A blog about the joys and perils of software development

Edge-To-Edge Unit Tests

The term unit test implies at least two different things. First, it means testing your code at the smallest unit, which is a function or a class (well, technically, you test the methods of a class, but they would make little sense in isolation). Second, it means writing test code in a language to test functionality in the same language.

Normally, when I write C++ code to test my C++ functionality, I tend to stay away from the “unit” level. Instead, I like tests that exercise the system edge-to-edge, resembling the interactions with the outside world as much as possible. Now, full edge-to-edge testing is normally not possible since the peripheral parts of a system are often hard to control. For example, let’s say I have a system with network on one side and a GUI on the other side. A realistic test case would have traffic over the network and a GUI reflecting that. But taking the network as an example, it complicates testing due to issues like slow response times, need for a remote side and network failures. So I settle for testing up to the interfaces of the network and GUI: you would inject network “traffic”(or time-outs) on the network interface, verify that the GUI interface is told to show something, do some user input on the GUI interface and watch outgoing network traffic being generated.

As with everything, there are pros and cons when testing at this level. To me, the main benefits compared to low-level unit tests are:

  • Having tests at that level gives me confidence that there’s a reasonably low probability of faulty interaction with the outside world.
  • The boundaries of your system are much less likely to change than the internals. This means you are less likely to spend time changing your tests.
  • It is easy to argue for the business value of the tests. They correspond well to what the customer expects and are used to guarantee the quality.
  • The tests are a decent measure of progress. Having a passing test means you are close to something to show to your customer.
  • It’s fun! And you can test-run your system before you have a network and a GUI.

The downsides I’ve experienced compared to testing at the unit level are:

  • Tests like these can make it harder to achieve decent code coverage. For example, your code might involve randomness, timing issues or use of the current time. You will have to make sure these can be controlled from the test context.
  • High-level testing can be hard to introduce late in the development process. For this to succeed, the whole system must be designed for testability. See the previous item.
  • The tests become monolithic. I’ve come across the situation where parts of my system were broken out to form a new shared component. The new component has to have tests of its own (or someone changing it won’t notice it’s broken until they run your tests). Your tests use the classes of your system, which are not suitable to use in a shared component since dependencies would go the wrong way.
  • It might be overkill for testing some parts of the system. For example, if you have some deep-down string manipulation code, you should go ahead and unit test it (in the true sense of the word). It’s all about choosing the proper tools for the problem.
  • Due to complexity in the lower levels of your software, you might be facing a combinatorial explosion of different test cases. You will have to select a few representative test cases and resort to normal unit testing of test the low-level parts. See the previous item.
  • Testing on this level poses sort of a communication problem. If I call my tests “unit tests”, most people think only of tests on the lowest level. If I call them “acceptance tests” or “functional tests”, someone will inevitably assume I have properly tested the system from the outside, edge-to-edge (which is definitively necessary, even with the tests described above). Calling them e.g. “functional unit tests” only adds to the confusion. (“What do you mean? Is it a unit test? Is it a functional test? Surely, it can’t be both.”) If you know of terminology that could help, let me know. Until I hear from you, I will just call them Edge-to-Edge Unit Tests.

As I said before, it’s about choosing the proper tool for your problem. If at all possible, I resort to “unit testing” at the highest possible level. If you haven’t done so, you should give it a try.

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