Test Framework Classpath Forgery

A lesson learnt when using HttpUnit with all its dependencies. Xerces changed the system behaviour, but with the test classpath only.

Recently, I had an interesting problem using a testing framework with third-party dependencies. When writing integration tests with JUnit against a very small embedded web application (think of the web based management console for your printer as an example), I chose to use HttpUnit as an auxiliary framework to reduce and clarify the test code.

HttpUnit for testing web applications

If you need to test a classic request/response web application, HttpUnit serves its purpose very well. You can write test code concise and to the point. Downloading and integrating HttpUnit is straight-forward, you can immediately get it to work. Here is an example of a test that asserts that there is at least one link on the web application’s main page:

WebConversation web = new WebConversation();
WebResponse response = web.getResponse(fromServer(port));
WebLink[] allLinks = response.getLinks();
assertTrue("No links found on main webpage", ArrayUtil.hasContent(allLinks));

Test failures appear

After this test was written and included into the build, the continuous integration suddenly reported test failures – in the unit tests. I didn’t change any test there and had no need to change the production code, either. So what was causing the test to fail?

The failing unit test class was very old, ensuring the persistence of some data structure to XML and back. The test that actually failed took care of the XML parser behaviour when an empty XML file was read:

public void testReadingEmptyXML() throws IOException {
    try {
        new XMLQueryPersister(new StringReader(XMLQueryPersisterTest.EMPTY_XML), null).loadQueries();
    } catch (ParseException e) {
        Assert.assertEquals("Error on line 1: Premature end of file.", e.getMessage());

The assertion that checks the exception message failed, stating that the actual message was now “Error on line -1: Premature end of file.”

Hunting the bug

How can the inclusion of a new integration test have such an impact on the rest of the system? Thanks to continuous integration, the cause for the behaviour change could only lie in the most recent commit. A quick investigation revealed the culprit:

HttpUnit has a third-party dependency on the Xerces xml parser (or another equivalent org.xml.sax parser), see their FAQ for details. When I included the libraries, I accidentally changed the default xml parser for the whole system to Xerces in the version that HttpUnit delivers. This altered the handling of the “premature end of file” case to the new behaviour, causing the test to fail. As these libraries are only included in the classpath when tests are run, the change only happens in the test environment, not in production.

Test classpath versus production classpath

The real issue here isn’t the change in behaviour, this can be taken into account if you have a good test coverage. The issue is different classpaths for test and production environments. If you don’t want to deploy all your test scope libraries (thus making the production classpath similar to the test classpath), you should pay extra attention to what you include in your test classpath. It might alter your system, so that you don’t test the real behaviour anymore.

Resolving the issue

In my case, it was sufficient to remove the Xerces jar from the classpath again. A compliant org.xml.sax parser is already included in the Java core API. It’s the parser that already got used in production and should be used for the tests, too.

Update/Correction: After removing Xerces, HttpUnit stopped working correctly. The quick fix now is to include Xerces in the production classpath and deal with the behaviour changes. I will investigate this issue further and append the outcome as a comment to this blog entry. Update 2: Issue resolved, see comment section for the solution.

This taught me a lesson to always be aware of the dependencies, even if it’s “only” the test scope dependencies.


Including the Xerces xml parser as a dependency for a testing framework (HttpUnit) changed the behaviour of my system under test, albeit for the tests only. The issue was easily resolved by removing it again, but now I know that testing frameworks have side effects, too.

2 thoughts on “Test Framework Classpath Forgery”

  1. Problem solved: If you just remove Xerces, HttpUnit will stop working because Nekohtml.jar is still in the classpath. Nekohtml has a hard dependency on Xerces, whereas HttpUnit only has an optional dependency on Nekohtml, probing for it on the classpath. If you remove both Xerces AND Nekohtml, HttpUnit will choose JTidy as HTML parser and just carry on.

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