Are Automated Test Retries Good or Bad?

What happens when a test fails? If someone is manually running the test, then they will pause and poke around to learn more about the problem. However, when an automated test fails, the rest of the suite keeps running. Testers won’t get to view results until the suite is complete, and the automation won’t perform any extra exploration at the time of failure. Instead, testers must review logs and other artifacts gathered during testing, and they even might need to rerun the failed test to check if the failure is consistent.

Since testers typically rerun failed tests as part of their investigation, why not configure automated tests to automatically rerun failed tests? On the surface, this seems logical: automated retries can eliminate one more manual step. Unfortunately, automated retries can also enable poor practices, like ignoring legitimate issues.

So, are automated test retries good or bad? This is actually a rather controversial topic. I’ve heard many voices strongly condemn automated retries as an antipattern (see here, here, and here). While I agree that automated retries can be abused, I nevertheless still believe they can add value to test automation. A deeper understanding needs a nuanced approach.

So, how do automated retries work?

To avoid any confusion, let’s carefully define what we mean by “automated test retries.”

Let’s say I have a suite of 100 automated tests. When I run these tests, the framework will execute each test individually and yield a pass or fail result for the test. At the end of the suite, the framework will aggregate all the results together into one report. In the best case, all tests pass: 100/100.

However, suppose that one of the tests fails. Upon failure, the test framework would capture any exceptions, perform any cleanup routines, log a failure, and safely move onto the next test case. At the end of the suite, the report would show 99/100 passing tests with one test failure.

By default, most test frameworks will run each test one time. However, some test frameworks have features for automatically rerunning test cases that fail. The framework may even enable testers to specify how many retries to attempt. So, let’s say that we configure 2 retries for our suite of 100 tests. When that one test fails, the framework would queue that failing test to run twice more before moving onto the next test. It would also add more information to the test report. For example, if one retry passed but another one failed, the report would show 99/100 passing tests with a 1/3 pass rate for the failing test.

In this article, we will focus on automated retries for test cases. Testers could also program other types of retries into automated tests, such as retrying browser page loads or REST requests. Interaction-level retries require sophisticated, context-specific logic, whereas test-level retry logic works the same for any kind of test case. (Interaction-level retries would also need their own article.)

Automated retries can be a terrible antipattern

Let’s see how automated test retries can be abused:

Jeremy is a member of a team that runs a suite of 300 automated tests for their web app every night. Unfortunately, the tests are notoriously flaky. About a dozen different tests fail every night, and Jeremy spends a lot of time each morning triaging the failures. Whenever he reruns failed tests individually on his laptop, they almost always pass.

To save himself time in the morning, Jeremy decides to add automatic retries to the test suite. Whenever a test fails, the framework will attempt one retry. Jeremy will only investigate tests whose retries failed. If a test had a passing retry, then he will presume that the original failure was just a flaky test.

Ouch! There are several problems here.

First, Jeremy is using retries to conceal information rather than reveal information. If a test fails but its retries pass, then the test still reveals a problem! In this case, the underlying problem is flaky behavior. Jeremy is using automated retries to overwrite intermittent failures with intermittent passes. Instead, he should investigate why the test are flaky. Perhaps automated interactions have race conditions that need more careful waiting. Or, perhaps features in the web app itself are behaving unexpectedly. Test failures indicate a problem – either in test code, product code, or infrastructure.

Second, Jeremy is using automated retries to perpetuate poor practices. Before adding automated retries to the test suite, Jeremy was already manually retrying tests and disregarding flaky failures. Adding retries to the test suite merely speeds up the process, making it easier to sidestep failures.

Third, the way Jeremy uses automated retries indicates that the team does not value their automated test suite very much. Good test automation requires effort and investment. Persistent flakiness is a sign of neglect, and it fosters low trust in testing. Using retries is merely a “band-aid” on both the test failures and the team’s attitude about test automation.

In this example, automated test retries are indeed a terrible antipattern. They enable Jeremy and his team to ignore legitimate issues. In fact, they incentivize the team to ignore failures because they institutionalize the practice of replacing red X’s with green checkmarks. This team should scrap automated test retries and address the root causes of flakiness.

green check red x
Testers should not conceal failures by overwriting them with passes.

Automated retries are not the main problem

Ignoring flaky failures is unfortunately all too common in the software industry. I must admit that in my days as a newbie engineer, I was guilty of rerunning tests to get them to pass. Why do people do this? The answer is simple: intermittent failures are difficult to resolve.

Testers love to find consistent, reproducible failures because those are easy to explain. Other developers can’t push back against hard evidence. However, intermittent failures take much more time to isolate. Root causes can become mind-bending puzzles. They might be triggered by environmental factors or awkward timings. Sometimes, teams never figure out what causes them. In my personal experience, bug tickets for intermittent failures get far less traction than bug tickets for consistent failures. All these factors incentivize folks to turn a blind eye to intermittent failures when convenient.

Automated retries are just a tool and a technique. They may enable bad practices, but they aren’t inherently bad. The main problem is willfully ignoring certain test results.

Automated retries can be incredibly helpful

So, what is the right way to use automated test retries? Use them to gather more information from the tests. Test results are simply artifacts of feedback. They reveal how a software product behaved under specific conditions and stimuli. The pass-or-fail nature of assertions simplifies test results at the top level of a report in order to draw attention to failures. However, reports can give more information than just binary pass-or-fail results. Automated test retries yield a series of results for a failing test that indicate a success rate.

For example, SpecFlow and the SpecFlow+ Runner make it easy to use automatic retries the right way. Testers simply need to add the retryFor setting to their SpecFlow+ Runner profile to set the number of retries to attempt. In the final report, SpecFlow records the success rate of each test with color-coded counts. Results are revealed, not concealed.

Here is a snippet of the SpecFlow+ Report showing both intermittent failures (in orange) and consistent failures (in red).

This information jumpstarts analysis. As a tester, one of the first questions I ask myself about a failing test is, “Is the failure reproducible?” Without automated retries, I need to manually rerun the test to find out – often at a much later time and potentially within a different context. With automated retries, that step happens automatically and in the same context. Analysis then takes two branches:

  1. If all retry attempts failed, then the failure is probably consistent and reproducible. I would expect it to be a clear functional failure that would be fast and easy to report. I jump on these first to get them out of the way.
  2. If some retry attempts passed, then the failure is intermittent, and it will probably take more time to investigate. I will look more closely at the logs and screenshots to determine what went wrong. I will try to exercise the product behavior manually to see if the product itself is inconsistent. I will also review the automation code to make sure there are no unhandled race conditions. I might even need to rerun the test multiple times to measure a more accurate failure rate.

I do not ignore any failures. Instead, I use automated retries to gather more information about the nature of the failures. In the moment, this extra info helps me expedite triage. Over time, the trends this info reveals helps me identify weak spots in both the product under test and the test automation.

Automated retries are most helpful at high scale

When used appropriate, automated retries can be helpful for any size test automation project. However, they are arguably more helpful for large projects running tests at high scale than small projects. Why? Two main reasons: complexities and priorities.

Large-scale test projects have many moving parts. For example, at PrecisionLender, we presently run 4K-10K end-to-end tests against our web app every business day. (We also run ~100K unit tests every business day.) Our tests launch from TeamCity as part of our Continuous Integration system, and they use in-house Selenium Grid instances to run 50-100 tests in parallel. The PrecisionLender application itself is enormous, too.

Intermittent failures are inevitable in large-scale projects for many different reasons. There could be problems in the test code, but those aren’t the only possible problems. At PrecisionLender, Boa Constrictor already protects us from race conditions, so our intermittent test failures are rarely due to problems in automation code. Other causes for flakiness include:

  • The app’s complexity makes certain features behave inconsistently or unexpectedly
  • Extra load on the app slows down response times
  • The cloud hosting platform has a service blip
  • Selenium Grid arbitrarily chokes on a browser session
  • The DevOps team recycles some resources
  • An engineer makes a system change while tests were running
  • The CI pipeline deploys a new change in the middle of testing

Many of these problems result from infrastructure and process. They can’t easily be fixed, especially when environments are shared. As one tester, I can’t rewrite my whole company’s CI pipeline to be “better.” I can’t rearchitect the app’s whole delivery model to avoid all collisions. I can’t perfectly guarantee 100% uptime for my cloud resources or my test tools like Selenium Grid. Some of these might be good initiatives to pursue, but one tester’s dictates do not immediately become reality. Many times, we need to work with what we have. Curt demands to “just fix the tests” come off as pedantic.

Automated test retries provide very useful information for discerning the nature of such intermittent failures. For example, at PrecisionLender, we hit Selenium Grid problems frequently. Roughly 1/10000 Selenium Grid browser sessions will inexplicably freeze during testing. We don’t know why this happens, and our investigations have been unfruitful. We chalk it up to minor instability at scale. Whenever the 1/10000 failure strikes, our suite’s automated retries kick in and pass. When we review the test report, we see the intermittent failure along with its exception method. Based on its signature, we immediately know that test is fine. We don’t need to do extra investigation work or manual reruns. Automated retries gave us the info we needed.

Selenium Grid
Selenium Grid is a large cluster with many potential points of failure.
(Image source: LambdaTest.)

Another type of common failure is intermittently slow performance in the PrecisionLender application. Occasionally, the app will freeze for a minute or two and then recover. When that happens, we see a “brick wall” of failures in our report: all tests during that time frame fail. Then, automated retries kick in, and the tests pass once the app recovers. Automatic retries prove in the moment that the app momentarily froze but that the individual behaviors covered by the tests are okay. This indicates functional correctness for the behaviors amidst a performance failure in the app. Our team has used these kinds of results on multiple occasions to identify performance bugs in the app by cross-checking system logs and database queries during the time intervals for those brick walls of intermittent failures. Again, automated retries gave us extra information that helped us find deep issues.

Automated retries delineate failure priorities

That answers complexity, but what about priority? Unfortunately, in large projects, there is more work to do than any team can handle. Teams need to make tough decisions about what to do now, what to do later, and what to skip. That’s just business. Testing decisions become part of that prioritization.

In almost all cases, consistent failures are inherently a higher priority than intermittent failures because they have a greater impact on the end users. If a feature fails every single time it is attempted, then the user is blocked from using the feature, and they cannot receive any value from it. However, if a feature works some of the time, then the user can still get some value out of it. Furthermore, the rarer the intermittency, the lower the impact, and consequentially the lower the priority. Intermittent failures are still important to address, but they must be prioritized relative to other work at hand.

Automated test retries automate that initial prioritization. When I triage PrecisionLender tests, I look into consistent “red” failures first. Our SpecFlow reports make them very obvious. I know those failures will be straightforward to reproduce, explain, and hopefully resolve. Then, I look into intermittent “orange” failures second. Those take more time. I can quickly identify issues like Selenium Grid disconnections, but other issues may not be obvious (like system interruptions) or may need additional context (like the performance freezes). Sometimes, we may need to let tests run for a few days to get more data. If I get called away to another more urgent task while I’m triaging results, then at least I could finish the consistent failures. It’s a classic 80/20 rule: investigating consistent failures typically gives more return for less work, while investigating intermittent failures gives less return for more work. It is what it is.

The only time I would prioritize an intermittent failure over a consistent failure would be if the intermittent failure causes catastrophic or irreversible damage, like wiping out an entire system, corrupting data, or burning money. However, that type of disastrous failure is very rare. In my experience, almost all intermittent failures are due to poorly written test code, automation timeouts from poor app performance, or infrastructure blips.

Context matters

Automated test retries can be a blessing or a curse. It all depends on how testers use them. If testers use retries to reveal more information about failures, then retries greatly assist triage. Otherwise, if testers use retries to conceal intermittent failures, then they aren’t doing their jobs as testers. Folks should not be quick to presume that automated retries are always an antipattern. We couldn’t achieve our scale of testing at PrecisionLender without them. Context matters.

To Infinity and Beyond: A Guide to Parallel Testing

Are your automated tests running in parallel? If not, then they probably should be. Together with continuous integration, parallel testing the best way to fail fast during software development and ultimately enforce higher software quality. Switching tests from serial to parallel execution, however, is not a simple task. Tests themselves must be designed to run concurrently without colliding, and extra tools and systems are needed to handle the extra stress. This article is a high-level guide to good parallel testing practices.

What is Parallel Testing?

Parallel testing means running multiple automated tests simultaneously to shorten the overall start-to-end runtime of a test suite. For example, if 10 tests take a total of 10 minutes to run, then 2 parallel processes could execute 5 tests each and cut the total runtime down to 5 minutes. Even better, 10 processes could execute 1 test each to shrink runtime to 1 minute. Parallel testing is usually managed by either a test framework or a continuous integration tool. It also requires more compute resources than serial testing.

Why Go Parallel?

Running automated tests in parallel does require more effort (and potentially cost) than running tests serially. So, why go through the trouble?

The answer is simple: time. It is well documented that software bugs cost more when they are discovered later. That’s why current development practices like Agile and BDD strive to avoid problems from the start through small iterations and healthy collaboration (“shift left“), while CI/CD defensively catches regressions as soon as they happen (“fail fast“). Reducing the time to discover a problem after it has been introduced means higher quality and higher productivity.

Ideally, a developer should be told if a code change is good or bad immediately after committing it. The change should automatically trigger a new build that runs all tests. Unfortunately, tests are not instantaneous – they could take minutes, hours, or even days to complete. A test automation strategy based on the Testing Pyramid will certainly shorten start-to-end execution time but likely still require parallelization. Consider the layers of the Testing Pyramid and their tests’ average runtimes, the Testing Pyramid Rule of 1’s:

The Testing Pyramid with Times
Each layer is listed above with the rough runtime of a typical test. Though actual runtimes will vary, the Rule of 1’s focuses on orders of magnitude. Unit tests typically run in milliseconds because they often exercise product code in memory. Integration tests exercise live products but are limited in scope and often cover low-level areas (like REST service calls). End-to-end tests, however, cover full paths through a live system, which requires extra setup and waiting (like Selenium WebDriver interaction).

Now, consider how many tests from each layer could be run within given time limits, if the tests are run serially:

Test Layer1 Minute
10 Minutes
Coffee Break
1 Hour
There Goes Today

Unit test numbers look pretty good, though keep in mind 1 millisecond is often the best-case runtime for a unit test. Integration and end-to-end runtimes, however, pose a more pressing problem. It is not uncommon for a project to have thousands of above-unit tests, yet not even a hundred end-to-end tests could complete within an hour, nor could a thousand integration tests complete within 10 minutes. Now, consider two more facts: (1) tests often run as different phases in a CI pipeline, to total runtimes are stacked, and (2) multiple commits would trigger multiple builds, which could cause a serious backup. Serial test execution would starve engineering feedback in any continuous integration system of scale. A team would need to drastically shrink test coverage or give up on being truly “continuous” in favor of running tests daily or weekly. Neither alternative is acceptable these days. CI needs parallel testing to be truly continuous.

The Danger of Collisions

The biggest danger for parallel testing is collision – when tests interfere with each other, causing invalid test failures. Collisions may happen in the product under test if product state is manipulated by more than one test at a time, or they may happen in the automation code itself if the code is not thread-safe. Collisions are also inherently intermittent, which makes them all the more difficult to diagnose. As a design principle, automated tests must avoid collisions for correct parallel execution.

Making tests run in parallel is not as simple as flipping a switch or adding a new config file. Automated tests must be specifically designed to run in parallel. A team may need to significantly redevelop their automation code to make parallel execution work right.

A train collision in Mannheim, Germany in 2014
A train collision in Mannheim, Germany in 2014. Don’t let this happen to your tests!

Handling Product-Level Collisions

Product-level collisions essentially reduce to how environments are set up and handled.

Separate Environments

The most basic way to avoid product-level collisions would be to run each test thread or process against its own instance of the product in an exclusive environment. (In the most extreme case, every single test could have its own product instance.) No collisions would happen in the product because each product instance would be touched by only one test instance at a time. Separate environments are possible to implement using various configuration and deployment tools. Docker containers are quick and easy to spin up. VMs with Vagrant, Puppet, Chef, and/or Ansible can also get it done.

However, it may not always be sensible to make separate environments for each test thread/process:

  • Creating a new environment is inefficient – it takes extra time to set up that may cancel out any time saved from parallel execution.
  • Many projects simply don’t have the money or the compute resources to handle a massive scale-out.
  • Some tests may not cause collisions and therefore may not need total isolation.
  • Some product environments are extremely large and complicated and would not be practical to replicate for each test individually.

Shared Environments

Environments with a shared product instance are quite common. One could be a common environment that everyone on a team shares, or one could be freshly created during a CI run and accessed by multiple test threads/processes. Either way, product-level collisions are possible, and tests must be designed to avoid clashing product states. Any test covering a persistent state is vulnerable; usually, this is the vast majority of tests. Consider web app testing as an example. Tests to load a page and do some basic interactions can probably run in parallel without extra protection, but tests that use a login to enter data or change settings could certainly collide. In this case, collisions could be avoided by using different logins for each simultaneous test instance – by using either a pool of logins, a unique login per test case, or a unique login per thread/process. Each product is different and will require different strategies for avoiding collisions.

We all share certain environments. Take care of them when you do. (Photo: The Blue Marble, taken by the Apollo 17 crew on Dec 7, 1972)

Handling Automation-Level Collisions

Automation-level collisions can happen when automation code is not thread-safe, which could mean more than simply locks and semaphores.

#1: Test Independence

Test cases must be completely independent of each other. One test must not require another test to run before it for the sake of setup. A test case should be able to run by itself without any others. A test suite should be able to run successfully in random order.

#2: Proper Variable Scope

If parallel tests will be run in the same memory address space, then it is imperative to properly scope all variables. Global or static mutable variables (e.g., “non-constants”) must not be allowed because they could be changed unexpectedly. The best pattern for handling scope is dependency injection. Thread-safe singletons would be a second choice. (Typically, global or static variables are used to subvert design patterns, so they may reveal further necessary automation rework when discovered.)

#3: External Resources

Automation may sometimes interact with external resources, such as test config files or test result databases/services. Make sure no external interactions collide. For example, make sure test run updates don’t overwrite each other.

#4: Logging

Logs are very difficult to trace when multiple tests are simultaneously printed to the same file. The best practice is to generate separate log files for each test case, thread, or process to make them readable.

#5: Result Aggregation

A test suite is a unified collection of tests, no matter how many threads/processes are used to run its tests in parallel. Make sure test results are aggregated together into one report. Some frameworks will do this automatically, while others will require custom post-processing.

#6: Test Filtering

One strategy to avoid collisions may be to run non-colliding partitions (subsets) of tests in parallel. Test tagging and filtering would make this possible. For example, tests that require a special login could be tagged as such and run together on one thread.

Test Scalability

The previous section on collisions discussed how to handle product environments. It is also important to consider how to handle the test automation environment. These are two different things: the product environment contains the live product under test, while the test environment contains the automation software and resources that run tests against the product. The test environment is where the parallel tests will be executed, and, as such, it must be scalable to handle the parallelization. A common example of a test environment could be a Jenkins master with a few agents for running build pipelines. There are two primary ways to scale the test environment: scale-up and scale-out.

Parallel Scale-Up

Scale-up is when one machine is configured to handle more tests in parallel. For example, scale-up would be when a machine switches from one (serial) thread to two, three, or even more in parallel. Many popular test runners support this type of scale-up by spawning and joining threads in a common memory address space or by forking processes. (For example, the SpecFlow+ Runner lets you choose.)

Scale-up is a simple way to squeeze as much utility out of an existing machine as possible. If tests are designed to handle collisions, and the test runner has out-of-the-box support, then it’s usually pretty easy to add more test threads/processes. However, parallel test scale-up is inherently limited by the machine’s capacity. Each additional test process succumbs to the law of diminishing returns as more memory and processor cycles are used. Eventually, adding more threads will actually slow down test execution because the processor(s) will waste time constantly switching between tests. (Anecdotally, I found the optimal test-thread-to-processor ratio to be 2-to-1 for running C#/SpecFlow/Selenium-WebDriver tests on Amazon EC2 M4 instances.) A machine itself could be upgraded with more threads and processors, but nevertheless, there are limits to a single machine’s maximum capacity. Weird problems like TCP/IP port exhaustion may also arise.

Scale Up
Scale-up adds more threads to one machine.

Parallel Scale-Out

Scale-out is when multiple machines are configured to run tests in parallel. Whereas scale-up had one machine running multiple tests, scale-out has multiple machines each running tests. Scale-out can be achieved in a number of ways. A few examples are:

  • One master test execution machine launches multiple Web UI tests that each use a remote Selenium WebDriver with a service like Selenium Grid, Sauce Labs, LambdaTest, or BrowserStack.
  • A Jenkins pipeline launches tests across ten agents in parallel, in which each agent executes a tenth of the tests independently.

Scale-out is a better long-term solution than scale-up because scale-out can handle an unlimited number of machines for parallel testing. The limiting factor with scale-out is not the maximum capacity of the hardware but rather the cost of running more machines. However, scale-out is much harder to implement than scale-up. It requires tests to be evenly divided with some sort of balancer and filter. It also requires some sort of test result aggregation for joint reporting – people won’t want to piece together a bunch of separate reports to get an overall snapshot of quality. Plus, the test environment is more complicated to build and maintain (though tools like CloudBees Jenkins Enterprise or Amazon EC2 can make it easier.)

Scale Out
Scale-out distributes tests across multiple machines.

Upwards and Outwards

Of course, scale-up and scale-out are not mutually exclusive. Scaled-out nodes could individually be scaled-up. Consider a test environment with 10 powerful VMs that could each handle 10 tests in parallel – that means 100 tests could run simultaneously. Using the Rule of 1’s, it would take only about a minute to run 100 Web UI tests, which serially would have taken over an hour and a half! Use both strategies to shorten start-to-end runtime as much as possible.


Parallel testing is a worthwhile endeavor. When done properly, it will not only reduce development time but also improve the development experience. For readers who want to start doing parallel testing, I recommend researching the tools and frameworks you want to use. Many popular test frameworks support parallel execution, and even if the one you choose doesn’t, you can always invoke tests in parallel from the command line. Do well!