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Setting Up Fast No-Rails Tests

The key to fast tests is simple: don’t do slow things.

Warning: this post is a kind of long examination of a problem, namely, how to integrate fast non-Rails tests and slow Rails tests in the same test suite. This may be a problem nobody is having. But having seen a sample of how this might work, I was compelled to try and make it work in my toy app. You’ve been warned, hope you like it.

In a Rails app, “don’t do slow things” largely means “don’t load Rails”. Which means that the application logic that you are testing should be separable from Rails implementation details like, say, ActiveRecord. One way to do that is to start putting application logic in domain objects that use ActiveRecord as an implementation detail for persistence.

By one of those coincidences that aren’t really coincidences, not only does separating logic from persistence give you fast tests, it also gives you more modular, easier to maintain code.

To put that another way, in a truly test-driven process, if the tests are hard to write, that is assumed to be evidence that the code design is flawed. For years, most of the Rails testing community, myself included, have been ignoring the advice of people like Jay Fields and Michael Feathers, who told us that true unit tests don’t touch the database, and we said, “but it is so easy to write a model test in Rails that hits the database, we are sure it will be fine.” And we’ve all, myself included, been stuck with test suites that take way too long to run, wondering how we got there.

Well, if the tests get hard to write or run, we’re supposed to consider the possibility that the code is the issue. In this case, that our code is too entangled with ActiveRecord. Hence, fast tests. And better code.

Anyway, I built a toy app placing logic in domain objects for the Mountain West workshop. In building this, I wanted to try a whole bunch of domain patterns at once, fast tests, DCI, presenters, dependency injection. There are a lot of things that I have to say about messing around with some of the domain object patterns floating around, but first…

Oh. My. God. It is great to be back in a code base where the tests ran so fast that I didn’t have time to lose focus while the tests ran. It occurred to me that it is really impossible to truly do TDD if the tests don’t run fast, and that means we probably have a whole generation of Rails programmers who have never done TDD, who only know tests as the multi-minute slog they need to get through to check in their code, and don’t know how much fun fast TDD is.

Okay, at some unspecified future point, I’ll talk about some of the other patterns. Right now, I want to talk about fast tests, and some ideas about how to make them run. While the basic idea of “don’t do slow things” is not hard, there are some logistical issues about managing Rails-stack and non-Rails stack tests in the same code base that are non obvious. Or at least they weren’t obvious to me.

One issue is file logistics. Basically, in order to run tests without Rails, you just don’t load Rails. In a typical Rails/RSpec setup, that means not requiring spec_helper into the test file. However, even without spec_helper, you still need some of the same functionality.

For instance, you still need to load code into your tests. This is easy enough, where spec_helper loaded Rails and triggered the Rails auto load, you just need to explicitly require the files that you need for each spec file. If your classes are really distributing responsibility, you should only need to require the actual class under test and maybe one or two others. I also create a fast_spec_helper.rb file, which starts like this:

$: << File.expand_path("app")
require 'pry'
require 'awesome_print'

Pry and Awesome Print are there because they are useful in troubleshooting, the addition to the load path is purely a convenience when requiring my domain classes.

There is another problem, which is that your domain classes still need to reference Rails and ActiveRecord classes. This is a little messier.
I hope it’s clear why this is a problem – even if you are separating domain logic from Rails, the two layers still need to interact, even if it’s just of the load/save variety. So your non-Rails tests and the code they call may still reference ActiveRecord objects, and you need to not have your tests blow up when that happens. Ideally, you also don’t want the tests to load Rails, either, since that defeats the purpose of the fast test.

Okay, so you need a structure for fast tests that allows you to load the code you need, and reference the names of ActiveRecord objects without loading Rails itself.

Very broadly speaking, there are two strategies for structuring fast tests. You can put your domain tests in a new top-level directory – Corey Haines used spec-no-rails in his shopping cart reference application. Alternately, you can put domain tests with everything else in the spec directory, with subdirectories like spec/presenters and the like, just have those files load your fast_spec_helper. About a month ago, Corey mentioned on Twitter and GitHub that he had moved his code in this direction.

There are tradeoffs. The separate top-level approach enforces a much stricter split between Rails tests and domain tests – in particular, it makes it easier to run just the domain tests without loading Rails. On the other hand, the directory structure is non-standard, there is a whole ecosystem of testing tools that basically assumes that you have one test directory.
It’s not hard to support multiple spec directories with a few custom rake tasks, though it is a little awkward. Since your Rails objects are never loaded in the domain object test suite, though, it’s very easy to stub them out with dummy classes that are only used by the domain object tests.

As I mentioned, Corey has also shown an example with all the tests under single directory and some namespacing magic. I’m not 100% sure if I like the single top-level better. But I can explain how he got it to work.

With everything being under the same top level directory, it’s easier to run the whole suite, but harder to just run the fast tests (not very hard, just harder). Where it gets weird is when your domain objects reference Rails objects. As mentioned before, even though your domain objects shouldn’t need ActiveRecord features, they may need to reference the name of an ActiveRecord class, often just to call find or save methods. Often, “fast” tests get around this by creating a dummy class with the same name as the ActiveRecord class.

Anyway, if you are running your fast and slow tests together, you’re not really controlling the order of test runs. Specifically, you don’t know if the ActiveRecord version of your class is available when your fast test just wants the dummy version. So you need dummy versions of your ActiveRecord classes that are only available from the fast tests, while the real ActiveRecord objects are always visible from the rest of the test suite.

I think I’m not explaining this well. Let’s say I have an ActiveRecord object called Trip. I’ve taken the logic for purchasing a trip and placed it in a domain object, called PurchaseTripContext. All that’s fine, and I can test PurchaseTripContext in a domain object test without Rails right up until the point where it actually needs to reference the Trip class because it needs to create one.

The thing is, you don’t actually need the entire Trip class to test the PurchaseTripContext logic, you just need something named Trip that you can create, set some attributes on, and save. It’s kind of a fancy mock. And if you just require the existing Trip, then ActiveRecord loads Rails, which is what we are trying to avoid.

There are a few ways to solve this access problem:

If you have a separate spec_fast directory that only runs on its own, then this is easy. You can create just a dummy class called Trip – I make the dummy class a subclass of OpenStruct, which works tolerably well. class Trip < OpenStruct; end.

You could also use regular stub, but there are, I think, two reasons why I found that less helpful. First is that the stubs kind of need to be recreated for each test, whereas a dummy class basically gets declared once. Second, OpenStruct lets you hold on to a little state, which – for me – makes these tests easier to write.

Anyway, if your domain logic tests are mixed into the single spec directory, then the completely separate dummy class doesn’t work – the ActiveRecord class might already be loaded. Worse, you you can’t depend on the ActiveRecord class being there because you’d like to run your domain test standalone without running Rails. You can still create your own dummy Trip class, but it requires a little bit of Ruby module munging, more on that in a second.

If you want to get fancy, you can use some form of dependency injection to make the relationship between TripPurchaseContext and Trip dynamic, and use any old dummy class you want. One warning – it’s common when using low-ceremony dependency injection to make the injected class a parameter of the constructor with a default, as in def initialize(user, trip_class = Trip). That’s fine, but it doesn’t completely solve our testing problem because the use of Trip in the parameter list needs to be resolved at load time, so the constant Trip still needs some value.

Or, you could bite the bullet and bring the Rails stack in to test because of the dependency. For the moment, I reject this out of hand.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, there are any number of increasingly insane inheritance or metaprogramming things on the table. Or under the table.

So, if we choose a more complicated test setup with multiple directories, we get an easy way to specify these dummy classes. If we want the easier single-directory test setup, then we need to do something fancier to make the dummy classes work for the fast tests but be ignored by the Rails-specific tests.

At this point, I’m hoping this makes sense. Okay, the problem is that we want a class to basically have selective visibility. Here’s the solution I’m trying – this is based on a gist that Corey Haines posted a while back. I think I’m filling in the gaps to make this a full solution.

For this to work, we take advantage of a quirk in they way Ruby looks up class and module names. Ruby class and module names are just like any other Ruby constant. When you refer to a constant that does not have any scope information, like, say, the class name Trip, Ruby first looks in the current module, but if the current module doesn’t contain the class, then Ruby looks in the global scope. (That’s why sometimes you see a constant prefixed with ::, as in ::Trip, the :: forces a global lookup first).

That’s perfect for us, as it allows us to put a Trip class in a module and have it shadow the ActiveRecord Trip class in the global scope. There’s one catch, though – the spec, the domain class, and the dummy object all have to be part of the same local module for them all to use the same dummy class.

After some trial and error (lots of error, actually), here’s a way that I found which works with both the fast tests and the naming conventions of Rails autoload. I’m not convinced this is the best way, so I’m open to suggestions.

So, after 2000 words of prologue, here is a way to make fast tests run in the same spec directory in the same spec run as your Rails tests.

Step 1: Place all your domain-specific logic classes in sub modules.

I have sub directories app/travel/presenters, and app/travel/roles and the like, where travel is the name of the Rails application. I’m not in love with the convention of putting all the domain specific directories at a separate level, but it’s what you need to do in Rails to allow autoloaded classes to be inside a module.

So, my PurchaseTripContext class, for example, lives at app/travel/contexts/purchase_trip_context.rb, and starts out:

module Contexts
  class PurchaseTripContext
    # stuff
  end
end

Step 2: Place your specs in the same module

The spec for this lives at spec/contexts/purchase_trip_context_spec.rb (yes, that’s an inconsistency in the directory structure between the spec and app directories.) The spec also goes inside the module:

module Contexts
  describe PurchaseTripContext do
    it "creates a purchase" do
      #stuff
    end
  end
end

Step 3: Dummy objects

The domain objects are in a module, the specs are in a module, now for the dummy classes. Basically, I just put something like this in my fast_spec_helper.rb file:

module Contexts
  class Trip < OpenStruct; end
  class User < OpenStruct; end
end

This solves the problem, for some definition of “solves” and “problem”. The fast tests see the dummy class, the Rails tests see the Rails class. The tests can be run all together or in any smaller combination. The cost is a little module overhead that’s only slightly off-putting in terms of finding classes. I’m willing to pay that for fast tests. One place this falls down, though, is if more than one of my sub-modules need dummy classes – each sub-module then needs its own set, which does get a little ugly. I suspect there’s a way to clean that up that I haven’t found yet.

In fact, I wonder if there’s a way to clean up the whole thing. I half expect to post this and have somebody smart come along and tell me I’m over complicating everything – wouldn’t be the first time.

Next up, I’ll talk a little bit about how some of the OO patterns for domain objects work, and how they interact with testing.

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One response to “Setting Up Fast No-Rails Tests

  1. Andy Waite (@andyw8) May 4, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Interesting post. Gary Bernhardt has been covering this topic in the Destroy All Software screencasts.

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