Faking at the Right Level

It’s common to use fakes (either mocks or stubs) to test specific layers of your code without incurring the complexity and expense of also exercising all of the upstream layers (e.g. testing your UI layer without having to test/touch your database layer).

Fakes generally occur naturally at system boundaries, which are obvious places to add decoupling, but I wanted to more generally talk about them. I see these general types:

  • Good In-Project Abstractions
  • Bad In-Project Abstractions
  • Reusing Cross-Project Abstractions

Good In-Project Abstractions

“Good” is obviously subjective, but to me the good, in-project abstractions are those that avoid I/O.

For example, if you’re writing an ApiClient that talks over HTTP, to me it makes sense to add an Http abstraction that ApiClient uses instead of directly calling a (typically complex, verbose) HTTP library implementation like commons-http (or, worse, actual wire calls).

Admittedly, this example is not even really in-project, because the HTTP wire/and commons-http libraries are external projects.

You might start out with something simple:

// interface you're exposing to clients
trait ApiClient {
  def getFoo(id: Int)
  def sendFoo(foo: Foo)

// your real implementation for clients
class ApiClientImpl(http: Http) extends ApiClient {
  override def getFoo(id: Int) = {
    // use http.get here

  override def sendFoo(foo: Foo) = {
    // use http.post here

// http abstraction for testing ApiClientImpl
trait Http {
  def get(path: String): String
  def post(path: String, body: String): Unit

// http implementation for real usage
class HttpImpl extends Http {
  override def get(path: String) = {
    // use commons-http

  override def post(path: String, body: String) = {
    // use commons-http

Note that this Http interface is purposefully extremely simple: you can have as small and clean of an API as your ApiClient needs, as then your ApiClient and it’s tests are really clean, and then only add more complexity to the Http interface as needed (e.g. methods, headers, return codes, etc.)

This approach is fairly standard, encapsulating your code from both dependencies and I/O. It simplifies your code, by providing the bulk of your codebase (which is ApiClientImpl in our example) with a simple/idealized HTTP API that then in just one class you adapt to a specific underlying concrete implementation.

Also, with the Http abstraction, now in your tests for ApiClientImpl, you can fake out the HTTP layer:

val stubHttp = new StubHttp()
stubHttp.when("GET /foo").thenRespond(
  "{ foo: { id: 1 } }")

val api = new ApiClientImpl(stubHttp)
// hits the in-memory stub
val foo = api.getFoo()
assertThat(foo.getId(), is(1));

api.sendFoo(new Foo(2));
  "POST /foo",
  "{ foo: { id: 2 } }")

Which is still pretty standard stuff.

I frequently start out with mocks, but eventually end up with stubs, as I think their state/abstraction scales better than pure mocks (see Why I Like Stubs for a longer tangent on that).

Bad In-Project Abstractions

Again, “bad” is subjective, but abstractions I typically think are overdone are when interfaces are used to draw arbitrary lines between components that merely call each other in memory.

The stereotypical example from mid-2000s Java projects are a HomeController calling a HomeService calling a HomeDAO which finally made database calls.

Okay, I get you want your HomeDAO to be an abstraction, so you can avoid I/O, but typically the HomeService was also an interface that had to be implemented and injected into the HomeController.

If we’re not drawing lines between systems (e.g. a vendor or a sister team) or lines in-front of I/O (expensive disk/wire calls), I really question whether the overhead of these abstractions are worth it.

From what I’ve seen, it can degenerate into testing that is solely behavior-based, e.g.:

def testHomeController() {
  // given the user calls /home
  val home = new HomeController(mockHomeService)
  // then we call the service

Have we really tested anything here? Does the user really care the whateverMethod was called?

No, they don’t.

For me, I prefer to have state-based assertions (this ties into my preference for stubs) that show the state of the world changed, which I believe are much more resilient to internal refactoring and less coupled to implementation details.

So, basically if we’re not using the HomeService interface/abstraction for testing (because the tests its allows are brittle and weak), then HomeService might still be a fine class to fine, but I would not have it be an abstraction, and instead I’d have it just be a concrete class that gets called as boring, old-school method calls from HomeController when we’re testing it.

Reusing Cross-Project Abstractions

So, those cases are within project; for cross-project abstractions, there can be some nuance.

Let’s pretend you shipped our ApiClient project example above, and I’m now consuming it in my AwesomeWebapp.

I now want to test my AwesomeWebapp, which uses your ApiClient, but I of course don’t want to make real HTTP calls.

I have three choices:

  1. Reuse your Http/StubHttp abstraction for my own tests
  2. Make my own in-project ApiClient abstraction (e.g. create a new, minimal interface)
  3. Use the ApiClient interface as is

For the 1st option, reusing an upstream project’s abstraction, I have done this before and it is generally a mistake. The reason is that your tests end up being both more verbose and coupled to the upstream (ApiClient) implementation details.

For example, my code might look like:

def testAwesomeWebapp() {
  // pull in StubHttp from the ApiClient project
  val stubHttp = new StubHttp()
  // use it to make a "real" ApiClientImpl
  val apiClient = new ApiClientImpl(stubHttp)
  // now make my webapp that I want to test
  val webapp = new AwesomeWebapp(apiClient)

  // now, i want to test a request happening

  // note here my assertion is coupled to the low-level
  // HTTP details of what ApiClientImpl did.
    "POST /foo",
    "{ foo: id: 2 } }")

So, I tested AwesomeWebapp not by observing state changes/method calls on its direct dependencies, but in the dependency of it’s dependency.

This may seem harmless at first, but it quickly becomes tedious making the AwesomeWebapp fake out such a low-level implementation detail like HTTP just to test it’s high level operation (finding Foos and sending them to the ApiClient).

For the second option, creating another abstraction solely for ApiClient, I generally find this is overkill.

Given this is “cross-project” abstractions, e.g. both of these projects exist in house, as long as we can keep ApiClient from making wire calls, I don’t think it’s worth the overhead of on our internal abstraction.

Instead, the 3rd option is generally best, assuming the ApiClient ships its own interface, and that is to mock/fake against that interface.

Update May 2018: Note that technically my micro-serving testing at-scale posts proposes doing exactly the opposite of this, and using ApiClientImpl with magical, org-wide Http stubs, but that is somewhat of a special case, e.g. more fake-integration style testing than unit tests.

Use Project-Specific Abstractions

Instead, as is perhaps obvious, it is a lot cleaner to test SyncService by faking out it’s dependencies directly, e.g.:

def testSyncService() {
  val mockClient = new MockClient()
  val sync = new SyncService(mockClient)



Where this becomes really helpful is when you stub at this project-specific level, as you can start applying state and dummy behavior to cut down on the mock tedious.

For example, a stub ApiClient might look like:

class StubApiClient extends ApiClient {
  private val instances = List[Foo]()

  override def getFoo(id: Int) = {
    instances.find(_.id == id).get

  override def sendFoo(foo: Foo) = {
    if (foo.getId == null) {
      sys.error("foo id is required")
    if (instances.find(_.id == id)) {
      sys.error("foo id already exists")
    instances += foo

With this dummy behavior, you can now put parts of SyncService under test that need to get/send Foos and have both the SyncService implementation and your test method get the behavior for free (no setting up mocks with when sendFoo for every little sendFoo call).

Reuse Stubs Across Projects

Once your ApiClient is used as a dependency by multiple downstream projects, it makes a lot of sense to reuse the StubApiClient for all the downstream project’s tests.

This is so helpful that I’ve begun packaging the StubApiClient directly in the same jar as the ApiClientImpl. Not because it’s used in production, but because any project that uses ApiClientImpl almost always uses the StubApiClient for its tests.

This allows any downstream project to get a fast, in-memory “smart” (e.g. can handle generic behavior like adding a Foo and then returning the same Foo later, without constantly respecifying the behavior in the tests) stub client almost (after you initially create it) for free to use in their tests.

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