A small test saves the day

Just recently, I had to write a connection between an existing application and a new hardware unit. This is a fairly common job for our company, even considering the circumstances that I’d never even seen the hardware, let alone being able to connect to it. The hardware unit itself was rather big and it was installed in a security sensitive area with restricted access. So, I only got a specification of the protocol to use and a description of the hardware’s features.

Our common procedure to include hardware dependent modules into an application is to write two implementations of the module: One implementation is the real deal and interacts with the hardware over ethernet, USB, serial port or whatever proprietary communication device is used. This version of the module can only work as intended if the hardware is present. The other implementation acts as an emulation of the hardware, without any dependencies. If you are familiar with unit tests, think of a big test mock. The emulation version is used during development to test and run the application without requirements about the hardware. There are a lot of subtle pitfalls to consider and avoid, but on a bird-view level of abstraction, these interchangeable implementations of a module enable us to develop software with hardware dependencies without need for the actual hardware.

The first piece of code that’s used of a module is a factory/builder class that chooses between the available implementations, based on some configuration entry (or hardware availability, etc.). A typical implementation of the responsible method might look like this:


public HardwareModule createFor(ModuleConfiguration configuration) {
  if (configuration.isHardwarePresent()) {
    new RealHardwareModule();
  }
  return new EmulatedHardwareModule();
}

If the configuration object says that the hardware is present, the real implementation is used, subsequentially opening a connection to the hardware and talking the client side of the given protocol. Otherwise, the emulation is created and returned, maybe opening a debug GUI window to display certain internal states and values and providing controls to mess with the application during development.

The method itself looks very innocent and meager. There is not much going on, so what could possibly go wrong?

I’m not the most eager test-driven developer in the world, I have to admit. But I see the value of tests (and unit tests in particular) and adhere to the A-TRIP rules defined by Andy Hunt and (pragmatic) Dave Thomas:

  • Automatic
  • Thorough
  • Repeatable
  • Independent
  • Professional

For a complete definition of the rules, read the linked blog entry or, even better, buy the book. It’s small and cheap, but contains a lot of profound basic knowledge about unit testing.

The “Thorough” rule is more of a rule of thumb than a hard scientific formula for good unit tests: Always write a test if you’ve found a bug or if the code you’re writing is mission-critical. This was when my gut feeling told me that while the method above might seem trivial, it is definitely essential for the hardware module. So I wrote a test:

  @Test
  public void providesEmulationIfUnspecified() {
    HardwareModuleFactory factory = new HardwareModuleFactory();
    HardwareModule hardware = factory.createFor(configuration(""));
    assertEquals("not the hardware emulation", EmulatedHardwareModule.class, hardware.getClass());
  }

  @Test
  public void providesEmulationIfHardwareAbsent() {
    HardwareModuleFactory factory = new HardwareModuleFactory();
    HardwareModule hardware = factory.createFor(configuration("hardware.present=false"));
    assertEquals("not the hardware emulation", EmulatedHardwareModule.class, hardware.getClass());
  }

  @Test
  public void providesRealImplementationIfHardwarePresent() {
    HardwareModuleFactory factory = new HardwareModuleFactory();
    HardwareModule hardware = factory.createFor(configuration("hardware.present=true"));
    assertEquals("not the real hardware implementation", RealHardwareModule.class, hardware.getClass());
  }

To my surprise, the test immediately went red for the third test method. After double-checking the test code, I was certain that the test was correct. The test discovered a bug in the production code. And being a mostly independent unit test, it pointed to the problematic lines right away: the method implementation above. The helper method named configuration() spared in the code sample was very unlikely to contain a bug.

After a short moment of reading the code again, I corrected it (note the added return statement in line 3):


public HardwareModule createFor(ModuleConfiguration configuration) {
  if (configuration.isHardwarePresent()) {
    return new RealHardwareModule();
  }
  return new EmulatedHardwareModule();
}

This might not seem like the most disastrous bug ever, but it would have made for a nasty start when I finally would have tried the application with the real hardware. There is nothing more valueable than to be able to keep your cool “in the wild” and work on the real problems like faulty protocol specifications or unexpected/undocumented hardware behaviour. So, my gut feeling (and the Thorough rule) were right and my brain, telling me “skip this petty test” longer than I like to admit, was wrong. A small test for a small method paid off immediately and saved the day, at least for me.

3 thoughts on “A small test saves the day

    • Good question. As the code lies within the “testable” region of the code, a rigorous test first approach would have revealed the bug a few minutes earlier and with more certainty. There would have been no need to rely on gut feeling to write a test.

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