Everybody knows what unit testing is.
Well, maybe not. Actually, in most environments, unit tests are a kind of empty “enterprise” word.
Unit test, in their “purest” idea, should test small unit of code (a function, an object, a file, a package) in perfect isolation; usually, this requires the use of stubs or other kind of fake objects.
Of course, we have to be pragmatic; sometimes, a unit is somewhat bigger than it should, and often it unit will embed a complex system, like a database.
In any case, the main advantage of a unit test is that it exactly pinpoints the source of the error, without the need of complex analysis or debugging sessions. This advantage obviously decreases with the complexity of the system.
That said, unit testing is only one of the possible test practices. With some simplification, we may classify them in the following way:
- Unit tests
Focus is on a development unit and its interface.
- Integration tests
Focus is on integration between components (like a class and a database) and their integration.
- Functional tests
Focus is on complete functionalities of the program, from a user-perspective.
All of these tests have one trait in common: they are developer tests, or tests written by software developers.
We need functional tests, in order to check a feature in its “real” environment.
We need integration tests, in order to work out all possible issues deriving from integrations.
We need unit tests, because they are able to pinpoint exactly an error in a very small unit of code.
All those tests help in raising software quality, and for this reason we should go for all of them, whenever possible.
Of course, this approach may be quite expensive; therefore, we should always have a clear idea of testing scope, in particular what we should test, and when we should run a test.
JUnit website makes it quite clear: we should test what could reasonably break, and we should run tests every time code is changed.
How this translates into actual projects, depend on several factors; my own suggestions is to take it as literal as possible, because it will greatly enhance the developer confidence in the final code, and finally lower the total effort for software development and maintenance.
Some further reading:
- Unit test definition on C&C wiki
- Michael Feathers on unit test execution speed
- List of anti-patterns for tests and test suites
- GeoSoft.no unit testing guidelines
- Google testing blog