Mathias Brandewinder on .NET, F#, VSTO and Excel development, and quantitative analysis / machine learning.
4. December 2011 15:47

I am in the middle of “Working Effectively with Legacy Code”, and found it every bit as great as it was said to be. In the book, Feathers introduces the concept of Seams and Enabling Points:

a Seam is a place where you can alter behavior in your program without editing it in that place

every seam has an enabling point, a place where you can make the decision to use one behavior or another.

The idea - as I understand it - is that an enabling point is a hook for testability, a place where you can replace the behavior of a piece of code with your own controlled behavior, and validate that the results are as expected.

The reason I am bringing this up is that I have been writing lots of F# lately, and it made me realize that a functional style provides lots of enabling points, and can be much easier to test than object-oriented code.

Here is a simplified, but representative, example of the problem I was looking at: I needed to pick a random item in a list. In C#, a method along these lines would do the job:

public T PickFrom(IList<T> list)
{
var random = new Random();
return list[random.Next(list.Count())];
}

However, this code is utterly untestable; it’s also probably a terrible idea to instantiate a new Random every time this is called, so we modify it this way:

public T PickFrom(IList<T> list, Random random)
{
return list[random.Next(list.Count())];
}

This is much better: now we have a decent Enabling Point, because the list of arguments of the method contains everything that is used inside the method. However, this is still untestable, but for a different reason: by definition, Random.Next() will return different values every time PickFrom is called, and expecting a repeatable result from PickFrom is a bit of a desperate enterprise.

To be able to assert anything, we need to control the behavior of the Random, and make it not-too-random in the test. After years of OO training, the solution comes easy: if you have a problem, add some indirection:

public T PickFrom(IList<T> list, IRandom random)
{
return list[random.Next(list.Count())];
}

public interface IRandom
{
int Next(int lastIndex);
}

We can now pull the big guns and test this using Mocks, which is certainly a pleasant feeling:

[Test]
public void Check_With_Mock()
{
var list = new List<string>() { "A", "B", "C" };
var random = new Mock<IRandom>();
random.Setup(it => it.Next(3)).Returns(1);

var picker = new Picker<string>();
var pick = picker.PickFrom(list, random.Object);

Assert.That(pick, Is.EqualTo("B"));
}

In plain English, what we are saying here is that “if Random.Next(3) was called and happened to return 1, the result of PickFrom better be the item at index 1 of the list, which is B”. That does the job, but, to quote a former Math teacher of mine, if feels a bit like using a Jackhammer to insert a thumbtack.

Faced with the same issue in F#, I ended up doing something a bit different:

let pickFrom (list: list<'a>) picker =
let index = picker (list.Length)
list.Item index

The magic of type inference recognizes that picker is of type (int –> int), which means that it is a function that expects an integer as input, and “returns” / evaluates as an integer. To use a real Random, I would do something like this, creating a function rngPicker that has the correct signature, and uses a Random instance:

open System

let pickFrom (list: list<'a>) picker =
let index = picker (list.Length)
list.Item index

let rng = new Random()
let rngPicker = fun i -> rng.Next(i)
let list = ["A"; "B"; "C"]
for i in 1 .. 10 do
pickFrom list rngPicker
|> Console.WriteLine
… which, when run in the interactive window, will produce a random list of picks from A, B, C. (For the curious minded, mine was BCACACABAC).

The nice thing here is that I can also test this fairly easily, using NUnit and the wonderful FsUnit:

namespace Seams.Tests

open NUnit.Framework
open FsUnit

[<TestFixture>]
type PickerTests() =

[<Test>]
member test.pickFrom should return item at index obtained from picker() =
// Arrange
let list = ["A"; "B"; "C"]
let picker i =
match i with
| 3 -> 1
| _ -> failwith "Ooops"

// Act
let result = Picker.pickFrom list picker

// Assert
result |> should equal "B"

In essence, I am doing here exactly the same thing as I did with the Mock previously, creating an arbitrary picker which will return 1 when called with 3, and validating the result of the function pickFrom, given that known setup.

The beauty here is that this is every bit as flexible as the Interface/Mocks solution, but involves much less ceremony and tooling.

So what’s the point here? First, that approach is by no means unique to F#, and can be used in C# equally well. I could change the PickFrom signature to accept a function, and proceed in a manner similar to the F# example:

public T PickFrom(IList<T> list, Func<int, int> picker)
{
return list[picker(list.Count())];
}

Probably because of how I have been trained to think, this doesn’t feel like the most obvious solution in a C# world, where boundaries are often expressed via interfaces.

Conversely, I found it interesting that after a few days of testing in F#, I still haven’t felt the need for a Mocking framework a single time. I think this has to do with the fact that a functional style provides seams everywhere, because composing functions allows to pipe in any function of equivalent signature, making testing fairly straightforward.

As an aside, I wanted to mention a recent post by Phil Trelford discussing Stubs and TDD with F#, which I found very inspirational.

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