Test and test again

I help coach a soccer team. As a coach, you soon realize that you have to tell your players the same thing over and over again before they get the message. And even after they get the message, you have to tell them the same thing again and again to help them remember it. So, for those of you reading this, the message of this column is: Test!

There are those who believe that bugs can be managed in Java through the strategic use of exceptions, an exception in Java being a way to indicate to a method that an abnormal condition has occurred. If a method encounters an exceptional condition that it can't handle itself, it throws an exception. The plan -- or hope -- is that an exception will be caught by a handler positioned along the thread's method invocation stack. The idea is that developers position exception handlers so that their applications will catch, handle and recover from all exceptions. However, when your disk becomes full and your application can't write to it anymore, is that a bug or just an abnormal condition to handle? It's better to think of exceptions as exceptional conditions, such as your disk getting full, and not to think of them as bugs. It is important not to use exceptions to capture bugs because that is the job of testing.

There are many situations where an exception handler can't fix a problem in code. And no matter how good a job those involved with the development of Java as a language did, I still maintain that it's never a language that kills an application, it's the skill of the developer using the language. Take, for example, one of my favorite code samples:

public class Mistake {

private static int methodWithAMistake(int a, int b, int c) {
return (b * b) + (a * c * 4);}

public static void main (String args[]) {
System.out.println(methodWithAMistake (7, 2, 0));
System.out.println(methodWithAMistake (7, 2, 1));}

Say a developer makes a mistake and uses addition in methodWithAMistake when it should have been subtraction. If the developer tests the method using only one test case - the one with 7, 2 and 0 as arguments - the method looks correct because it returns the same answer of 4 using either addition or subtraction. However, if the developer tests with arguments 7, 2 and 1, 32 is returned when it should have been -24. Clearly, passing a single test case is not enough testing to demonstrate the absence of a bug. And, clearly, skilled developers test.

Bugs, which are errors or faults that testing can catch, can be broken down minimally into several types. An application may lack usability as a result of a poor user interface. It might have a missing or incorrect capability. The application might have side-effects and unanticipated, undesirable feature interactions. Its performance may be lacking, or it might suffer from real-time deadline failures, synchronization deadlock and livelock. The application's output might also be wrong. And finally, something we are used to seeing, the application might abruptly terminate -- crash to blue.

There are many causes of bugs. Often, important requirements aren't identified and implemented. The implementation might not support the requirements. The programmer may have just made a mistake, the chosen algorithm might be inefficient or the approach might be not be feasible. As well, the configuration might be invalid. So many more things might be wrong. And there are so many things to test.

Are you ready to test yet? Good, but don't just go and run your application to see if it works. Good test design involves the following steps. First identify, model and analyze the responsibilities of your application under test. Next, design test cases from an external view of your application. This view might be from a user's perspective, whether that user is a person or another application. Then add more test cases based on code analysis, suspicions and heuristics. Finally, figure out the expected results of each test case or at least develop an approach for evaluating whether a test case, when executed, passes or fails. Does this sound like work? Let me put it this way. Would you rather be responsible for your application working or failing? And keep in mind that often many people's lives can depend on your software.

As important as testing is, it is still no substitute for good software engineering practices. For example, if your system doesn't crash under testing or you don't find any bugs, does that imply it has met all its functional requirements? Of course not. However, testing can reveal interactions and special scenarios that have not been considered and which cause the system to crash. Using good software engineering practices, including testing from the onset of the development process, is the best approach. Catching bugs early in the process not only decreases the costs associated with finding them late in the game, but just thinking about testing can impact the costs associated with architectural considerations, designs, coding practices and personnel. Why wait to consider testing? You know you have to do it.

Sometimes, a bug can suggest a new feature. For example, I occasionally make a mistake and send a message to an object that it doesn't understand. If you try hard enough, you might be able to get around the compiler on this one. However, sometimes I actually want to send a message to an object that it doesn't understand, but guess what happens? You're right. You get a NoSuchMethodError thrown.

What I wish Java would do is what Smalltalk does. It forwards a doesNotUnderstand message to the receiving object -- not the sending object -- so it can have one more chance at processing the message. Why? Here's one reason: With this feature in Smalltalk I can write one proxy class for every other class. In Java, well ... explaining that would take a full article. In most cases, you need one proxy for every other class. Those of you reading this who use RMI know the consequences of this problem.

So, what have we learned? Test now, test tomorrow, test often and test under many circumstances. It's not the language's fault when you make a mistake, it's yours. If you still don't believe in testing, I suggest you check out Robert Binder's book, Testing Object-Oriented Systems: Models, Patterns and Tools (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 2000). I did. He goes into far more detail about testing than you could ever want to know. If you don't think testing is important after reading his book, I guess there is no hope for you.

Let me conclude by saying that even though I know testing is work, and there might be a specific feature or two in other languages I would like to use, I still prefer developing and testing my applications in Java. Don't you?

About the Author

Dwight Deugo is a professor of computer science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. Dwight has been an editor for SIGS and 101communications publications, and serves as chair of the Java Programming track at the SIGS Conference for Java Development. He can be reached via e-mail at


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