Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Limitations of TDD

During the last 12-18 months, TDD has broken into the mainstream, it seems. And now, we're starting to see some backlash, as its limitations become better understood. Here is a sample discussion from Cédric Beust, who wrote the commentary, is not some unknown guy with a weird name. He wrote the TestNG unit testing framework, which is second only to JUnit in popularity. He also wrote the book, Next Generation Java Testing, which is probably the best book on pragmatic software testing that I've read in a long time. Here goes...

> That's an interesting point. Are you, in effect, saying
> that unit testing is overly emphasized, and at the expense
> of other forms of testing?

This has also been my experience, although to be honest, I see this problem more in agile/XP literature than in the real world.

This is the reason why I claim that:

- TDD encourages micro-design over macro-design
- TDD generates code churn

If you obsessively do TDD, you write tests for code that you are pretty much guaranteed to throw away. And when you do that, you will have to refactor your tests or rewrite them completely. Whether this refactoring can be done automatically or not is beside the point: you are in effect creating more work for yourself.

When I start solving a problem, I like to iterate two or three times on my code before I'm comfortable enough to write a test.

Another important point is that unit tests are a convenience for *you*, the developer, while functional tests are important for your *users*. When I have limited time, I always give priority to writing functional tests. Your duty is to your users, not to your test coverage tools.

You also bring up another interesting point: overtesting can lead to paralysis. I can imagine reaching a point where you don't want to modify your code because you will have too many tests to update (especially in dynamically typed languages, where you can't use tools that will automate this refactoring for you). The lesson here is to do your best so that your tests don't overlap.

--Cedric Beust

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

My Interview with Alexander Stepanov and Paul McJones has posted my interview with Alexander Stepanov (of STL fame) and his co-author Paul McJones. Their just-released book, Elements of Programming, tries to map algorithm implementations back to symbolic logic and algebraic theorems, thereby--in theory--improving their design and correctness.

In the discussion, we broach many topics that derive from this approach to programming.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Groovy Books

I have been using Groovy to write functional tests for Platypus, the open-source typesetting project I work on. I am likely to make Groovy the default scripting language for Platypus in the next milestone. In the process, I've had to come up to speed on Groovy and I've been reading through and looking over the various Groovy titles on the market. Here's my take.

The Groovy bible today, without the slightest doubt, is Groovy in Action which at 650+ pages is also the most detailed book. Its principal limitation is that Groovy has undergone several revisions since it came out. Because of this, a second edition is being written. Early access to e-drafts of that edition are available here, although little as yet has been published.

If you'd like a shorter and more up-to-date introduction to Groovy, I recommend Programming Groovyby Venkat Subramaniam. At less than 300 pages, it's a quick read, provides all the needed info quickly, and covers all the highlights, with a good balance of detail.

Many people consider Grails to be the killer app for Groovy. It's a web framework that rides above Spring and Hibernate and removes much of the complexity of using those components. If you are learning Groovy to use Grails, then Beginning Groovy and Grailsis an excellent choice. It's clear, approachable, and teaches you enough Groovy to be able to follow the tutorial on Grails.

Once you get comfortable with basic Groovy, you'll quickly find yourself pining for a book of recipes that shows you how to quickly get basic tasks done using Groovy metaphors. There are two somewhat flawed recipe books on the market. The first is Groovy Recipesfrom Scott Davis, a well-regarded lecturer in the Groovy area. While calling itself a recipe book, it frequently diverges into tutorials and odd humor--both of which are obstacles when trying to find information. Some important topics are not covered at all, such as testing--which is one of the major areas where Groovy benefits Java. Database access is also not covered. In other areas, Davis' explanations seem to lack an understanding of what the user would be looking for. Nonetheless, I have successfully used some of Davis' recipes in my work. A good alternative is Groovy and Grails Recipesfrom Bashar Abdul-Jawad. This title is a true recipe book and very readable. The Groovy portion is too short, however, and an important section on file recipes (which does appear in the Davis book) is omitted. However, if you're learning Groovy to get to Grails, this is the best choice. And Abdul-Jawad does a good job understanding what readers are looking for.

Ideally, O'Reilly would publish one of its trademark comprehensive recipes book and we could all settle on that. However, when I contacted O'Reilly about upcoming Groovy titles, the company indicated it had none in the immediate pipeline.

That's pretty much it for Groovy books; although there are several others that focus exclusively on Grails. One publisher, Apress, seems to dominate that Grails market. The two titles above that cover Grails are from Apress as is the Definitive Guide to Grails, written by Graeme Rocher, who designed Grails. In the past I've been skeptical of Apress books due to wide variations in their quality, but the Groovy/Grails titles I've examined have been consistently of high quality.

As Groovy gains a wider audience, I expect more titles to emerge from all the technical book publishers.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Fan programming language: compile to Java and .NET

I have recently been playing with Fan, a programming language that reminds me a lot of Groovy, but has additional capabilities, such as actors. Its binaries run either on the JVM or .NET. Below is my recent column in SDTimes about the language. 

In recent times, we are seeing an extraordinary proliferation of new languages. On one hand, thousands of domain-specific languages (DSLs) have been spawned by the advent of tools that facilitate their creation. On the other hand, we find an equal surge in full-scale, general-purpose programming languages.

 The renaissance of these larger programming languages derives from several advances: 1) a renewed interest in dynamic languages and their benefits; 2) hardware that’s fast enough to run dynamic languages rapidly; and 3) the existence of two run-time environments—the JVM and the .NET CLR—that are widely used, well understood, and fast. As a result, we have an embarrassment of language choices that was inconceivable a decade ago.

In this column, I have previously highlight various interesting options among these languages: Ruby, Groovy, D, NetRexx, and a few others that elegantly address specific problems. Recently, I have been spending time with the Fan programming language, which while still early in its development cycle, is more finished and mature than most new languages at this point in their development.

Fan is a dynamic, OO language that runs on the JVM and the .NET CLR. It does this by generating intermediate code (called fcode) that is dynamically translated into Java bytecodes or a .NET DLL at startup. This step introduces a slight pause, after which programs run at full “native” speed for the given environment.

New languages arise because a developer needed to solve a problem that was not addressed well by common alternatives. The developers of Fan, a pair of brothers—Brian and Andy Frank—worked on embedded Java applications and found it difficult to sell the accompanying software to customers who were committed to Windows Mobile and .NET. So, they decided to write Fan to solve the problem and to keep it small enough that it could fit easily in a mobile device. 

In the process, they removed language verbosity and added features they wanted. Their vision is remarkably balanced and complete. The language, on the verge of a freezing its 1.0 features, offers: dynamic typing and/or strong typing (à la Groovy), closures and first-class functions, extensive concurrency support (thread-safe classes with immutability specified, threads with built-in message passing, and actors), and elegant handling of various namespace issues. Low-level features include default method parameters, nullable data types, built-in field accessors, unchecked-only exceptions, and simplified numerics. The numerics handle the overflow problem that is the favorite of language puzzle writers: all integers are longs and all floats are doubles. So either type uses 64-bits and effectively does not overflow. Chars are 16-bit UTF entities.

A particularly interesting aspect of Fan is the libraries. As Brian Frank told me, “Solving the JVM/CLR portability was the easy part. The hard part was what to do with the libraries and APIs.” What the brothers did was to rethink the API sets, eliminate cruft, and use a different concept of grouping. Whereas .NET and Java both use a large number of packages that include moderate numbers of classes, Fan uses few packages that contains large numbers of classes. The result is that a developer can almost always can guess correctly which package to link to for a specific need. In addition, Fan has sensible, built-in library defaults. For example, all files I/O defaults to buffered.

The good design of a language can take it only so far. To succeed, it needs good tools, good docs, and an active community. The language tools (compiler, etc.) are all open source and written in Fan. The code is clean and surprisingly readable. As to IDE support, there is currently a plugin for JetBrains IDEA and one in the very early stages for Eclipse . The Frank brothers do all their coding in regular text editors.

The documents are very good. Probably, the best I’ve seen for any new language at this point and far better than much older “new” languages, such as D. The website is well organized and elegant; and the tutorials and “cookbook” entries clean and plentiful. It’s difficult to assess language community size in general, but more so with Fan because it does not figure on Tiobe, due I suspect to the difficulty of teasing out data for a language named Fan. For this reason and for richer Google search results, there is a move afoot to change the name of the language. Nonetheless, the community is definitely small and active. The latter aspect due to the responsiveness of the Frank brothers to users’ questions, requests, and defect reports. 

Fan solves a lot of problems elegantly. If it continues growing as it has during the past year, I anticipate it will evolve into an attractive solution for some development organizations.

The biggest challenge right now is the early stage in which most IDE plugins are currently found. A second limitation, which is about to be fixed in the upcoming point release, is that libraries and binary modules are all placed by default in the same directory. The discussion on this point, found on the language's discussion boards, shows the attentive regard of the Frank brothers for their users as they kicked around various schemes, elicited comments, and posted thoughtful replies. It's one of the most spam-free, low-noise discussion groups I've been a part of in a long while. I expect good things from this language.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Agile Rules in HP's Original Garage

According to a recent HP poster, these were the rules in Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard's famous garage:

  • Believe you can change the world.
  • Work quickly, keep the tools unlocked, work whenever.
  • Know when to work alone and when to work together.
  • Share tools, ideas. Trust your colleagues.
  • No Politics. No bureaucracy. (These are ridiculous in a garage).
  • The customer defines a job well done.
  • Radical ideas are not bad ideas.
  • Invent different ways of working.
  • Make a contribution every day. If it doesn’t contribute, it doesn’t leave the garage.
  • Believe that together we can do anything.
  • Invent.

  • Curiously, it sounds like something the agile guys might have written (had they not written the manifesto). I prefer this wording because of its greater applicability and more dynamic presentation.