Random data in Unit Tests

mockingtddunit testing

I have a coworker who writes unit tests for objects which fill their fields with random data. His reason is that it gives a wider range of testing, since it will test a lot of different values, whereas a normal test only uses a single static value.

I've given him a number of different reasons against this, the main ones being:

  • random values means the test isn't truly repeatable (which also means that if the test can randomly fail, it can do so on the build server and break the build)
  • if it's a random value and the test fails, we need to a) fix the object and b) force ourselves to test for that value every time, so we know it works, but since it's random we don't know what the value was

Another coworker added:

  • If I am testing an exception, random values will not ensure that the test ends up in the expected state
  • random data is used for flushing out a system and load testing, not for unit tests

Can anyone else add additional reasons I can give him to get him to stop doing this?

(Or alternately, is this an acceptable method of writing unit tests, and I and my other coworker are wrong?)

Best Answer

There's a compromise. Your coworker is actually onto something, but I think he's doing it wrong. I'm not sure that totally random testing is very useful, but it's certainly not invalid.

A program (or unit) specification is a hypothesis that there exists some program that meets it. The program itself is then evidence of that hypothesis. What unit testing ought to be is an attempt to provide counter-evidence to refute that the program works according to the spec.

Now, you can write the unit tests by hand, but it really is a mechanical task. It can be automated. All you have to do is write the spec, and a machine can generate lots and lots of unit tests that try to break your code.

I don't know what language you're using, but see here:

Java http://functionaljava.org/

Scala (or Java) http://github.com/rickynils/scalacheck

Haskell http://www.cs.chalmers.se/~rjmh/QuickCheck/

.NET: http://blogs.msdn.com/dsyme/archive/2008/08/09/fscheck-0-2.aspx

These tools will take your well-formed spec as input and automatically generate as many unit tests as you want, with automatically generated data. They use "shrinking" strategies (which you can tweak) to find the simplest possible test case to break your code and to make sure it covers the edge cases well.

Happy testing!