Spice up your unit testing

Writing unit tests shouldn’t be a chore. This article presents six tools (with alternatives) that help to improve your developer experience.

Writing unit tests is an activity every reasonable developer does frequently. While it certainly is a useful thing to do, it shouldn’t be a chore. To help you with the process of creating, running and evaluating unit tests, there are numerous tools and add-ons for every programming language around. This article focusses on improving the developer experience (the counterpart of “user experience”) for Java, JUnit and the Eclipse IDE. I will introduce you to the toolset we are using, which might not be the complete range of tools available.

Creating unit tests

  • MoreUnit – This plugin for Eclipse helps you to organize your unit test classes by maintaining a connection between the test and the production class. This way you’ll always see which classes and methods still lack a corresponding test. You can take shortcuts in the navigation by jumping directly into the test class and back. And if you move one file, MoreUnit will move the other one alongside. It’s a swiss army knife for unit test writers and highly recommended.
  • EqualsVerifier – If you ever wrote a custom implementation of the equals()/hashcode() method pair, you’ll know that it’s not a triviality. What’s even more intimidating is that you probably got it wrong or at least not fully correct. The effects of a flawed equals() method aren’t easily determinable, so this is a uncomfortable situation. Luckily, there is a specialized tool to help you with this task exactly. The EqualsVerifier library tests your custom implementation against all aspects of the art of writing an equals() method with just one line of code.
  • Mockito (and EasyMock) – When dealing with dependencies of classes under test, mock objects can come in handy. But writing them by hand is tedious, boring and error-prone. This is where mock frameworks can help by reducing the setup and verification of a mock object to just a few lines of code. EasyMock is the older of the two projects, but it manages to stay up-to-date by introducing new features and syntax with every release. Mockito has a very elegant and readable syntax and provides a rich feature set. There are other mock frameworks available, too.

Running unit tests

  • InfiniTest (and JUnit Max) – Normally, you have to run the unit tests in your IDE by manually clicking the “run” button or hitting some obscure keyboard shortcut. These two continuous testing tools will run your tests while you still type. This will shorten your test feedback loop to nearly milliseconds after each change. Your safety net was never closer. InfiniTest and JUnit Max are both Eclipse plugins, but the latter costs a small annual fee. It’s written by Kent Beck himself, though.

Evaluating unit tests

  • EclEmma (and Cobertura) – If you want to know about the scope or “coverage” of your tests, you should consult a code coverage tool. Cobertura produces really nice HTML reports for all your statistical needs. EclEmma is an Eclipse plugin that integrates the code coverage tool Emma with Eclipse in the finest way possible. Simply run “coverage as” instead of “run as” and you are done. All the hassle with instrumenting your classes and setting up the classpath in the right order (major hurdles when using cobertura) is dealt with behind the scenes.
  • Jester (and Jumble) – The question “who tests my tests?” is totally legit. And it has an answer: Every mutation testing tool around. For Java and JUnit, there are at least two that do their job properly: Jester works on the source code while Jumble uses the bytecode. Mutation testing injects little changes into your production code to test if your tests catch them. This is a different approach on test coverage that can detect code that is executed but not pinned down by an assertion. While Jester has a great success story to tell, Jumble tends to produce similar results as cobertura’s condition coverage report, at least in my experience.


As you can see, there is a wide range of tools available to improve your efforts to write well-tested software. This list is in no way comprehensive. If you know about a tool that should be mentioned, we would love to read your comment.

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.

Open Source Love Day July 2010

Our Open Source Love Day for July 2010 brought love for Hudson (especially the CMake and Crap4j plugins), RXTX and JUnit.

This friday , we held our Open Source Love Day for July 2010.  We began with several internal meetings and discussion (like the Homepage Comittee meeting) and dived right in our work afterwards. Everybody had a little backlog of issues that we wanted to get done on this day. Nearly everybody succeeded (well, the author had a minor delay – read about it below). The day went by in a very fast pace, but it felt right.

The Open Source Love Day

We introduced a monthly Open Source Love Day (OSLD) to show our appreciation to the Open Source software ecosystem and to donate back. We heavily rely on Open Source software for our projects. We would be honored if you find our contributions useful. Check out our first OSLD blog posting for details on the event itself.

On this OSLD, we accomplished the following tasks:

  • There are really cool new features in the latest JUnit versions and Rules are one of them. What hurt our aesthetic sense was that the field that hold the Rule instance has to be public. Checkstyle was on our side, so we tweaked JUnit to allow all kinds of visibility. You can read about the change needed here: http://github.com/KentBeck/junit/issues#issue/31. The fix is almost trivial and will hopefully be incorporated in the next versions of JUnit, so we do not publish our altered version.
  • We constantly receive requests and remarks about our cmake plugin for Hudson. This lead to a new version of the plugin fixing two issues with matrix builds and custom build types. Head over to the plugin homepage and grab the new version 1.6. The issues were in detail:
    • The plugin can be used with matrix builds now
    • Custom build types can be defined now
  • RXTX is our choice for serial port communication with Java. We fixed some issues during the last few OSLDs, with one issue left for today: When you flush your stream while using a special type of usb-to-rs232 converter, you got an exception. The corresponding issue is #102 in the RXTX issue tracker. We proposed a patch that fixes the problem.
  • Another hudson plugin is our crap4j reporter. It lacked some love for months now and finally broke when used with the latest hudson versions. Fixing the problem was a lot harder than we thought, basically because the plugin needed adjustments to recent API changes and we couldn’t figure out exactly what adjustments are necessary. You might have a look at the developer mailing list thread for this question. Finally, we got it resolved (on sunday, with a sudden stroke of insight) and a new version 0.8 is published.
  • We use an internal time tracking tool for our projects. This tool isn’t specifically open source yet, but continues to grow in terms of features and usability. The work invested in this tool helps us to continue with the OSLD, so it’s beneficial work nonetheless.
  • During the last OSLD, we had plans for a new hudson plugin and even produced a prototype. This time, we looked around the hudson plugin zoo (it’s getting a bit difficult to keep track of all of them) for inspiration and found a wonderful piece of art: The Groovy Postbuild Plugin. Using this plugin with a small groovy script served our needs exactly. No need for a full-blown plugin when you can scratch your itch with a simple script. Thanks to Serban Iordache for his great work!

What were our lessons learnt today?

  • If you need to setup a fresh workspace for an open source project, consider to prepare it over the night before, or the download delay will kill your precious work time. There is nothing more frustrating than staring at a “downloading…” progress bar while being eager to start programming.
  • Always look around what others have done before. We wanted to build a full hudson plugin from scratch when all we needed was a little groovy script placed inside another plugin. Sweet!
  • Do not hesitate to privately fix open source issues that won’t get done in time for you. Just make sure to have a management process in place to track those changes and be able to re-apply them to future versions. More important though, be able to tell exactly when NOT to re-apply them because the original project has fixed the issue.

Retrospective of the OSLD

The OSLD went smooth and was productive. We tend to work on backlogs instead of searching for random issues now, but that’s just a sign that our approach has matured and we depend on the OSLD to get work done.

Last wednesday, we held our Open Source Love Day for June 2010. This one was productive despite the heat that had us sweating the whole day long (as a sidenote: it got even warmer the days afterwards). Some features were finished and will help at least us in our projects. We still look forward for the right way to release them. Another release was even more problematic, you will read about it below.The Open Source Love Day

We introduced a monthly Open Source Love Day (OSLD) to show our appreciation to the Open Source software ecosystem and to donate back. We heavily rely on Open Source software for our projects. We would be honored if you find our contributions useful. Check out our first OSLD blog posting for details on the event itself.

On this OSLD, we accomplished the following tasks: