XML Unit: assertEquals and fail

Some weeks ago I was challenged at work that led me to invent a unit test framework for xml files. After some basic first steps I decided to introduce the approach on my blog as well.


Why did I need a unit test framework for xml files? Easy enough. Our product has an intense configuration consisting of several xml files for the customization part. On the current project I’m working on there is a configuration file which consists of about 18 Megabytes of customization in one xml file. Most of our other tests use to start up a full system (taking a bit more than 60 Megs of main-memory database in combination with oracle database persistence) and exercise the whole chain all through the system. Initially I tried to write a unit test using JUnit and JDom, but failed to have it executed in my IDE while the 18 Megs were trying to be loaded with an OutOfHeapSpace exception. Brian Marick had pointed out Assert { xpath } from Ruby some weeks ago and I started to consider this as an alternative. After realizing that nearly no one knows Ruby at my company and there would be drawbacks considering the way our company uses the Revision Control system, I forgot about these alternative.

Then I reminded myself on an approach using xsltproc and some stylesheets. Usability for our Continuous Integration framework was an issue, therefore I decided to produce an output similar to the JUnit XML reports, so these can be directly hard-wired. This blog entry will describe the first few functions that I built: assertEquals and fail. If there is a demand for follow-ups, I will try to come up with an approach similar to the Test and the Suite classes of JUnit. In the end a test runner will also be needed, which is currently handled by Makefile dependencies.

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Customer relations to beautiful code

What is Quality?

Quality is value to some person.

I would like to show how to apply this often-cited quote from Jerry Weinberg in order to distinguish whether or not to code beautifully (or elegantly) or build a mess. In order to start I will distinguish between externally perceived quality of your software and internal structural quality of the code.

The externally quality of your software is the factor how the end user perceives your software. Bulky user interfaces with complicated workflows can be valueable to someone, most prefer easy to use user interfaces with easy to learn or even intuitive workflows. Therefore your end user will not care much about how beautifully you coded your application using test-driven development or not, using latest design patterns or not, refactoring as you went to ship it. Isn’t it?

No, it is not. Here again it depends on the context of your software and it’s use and the situations your users want to use it. If the business model has a high coupling to laws like tax systems and these laws changes, it actually may be the case that a product of high quality today becomes a mess tomorrow, since I have to recalculate the taxes myself using a calculator. Since quality is timely value to some person quality may disappear if it is not maintained.

Here comes internal quality into play. If you have built a mess with your code, you make yourself unable to react to market or law situations. Ward Cunningham, Martin Fowler and others called this concept Technical Debt. Sure, it might be that you can overcome this situation with another mess, thereby disabling you for the next adaptation you are going to make. In the end you are running into the situation where your code base can no longer with todays needs, since you brought in flaws in yesterday urgency.

Alistair Cockburn came up with a two-phased approach to describe this situation: The Cooperative Game. The initial goal of the game is to deliver working software. This related to the external quality of your software as it is perceived by the customers today. The second goal of a cooperative game in software development is to adapt the system to tomorrows needs. This related highly to the internal structural quality of your code base. No end consumer will take care of this – today – but he will be unhappy to pay for your Technical Debt in terms of later delivery, higher costs tomorrow.