Product quality metrics measure the excellence of a product and its features. They measure the “goodness” inherent in the product, apart from how the product was developed. High-quality processes and tests contribute to, but do not alone guarantee, high-quality products. That’s why quality must be built into the product from the start and checked throughout all phases of development. Below are metrics for assuring quality in the delivered products.
Does the product work correctly?
True – Features either work, or they don’t.
Test Failure Rate – The whole purpose of functional testing is to determine which features work and which don’t. Assuming test quality is high, the test failure rate is the single best indicator of product functionality. Higher failure rates mean more broken features. Teams should target low-to-zero test failures. It may be useful to keep a failure history for each test. For large products, it may also be useful to break down failure rates by feature area.
It is imperative to recognize, however, that the test failure rate is meaningful only if test quality is high – meaning that tests have good coverage and reliability. Poor-quality tests will give untrustworthy results. For example, weak coverage could mean that failure rate is low because functionality is not truly exercised, and poor reliability could mean that failure rate is high because tests always crash. Be sure to back up any reporting on test failure rate with assurance that test quality is high (using test quality metrics).
Does the product work reliably?
High – Product functionality should be consistently good and available.
Build Failure Rate – The build failure rate is the proportion of builds that have failed for whatever reason over a given period of time. While process metrics focus on response times to fix broken builds, the build failure rate itself indicates the health of the product while it is being developed. It does not track how badly a build failed like test failure rate does, but instead it impartially tracks ultimate success or failure. Make sure to limit the history of builds included in the calculation to keep it relevant (such as the last 30 days or so). Occasional build failures are acceptable as long as they are fixed quickly. High build failure rates indicate product instability, which could be due to design flaws, weak pre-check-in testing, tricky bugs, or even pipeline faults.
Uptime – Uptime refers to the total time a system is usable. For example, consider a website that must go down for a one-hour service window every week – its uptime would be 167/168 = 99.4%. Not all downtime is planned, however. A bad deployment during maintenance could knock that website offline for an additional 3 hours – dragging uptime down to 97.6% for the week. This may not seem bad at first, but it’s quite terrible when considering that (a) lost time is lost money and (b) the goal of Six Sigma is 99.99966%. A product should have near-perfect availability. System monitoring tools can easily measure uptime. Low uptime indicates either poor design or lack of failover redundancy.
Does the product work optimally?
Optimal – Performance should be at its best in all areas.
There are four classic software performance metrics. They may be applied in various ways to aspects of product behavior. Ultimately, software products should have a minimal impact on the system while providing a maximal capacity for work.
Processor Usage – Processor cycles should not be needlessly wasted. Make sure algorithms are efficient in terms of computational complexity (big O) and implementation details.
Memory Usage – Watch out for both memory bloat (when features take up a lot of memory unnecessarily) and memory leaks (when memory is not freed up after it is no longer needed.)
Response Time – Response time, or latency, measures the turnaround time from when an action is taken to when the actor receives feedback that the action is completed. Common examples of response time are web page loading, REST API call responses, and database queries. Response time should be as short as possible.
Throughput – Throughput measures how much load a system can handle. It could refer to data I/O bandwidth, transactions per time unit, number of concurrent users, etc. Typically, higher stress on a system will cause other performance metrics to degrade. The “sweet spot” to find is the maximum throughput value that does not unacceptably impact other performance aspects.
Is the software code unnecessarily complicated?
Minimal – Simple is better than complex. Complex is better than complicated. (See The Zen of Python.)
There are a number of code metrics that indicate complexity in various ways.
Lines of Code – One of the most rudimentary metrics is to count the lines of code. All things equal, line count indicates the magnitude of the software product, with the assumption that fewer lines will be easier to maintain. Any modern IDE (or, worst case, shell scripting) can yield line counts. However, all things are not equal, and line count alone does not indicate quality or efficiency.
Cyclomatic Complexity – Cyclomatic complexity measures the number of different execution paths the code can take. It is more meaningful than counting sheer lines of code because it indicates the magnitude of testing needed for full coverage. Lower values are better. Cyclomatic complexity is a popular code metric, and many modern analysis tools can measure it.
Depth of Inheritance – For object-oriented languages, the depth of inheritance measures the maximum length of a class inheritance tree from child class to its ultimate root. For example, in the class inheritance tree of Tiger > Cat > Animal > Object, Tiger would have an inheritance depth of 3. Lower values are desirable because they make classes easier to understand.
High – The product should meet the end user’s needs, and the end user should like using it.
Customer satisfaction is inherently subjective, so trying to measure it is difficult. Ultimately, the end users must find compelling value in the product over other alternatives, or else they won’t use it or buy it. There are many ways to attempt to gauge customer satisfaction: surveys, interviews, A/B testing, etc. Statistics and psychology also play a part. Check out articles here, here, and here to get some ideas.
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:
Now, consider how many tests from each layer could be run within given time limits, if the tests are run serially:
1 Minute Near-Instant
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.
Handling Product-Level Collisions
Product-level collisions essentially reduce to how environments are set up and handled.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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-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:
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.)
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!
A friend recently asked me this question (albeit with some rephrasing):
Can a unit test be a performance test? For example, can a unit test wait for an action to complete and validate that the time it took is below a preset threshold?
I cringed when I heard this question, not only because it is poor practice, but also because it reflects common misunderstandings about types of testing.
QA Buzzword Bingo
The root of this misunderstanding is the lack of standard definitions for types of tests. Every company where I’ve worked has defined test types differently. Individuals often play fast and loose with buzzword bingo, especially when new hires from other places used different buzzwords. Here are examples of some of those buzzwords:
Measurements / benchmarks / metrics
Continuous integration testing
And here are some games of buzzword bingo gone wrong:
Trying to separate “systemic” tests from “system” tests.
Claiming that “unit” tests should interact with a live web page.
Separating “regression” tests from other test types.
Before any meaningful discussions about testing can happen, everyone must agree to a common and explicit set of testing type definitions. For example, this could be a glossary on a team wiki page. Whenever I have discussions with others on this topic, I always seek to establish definitions first.
What defines a unit test?
Here is my definition:
A unit test is a functional, white box test that verifies the correctness of a single unit of software code. It is functional in that it gives a deterministic pass-or-fail result. It is white box in that the test code directly calls the product source code under test. The unit is typically a function or method, and there should be separate unit tests for each equivalence class of inputs.
Unit tests should focus on one thing, and they are typically short – both in lines of code and in execution time. Unit tests become extremely useful when they are automated. Every major programming language has unit test frameworks. Some popular examples include JUnit, xUnit.net, and pytest. These frameworks often integrate with code coverage, too.
In continuous integration, automated unit tests can be run automatically every time a new build is made to indicate if the build is good or bad. That’s why unit tests must be deterministic – they must yield consistent results in order to trust build status and expedite failure triage. For example, if a build was green at 10am but turned red at 11am, then, so long as the tests were deterministic, it is reasonable to deduce that a defective change was committed to the code line between 10-11am. Good build status indicates that the build is okay to deploy to a test environment and then hopefully to production.
(As a side note, I’ve heard arguments that unit tests can be black box, but I disagree. Even if a black box test covers only one “unit”, it is still at least an integration test because it covers the connection between the actual product and some caller (script, web browser, etc.).)
What defines a performance test?
Again, here’s my definition:
A performance test is a test that measures aspects of a controlled system. It is white box if it tests code directly, such as profiling individual functions or methods. It is black box if it tests a real, live, deployed product. Typically, when people talk about testing software performance, they mean black box style testing. The aspects to measure must be pre-determined, and the system under test must be controlled in order to achieve consistent measurements.
Performance tests are not functional tests:
Functional tests answer if a thing works.
Performance tests answer how efficiently a thing works.
Rather than yield pass-or-fail results, performance tests yield measurements. These measurements could track things as general as CPU or memory usage, or they could track specific product features like response times. Once measurements are gathered, data analysis should evaluate the goodness of the measurements. This often means comparison to other measurements, which could be from older releases or with other environment controls.
Performance testing is challenging to set up and measure properly. While unit tests will run the same in any environment, performance tests are inherently sensitive to the environment. For example, an enterprise cloud server will likely have better response time than a 7-year-old Macbook.
Why should performance tests not be unit tests?
Returning to the original question, it is theoretically possible to frame a performance test as a functional test by validating a specific measurement against a preset threshold. However, there are 3 main reasons why a unit test should not be a performance test:
Performance checks in unit tests make the build process more vulnerable to environmental issues. Bad measurements from environment issues could cause unit tests to fail for reasons unrelated to code correctness. Any unit test failure will block a build, trigger triage, and stall progress. This means time and money. The build process must not be interrupted by environment problems.
Proper performance tests require lots of setup beyond basic unit test support. Unit tests should be short and sweet, and unit testing frameworks don’t have the tools needed to take good measurements. Unit test environments are often not set up in tightly controlled environments, either. It would take a lot of work to properly put performance checks into a unit test.
Performance tests yield metrics that should not be shoehorned into a binary pass/fail status. Performance data is complex and rich with information. Teams should analyze performance data, especially over time. It can also be volatile.
These points are based on the explicit definitions provided above. Note that I am not saying that performance testing should not be done, but rather that performances checks should not be part of unit testing. Unit testing and performance testing should be categorically separate types of testing.