Mock Free Example, part 2: Simulators

One of the common uses for mocks is to replace expensive or stateful components, such as file systems, networks, GUIs, and databases.

However, I also see a cluster of other problems that arise at interfaces with these types of components, especially when they are system-level services:

  • Primitive obsession. Rarely are these APIs written as methods on an abstract object that return other abstractions. Instead, people pass around a lot of strings & things, which become arguments for static methods.
  • State. Partly because there isn’t a place to put it, state tracking becomes a mess. For example, you want to ask a web service for something. Are you logged in? Do you have to do something if you aren’t?
  • Lack of encapsulation. Those static methods end up everywhere. And often they end up with duplicate patterns everywhere (e.g., check for login before each call).
  • The API does not feel natural to the application. It doesn’t follow the project’s idioms, and doesn’t just flow into place.

For this reason, I use an entirely different sort of test double: a system simulator. And often these simulators stop being test doubles as the project proceeds.

In the sample project that I’m using for this series, there’s one simulator. It wraps the entire WotcOnlineDataRepository. Like many of my simulators, it applies some pattern as a facade for a large chunk of code. Also like many of my simulators, it uses a bunch of the real code in its implementation.

The entry point is ServiceFactory. The real implementation uses Dnd4eRepository, and the simulator is Fake4eRepository. Of course, these classes don’t do much. They log in as needed (the fake doesn’t need to, but can fake a login error), then the delegate to their various raw service implementations. The only real work they do is to de-multiplex a call for a set of information into parallel asynchronous web service calls, then multiplex the results back into a single response (lines 28 & 29).

[As an aside, I don’t like the way that login is handled here, nor do I like how failure is simulated. I have a better idea, which will likely show up in my discussions of async. But the basic idea is to take advantage of the fact that async code doesn’t even need to start running when it is called. The contract is only to eventually either return a value or an error. This means that we can return from init immediately, and start accepting calls to fetch data. Eventually, login will fail or complete, and we’ll return that error. But we’ll keep the other requests around unless they are explicitly cancelled by the application. They needn’t fail, nor should the app need to wait for login to complete just to send them. Logging in and asking for data should be completely independent, and can be with an asynchronous API.]

The interesting thing is that each implementation is a completely valid interpretation of the purpose for the whole library, except that the simulator makes some simplifying assumption. In this case, the simulator behaves exactly like the real one would if the remote web service only had information on 3 powers. For all other requests, it gives the same errors as would the real service when it was asked for a power that does not exist. And it can trigger all the other error conditions (login failure) that the real service would. However, because of its assumptions, it can run in memory.

The simulator is a test double. It’s an oracle for the real service with much better characteristics for testing (performance, lack of remote dependency, and no variability in responses).

Most importantly, the simulator and simulatable API were built together. Each influenced the design of the other. This led to encapsulating a bunch of work (such as the multiplexing) inside the library, and made a clean, simple interface. Now the rest of the system only needs to use this simulatable API in a small number of places, the API encapsulates its state, and it’s generally a lot easier to refactor around.

Also, this sort of simulator won’t necessarily always remain a test double. It’s whole point is to be a completely valid implementation with superior characteristics but that only works in a limited domain. Often, a portion of the application will be running entirely in that domain. At that point, it can make a lot of sense to use the simulator as the real dependency for those portions of the application.

For example, I had a project where we built a repository simulator for our ORM+database. It just kept all the values in memory, in a set of hash tables. And it kept the objects, not the tables of primitives.

We found several cases where we wanted to operate on nearly the same objects over and over. We would get superior performance from a read-through, delayed-write cache. For example, all of the postbacks for a given page tended to operate on the same objects over and over. And it mostly read from them.

We implemented the read-through caching repository as simply containing two repositories: our in-memory simulator, and the “real” repository. It then did the obvious (and simple) shuffle of data between these two implementations, and knew how to serialize an in-memory simulator’s state into View State for postbacks.

Now, we had 3 versions of the simulatable interface. One used the backing store and handled persistence. One was in-memory without a backing store. It was great for testing. And one combined the other two in order to improve multi-read performance. So is the in-memory implementation a test double?

That’s the real distinction between a simulator and a simple test double. Both are valid implementations over a reduced domain. However, the simulator’s domain is orthogonal to its use in tests; it is valid over some subset of the business domain. And so it often (about 50/50 in my projects) ends up being used to directly deliver business value.

I have, at various times, developed simulators for: the file system, a generic persistent store encapsulated as a repository, time & threads of execution, a set of remote machines providing some services, permission-based security & identity, and the user. Many of these would be reusable in other projects, except that they were all created for my various employers. I’d certainly be interested in developing a set of OSS simulator libraries ready to drop into peoples’ projects. If you’re interested, raise a hand in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Mock Free Example, part 2: Simulators”

  1. First response: "One of the common uses for mocks is to replace expensive or stateful components, such as file systems, networks, GUIs, and databases."

    If that's your understanding of the technique, then I can see how we would disagree. We've been recommending against direct mocking of external services for years for the reasons you highlight and others.

    Perhaps you could say more about the obvious question, as to how you ensure that the simulated and real implementation stay in sync as libraries and configurations change?

    1. My follow-up from this morning demonstrates tests that keep the two implementations in sync. Llwellan has another solution, in his comment.

      I agree that the main problem to which people apply mocks is not external dependencies. It's to dependencies between their own classes. However, this is exactly the case where I see mocks being most of a problem. It's also the place where there are the greatest variety of alternate solutions, and none is best for all contexts.

      Basically, I see mocks as being useful to fake out a dependency that you can't eliminate. But software is malleable, and there are tons of different designs to solve the same problem. So there are few depenencies that you can't eliminate.

      Oher peoples' code is one of the few sources of non-eliminatable dependencies. Thus, it is one of the few places where I see some sort of a set of test doubles as being useful.

      I'm starting with simulators because they address this case, and because they're one of the few places were I feel comfortable using a test double and leaving it there. Any test double that is between my code and my code I see as a design failure. Eventually, I'll find a way to resolve it, and the test double will go away.

  2. I'm interested in seeing some system simulators. I've just achieved proficiency at mocking, BDD, etc and I need to see some of these concepts in practice to make the next leap.

    1. My follow-on entry on Simulating the File System shows a simulator for a very simple system.

      The Reactive Extensions (Rx) for .Net contain a good example of a Simulator for time. They simulate both wall-clock time and task scheduling. Their clock and scheduler APIs are designed to be moderately simulatable.

      Of course, Rx didn't add time simulation until very late in its development. So that idea isn't woven through the system as completely as it could be. There are pieces of related functionality which should be on the Scheduler but are not (so are more difficult to substitute with an algorithm commensurate with a different definition of time). Still, it's a pretty good real-world example.

      And it passes one of the more important tests for Simulator: although it was originally developed to support automated testing, the "non-real" implementations are actually useful for several business scenarios. The Simulator is not just used by test code; it is a valid implementation for a reduced domain, and is occasionally used directly when in that reduced domain.

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