Unit Test from Pain to Joy

Recently I have made an improvement in a project regarding its unit test. The improvement has a huge impact on the system in a good way. It also has a huge impact on my thinking, my philosophy about unit test, again, in a good way.

The Story

I have been working on a huge, complex codebase. It is still written with .NET 4.0, about 6 years old. Part of the system is WCF service employed CQRS style. The code has its existing unit test. And we have added more. The tests have both integration tests and mocked tests.

Integration tests, in our context, means starting with the top-most layer (presentation layer at WCF service) down to the database, and then getting data back from the database using Query Handler or Repository. In short, it is a complex testing style. And to my opinion, it is not good. I would not have done that.

Mocked tests, in our context, means mocking all the dependencies. In short, all the interfaces are mocked. Even for the domain objects, we also create proxy objects and mock their properties, methods. It turns out a big mistake.

Most of the time, we are mocking instead of testing state. There are a few problems (pain) with our approach.

First, it is hard to write. To mock dependencies, you have to know all the dependencies. Which means developers have to read the implementation code, figure out how they are interacting with each other, figure out what methods call on which interfaces. Those are not really fun. And they do not bring any real value.

Second, it is fragile. Whenever we add code or refactor a piece of code, the unit test breaks. Because the unit test assumes that a number of certain methods are there and that they are called in a specific order. Which is, in our context, not suitable.

Third, it is damn hard to write tests to verify a bug fix.

Root Cause

How did the hell on earth I end up in that situation? Everything has its own reasons. And I want to figure out mine.

I have bought this excuse for so long. And I was happy with it, unfortunately

Because the codebase is complex. The design was wrong. We do not have time to redesign it.

The fingers were pointing to the other guys, other developers. No, it was not true.

What role have I played in that mess?“, I asked. Oh, turn out I play a very big role. After reflection, here are some reasons to me not doing well on my that area.

Wrong Mindset

A long time ago, when I started knowing and writing unit tests, I was sold the thought that we have to cut the dependencies, especially the database dependency. And with the raising of mocking, the promising of TDD, I mocked (in the hope of cutting dependencies) as much as I could. It works in many scenarios. However, because I believe it is the right thing, I forget to ask right questions.

Not Ask Right Questions

I just wrote tests without asking right questions.

What am I testing here?

Kind of a stupid question, but very powerful. Depending on types of application, on the architecture, answers are different. Because of my wrong mindset, I focused on how instead of what. Answering that question allows me to analyze further, allows me to actually look at the system in a systematical way, instead of a theoretical way.


First, I decided to throw away what I thought I know about Unit Test. Here are what I want my Unit Test should be

  1. Easy to write, easy to understand from code.
  2. Resilient to refactoring. Do not have to modify unit tests when using another interface in the implementation code. In short, the tests should be there to guarantee the code correctness at maintenance phase.

While writing this post, I created a github repo, welcome to DotConnect.

What are We Testing?

Such a simple but powerful question! However, I sometimes forgot to ask. We know that we should write unit test for our code. Have we ever considered to answer that question properly? Take an example, given that we will build a simple web service (WCF) to CRUD an Account into the SQL database. What are we going to test? Each will have a different answer, thus, drive their unit test implementation.

When asking that question, the important is to remove the term Unit. I find it is a trap. When that term presents, my mind is trapped in defining what unit is. Therefore, I forget the purpose of my testing.

From my own opinion, at the abstract level, I will categorize them into 2 categories 1) Functional Test and 2) Architecture Test

Functional Test

That are tests to govern the correctness of the system. For this kind of test, we have to define clearly what is the final state.

The simple diagram of all processes

To implement a proper test, one must clearly define the Output. Some common outputs are 1) Database, 2) Filesystem

To define a good output, we have to define the proper scope (which comes later in this post)

Architecture Test

For some systems, architecture is important. Let’s say all the call to the Database must go through a repository. Or that the Controller (MVC application) must delegate the work to the next layer (such as Service or Command/Query Handler).

Usually, we use Mock to accomplish the testing goal. Because we do not really care about the actual implementation. We care about the sequence of calls.

What are Dependencies?

Dependencies must be listed out explicitly. At the minimum, there should be a simple diagram like this

High-level dependencies of the system. Each box (such as Google) is a dependency

And do not go into the detail of those dependencies. Better keep the high-level view.

What is the Scope?

Without a scope, things get messy. A proper, explicit said scope will help to define the Input and Output. I made a mistake at this question so I defined a wrong scope. I, once, defined scope at the Project level. I had a unit test for Command Handler project, which will mock the dependency to the Repository project. Then I had another unit test for Repository project. They, first, looked logical and reasonable. However, with the tested of the time, it proves I was wrong.

Once I realized it (and that is why I write this post), I defined the scope at Command Handler level only, remove the concept of Repository test. Which allows me to define the Input is the Command, and the Output is the changes in the database.

This is a game changer step for me. For years, I have been focusing on the term Unit. The problem is that it is hard to define the unit. Will it be a function, a method? Will it be a class? or Will it be an assembly? Well, I do not know. Better I just choose to forget about them.

So what do I have so far in my toolbox regarding unit test? Here they are

  1. Ask the question: What am I testing?
  2. Explicitly list all dependencies at high-level
  3. Define testing scope
My Unit Test toolbox
My Unit Test toolbox


Back to the story, the system I have been working with is a complex system, a data-driven system. The data is back by SQL Server. From the architecture point of view, it is WCF service with CQRS architecture. When a command is executed, there are a bunch of things involved, the domain, the domain service, the external services (AD FS, payment service, …), … eventually, the data is saved into SQL Server database.

From the command side:

Q: What am I testing here?

A: Save data correctly in the database

We should not care about what domain involved, what domain service called, … They are internal implementation. And they are changed frequently. We chased the wrong rabbit hole.

From the query side:

Q: What am I testing here?

A: Get data from the database correctly.

We should not care about how data is filtered, how data is combined, … They are internal implementation. And the same reasoning goes as in Command.

In both cases, the test will give an input and verify the output. However, we still have a problem with dependencies. A big change in my mindset is that I no longer see the database as a dependency. Rather it is a part of the internal system. Why? Because it is an essential part. It can be set up locally and in CI environment. Therefore, my definition of dependency is

Dependency is external systems that we do not control. That they are hard to set up. That we do not care about their implementation. Database should NOT be one of them.

How to mock those dependencies of not using a Mocking framework? A good practice is that for every dependency, there should be a Proxy (the Proxy design pattern). The proxy implementation is injected at the runtime with the help of an IoC framework such as Windsor Container. For Unit Test, I create a fake implementation and tweak as I want.

I took me a little while to set up all those things. But it works. It gives a lot of payoffs.

Implementation Detail

[PS: This section has not finished yet. However, this post has started for a while. I think I should publish it and save the implementation detail for another post.]

To implement this kind of test, I need to interact with the database to insert and get the data regardless of the system logic. This separation is very important. To accomplish this, I use Linq To SQL.

Due to the confidential contract, I am going to create a simple demo instead of using a real application. Let’s create a simple User form MVC application.


Having a separated assembly allows me to isolate the changes. The Linq DBContext allows me to interact with the database as I need.

All the tests have a pattern

  1. Assumption: Prepare data. This step insert the data into the database for the command to execute
  2. Arrange: Prepare the command to verify.
  3. Act: Invoke the command handler correspondent to the command. Each command has its own Command Handler.
  4. Assert: Verify the result. Use Linq To SQL to get the data from the database and verify our expectations.

Instead of repeating the steps, I create a Strategy pattern

When Mock?

There are still scenarios where the Mocking is a perfect solution. Usually, it is the top layer of the system. Let’s take MVC (WebAPI) as an example. In my opinion, the Controller should be as light-weight as possible. What a controller should do are

  1. Validate input
  2. Prepare a request (can be a Command or a Query)
  3. Dispatch the request to the next layer. If the system employees CQRS, that layer is usually a Command Handler or Query Handler.
  4. Return the result

Which steps should be mocked? The step #3. What are we testing? We test to ensure that the Controller sends correct command/query to the next layer. We test the behavior of Controllers. The mock might be a perfect fit for Architecture Test.


What’s Next?

The implementation detail for all the stuff I write here. Now it is time to let this post out so I get something DONE.

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