Database Unit Testing: It’s Tricky

I’ve been aware for a while that I really should be doing some database unit-testing along with the main unit-testing I’m already doing of the other code. With databases there’s a bunch of stuff I’d like to test apart from the logic inside any executable code:

  • Relationships – the database model should support certain types of queries, make sure that the more common ones work as needed
  • Query Execution Time – to verify that indices are present on SELECT’s and to monitor the cost of insertions and as a general (and fairly gross) monitor of performance
  • Arbitary Data Values – some data in the database is ‘special’. It’s always like that, it’s data that you don’t get from another source. It’s static data that makes your abstractions work. When it’s there everything is ok, when it’s gone you’re screwed
  • Constraints & Triggers – constraints and triggers occassionally get dropped when maintenance occurs when they don’t get put back things go south
  • Permissions – certain types of activity in a database should be prohibited ensure that these protections are in place for a class of users

There’s probably a lot more I could do too, but this will do to begin with. In the past I’ve spent significant investigative time hunting down problems that originated from some initial assumption being violated. Since I don’t like feeling violated, at least not on a Thursday, it seems like I should unit test what I can to get early warnings before the shit-storm hits.

So I did what any lazy, self-respecting developer would do I went looking for some code that someone else had written that I could steal. T-SQLUnit looked like the best match for my needs so I downloaded it and checked it out. Now, before I upset anyone I should say that T-SQLUnit is ok. But it suffers from a few fairly major drawbacks. There’s nothing wrong with TSQLUnit per-se it’s just that all database unit testing frameworks that are written in SQL are broken. Here’s a few lowlights:

  1. Results of expressions can not be inputs to stored procedures making traditional unit testing Assert statements awkward
  2. Catching all exceptions and reporting automatically that as a failure (ala jUnit) is messy requiring a BEGIN/END TRY around every test block

It’s the first one that makes life hard because all your assertions have to read something like:

IF @MyVar <> @TheirVar
THEN
     EXEC ts_failure 'My variable doesn't equal your variable'
END

When what you really want to write is something like:

EXEC ts_assert @MyVar <> @TheirVariable,  'My variable doesn't equal your variable'

I don’t know, perhaps I’m just not smart enough but I could not see anyway to make something like the above work without ending up with a syntax so verbose and ugly that even Eurocrats would balk a little. So bad that you might as well have just used a bunch of IF statements in the first place. Also, a direct consequence of not being able to have an ‘assert’ stored proc is that you can’t easily count the number of assertions you make to report them later. Now whilst this is just icing on the unit-test cake it’s still a nice feature to have and adds to the warm fuzz after a test run.

If that was hard then testing permissions related activities is next-to impossible. This is because your unit-testing framework is running as a particular user in a particular session. For you to be able to test particular permissions you might need to disconnect and reconnect as a different user. Well, it’s not impossible it’s just … a bit tricky

The obvious thing to do, then, is to completely give up on SQL unit testing frameworks and go back to your programming language of choice. As far as is possible you want to hide all the internals of dealing with the database and leave just the pieces you need to setup, run and teardown your tests. To do this I made a helper class to do all the heavy lifting by: connecting to the database, running any query, timing the execution, processing the results and storing them somewhere. Finally I made my class provide a function based query interface so that I could then write test code using NUnit style assertions against it. Creating this custom class took only a few hours. Once I’d created it I could hand all the testing framework stuff to my old-friend NUnit. This technique worked well for me and integrated nicely with my existing code tests.

3 thoughts on “Database Unit Testing: It’s Tricky”

  1. Thanks Chris. I had a listen. It seems that we are saying the same thing, roughly. Sadly I can’t afford “Visual Studio Team Suite Edition for Database Professionals” at the price that they want for it so I wanted to roll my own. My solution is clearly inferior to using DevStudio but about $8000 cheaper!!

    Whether it is a false economy or not, time will tell … 🙂

  2. If you’re on a Java stack, use DbUnit; furthermore, the combo of Spring Test & DbUnit, and staying away from putting too much logic in stored procedures / triggers means you can unit test against the database fairly well — leaving zero side effects, and with speed/efficiency. I wrote up a blog entry on the technique I use: http://zenoconsulting.wikidot.com/blog:8

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