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.
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.
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".