Unit tests are not enough

Filed under: programming — jlm @ 20:48

[I wrote this for another blog back in 2011, but it was lost to public view when that blog disappeared. It’s still valid today, though!]

In one of our datastructures, there’s an entry for a 64-bit unique resource identifier. This turned out to be a little too vague a description: Is it an 8-byte array, a 64-bit wide integer, or an instance of a 64-bit UUID class? One of our developers though one thing, and another thought another. No problem, right? The first compile by the one who chose wrong will show the type error. Except we’re using Python, so no type checking until the code runs. Still no problem, because our devs wrote unit tests, so the type error will show up on their first run, right?

Unfortunately, unit tests help not an iota in situations like this. The developer expecting UUID objects writes unit tests which consume UUID objects, and the dev expecting byte arrays writes unit tests which produce byte arrays.

So, integration tests, then? It turns out our devs did these too, verifying that their code integrated with the fancy datastructure class, but this still didn’t catch the mismatch! This is because the datastructure class doesn’t actually do anything with the resource identifier that would trigger a type check: it just accepts it as an entry in a slot when an item is inserted, and gives it out as one of the slot entries when items are looked up, and Python is happy to let an instance of any type pass through unchecked.

It’s only when we plug everything together that this trivial type mismatch shows up. So the moral: Make end-to-end tests early. You need them to turn up even problems as basic as this, and the earlier you find problems, the better.

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