In computer programming, unit testing is a software testing method by which individual units of source code, sets of one or more computer program modules together with associated control data, usage procedures, and operating procedures, are tested to determine whether they are fit for use.
Unit tests are typically automated tests written and run by software developers to ensure that a section of an application (known as the “unit”) meets its design and behaves as intended. In procedural programming, a unit could be an entire module, but it is more commonly an individual function or procedure. In object-oriented programming, a unit is often an entire interface, such as a class, but could be an individual method. By writing tests first for the smallest testable units, then the compound behaviors between those, one can build up comprehensive tests for complex applications.
To isolate issues that may arise, each test case should be tested independently. Substitutes such as method stubs, mock objects, fakes, and test harnesses can be used to assist testing a module in isolation.
During development, a software developer may code criteria, or results that are known to be good, into the test to verify the unit’s correctness. During test case execution, frameworks log tests that fail any criterion and report them in a summary.
Writing and maintaining unit tests can be made faster by using Parameterized Tests (PUTs). These allow the execution of one test multiple times with different input sets, thus reducing test code duplication. Unlike traditional unit tests, which are usually closed methods and test invariant conditions, PUTs take any set of parameters. PUTs have been supported by TestNG, JUnit and its .Net counterpart, XUnit. Suitable parameters for the unit tests may be supplied manually or in some cases are automatically generated by the test framework. In recent years support was added for writing more powerful (unit) tests, leveraging the concept of theories, test cases that execute the same steps, but using test data generated at runtime, unlike regular parameterized tests that use the same execution steps with input sets that are pre-defined.
The goal of unit testing is to isolate each part of the program and show that the individual parts are correct. A unit test provides a strict, written contract that the piece of code must satisfy. As a result, it affords several benefits.
Unit testing finds problems early in the development cycle. This includes both bugs in the programmer’s implementation and flaws or missing parts of the specification for the unit. The process of writing a thorough set of tests forces the author to think through inputs, outputs, and error conditions, and thus more crisply define the unit’s desired behavior. The cost of finding a bug before coding begins or when the code is first written is considerably lower than the cost of detecting, identifying, and correcting the bug later. Bugs in released code may also cause costly problems for the end-users of the software. Code can be impossible or difficult to unit test if poorly written, thus unit testing can force developers to structure functions and objects in better ways.
In test-driven development (TDD), which is frequently used in both extreme programming and scrum, unit tests are created before the code itself is written. When the tests pass, that code is considered complete. The same unit tests are run against that function frequently as the larger code base is developed either as the code is changed or via an automated process with the build. If the unit tests fail, it is considered to be a bug either in the changed code or the tests themselves. The unit tests then allow the location of the fault or failure to be easily traced. Since the unit tests alert the development team of the problem before handing the code off to testers or clients, potential problems are caught early in the development process.
Unit testing allows the programmer to refactor code or upgrade system libraries at a later date, and make sure the module still works correctly (e.g., in regression testing). The procedure is to write test cases for all functions and methods so that whenever a change causes a fault, it can be quickly identified. Unit tests detect changes which may break a design contract.
Unit testing may reduce uncertainty in the units themselves and can be used in a bottom-up testing style approach. By testing the parts of a program first and then testing the sum of its parts, integration testing becomes much easier.
Unit testing provides a sort of living documentation of the system. Developers looking to learn what functionality is provided by a unit, and how to use it, can look at the unit tests to gain a basic understanding of the unit’s interface (API).
Unit test cases embody characteristics that are critical to the success of the unit. These characteristics can indicate appropriate/inappropriate use of a unit as well as negative behaviors that are to be trapped by the unit. A unit test case, in and of itself, documents these critical characteristics, although many software development environments do not rely solely upon code to document the product in development.
When software is developed using a test-driven approach, the combination of writing the unit test to specify the interface plus the refactoring activities performed after the test has passed, may take the place of formal design. Each unit test can be seen as a design element specifying classes, methods, and observable behavior.
Unit testing frameworks are most often third-party products that are not distributed as part of the compiler suite. They help simplify the process of unit testing, having been developed for a wide variety of languages. Examples of testing frameworks include open-source solutions such as the various code-driven testing frameworks known collectively as xUnit, and proprietary/commercial solutions such as Cantata for C/C++ and .NET Typemock Isolator, TBrun, JustMock, Parasoft Development Testing (Jtest, Parasoft C/C++test, dotTEST), Testwell CTA++ and VectorCAST/C++.
It is generally possible to perform unit testing without the support of a specific framework by writing client code that exercises the units under test and uses assertions, exception handling, or other control flow mechanisms to signal failure. Unit testing without a framework is valuable in that there is a barrier to entry for the adoption of unit testing; having scant unit tests is hardly better than having none at all, whereas once a framework is in place, adding unit tests becomes relatively easy. In some frameworks many advanced unit test features are missing or must be hand-coded.
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