Testing philosophy

Zulip’s automated tests are a huge part of what makes the project able to make progress. This page records some of the key principles behind how we have designed our automated test suites.

Effective testing allows us to move quickly

Zulip’s engineering strategy can be summarized as “move quickly without breaking things”. Despite reviewing many code submissions from new contributors without deep expertise in the code they are changing, Zulip’s maintainers spend most of the time they spend integrating changes on product decisions and code structure/readability questions, not on correctness, style, or lower-level issues.

This is possible because we have spent years systematically investing in testing, tooling, code structure, documentation, and development practices to help ensure that our contributors write code that needs relatively few changes before it can be merged. The testing element of this is to have reliable, extensive, easily extended test suites that cover most classes of bugs. Our testing systems have been designed to minimize the time spent manually testing or otherwise investigating whether changes are correct.

For example, our infrastructure for testing authentication allows using a mock LDAP database in both automated tests and the development environment, making it much easier now to refactor and improve this important part of the product than it was when you needed to set up an LDAP server and populate it with some test data in order to test LDAP authentication.

While not every part of Zulip has a great test suite, many components do, and for those components, the tests mean that new contributors can often make substantive changes and have them be more or less correct by the time they share the changes for code review. More importantly, it means that maintainers save most of the time that would otherwise be spent verifying that the changes are simply correct, and instead focus on making sure that the codebase remains readable, well-structured, and well-tested.

Test suite performance and reliability are critical

When automated test suites are slow or unreliable, developers will avoid running them, and furthermore, avoid working on improving them (both the system and individual tests). Because changes that make tests slow or unreliable are often unintentional side effects of other development, problems in this area tend to accumulate as a codebase grows. As a result, barring focused effort to prevent this outcome, any large software project will eventually have its test suite rot into one that is slow, unreliable, untrustworthy, and hated. We aim for Zulip to avoid that fate.

So we consider it essential to maintaining every automated test suite setup in a way where it is fast and reliable (tests pass both in CI and locally if there are no problems with the developer’s changes).

Concretely, our performance goals are for the full backend suite (test-backend) to complete in about a minute, and our full frontend suite (test-js-with-node) to run in under 10 seconds.

It’d be a long blog post to summarize everything we do to help achieve these goals, but a few techniques are worth highlighting:

  • Our test suites are designed to not access the Internet, since the Internet might be down or unreliable in the test environment. Where outgoing HTTP requests are required to test something, we mock the responses with libraries like responses.

  • We carefully avoid the potential for contamination of data inside services like PostgreSQL, Redis, and memcached from different tests.

    • Every test case prepends a unique random prefix to all keys it uses when accessing Redis and memcached.

    • Every test case runs inside a database transaction, which is aborted after the test completes. Each test process interacts only with a fresh copy of a special template database used for server tests that is destroyed after the process completes.

  • We rigorously investigate non-deterministically failing tests as though they were priority bugs in the product.

Integration testing or unit testing?

Developers frequently ask whether they should write “integration tests” or “unit tests”. Our view is that tests should be written against interfaces that you’re already counting on keeping stable, or already promising people you’ll keep stable. In other words, interfaces that you or other people are already counting on mostly not changing except in compatible ways.

So writing tests for the Zulip server against Zulip’s end-to-end API is a great example of that: the API is something that people have written lots of code against, which means all that code is counting on the API generally continuing to work for the ways they’re using it.

The same would be true even if the only users of the API were our own project’s clients like the mobile apps – because there are a bunch of already-installed copies of our mobile apps out there, and they’re counting on the API not suddenly changing incompatibly.

One big reason for this principle is that when you write tests against an interface, those tests become a cost you pay any time you change that interface – you have to go update a bunch of tests.

So in a big codebase if you have a lot of “unit tests” that are for tiny internal functions, then any time you refactor something and change the internal interfaces – even though you just made them up, and they’re completely internal to that codebase so there’s nothing that will break if you change them at will – you have to go deal with editing a bunch of tests to match the new interfaces. That’s especially a lot of work if you try to take the tests seriously, because you have to think through whether the tests breaking are telling you something you should actually listen to.

In some big codebases, this can lead to tests feeling a lot like busywork… and it’s because a lot of those tests really are busywork. And that leads to developers not being committed to maintaining and expanding the test suite in a thoughtful way.

But if your tests are written against an external API, and you make some refactoring change and a bunch of tests break… now that’s telling you something very real! You can always edit the tests… but the tests are stand-ins for real users and real code out there beyond your reach, which will break the same way.

So you can still make the change… but you have to deal with figuring out an appropriate migration or backwards-compatibility strategy for all those real users out there. Updating the tests is one of the easy parts. And those changes to the tests are a nice reminder to code reviewers that you’ve changed an interface, and the reviewer should think carefully about whether those interface changes will be a problem for any existing clients and whether they’re properly reflected in any documentation for that interface.

Some examples of this philosophy:

  • If you have a web service that’s mainly an API, you want to write your tests for that API.

  • If you have a CLI program, you want to write your tests against the CLI.

  • If you have a compiler, an interpreter, etc., you want essentially all your tests to be example programs, with a bit of metadata for things like “should give an error at this line” or “should build and run, and produce this output”.

In the Zulip context:

  • Zulip uses the same API for our web app as for our mobile clients and third-party API clients, and most of our server tests are written against the Zulip API.

  • The tests for Zulip’s incoming webhooks work by sending actual payloads captured from the real third-party service to the webhook endpoints, and verifies that the webhook produces the expected Zulip message as output, to test the actual interface.

So, to summarize our approach to integration vs. unit testing:

  • While we aim to achieve test coverage of every significant code path in the Zulip server, which is commonly associated with unit testing, most of our tests are integration tests in the sense of sending a complete HTTP API query to the Zulip server and checking that the HTTP response and the internal state of the server following the request are both correct.

  • Following the end-to-end principle in system design, where possible we write tests that execute a complete flow (e.g. registering a new Zulip account) rather than testing the implementations of individual functions.

  • We invest in the performance of Zulip in part to give users a great experience, but just as much to make our test suite fast enough that we can write our tests this way.

Avoid duplicating code with security impact

Developing secure software with few security bugs is extremely difficult. An important part of our strategy for avoiding security logic bugs is to design patterns for how all of our code that processes untrusted user input can be well tested without either writing (and reviewing!) endless tests or requiring every developer to be good at thinking about security corner cases.

Our strategy for this is to write a small number of carefully-designed functions like access_stream_by_id that we test carefully, and then use linting and other coding conventions to require that all access to data from code paths that might share that data with users be mediated through those functions. So rather than having each view function do it own security checks for whether the user can access a given channel, and needing to test each of those copies of the logic, we only need to do that work once for each major type of data structure and level of access.

These access_*_by_* functions are written in a special style, with each conditional on its own line (so our test coverage tooling helps verify that every case is tested), detailed comments, and carefully considered error-handling to avoid leaking information such as whether the channel ID requested exists or not.

We will typically also write tests for a given view verifying that it provides the appropriate errors when improper access is attempted, but these tests are defense in depth; the main way we prevent invalid access to channels is not offering developers a way to get a Stream object in server code except as mediated through these security check functions.

Share test setup code

It’s very common to need to write tests for permission checking or error handling code. When doing this, it’s best to share the test setup code between success and failure tests.

For example, when testing a function that returns a boolean (as opposed to an exception with a specific error messages), it’s often better to write a single test function, test_foo, that calls the function several times and verifies its output for each value of the test conditions.

The benefit of this strategy is that you guarantee that the test setup only differs as intended: Done well, it helps avoid the otherwise extremely common failure mode where a test_foo_failure test passes for the wrong reason. (E.g. the action fails not because of the permission check, but because a required HTTP parameter was only added to an adjacent test_foo_success).

What isn’t tested probably doesn’t work

Even the very best programmers make mistakes constantly. Further, it’s impossible to do large codebase refactors (which are important to having a readable, happy, correct codebase) if doing so has a high risk of creating subtle bugs.

As a result, it’s important to test every change. For business logic, the best option is usually a high-quality automated test, that is designed to be robust to future refactoring.

But for some things, like documentation and CSS, the only way to test is to view the element in a browser and try things that might not work. What to test will vary with what is likely to break. For example, after a significant change to Zulip’s Markdown documentation, if you haven’t verified every special bit of formatting visually and clicked every new link, there’s a good chance that you’ve introduced a bug.

Manual testing not only catches bugs, but it also helps developers learn more about the system and think about the existing semantics of a feature they’re working on.

When submitting a pull request that affects UI, it’s extremely helpful to show a screencast of your feature working, because that allows a reviewer to save time that would otherwise be spent manually testing your changes.