May 09 2013

Test data – part 1

Category: Uncategorized @ 12:00

When you run an integration or system test, i.e. a test that spans one or more logical or physical boundaries in the system, you normally need some test data, as most nonĀ­trivial operations depends on some persistent state in the system. Even if the test tries to follow the advice of favoring to verify behavior over state, you may still need specific input to even achieve a certain behavior. For example, if you want to test an order flow for a specific type of product, you must know how to add a product of that type to the basket, e.g. knowing a product name.

But, and here is the problem, if you don’t have strict control of that data it may change over time, so suddenly your test will fail.

When unit testing, you’ll want to use mocks or fakes for dependencies (and have well factored code that lets you easily do that), but here I’m talking about tests where you specifically want to use the real dependency.

Basically, there are only two robust ways to manage test data:

  1. Each tests creates the data it needs.
  2. Create a managed set of data that covers all of your test needs.

You can also use a combination of the two.

For the first strategy, either you have an idempotent approach so that you just ensure a certain state, or, you create and delete the data for each run. In some cases you can use transactions to be able to safely parallelize your tests and not modify persistent state. Just open one at the start of the test and then abort it instead of committing at the end. Obviously you cannot test functionality that depends on transactions this way.

The second strategy is a lot easier if you already have a clear separation between reference data, application data and transactional data.

By reference data I mean data that change with very low frequency and that often is of limited size and has a list or key/value structure. Examples could be a list of supported languages or zip code to address lookup. This should be fairly easy to keep in one authoritative, version controlled location, either in bulk or as deltas.

The term application data is not as established as reference data. It is data that affects the behavior of the application. It is not modified by normal end user actions, but is continuously modified by developers or administrators. Examples could be articles in a CMS or sellable products in an eCommerce website. This data is crucial for tests. It’s typically the data that tests use as input or for assertions.

The challenge here is to keep the production data and the test data set in synch. Ideally there should be a process that makes it impossible (or at least hard) to update the former without updating the second. However, there are often many complicating factors: the data can be in another system owned by another team and without a good test double, the data can be large, or it can have complex relationships or dependencies that sometimes very few fully grasp. Often it is managed by nonĀ­technical people so their tool set, knowledge and skills are different.

Unit or component tests can often overcome these challenges by using a strategy to mock systems or create arbitrary test data and verify behavior and not exact state, but acceptance tests cannot do that. We sometimes need to verify that a specific product can be ordered, not a fictional one created by the test.

Finally, transactional data is data continuously created by the application. It is typical large, fast growing and of medium complexity. Example could be orders, article comments and logs.

One challenge here is how to handle old, ‘obsolete’ data. You may have data stored that is impossible to generate in the current application because the business rules (and the corresponding implementation) have changed. For the test data it means you cannot use the application to create the test data if that was you strategy. Obviously, this can make the application code more complicated, and for the test code, hopefully you have it organized so it’s easy to correlate the acceptance test to the changed business rule and easy to change them accordingly. The tests may get more complicated because there can now e.g. be different behavior for customers with an ‘old’ contract. This may be hard for new developers in the team that only know of the current behavior of the app. You may even have seemingly contradicting assertions.

Another problem can be the sheer size. This can be remediated by having a strategy for aggregating, compacting and/or extracting data. This is normally easy if you plan for it up front, but can be hard when your database is 100 TB. I know that hardware is cheap, but having a 100 TB DB is inconvenient.

The line between application data and transactional data is not always clear cut. For example when an end user performs an action, such as a purchase, he may become eligible for certain functionality or products, thus having altered the behavior of the application. It’s still a good approach though to keep the order rows and the customer status separated.

I hope to soon write more on the tougher problems in automated testing and of managing test data specifically.

Marcus Philip
@marcus_phi

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One Response to “Test data – part 1”

  1. Andreas Rehn says:

    Great summary of the different type of test data and their specific challenges. It is clear that the strategy for handling these types of test data becomes very important to think of even when designing the system, e.g. providing api:s / utilities to setup and tear-down test data should be a natural part of the application, “build quality in”. Even in a green-field project this is a challenge to get right and working with legacy is almost always a lot more difficult in terms of testing and test data. However, just doing the categorization you have outlined here will be very helpful, only then can you start finding ways of managing the data.