2011/08/05 - Jakarta Cactus has been retired.

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Mock Objects vs In-Container testing

This article was written about 2 years ago and is starting to be a bit old. The general content is still valid but several details are no longer true as the frameworks (be it Cactus or the mock objects frameworks) have evolved since then. Throughout this article, we'll use the abbreviations MO for Mock Objects and IC for In-Container strategy.

MO and Server-side tests

MO is a strategy to unit test java classes in general. As such it is also applicable to unit test server side code like Servlets, Filters, Taglibs, EJBs, ... See the original article "Endo-Testing: Unit Testing with Mock Objects" for full details on MO. As such it is a challenger to Cactus but we'll see in the rest of this article that it is in fact complementary rather than a replacement. The main goal of MO is to unit test a method in isolation of other domain objects. Thus, the MO approach is to fake domain objects by using simulated copies instead of the real objects (be careful MO does not implement any logic in its fake objects, that would be "stubbing". All behaviours of mock objects are controlled by the unit test itself). This enables to finely unit test the method with no environment "noise" and to concentrate on unit testing its logic. When applied to servlet testing, it means mock objects need to be provided for simulating the servlet container. In other words a mock implementation of the Servlet API need to be provided (of course only the Servlet API methods used in the classes under test need to be mocked and the approach described in the white paper is to start small and develop the mock implementations as they are needed - Note that mock objects can even be generated at build time or at run time with JDK 1.3 dynamic proxies, see resources-). Cactus' strategy on the other hand has been to rely on the real container to provide the implementation of the Servlet API. In the rest of this article, we'll discuss the pros and cons of each approach and draw a conclusion. Let's start first by an example to understand better what are MO.

An example

Simple test case using Cactus:

    MyServlet myServlet = new MyServlet();

public void beginXXX(WebRequest theRequest)
    theRequest.addParameter("param1", "value1");
    theRequest.addParameter("param2", "value2");

public void testXXX()

    myServlet.myMethod(request, response);
    assertEquals("some value", session.getAttribute("some_name_set_in_mymethod"));

public void endXXX(WebResponse theResponse)
    String result = theResponse.getText();
    assertEquals("<html><head/><body>A GET request</body></html>", result);

Simple test case using Mock Objects:

    MockHttpServletRequest myMockHttpRequest = new MockHttpServletRequest();
    MockHttpServletResponse myMockHttpResponse = new MockHttpServletResponse();
    MockServletConfig myMockServletConfig = new MockServletConfig();
    MyServlet myServlet = new MyServlet();

public void testXXX()
    myMockHttpRequest.setupAddParameter("param1", "value1");
    myMockHttpRequest.setupAddParameter("param2", "value2");

    myMockHttpRequest.setExpectedAttribute("some_name_set_in_mymethod", "some value");
    myMockHttpResponse.setExpectedOutput("<html><head/><body>A GET request</body></html>");

    myServlet.myMethod(myMockHttpRequest, myMockHttpResponse);


Differences between MO and IC

Comparison of pros and cons of MO versus IC.

This table is not meant to be comprehensive in term of benefits/inconvenients of using MO. It is more focused on pros and cons of MO when used for unit testing server side code (i.e. what Cactus is focusing on). A '+' indicates a positive point.For example a '+' in the MO column shows that it has an advantage over IC.
Issues MO IC
MO let us test methods even before the domain objects are ready, i.e. before the implementation are ready. Or before a choice of implementation has been made. Thus, for example, it is possible to write servlet code before choosing a container. This is in accordance with XP that says: "not commit to infrastructure choice before you have to" and "write unit test first". +
MO is comprehensive/universal. It adapts to all kind of unit testing: Servlet unit testing, JDBC unit testing, Struts unit testing, ... Cactus only addresses server-side testing, meaning that if in your Servlet code you have JDBC connections and you want to unit test in isolation the methods that does database access you still need to have a MO-like strategy, thus you need to understand and learn 2 strategies. +
Running MO tests is very fast as it does not rely on having to run a container. Thus tests can be run very often. IC testing needs to start the container, run the tests, stop the container. However, this can be alleviated by using Ant and by using a reloadable container (the majority of containers implement dynamic reloading). +
Using MO force the developer to refactor his code. As an example he needs to ensure that interfaces are provided for domain objects so that a Mock implementation can be implemented. There are other more subtle refactoring involved like smart handler passing instead of more fine grained data (thus leading to better encapsulation). It follows XP refactoring rules. Note that if you need to implement tests for existing code it can easily become a nightmare ... + +
Using MO, it is not sure the classes will run correctly in the chosen container. On the other hand, IC tests ensures that all code will run perfectly well in container. +
MO tests tend to be very fine-grained. Thus, there is no assurance that object interactions will work properly and thus more coarse grained tests tests are a must (integration tests, functional tests). +
Using generic MO libraries is against some of MO practices. For example, a good practice is to factorize domain object asserts in the mock implementation instead of in the test case (this is called Refactored Assertions). This is possible only if the Mock implementation is project specific. So, for some parts, MO does not fit that well with the idea of generic libraries. A middle ground could probably be found. +
Using MO is not simple. It needs some discipline and some experience. Same as for unit tesing using JUnit, there are some methodologies to follow. Some are:
  • In order not to be weighted down by having to implement myriad of MO, these implementation need to be the simplest possible, i.e. do nothing method at first and then slowly over time, during refactoring, implement what is needed at the current time.
  • One must resist the temptation to reimplement the domain logic in the MO. There must be almost no logic at all in MO.
  • MO must not make calls to other MOs ... When it happens, there is a need for MO refactoring !
In some cases MO mandates creating API that are no normally needed, like having to offer a init(MockObject) method in a Servlet in order to initialize a mock version of an internally used domain object. Also the code may become more complex (even if more flexible) because of the need for testing and not because of business requirements: for example, one might need to introduce a factory when it was not needed simply to be able to provide MO objects from the factory. +
It may not be possible to create generic MO libraries that fit all the needs. For example a generic JDBC MO library may not be possible and might need database specific MO libraries. Also the cost and complexity of a generic MO library may be higher than just reimplementing from scratch just the needed mocked parts. +
MO does not always work well. For example the API being mocked need to offer the correct interfaces and means to override/set internal objects. +


Mock Objects are a very interesting way of doing unit testing which could bridge the gap between standard java class unit testing and server-side testing of container components. The biggest difference between the way Cactus currently works and Mock Objects is that Cactus tests tend to be more coarse-grained and they also ensure that developed code will run in the container. On the other hand, Mock Objects are more satisfactory intellectually because they are not limited to servlet unit testing but cover the whole spectrum of code. We believe the graininess of Cactus tests is just correct. Having fine-grained tests is nice but it is also a lot of effort. It seems Cactus tests are a middle ground where you can still do unit tests fine enough and at the same time it gives you *enough* confidence that your tests will run fine when deployed. Also, as described on the Cactus' goals page, we think that a framework like Cactus will be more and more useful as we use more and more components in the future because it will provide the needed confidence that the code will run ok in the container.

We also believe that writing correctly MO tests is a difficult process that need some training. MO are good because they let you write better code but it is more difficult to understand than Cactus tests.

Finally, we believe that MO and Cactus are complementary in 2 areas:

  • During the development phase, MO could be used to unit test the code logic only. They run fast and you could use them easily inside your IDE. Then every few hours, you'll run the Cactus tests which test interactions between objects and container interactions. Then you'll run the functional/acceptance tests when you deploy to the real platform. Note that this is if you want to do the full cycle. A short cycle could simply be Cactus tests and functional /acceptance tests.
  • Cactus focuses on server side code. However you can use MO (or stubs) within Cactus tests for simulating a JDBC connection, an LDAP connection, ... for example. There are no restrictions.
We would very much like to have your feedback on MO vs IC. Please post your feedback on the Cactus mailing list.

Thanks a lot.

Resources on MO

Some links: