Using Multiple Test Frameworks Simultaneously

Someone recently asked me the following question, which I’ve paraphrased for better context:

Is it good practice to use multiple test frameworks simultaneously? For example, I’m working on a Python project. I want to do BDD with behave for feature testing, but pytest would be better for unit testing. Can I use both? If so, how should I structure my project(s)?

The short answer: Yes, you should use the right frameworks for the right needs. Using more than one test framework is typically not difficult to set up. Let’s dig into this.

The F-word

I despise the F-word – “framework.” Within the test automation space, people use the word “framework” to refer to different things. Is the “framework” only the test package like pytest or JUnit? Does it include the tests themselves? Does it refer to automation tools like Selenium WebDriver?

For clarity, I prefer to use two different terms: “framework” and “solution.” A test framework is software package that lets programmers write tests as methods or functions, run the tests, and report the results. A test solution is a software implementation for a testing problem. It typically includes frameworks, tools, and test cases. To me, a framework is narrow, but a solution is comprehensive.

The original question used the word “framework,” but I think it should be answered in terms of solutions. There are two potential solutions at hand: one for unit tests written in pytest, while another for feature tests written in behave.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Always use the right tools or frameworks for the right needs. Unit tests and feature tests are fundamentally different. Unit tests directly access internal functions and methods in product code, whereas feature tests interact with live versions of the product as an external user or caller. Thus, they need different kinds of testing solutions, which most likely will require different tools and frameworks.

For example, behave is a BDD framework for Python. Programmers write test cases in plain-language Gherkin with step definitions as Python functions. Gherkin test cases are intuitively readable and understandable, which makes them great for testing high-level behaviors like interacting with a Web page. However, BDD frameworks add complexity that hampers unit test development. Unit tests are inherently “code-y” and low-level because they directly call product code. The pytest framework would be a better choice for unit testing. Conversely, feature tests could be written using raw pytest, but behave provides a more natural structure for describing features. Hence, separate solutions for different test types would be ideal.

Same or Separate Repositories?

If more than one test solution is appropriate for a given software project, the next question is where to put the test code. Should all test code go into the same repository as the product code, or should they go into separate repositories? Unfortunately, there is no universally correct answer. Here are some factors to consider.

Unit tests should always be located in the same repository as the product code they test. Unit tests directly depend upon the product code. They mus be written in the same language. Any time the product code is refactored, unit tests must be updated.

Feature tests can be placed in the same repository or a separate repository. I recommend putting feature tests in the same repository as product code if feature tests are written in the same language as the product code and if all the product code under test is located in the same repository. That way, tests are version-controlled together with the product under test. Otherwise, I recommend putting feature tests in their own separate repository. Mixed language repositories can be confusing to maintain, and version control must be handled differently with multi-repository products.

Same Repository Structure

One test solution in one repository is easy to set up, but multiple test solutions in one repository can be tricky. Thankfully, it’s not impossible. Project structure ultimately depends upon the language. Regardless of language, I recommend separating concerns. A repository should have clearly separate spaces (e.g., subdirectories) for product code and test code. Test code should be further divided by test types and then coverage areas. Testers should be able to run specific tests using convenient filters.

Here are ways to handle multiple test solutions in a few different languages:

  • In Python, project structure is fairly flexible. Conventionally, all tests belong under a top-level directory named “tests.” Subdirectories may be added thereunder, such as “unit” and “feature”. Frameworks like pytest and behave can take search paths so they run the proper tests. Furthermore, if using pytest-bdd instead of behave, pytest can use the markings/tags instead of search paths for filtering tests.
  • In .NET (like C#), the terms “project” and “solution” have special meanings. A .NET project is a collection of code that is built into one artifact. A .NET solution is a collection of projects that interrelate. Typically, the best practice in .NET would be to create a separate project for each test type/suite within the same .NET solution. I have personally set up a .NET solution that included separate projects for NUnit unit tests and SpecFlow feature tests.
  • In Java, project structure depends upon the project’s build automation tool. Most Java projects seem to use Maven or Gradle. In Maven’s Standard Directory Layout, tests belong under “src/test”. Different test types can be placed under separate packages there. The POM might need some extra configuration to run tests at different build phases.
  • In JavaScript, test placement depends heavily upon the project type. For example, Angular creates separate directories for unit tests using Jasmine and end-to-end tests using Protractor when initializing a new project.

Do What’s Best

Different test tools and frameworks meet different needs. No single one can solve all problems. Make sure to use the right tools for the problems at hand. Don’t force yourself to use the wrong thing simply because it is already used elsewhere.

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