Slow Tests Are the Symptom, Not the Cause

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Slow Tests are the Symptom, Not the Cause

This is a republished guest blog post. The original article is written by Oren Dobzinski. You can find it on his Re-factor blog.


If you have a slow test suite and you are asking yourself “how can I make my tests faster?” then you are asking the wrong question. Most chances are that you have bigger problems than just slow tests. The test slowness is merely the symptom; what you should really address is the cause. Once the real cause is addressed you will find that it’s easy to write new fast tests and straightforward to refactor existing tests.

It’s surprising how quickly a rails app’s test suite can become slow. It’s important to understand the reason for this slowness early on and address the real cause behind it. In most cases the reason is excessive coupling between the domain objects themselves and coupling between these objects and the framework.

In this refactoring walk-through we will see how small, incremental improvements to the design of a rails app, and specifically, decoupling, naturally lead to faster tests. We will extract service objects, completely remove all rails dependencies in test time and otherwise reduce the amount of coupling in the app.

Our goal is to have a simple, flexible and easy to maintain system in which objects can be replaced with other objects with minimal code changes. We will strive to achieve this goal and observe the effect of it on our tests speed.

Starting With A Fat Controller

Suppose we have a controller that’s responsible for handling users signing up for a mailing list:

class MailingListsController < ApplicationController
  respond_to :json
  def add_user
    user = User.find_by!(username: params[:username])
    NotifiesUser.run(user, 'blog_list')
    user.update_attributes(mailing_list_name: 'blog_list')
    respond_with user
  end
end

We first find the user (an exception is raised if the user is not found). Then we notify the user she was added to the mailing list via NotifiesUser (probably asking her to confirm). We update the user record with the name of the mailing list and then hand the user object to respond_with, which will render the json representation of the user or the proper error response in case saving of the object failed.

The logic here is pretty straight-forward, but it’s still too complicated for a controller and should be extracted out. But where to? The word user in every line in this method suggests that we should push it into the User model (that’s called Feature Envy). Let’s try this:

Extracting Logic to a Fat Model

class MailingListsController < ApplicationController
  respond_to :json
  def add_user
    user = User.add_to_mailing_list(params[:username], 'blog_list')
    respond_with user
  end
end
class User < ActiveRecord::Base
  validates_uniqueness_of :username

  def self.add_to_mailing_list(username, mailing_list_name)
    user = User.find_by!(username: username)
    NotifiesUser.run(user, 'blog_list')
    user.update_attributes(mailing_list_name: 'blog_list')
    user
  end
end

This is better: the User class is now responsible for creating and updating users. But there is a problem: now User is handling mailing list additions, as well as user notifications. These are too many responsibilities for one class. Having an active record object handle anything more than CRUD, associations and validations is a (further) violation of the Single Responsibility Principle.

The result is that business logic in active record classes is a pain to unit test. You often need to use factories or to heavily stub out methods of the object under test (don’t do that), stub all instances of the class under test (don’t do that either) or hit the database in your unit tests (please don’t). As a result, testing active record objects can be very slow, sometimes orders of magnitude slower than testing plain ruby objects.

Now, if the code above was the entire User class and my application was small and simple I might have been happy with leaving User#add_to_mailing_list as is. But in a bit bigger rails apps that are not groomed often enough, models, controllers and domain logic tend to get tangled (coupled) together and needlessly complicate things (Rich Hickey, the inventor of clojure, calls it incidental complexity). This is when introducing a service object is helpful:

Extracting a Service Object

class MailingListsController < ApplicationController
  respond_to :json
  def add_user
    user = AddsUserToList.run(params[:username], 'blog_list')
    respond_with user
  end
end
class AddsUserToList
  def self.run(username, mailing_list_name)
    user = User.find_by!(username: username)
    NotifiesUser.run(user, 'blog_list')
    user.update_attributes(mailing_list_name: 'blog_list')
    user
  end
end

We created a plain ruby object, AddsUserToList, which contains the business logic from before. In the controller we call this object and not User directly. This is an improvement, but hard-coding the name of the class of your collaborator is a bad idea since it couples the two together and makes it impossible to replace the class with a different implementation. Not surprisingly, the result of this coupling is that testing becomes harder and tests slower. Testing this service object would require us to somehow stub User#find_by! to avoid hitting the database, and probably also stub out NotifiesUser#run in order to avoid sending a real notification out.

Also, referencing the class User directly means that our unit tests will have to load active record and the entire rails stack, but even worse – the entire app and its dependencies. This load time can be a few seconds for trivial rails apps, but can sometimes be 30 seconds for bigger apps. Unit tests should be fast to run as part of your test suite but also fast to run individually, which means they should not load the rails stack or your application (also see Corey Haines’s talk on the subject).

The most straight forward way to decouple the object from its collaborators is to inject the dependencies of AddsUserToList:

Injecting Dependencies

class AddsUserToList
  def self.run(username, mailing_list_name, finds_user = User, notifies_user = NotifiesUser)
    finds_user.find_by!(username: username)
    notifies_user.(user, mailing_list_name)
    user.update_attributes(mailing_list_name: mailing_list_name)
    user
  end
end

We can now pass as an argument any class that finds a user and any class that notifies a user, which means that passing different implementations will be easy. It also means that testing will be easier. Since we supplied reasonable defaults we don’t need to be explicit about these dependencies if we don’t change them, and our controller can stay unchanged.

The fact that we are specifying User as the default value of finds_user in the parameter list does not mean that this class and all its dependents (ActiveRecord, our app and other gems) will get loaded. Ruby’s Deferred Evaluation of the default values means that if these default values are not needed they will not get loaded, so we can run this unit test without loading rails.

Simplifying the Interface

The method AddsUserToList#run receives 4 arguments. Users of this method need to know the order of the list. Also, it is likely that over time you’d discover you need to add more arguments. When this happens you will need to update all users of the method. A more flexible solution is to use a hash of arguments. This will make the interface more stable and ensure the number of arguments does not grow when we find that we need to add more arguments. It will also make refactoring a little easier, which is important. I often find that for many classes I end up changing from an argument list to a hash of arguments at some point, so why not use it in the first place? But does it mean that we need to give up the advantages of deferred evaluation of the default values? Not at all.

We will use Hash#fetch, passing a block to it, which will not get evaluated unless the queried key is absent. In our tests, the code in the block to fetch will never get evaluated, and User won’t get loaded. Also, when specifying the defaults in the argument list it is not possible to evaluate more than one statement, but we can do it using Hash#fetch.

One more thing: when my classes contain only one public method I don’t like calling it run, do or perform since these names don’t convey a lot of information. In this case I’d rather call it call and use ruby’s shorthand notation for invoking this method. This also enables me to pass in a proc instead of the class itself if I need it.

class AddsUserToList
  def self.run(args)
    finds_user = args.fetch(:finds_user) { User }
    notifies_user = args.fetch(:notifies_user) { NotifiesUser }

    finds_user.find_by!(username: args.fetch(:username))
    notifies_user.(user, args.fetch(:mailing_list_name))
    user.update_attributes(mailing_list_name: args.fetch(:mailing_list_name))
    user
  end
end

Using Ruby 2.1’s Keyword Arguments Syntax

We can get the same exact functionality by using ruby’s 2.1’s keyword argument syntax. See how much less verbose this version is:

class AddsUserToList
  def self.call(username:, mailing_list_name:, finds_user: User,
                notifies_user: NotifiesUser)
    user = finds_user.find_by_username!(username)
    notifies_user.(user, mailing_list_name)
    user.add_to_mailing_list(mailing_list_name)
    user
  end
end

Note that username and mailing_list_name are required named arguments, and will raise an ArgumentError if not passed in (this is not available even in ruby version 2.0), whereas the other arguments will get the specified default value (evaluated and) assigned to them if not passed in.

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Using One Level of Abstraction Per Method

There is still something that doesn’t feel quite right. Consider Kent Beck’s advice:


Divide your program into methods that perform one identifiable task. Keep all of the operations in a method at the same level of abstraction.


The call method invokes a few other methods, but these methods operate on different levels of abstractions: notifying a user is a domain-level concept, whereas updating a user’s attributes is a lower-level, persistence related concept. Another way to put it: while the details of how exactly the user is going to be notified are hidden, the details of updating the attributes are exposed. The fact that active record gives us multiple ways of updating attributes makes this problem even clearer: what if we wanted to update attributes using accessors and save using active record’s save? These details are irrelevant at the abstraction level of the method we’re in and the method should not change if they do. notifies_user is treated as a role, while user is wrongly treated as the active record’s implementation of a user role.

The call to find_by! also operates on a lower level than notifies_user’s, similarly to the case of update_attributes. In order to fix these problems we create an instance method and a class method in User:

class User < ActiveRecord::Base
  validates_uniqueness_of :username

  def add_to_mailing_list(list_name)
    update_attributes(mailing_list_name: list_name)
  end

  def self.find_by_username!(username)
    find_by!(username: username)
  end
end

The specific query to find the user or the specific active record used are now User’s business. We achieved further decoupling from active record and made sure the abstraction level is right. If we keep using our own methods instead of active record’s we’ve effectively made persistence and object lookup an implementation detail that’s the concern of the model only.

The end result looks like this:

The Complete Refactoring

Before:

class MailingListsController < ApplicationController
  respond_to :json
  def add_user
    user = User.find_by!(username: params[:username])
    NotifiesUser.run(user, 'blog_list')
    user.update_attributes(mailing_list_name: 'blog_list')
    respond_with user
  end
end

After:

class MailingListsController < ApplicationController
  respond_to :json
  def add_user
    user = AddsUserToList.(username: params[:username], mailing_list_name: 'blog_list')
    respond_with user
  end
end
class AddsUserToList
  def self.call(username:, mailing_list_name:, finds_user: User,
                notifies_user: NotifiesUser)
    user = finds_user.find_by_username!(username)
    notifies_user.(user, mailing_list_name)
    user.add_to_mailing_list(mailing_list_name)
    user
  end
end

The Tests

The class AddsUserToList can be tested using true, isolated unit tests: we can easily isolate the class under test and make sure it properly communicates with its collaborators. There is no database access, no heavy handed request stubbing and if we want to – no loading of the rails stack. In fact, I’d argue that any test that requires any of the above is not a unit test, but rather an integration test (see entire repo here).

describe AddsUserToList do
  let(:finds_user) { double('finds_user') }
  let(:notifies_user) { double('notifies_user') }
  let(:user) { double('user') }
  subject(:adds_user_to_list) { AddsUserToList }

  it 'registers a new user' do
    expect(finds_user).to receive(:find_by_username!).with('username').and_return(user)
    expect(notifies_user).to receive(:call).with(user, 'list_name')
    expect(user).to receive(:add_to_mailing_list).with('list_name')

    adds_user_to_list.(username: 'username', mailing_list_name: 'list_name', finds_user: finds_user, notifies_user: notifies_user)
  end
end

Here we pass in mocks (initialized with #double) for each collaborator and expect them to receive the correct messages. We do not assert any values – specifically not the value of user.mailing_list_name. Instead we require that user receives the add_to_mailing_list message. We need to trust user to update the attributes. After all, that’s a unit test for AddsUserToList, not for user.

Note that the fact that we pushed update_attributes to User helps us avoid a mocking pitfall: you need to only mock types you own. Technically we do own User, but most of its interface is coming down the inheritance tree from ActiveRecord::Base, which we don’t own. There is no design feedback when you mock parts of the interface you don’t own. Or rather – you do get feedback but you can’t act on it.

As you can see there is a close resemblance between the test code and the code it is testing. I don’t see it as a problem. A unit test should verify that the object under test sends the correct messages to its collaborators, and in the case of AddsUserToList we have a controller-like object, and a controller’s job is to… coordinate sending messages between collaborators. Sandi Metz talks about what you should and what you should not test here. To use her vocabulary, all we are testing here are outgoing command messages since these are the only messages this object sends. For that reason I think the resemblance is acceptable.

I should mention that TDD classicists have long criticized TDD mockists (as myself) for writing tests that are too coupled to the implementation. You can read more about it in Martin Fowler’s Mocks Aren’t Stubs.

I omit the controller and integration tests here, but please don’t forget them in your code. They will be much simpler and there will be fewer of them if you extract service objects.

Some Numbers

How much faster is this test from a unit test that touches the database and loads rails and the application? Here are the results:

Single Test Runtime Total Suite Runtime
‘false’ unit test 0.0530s 2.5s
true unit test 0.0005s 0.4s

A single test run is roughly a hundred times faster. The absolute times are rather small but the difference will be very noticeable when you have hundreds of unit tests or more. The total runtime in the “false” version takes roughly two seconds longer. This is the time it takes to load a trivial rails app on my machine. This will be significantly higher when the app grows in size and adds more gems.

Conclusion

The ‘before’ version’s tests are harder to write and are significantly slower since we bundle many responsibilities into a single class, the controller class. The ‘After’ version is easier to test (we pass mocks to override the default classes). This means that in our code in AddsUserToList we can easily replace the collaborators with other implementations in case the requirements change and require no or little code change. The controller has been reduced to performing the most basic task of coordination between a few objects.

Is the ‘After’ version better? I think it is. It’s easier and faster to test, but more importantly the collaborators are clearly defined and are treated as roles, not as specific implementations. As such, they can always be replaced by different implementations of the role they play. We now can concentrate on the messages passing between the different roles in our system.

When you practice TDD with mock objects you will almost be forced to inject your dependencies in order to mock collaborators. Extracting your business logic into service objects makes all this much easier, and further decoupling from active record makes the tests true unit tests that are also blazing fast.

This brings us closer to a lofty design goal stated by Kent Beck:


When you can extend a system solely by adding new objects without modifying any existing objects, then you have a system that is flexible and cheap to maintain.


Using mocks and dependency injection with TDD makes sure your system is designed for this form of modularity from the get go. You know you can replace your objects with a different implementation because this is exactly what you did in your tests when you passed in mocks. Such design guarantees that you can write true, isolated and thus fast, tests.


We want to thank Oren for making his original article available to the Codeship Blog. It is a pleasure republishing blog posts of such great quality. Let us know what you think about Oren’s article in the comments!

If you liked Oren’s post be sure to sign up for his newsletter to get tips about how to improve your code.


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Author: Manuel Weiss

Hey! I'm Manuel. I'm creating the design and doing the marketing for the Codeship. I am also responsible for the product culture and tonality. My ambition is to make the ship a place you enjoy coming to. If you want to talk to me just follow me @manualwise

Posted by: Manuel Weiss | Conversation: 6 comments | Category: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , ,

  • http://abangratz.github.io/ Anton Bangratz

    Mislead by the slightly provocative teaser, I was ready to postulate that it’s probably poor design – and thus poor test design (follow pointers to mocking, SOLID, yadda, yadda …).

    But all I can see is that everything important is included and that I wholeheartedly agree with the solution. The teaser is suggesting otherwise, though. Assumption has gotten the better. Congratulations on this article, both to the author and codeship! :-D

    t.

    • https://www.codeship.io/ Manuel Weiss

      Thank you Anton. We also wholeheartedly agree with Oren. Do you have any additional suggestions how to optimize even more?

      • http://abangratz.github.io/ Anton Bangratz

        The only small thing that comes to my mind immediately is a bit of emphasis that you shouldn’t use the database for unit testing. Making your models do the right thing (e.g. having the correct columns and relations) should only be tested either from the DB side directly (if using ActiveRecord or Sequel (and/or with the provided test methods (e.g. checking for has_many, belongs_to) that do not query the database, but just check the configuration/DSL.

        As it is presented now, this is totally fine and working, but I would leaving testing model and ORM concepts to the ORM test suite. If the ORM doesn’t have a test suite that covers virtually everything, I wouldn’t use it…

        I am also planning to write an article about Fixtures and Unit Tests to address this angle, too. I just have to find the time to do it soon :)

        • https://www.codeship.io/ Manuel Weiss

          Please let us know when the article is online! Would love to read it!

  • Phil Thompson

    Sandi Metz also suggests that no method should have more than three or four parameters and that using hashes is cheating! See her ‘Rules’ presentation on YouTube – very good. Otherwise, an excellent article. This is a style I’m trying to push at my current gig.

  • Phil Thompson

    Also, how would you test User#add_to_mailing_list? Would you stub update_attributes or actually create a user?