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Erlang Meta Testing

A photo of Brujo Benavides wrote this on July 17, 2015 under erlang, tdd, testing .

Disclaimer

If you don't use tests as part of your development process, please read this article written by the great @yegor256 and then come back here once you've made the switch ;) Otherwise, this article will be almost useless for you.

Meta-Testing

A couple of years ago, Hernán Wilkinson (@hernanwilkinson) was explaining why, for Smalltalk, being a dynamically typed language was not an issue. He said something like:

You don't need types to ensure that your system works correctly. That's what tests are for! And if you want to validate that all calls to a particular method are made with the proper argument types… write a test for that!!

That methodology (writing tests to validate particular properties of your code instead of its behaviour) is what he called Meta-Testing.

In Erlang

Like Smalltalk, Erlang is also dynamically typed. Quoting Fred at Learn You Some Erlang:

every error is caught at runtime and the compiler won't always yell at you when compiling modules where things may result in failure

To cope with this feature Erlang ecosystem provides tools like xref and dialyzer. But then again, you have to either run it yourself manually or have a service (like gadget) to run them for you.

If you use those tools frequently, you'll eventually realize that they are actually written in Erlang. Which is something that's not so shocking, but what it means is that you can use those tools in your tests! You can actually do meta-testing!

Example (Using Xref)

One of best things about using those tools and the resulting tests is that they are generic. You can use the same test suite for all your systems! For example, we have the following common-test suite for Xref (implemented using xref-runner) that we use in every erlang application developed here:

-module(xref_SUITE).
-author('elbrujohalcon@inaka.net').

-export([all/0]).
-export([xref/1]).

-spec all() -> [xref].
all() -> [xref].

-spec xref(lsl_test_utils:config()) ->
    {comment, []}.
xref(_Config) ->
  Dirs = [filename:absname("../../ebin")],
  [] = xref_runner:check(
        undefined_function_calls,
        #{dirs => Dirs}),
  [] = xref_runner:check(
        locals_not_used, #{dirs => Dirs}),
  [] = xref_runner:check(
        deprecated_function_calls,
        #{dirs => Dirs}),
  [] = xref_runner:check(
        deprecated_functions, #{dirs => Dirs}),
  {comment, ""}.

The only thing that might change from project to project is the list of Dirs, the rest of it stays the same.

Rewards

Once you have this test in place, if you work using TDD (and you should!), no undefined function call will ever get to production and crash your app. And this applies not to a particular portion of your system, but to your system as a whole.

Bonus Track

The additional benefit of having tests like this which are so generic is that they may be applied from the very first day of your system development. Whenever you are setting up a project, regardless of how you do it, you will always start with a very basic application and not much code to test. Nevertheless, you can still make sure that your testing tools are correctly set up by just adding these tests and running them. That way, you'll be all set up for TDD from the very first commit/pull request that gets in your repo :)