I had been previously exposed to some of the concepts of generative testing, particularly Haskell’s own QuickCheck, but never took the time to do something with it, this talk by John Hughes really stroke a chord on the usefulness of generative -or property based- testing, and how much effort you can save by knowing when and how to use it.
I’ve been using Clojure
test.check for a while, and since I’m preparing a conference talk on the subject, I decided to write something about it.
So bear with me, in this two-entry blog post I’ll try to convince you why down the road, it may save your ass too.
What generative testing is not
Probably the reason I’ve always looked down upon generative testing, was thinking it was just about random/junk data generation, for the too-lazy-to-think-your-own-test-cases kind of attitude.
Well, that’s not what generative testing is about.
You will have data generators for some input domain values, but trying to generate random noise to make the program fail is just fuzzy testing, and generative testing is more than that.
On Types vs. Tests
I’ve written before about the difficulty of using types to prove your program is correct. Some people will always say you can do it with type systems(and types even more complex than the program under proof), and you can always use Coq.
But for everyday programming languages and type systems it’s not that easy, say for instance this
Java function (assuming such thing exists).
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You can say just by looking at the function, that any integer except zero will succeed.
In this other case:
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The function will succeed except when
So assuming that’s expected behavior, you can write some tests to check on those special failure cases.
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But for the sake of making and argument, assume you’re testing
openssl and this is the function you have…
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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you should have heard about the heartbleed openssl bug, and it’s just what you think, the bug was in the heartbeat processing function above, and this is the patch with the fix.
Who was the motherfucker that missed that unit test, huh?
When the function logic is more complex, it’s exponentially more difficult to define both types and tests that make us feel more confident about pushing our nasty bits of code to a production environment.
And that’s because the possible states our system or function can be, expand like hell when new variables and conditional branches are added (more on this later).
Code Coverage vs. Domain Coverage
Looking at the function above you can see the problem is not on some untested code path, but on some values used on function invocation.
Some people aim for 100% code coverage, according to Wikipedia
In computer science, code coverage is a measure used to describe the degree to which the source code of a program is tested by a particular test suite. A program with high code coverage has been more thoroughly tested and has a lower chance of containing software bugs than a program with low code coverage.
Which is great, but since you can have 100% code coverage of the
1/x function, but regarding domain coverage (for which values of
x the function works as expected) you have nothing.
Code coverage without domain coverage is just half the picture.
Even unit tests prove almost nothing.
Tests do not prove correctness
There’s a great quote by Edsger Dijkstra from Notes on Structured Programming that says
Program testing can be used to show the presence of bugs, but never to show their absence!
Which is to say, no matter how many unit tests you write, you’re only proving that your program works (or fails) for the set of inputs you have selected when writing your tests.
It doesn’t say a thing about the generalities or about a general property of the system or function under test.
What is generative testing?
So what is generative testing?
In generative testing you describe some properties your system or function must comply with, and the test runner provides randomized data to check if the property holds for that data, that’s why it’s also known as
property is a high-level specification of behavior that should hold for a range of data points.
So a property works somewhat like a domain iterator, bringing a little bit closer types and tests.
Since you’re defining how the system should behave for a particular domain of values, not when the program is compiled, but when it’s run.
Why random data generation is important?
In the StrangeLoop 2014 conference, Joe Armstrong gave a talk called The mess we’re in, where he discussed system’s complexity, go watch it since it’s real fun.
He says that a
C program with only six
32 bit integers, has the same number of states that atoms exist on the planet, so testing your program by computing all combinations it’s going to take a really long time.
And if it’s almost impossible to find the number of states computationally, imagine trying to find the number of possible failing states manually.
I’ve been in the position of having to hunt a bug that occurs only once a year in a system processing millions of transactions daily, and it’s not fun at all. Pray to the logging gods the proper piece of information revealing the culprit is logged, so you don’t have to wait another year for the bug to show up.
If your software runs inside a car, would you wait for the next deadly crash to analyze that dead-driver log file? Maybe that’s why Volvo uses QuickCheck to test embedded systems.
Generative testing helps you put and test your system in so many different states it would be impossible to do manually.
What’s in a property
So, should we throw away all of our type systems and unit tests?
Not so fast, property based testing is not a replacement for types nor for unit tests.
Haskell and Scala both have their frameworks for property based testing (QuickCheck and ScalaTest) and are strongly typed languages.
Property based testing helps us define considerations for our programs where type systems do not reach, and where dynamically typed languages have a void.
So what does a property look like?
All concepts so far hold true for any language with a generative testing framework, many re-implementations exist from the original QuickCheck version, from
Scala, etc. So now I will show you a couple of examples in different languages, just for you to grasp the basic property definition semantics, which is quite similar along the implementations.
These examples are not meant to show how powerful generative testing can be, yet.
Let’s say you want to test a
sort function of yours, and instead of specifying individual test cases for particular arrays of integers, you define a property, which says that after sorting the array, the last element should always be greater than the first one.
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You don’t say which particular arrays, just any array of integers must comply with the property, the framework will generate values for you (in this case 10 repetitions will be run).
This is the result:
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Did you spot when the property doesn’t hold?
Sorting in Clojure
This is what the same property looks like in Clojure’s test.check.
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With the following result:
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As you see, both fail, since they doesn’t hold for single element arrays.
The basic semantic for both languages is the same, you need:
- A property name (or claim in JSCheck)
- Some data generator for your input values
- A verdict or testing function who validates the property
This encourages a higher level approach to testing in the form of abstract invariant functions should satisfy universally.
One of the best features of QuickCheck is the ability to shrink your failure cases to the minimum failing case (not all the implementations have it by the way).
When generating random data, you may end up with a failing case too big to rationalize (for instance a thousand elements vector), but it doesn’t necessarily means that all the 1000 elements are needed for the function under test to fail.
When QuickCheck finds a failing case, it tries to shrink the input data to the smallest failing case.
This is a powerful feature if you don’t want to repeat many unnecessary steps in order to reproduce a problem.
A simple example to illustrate the feature comes from
Here a property must hold for all integer vectors, and it is that no vector should have the element
42 in it.
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When the tests are run,
test.check find a failing case being the vector
[10 1 28 40 11 -33 42 -42 39 -13 13 -44 -36 11 27 -42 4 21 -39], which is not the minimum failing case.
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So it starts shrinking the failing case until it reaches the smallest vector for which the property doesn’t hold, which is
Since QuickCheck depends on generators to cover the domain, we need to consider those domains may be infinite or very large, so it may be impossible to find the offending failure cases. None the less, we know that by running long enough or a large enough number of tests, we have better odds of finding a problem.
Regarding the name,
property-based testing is a much better name than
generative testing, since the later gives the idea that it’s about generating data, when it’s truly about function and system properties.
The higher level approach of property definition, coupled with the data generation and shrinking features provided by QuickCheck, really helps the case of having something more closer to proofs about how your system behaves.
In the next post I’ll write about finite state machine testing using
test.check and show more complex examples, stay tuned.
I’m guilespi on Twitter, reach out!