce the cost of the tests you already have. For example, refactoring/modularizing code often lets you push tests away from big "integration" tests towards small "unit" tests, which are faster and more reliable:

  • Global variables often force you to spawn new subprocesses to test application logic. If you refactor the logic to remove the dependence on globals, you can often test the logic within the same process, which can be much faster. This is especially important on slow-booting platforms like the JVM, but even snappy interpreters like Python easily take 10s to 100s of milliseconds to load the necessary modules before running.

  • Database access is slower than in-memory logic; for example, rather than loading from the database in bits and pieces throughout your code, perhaps load the necessary data up-front then feed it into your "core business logic". That way you can run tests of your database-free core business logic in-memory thousands of times faster than if they had to keep interacting with the database.

Essentially, this involves taking a monolithic application which looks like:

                    |                    |
                    |                    |
                    |    Application     | <-- Lots of Integration Tests
                    |                    |

And breaking it down to look something like this:

                        |          |
                        |   Main   |  <------- Few Integration Tests
                        /   |  |   \ 
             __________/    |  |    \__________
            /               /  \               \
 __________/     __________/    \__________     \__________                        
|          |    |          |    |          |    |          |                        
|  Module  |    |  Module  |    |  Module  |    |  Module  | <-- Lots of Unit Tests
|__________|    |__________|    |__________|    |__________|                        

Now that your monolith has been broken down into smaller units, you can then start shifting from the "integration" towards the "unit" ends of the spectrum: many integration tests previously testing logic within the monolithic Application can now be shifted to unit tests for individual Modules, following the guideline of having Tests at every level of the hierarchy.

In these cases, you usually want to leave a few "integration" tests running the Main module to exercise the full flow and making sure the various Modules work together. Even so, the exercise of breaking apart your monolith into modules, and updating your tests to match, should make your test suite run much faster and more reliably, without much of a loss in bug-catching-capability.

Again, this strategy applies at every level of your code hierarchy, whether you are breaking apart a monolithic cluster, monolithic application process, or a monolithic module.

If your test suite is growing big/slow/unreliable, and you are reluctant to delete tests or pay money to parallelize them over different machines, trying to refactor code to convert integration tests to unit tests is one possible way forward.

It is surprisingly easy to write tests with negative value. Tests have an ongoing cost: in runtime, flakiness, and maintenance. This is something that engineers should definitely keep in mind, and actively manage, to maximize their return-on-investment for writing and maintaining their suite of automated tests.


This post has gone over a number of considerations I keep in mind when writing automated tests:

The goal of this post is to paint a different picture of automated tests than is normally discussed: a picture where automated tests lie on continuous spectrums, rather than discrete buckets, and it's up to each project owner to categorize them. Where tests are "just code", subject to the same constraints and allowing for the same techniques, rather than being something special and different. Where tests are ruthlessly prioritized, and those that provide less value than their ongoing costs are culled.

This post is intentionally silent about a whole host of test-writing topics: Test-Driven Development, code coverage, UI testing, and many other things. More than specific tools you should use or techniques you can apply, this post is meant to have painted a coherent set of principles for how to think about automated testing in any software project.

Even without such specific guidance, this post should hopefully provide you a solid foundation that should help you frame, discuss and evaluate any tools, techniques or practices related to automated testing regardless of what project you find yourself working in.

About the Author: Haoyi is a software engineer, and the author of many open-source Scala tools such as the Ammonite REPL and the Mill Build Tool. If you enjoyed the contents on this blog, you may also enjoy Haoyi's book Hands-on Scala Programming

About Joyk

Aggregate valuable and interesting links.
Joyk means Joy of geeK