A Quickcheck in Time Saves Nine

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Today I am going to present some anecdotal evidence on the efficacy of property-based testing. The specific tool in this case is Quiviq’s Quickcheck, a property-based testing tool for Erlang. I am not going to spend much time discussing the particulars of property-based testing, but instead focus on a specific real-world instance where it saved me and my employer, Basho, time and money.

The Bare Essentials

Very briefly, here is enough about how property-based testing with Quickcheck works to whet your appetite. When doing property-based testing you specify a set of properties of the code you are testing, create a model, and then test if the model holds for all (or a large number) of permutations of those properties.

My coworker Rusty Klophaus published a very good 3-minute podcast on property-based testing here that you should listen to now if you have not already.

The full version of Quickcheck requires a license which I am fortunate enough to be able to use when testing code for Basho. Contact Quiviq for more information about that or they also have a free version called QuickCheck Mini with a reduced feature set. There are also some open source property testing tools for Erlang such as PropEr, but I do not have any first-hand experience using any of them.

Some Relevant Data

Here are a couple of tidbits that will help you follow the story if you are unfamiliar with how Riak works. * In Riak, the data that is stored is divided among a set of partitions. Understanding the specifics of a partition is not important here, just understand that a partition is a place where data is stored and that to generate a list of all the object keys for a bucket in Riak requires accessing a subset of these partitions. * The number of partitions is configurable.

Story Time

Last week I was working on some changes to how Riak manages key listing. I made the changes I thought were necessary to accomplish my task and did some preliminary manual testing. This involved inserting a set of objects into a bucket and then performing a key listing and verifying that results matched what I expected. This manual testing closely resembles the type of test cases I would likely create for this code using traditional unit tests. Pick a few different sizes of object sets and done. Most developers probably will not spend all day enumerating hundreds of test cases and the result is that the unit test suite only gives you assurance that your code works for a very small number of possible cases. So what about the rest of them? Well, let’s continue the story.

It turned out that there was some intermediate results buffering that I had not accounted for when I made my changes. Each partition would accumulate the object keys it had stored for a bucket, but once this buffer contained 100 keys it would send the keys back to the calling process, empty the buffer, and continue the accumulation. The default number of partitions in Riak is 64. The size of the set of partitions required to list all of the keys from a bucket when there are 64 partitions is 22 (just take my word for it). Assuming a uniform distribution of keys among the partitions, there would need to be at least 2179 objects in a bucket to trigger the intermediate buffering. The largest set of objects I tried in my manual testing was 2000, but fortunately the object set size is one of the inputs that the Quickcheck test for this code generates for me and when I ran the test it quickly found a case where the expected set of object keys did not match the actual set of keys returned.

Now chances are good that a suite of traditional unit tests would have tested an object set greater than 2000, but what if the buffer size that triggered the intermediate buffering was 1000 or 10000. Or what if the number of partitions was set to 128 or 256 instead of 64. The point is that as the number of variables that affect the code under test increases, the number of test case permutations quickly becomes difficult to manage with traditional unit test suites and relies on the developer not to overlook any important cases.

Instead with Quickcheck the developer describes the characteristics of the variables that affect the code and Quickcheck explores the permutations by generating values for the variables and searching for failing cases.

In Summary

Catching and fixing bugs in development saves time and money. Quickcheck helped me find and eliminate this bug early and I have a higher level of confidence that my changes are correct. The case I described here was rather trivial, but it is illustrative of the power and usefulness of property-based testing. Creating Quickcheck tests may take more time than churning out a few unit test cases (especially as you ascend the learning curve), but this is time well spent and the investment will pay dividends.

If you would like to have a look at the Quickcheck test I discussed in this post, you can find it here. Happy testing!