Monday, December 5, 2016

Unit and integration tests

I've been working to assign ownership to the correct team for "unit tests" recently.  While changing the team name that owns each test is straightforward in most cases, in some I had to step into the tests to determine exactly what was being validated.  This is a great way for me to learn the code, by the way.

In any case, I soon discovered that some of the tests I had been thinking about as unit tests are actually integration tests.  The difference between the two is what I want to mention today.

A unit test is the simples form of automated testing that we write.  In a simple case, suppose I am writing a calculator application and want to multiply two whole numbers.  I could write a function that looks something like this:

int multiply(int first, int second)
int result = 0;
for (int i=0;i<first;i++)
result = result + second;

return result;

Now when I write a unit test, I can pass in 8 and 4 and validate I get 32 as a result and also 0 and 2 to validate I get 0.  Not much to this but that is the point of a unit test - it tests just one function.  If it fails, I know the exact one function that now needs to be investigated.

Then suppose I add a power function to the calculator.  Raising a number to a power is just multiplying the number by itself as many times as I want the power t be, so my function to this might be:

int power(number, power)
return ERROR_CODE;
int result ;

for (int i=0;i<power;i++)
result = multiply(result, 1);
return result;

I just call my multiply command as part of my power command.  Reusing code is always a goal.

But now when I test my power function, I have a challenge if the test fails.  A failure might be in the part of the code that is unique to my power function, or it could also be in the multiply command.  There could also exist a case in which both tests are failing for different reasons.  So instead of quickly finding the one bit of ode I need to investigate, I now have 2 places to look and three investigations to complete. 

Looking more at the calculator, if I added a "Compute compounded interest function" I would need to use the power function and the multiply function and possibly a few others as well.  Now if a test fails I might have dozens of locations to investigate.

On the positive side, I might also discover a flaw in my code that only shows when one function calls another.  This type of functionality is referred to as an integration test and is absolutely critical to shipping software.    Read about the most famous example of not covering this here: a Mars satellite was lost because Lockheed Martin tested all their code with miles and everyone else tested all their code with kilometers.  Very loosely speaking, the Lockheed code told the spacecraft it was "1,000,000" from earth it meant one million miles.  When the satellite heard "1,000,000" it assumed kilometers and that was the root of the loss of the satellite.  Integration tests should have been use to catch this type of error.

Eagle eyed readers will point out that my power function is useless without the multiply function.  How can I isolate my unit tests to use only the code in that function instead of needing the multiply command as well?  I'll cover that next time up.

Questions, comments, concerns and criticisms always welcome,

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