Friday, December 4, 2009

Mocking - An essential unit testing technique

Oh the joys of unit testing. Brian C. and I are creating a new platform from the ground up. From the get go unit tests were a standard. You need to write em, if you don't its timeout in the corner for 10 minutes. We started this project about a year ago on CF8 but recently got approval to move over to CF9. Very cool. So we started our script conversion A fricking SAP since the sooner we could rid the codebase of cftags the sooner my wrists and fingers can like me again.

Within that year we wrote unit tests for every single method in our codebase and tried our best to have near 100% code coverage. Life was good, we felt protected. That is, until we started hearing about Mocking during our script conversion. Essentially we were refactoring code to script which made us take a deeper look at the quality of our unit tests - and ehhh it was mediocre. A majority of tests felt clunky, doing too much, finding assertions that were'nt needed in the unit test in question but rather that belonged somewhere else. We both heard about mocking and decided to dedicate a few days trying to understand it and see if it solved our unit test shady-ness. I first heard the term "mocking" by a good friend of mine, Shakti S. who is spearheading the JUnit unit testing effort over at his shop. I'd say within the first few minutes of the explanation my eyes glazed over and my brain was sizzling. During that discussion, one point (out of many of course) that resonated with me was when he said this, "You can see the true power of mocking when writing tests against objects that leverage DAO's". So I slept on it... Shot a few emails back to Shaks and eventually brought it up with Brian as well. Brian and I spent a good day researching mocking (EXCELLENT resource by Martin Fowler- and exchanging conversations that resulted in many "I think I get it. Lets run some tests". About the 10th "I think I get it" later we came to an epiphany. Unit tests need to be as simplistic as possible right? At the end of the day software functions are no different that mathematical functions - you define the inputs therefore you can assert the output.

OK so where does mocking come in? Well the object/method under test (coined System Under Test, SUT) can be delegating to composite objects to get its ultimate result. These composite objects often have their own composition so you can imagine what that setup() of that test case would look like.You'd need to instantiate the SUT, its composite relationships and THEIR composite relationships just to get the SUT in a state where its testable - ugh no thanks. Herein lies the problem that Mocking solves. These composite method calls within a SUT are termed collaborators. You, as the developer who have access to the source code, can mock/fake the results of a collaborator WITHIN that SUT. This is desirable because you should know what a valid expectation can be for that collaboration method. Instead of manually injecting/constructing the proper dependencies every single time just simply mock it up. You should NOT be manually injecting/constructing the proper dependencies because it takes your focus off of the SUT and you end up with a handful of extra code that you don't need, compositions that don't need to happen and assertions that belong somewhere else or worse, doesn't even add value to the unit test.

Back to how this mocking concept clicked as it pertains to the the DAO problem. In our new platform we leveraged an IoC container so we didn't have to manually construct dependencies every test case setup(). However we did have to inject the bean factory into each test case - so same problem, different dress. So how'd this epiphany apply to DAO's? Well when a test for a method that uses a delegate call to a dao method like, that actually persisted a test record into the database. This should have just made you cringe... alot. You heard it right. Through each run of the build (firing unit tests) we were persisting test data to the dev database everywhere was called. This happens through local developer builds as well as continuous integration. We needed a way to make return true but don't really go in there and persist records to the database. This is what integration tests are for, not unit tests. So after reaching mocking nirvana the solution was simple - mock the SUT's collaborator for dao, specifically the method, to return true. Whatever used to do is now overriden. If that save() went on and collaborated with 100 more objects, it no longer has any relevance here. We've mocked it. We've told you,, what to return. We don't care how you really use 100 other objects to return true. You,, are not the SUT. So I'll make you return true and you'll like it since I'm your daddy and my actual SUT execution path expects you to return true in order for me to assert properly.

So to conclude just remember that whenever you run across a SUT that has collaborators (composition), chances are you'll want to mock it. This keeps your unit tests controlled, light and focused. Keep up with your unit tests as it's tremendously helped us with this tag to script conversion. We'd convert to script, run the unit test where it would sometimes blow up in our face because we wrote some logic incorrectly. Gotta love it.

Hope this helped. I wanted to focus on the abstract and not show code however if you would like to see examples just let me know.

Good resources:
Martin Fowler-
Ask @marcesher on twitter - (MXUnit contributor)


Bob Silverberg said...

Great post Micky. I too am a fairly recent convert to mocking. You might be interested to know that we're currently working on making mocking even easier from within MXUnit by interfacing with various mocking frameworks using a standard API.

The idea is that you can choose whichever CF mocking framework you like, and then just call mock() from within a unit test and you'll get a mock created by your framework.

Micky Dionisio said...


Very cool man. Would love to rid each TestCase setup() of every mb = new MockBox() assignment.

Whats the project called so I can look out for it? If its on the low just be sure to ping me so we can take it out for a test drive. Heck even do some beta if you guys would let us.