21. November 2009

Integration Tests are a Superset of Unit Tests

The agile world is unit test crazy. That's ok. But it is not enough. Integration tests are a much under valued species. I like unit tests. I need unit tests. I do not know how we could ever build software without unit tests. But pure unit tests jump too short. We need more.

I am talking about unit test frameworks like NUnit. You just write the test function, add an attribute and the framework finds the function and adds it to the test list. Your test function tests a real function. Hundereds of those make a complete test set. Great, but not enough. What is missing?

You are supposed to write unit test code, which tests only single functions and methods. The idea is to isolate functionality and test isolated. I know the theory: Interfaces are contracts. There are unit tests for every behaviour. Even failures should be verified. TDD (test driven develpment) write the test as specification. I know all that bloat.

Fact is: these tests are important, but they ignore reality. Most problems result from interdependencies and side effects. In theory, there are no side effects. In reality they are there. Unit testing reduces them. Unit testing gives complex systems a chance to work. Chance is not enough. We must make sure, that systems work, not only functions. That's the part of the integration test.

Integration tests verify complex operations. Example: assumed I have a typical cached business object. An integration test would check the complete process:

  • fetch the object from the cache,
  • if it's not there, construct it from the DB,
  • put it in the cache and
  • return it at the same time.
  • communication with the DB includes a
  • web service interface and 2 layers of
  • storage driver and
  • SQL access code.
This is a vertical test.

In contrast: unit tests would test everything isolated:
  • does the cache access work? with a simulated in-memory cache. Beware of the network inside of unit tests.
  • does the database access work? using a fake DB, because relying on a real DB server is uncool, not "isolated" enough
  • would the webservice return the correct data? using a mock request object and fake data.
  • does the webservice format correctly? again: fake data
  • everything tested with made up configuration data and carefully constructed dependency injection.
I am totally pro isolated tests. But they are so un-real, mocked-up, simulated. They need something real on top. They need integration tests. Integration tests assert, that complex systems work despite complexity. We need integration tests. Wenn need lots of them. Unit tests just hope, that everything works together. Dream nicely.

We need integration tests anyway. And integration tests are in the real system. They are live. Unit tests are in a separate project and can not be live. Two separate test sets. Too many for me. There is no reason to split testing into 2 test sets, which are operated very differently. You run the test project from time to time and you are happy about the green bar. I run the real project all the time. Why should I run the test project from time to time, when I can run tests in the real environment with just one click.

Integration tests can be written to test isolated functions. They are a superset of unit tests. My interation tests check isolated functions PLUS vertical functionality PLUS live system health.

Unit test frameworks jump too short. They help, but ignore reality.
Get real. Switch to integration testing.


Changed the title from "Superior to" to "a Superset of".



Anonym hat gesagt…

Integration tests are not superior, they are just needed too. Unit tests test single functional units (functions, class methods, and entire modules or classes) of the code.
Integration tests are just to complement these and test the cooperation of multiple of that units (an application or more or less large part of it).

You most probably always need both!

You need unit tests for your libraries and single business code units (modules, classes).
And you need integration tests for the applications and logical parts of them.

Sure, integration tests may be abused for unit testing too. But then, they magically change name and are called unit tests. ;)

Do not bias one over the other - they are eqally usefull.

Heiner hat gesagt…

Yes, thats what I mean. 2 sets of tests. I only want one test mechanism.

I prefer integration tests and misuse the integration test framework also for unit tests. In other words: scrap NUnit.

Allan Wegan hat gesagt…

The tests do not care, what framework you use for them - so that seems to be okay. ;)