28 Days - My favorite Elixir testing tool - Mockery

I hate to admit it, but I’ve finally started truly unit testing with Elixir. I come from the Ruby world where our large test suite often runs slowly due to things like data insertion / access in the tests, large object graphs, etc. It’s easy to criticize situations like this after the fact, but I find the reasons along the way were paved with the best intentions. As I learn and adopt Elixir at SalesLoft, I’ve been extra careful to avoid these situations from playing out again.

The biggest tool in my arsenal so far has been Mockery, a mocking tool that allows the test suite to be run in parallel. This seems like a natural thing to expect from a mocking tool, but some others that I used do not have this property. I think that the design of Mockery also leads to cleaner code, so I’ve adopted it.

Mockery Usage

The Github for Mockery lays out all different usage possibilities for it, I’ll just cover the one or two that I use most often.

The first, and most common case, is mocking out expensive operations. An example of this is network requests; I’m able to use tools to test these requests (topic for another post?), in their specific modules, but then keep these requests out of other places. Another example is for database access. I can write query objects or repositories to handle the fetching / insertion of data, but then mock out these modules in their usage throughout a system. Here’s an example usage:

defmodule MyRequest do
  @widgets_query Mockery.of("WidgetsQuery")

  def call(authentication_context) do

defmodule MyRequestTest do
  use ExUnit.Case, async: true
  use Mockery

  test "call returns the widgets query" do
    auth = %{}
    mock WidgetsQuery, :call, [%Widget{id: 1}, %Widget{id: 2}]
    assert MyRequest.call(auth) == [%Widget{id: 1}, %Widget{id: 2}]
    assert_called WidgetsQuery, :call, [^auth]

This is about the most basic usage to Mockery possible. The module is mocked for this process only, then used by the request. After the call, we can check that it was called properly. This allows the important parts of a mock to be fully covered in our test suite: params and results.

There is another usage of Mockery that I’ve found useful, it’s to implement a mock that always exists unless specified by a test. In the above mock example, if we wrote another test, that module would not be mocked anymore, leading to a real database call. This may not be desired if we end up mocking a module in a lot of places. Enter by: keyword:

@widgets_query Mockery.of("WidgetsQuery", by: "WidgetsQuery.Mock")

defmodule WidgetsQuery do
  defmodule Mock do
    def call(_auth), do: []

In the above usage of Mockery, any call in a normal test will return an empty list. This may not be desirable for certain cases, so your mileage will vary with such a technique.

Mockery for Processes

Another really powerful use case of mocking, that I’ve found and think warrants a separate mention, is for process based communication. In practice, testing processes can get a bit hairy. Timing, process ownership, race conditions are all easily possible in tests due to tests running in a process and our code being able to run in processes. Mockery can help out here by mocking out the explicit boundaries between processes.

While I find a ton of power in Mockery for this use case, I urge even more caution than others. It would be possible to devise an incorrect process tree that works in tests solely because of mocking. Don’t shy away from mocking, but don’t take to it immediately either.

Dangers of mocking

Mocking is not a silver bullet for tests. It can certainly help greatly with common expensive operations and allows for testing of boundaries rather than going past the boundaries in each test. However, what if our boundaries are not correct?

A few common issues arise with mocking. It is possible to setup a mock on a function that doesn’t exist, on params that are not reflective of reality, and on results that are not part of the type signature of the function. Each of these scenarios has the potential for a worst case testing scenario: code that passes locally but fails in QA or production testing.

Mockery does help with the function not existing, as it requires mocking out functions that do exist in the target module. This can even work on arity (ensure that the right arity is mocked out). It cannot, unfortunately, help with the input or output not being real. Engineers must be on the lookout for these issues and diligently use mocking, ensuring that the usage is correct at write-time and also after any refactors.

I haven’t done so, but my guess is that typespecs might be able to help out here. I don’t see any obvious integrations with Mockery, but anything is possible and could be implemented custom based on the typespec metadata.

Why Mockery over others?

I had some problems with other mocking tools that dynamically switch out modules globally. These types of tools require that test processes run synchronously rather than asynchronously. This is not a big deal for small test suites, but could be a huge limiter for a large test suite. At the scale of our product, I have to assume that a service could become large over time, and so I’m very careful about test speed.

I also find that defining what is mockable in the module (rather than anything being mockable via the test suite) allows my code to be more readable and explicit. All of a sudden, I can tell exactly what is mockable rather than assuming that anything is mockable. If I saw someone mocking an Enum function, for example, I would have an immediate red flag raised. Seeing this play out in the module rather than the test really does help.

Thanks for reading the 15th post in my 28 days of Elixir. Keep up through the month of February to see if I can stand subjecting myself to 28 days of straight writing. I am looking for new topics to write about, so please reach out if there’s anything you really want to see!

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