Test processes as servers

Since its very early days subunit has had a single model – you run a process, it outputs test results. This works great, except when it doesn’t.

On the up side, you have a one way pipeline – there’s no interactivity needed, which makes it very very easy to write a subunit backend that e.g. testr can use.

On the downside, there’s no interactivity, which means that anytime you want to do something with those tests, a new process is needed – and thats sometimes quite expensive – particularly in test suites with 10’s of thousands of tests.Now, for use in the development edit-execute loop, this is arguably ok, because one needs to load the new tests into memory anyway; but wouldn’t it be nice if tools like testr that run tests for you didn’t have to decide upfront exactly how they were going to run. If instead they could get things running straight away and then give progressively larger and larger units of work to be run, without forcing a new process (and thus new discovery directory walking and importing) ? Secondly, testr has an inconsistent interface – if testr is letting a user debug things to testr through to child workers in a chain, it needs to use something structured (e.g. subunit) and route stdin to the actual worker, but the final testr needs to unwrap everything – this is needlessly complex. Lastly, for some languages at least, its possibly to dynamically pick up new code at runtime – so a simple inotify loop and we could avoid new-process (and more importantly complete-enumeration) *entirely*, leading to very fast edit-test cycles.

So, in this blog post I’m really running this idea up the flagpole, and trying to sketch out the interface – and hopefully get feedback on it.

Taking subunit.run as an example process to do this to:

  1. There should be an option to change from one-shot to server mode
  2. In server mode, it will listen for commands somewhere (lets say stdin)
  3. On startup it might eager load the available tests
  4. One command would be list-tests – which would enumerate all the tests to its output channel (which is stdout today – so lets stay with that for now)
  5. Another would be run-tests, which would take a set of test ids, and then filter-and-run just those ids from the available tests, output, as it does today, going to stdout. Passing somewhat large sets of test ids in may be desirable, because some test runners perform fixture optimisations (e.g. bringing up DB servers or web servers) and test-at-a-time is pretty much worst case for that sort of environment.
  6. Another would be be std-in a command providing a packet of stdin – used for interacting with debuggers

So that seems pretty approachable to me – we don’t even need an async loop in there, as long as we’re willing to patch select etc (for the stdin handling in some environments like Twisted). If we don’t want to monkey patch like that, we’ll need to make stdin a socketpair, and have an event loop running to shepard bytes from the real stdin to the one we let the rest of Python have.

What about that nirvana above? If we assume inotify support, then list_tests (and run_tests) can just consult a changed-file list and reload those modules before continuing. Reloading them just-in-time would be likely to create havoc – I think reloading only when synchronised with test completion makes a great deal of sense.

Would such a test server make sense in other languages?  What about e.g. testtools.run vs subunit.run – such a server wouldn’t want to use subunit, but perhaps a regular CLI UI would be nice…

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