Saturday 12 March 2016

Random Magic

Have you ever written a unit test with magic numbers in and felt bad? For example, given a C++ class that simulates stock prices, Simulation, you would expect a starting price of zero to stay at zero. Let’s write a test for this using Catch 

TEST_CASE("simulation starting at 0 remains at 0", "[Property]")
    const double start_price = 0.0;
    const double drift       = 0.3;//or whatever
    const double volatility  = 0.2;//or whatever
    const double dt          = 0.1;//or whatever
    const unsigned int seed  = 1;  //or whatever
    Simulation price(start_price, drift, volatility, dt, seed);
    REQUIRE(price.update() == 0.0);

Oh dear; magic numbers. That sinking feeling when you don’t know or care what values some variables take. The comments hint at the unhappiness. You could write a few more tests cases with other numbers, or use a parameterised approach. Trying every possible double or int would be extreme, and make the unit tests slow. Unit tests should be fast, so we’d best not. We could try some random variables instead of the magic numbers. This might lead to cases that sometimes fail, and unit tests should provide repeatable results, so we’d best not.

Oh dear. If only we had some random magic to help. We need something that allows us to test that properties hold for a variety of cases. We don’t want to hand roll lots of ad-hoc test cases ourselves. If we generate random test cases we need the results to be clearly reported so we know what went wrong if something fails. We need property-based testing. Good news! Haskell got there long before us. 

QuickCheck “is a tool for testing Haskell programs automatically. The programmer provides a specification of the program, in the form of properties which functions should satisfy, and QuickCheck then tests that the properties hold in a large number of randomly generated cases.” [See the manual] You define a property, such as reversing a reversed list gives the original list

prop_RevRev xs = reverse (reverse xs) == xs
          where types = xs::[Int]

Then quickly check it holds for some randomly generated examples.

        Main> quickCheck prop_RevRev
        OK, passed 100 tests.

If a property doesn’t hold, quickCheck reports the case or “counter-example” for which it does not hold. Instead of my initial “example-based” test I can now test my property holds generally. Since the cases are randomly generated rather than exhaustive I may still miss problems, but look how much shorter the code was.

Wait a moment! I was trying to test some C++ and got distracted by Haskell. The good news is ports of QuickCheck exist for various languages. For example, F# has FSCheck  Python has Hypothesis  and, C++ being C++, has various versions. I have tried Legiasoft’s QuickCheck and showed my initial attempts at the #ACCU2015 conference.

A recent blog from Spotify drew my attention to RapidCheck. This claims to integrate with Boost test and Google Test/Mock though I haven't tried it yet. I wonder if I can make it play nicely with Catch. I will report back. Another interesting feature it supports is stateful based testing, based on Erlang’s port of QuickCheck. Since this started with Haskell, many frameworks need *pure* functions. Once in a while, some of us are not quite as pure as we'd like, so I can imagine this being very useful.

I hope this has sparked some excitement about new ways of testing your code. Next time someone asks “Unit tests or integration tests?” say “Yes, and also property-based tests”.

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