Thursday, May 24, 2007

Shiny rails and testing

Man, Rails kicks ass.

After getting a hold of Ruby a few months ago, I've been looking deeply into Rails. There are a couple things at work that use it, and I'll probably wind up maintaining them if we don't replace them altogether.

There's little point in me talking about how great Rails is, since you can find Rails worship sites just by typing random letters into a google search, but I am going to emphasize the thing that really kicks unseemly amounts of ass -- the one thing that no one else has done nearly as well: testing.

Rails does first-class support for model (unit) testing and controller (functional) testing better than any other framework I know, including the one I support professionally. While unit tests have been around forever, there hasn't been a concerted push to get a comprehensive functional test strategy in Java. Part of the problem, of course, is that Java has more web frameworks than France has baguette shops, and several of them seem to make a point of being as different as possible from any other framework. Rails, being an all-in-one solution for your web needs, can offer integrated tests easily, but for the Java offerings you more or less have to reinvent the testing axle every time you reinvent the wheel.

Case in point: Our framework includes Struts 1.3.8, which for purposes of this discussion means we support it and give people a number to call if it breaks. We also ship a sample application that uses our framework, and I volunteered to maintain/update/rewrite it for the next release. The guy who did the first version is no longer with the company, and he never bothered to write unit tests for his models nor functional tests for his controllers. Now it's no indictment of the technology if the developer is too lazy to code properly, but after filling in the missing tests I got to Struts. I'm not willing to ship an app without all necessary test coverage, and controller routing and request processing falls within that box. (If you disagree with this, you are wrong.) So I poked around for some test help and came across StrutsTestCase, which seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. Unfortunately, it's apparently been abandoned and the latest release is three years old, not to mention it doesn't even compile under Java 5. So I've been working on something similar for our needs.

All told, the googling/studying/problem solving/coding that I'll have done by the time this is finished will add up to a decent chunk of effort. I remind those reading that Struts 1 is still the most widely used MVC Java web framework, so one would expect to find solid testing support for it. Well, you won't, and there isn't.

The comparison to Rails, where a test case for your controller can be generated with a simple script and the entire test written and done in minutes, reflects badly on the Java world. I can only conclude that Struts shops write their action mappings and then laboriously, manually test each one through a running browser. In addition to being inefficient, slow, and boring, it takes forever, which is another way of saying that it won't be done. This is the kind of thing the computer should be doing for you, people. This isn't a Java vs. Ruby issue, and it's not even an issue particular to Struts; there is a resistance to spending code effort to automate tests that can and should be automated.

We need to make managers aware of the need for automated functional testing so time for it gets built into schedules. We need to improve our testing tools so they'll be ready to handle new technologies. We must spend our time working on difficult problems, not fighting the machine.

Guess I'll start by writing a test library.

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