Unit, Regression and System Testing

Monday, February 20th, 2012 by Mark Pitchford

While unit testing at the time of development is a sound principle to follow, all too often ongoing development compromises the functionality of the software that is already considered complete. Such problems are particularly prevalent when adding functionality to code originally written with no forethought for later enhancements.

Regression testing is what’s needed here. By using a test case file to store a sequence of tests created for the original SOUP (Software of Unproven Pedigree), it is possible to recall and reapply it to the revised code to prove that none of the original functionality has been compromised.

Once configured, this regression testing can be initiated as a background task and run perhaps every evening. Reports highlight any changes to the output generated by earlier test runs. In this way, any code modifications leading to unintentional changes in application behavior can be identified and rectified immediately.

Modern unit test tools come equipped with user-friendly, point-and-click graphical user interfaces. However, when faced with thousands of test cases, a GUI interface is not always the most efficient way to handle the development of test cases. In recognition of this, test tools are designed to allow these test case files to be directly developed from applications such as Microsoft Excel. As before, the “regression test” mechanism can then be used to run the test cases held in these files.

Unit and system test in tandem

Traditionally, many applications have been tested by functional means only. The source code is written in accordance with the specification, and then tested to see if it all works. The problem with this approach is that no matter how carefully the test data is chosen, the percentage of code actually exercised can be very limited.

That issue is compounded by the fact that the procedures tested in this way are only likely to handle data within the range of the current application and test environment. If anything changes a little – perhaps in the way the application is used or perhaps as a result of slight modifications to the code – the application could be running entirely untested execution paths in the field.

Of course, if all parts of the system are unit tested and collated on a piecemeal basis through integration testing, then this will not happen. But what if timescales and resources do not permit such an exercise? Unit test tools often provide the facility to instrument code. This instrumented code is equipped to “track” execution paths, providing evidence of the parts of the application which have been exercised during execution. Such an approach provides the information to produce data such as that depicted in Figure 1.

Color-coded dynamic flow graphs and call graphs illustrate the parts of the application which have been exercised. In this example, note that the red coloring highlights exercised code.

Code coverage is an important part of the testing process in that it shows the percentage of the code that has been exercised and proven during test. Proof that all of the code has been exercised correctly need not be based on unit tests alone. To that end, some unit tests can be used in combination with system test to provide a required level of execution coverage for a system as a whole.

This means that the system testing of an application can be complemented by unit tests that execute code which would not normally be exercised in the running of the application. Examples include defensive code (e.g., to prevent crashes due to inadvertent division by zero), exception handlers, and interrupt handlers.

Unit test is just one weapon in the developer’s armory. By automatic use of unit test both in isolation and in tandem with other techniques, the development of robust and reliable software doesn’t need to carry the heavy development overhead it once did.

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