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18 May 2022 · Greatest Hits

9 Ways To Make Slow Tests Faster

From developers to testers, from business analysts to management, everyone in your organization must be committed to keeping tests in top condition. If you have an extensive test suite, you’ll need a plan to focus the effort. Check out our 5-step framework for identifying and optimizing slow tests if you’re not sure where to start.

Software development is modulated by the tools supporting it. Of these, testing is the most widespread and has the largest impact. Keeping tests fast and responsive leads to improved productivity, better code quality, and higher deployment frequency.

When tests slow down, development follows suit. Teams get frustrated when they can’t meet their goals and organizations deploy as fast as they want. At Semaphore, we’ve seen our fair share of tests and have identified the nine factors that slow tests down.

How fast should tests be?

Tests are consumed first and foremost by developers, who run them first on their machines before committing changes. Fast tests keep developers productive, enabling them to maintain the creative focus that’s so important for problem-solving.

By that measure, a test suite taking longer than the time it takes to stretch your legs and grab a cup of coffee is too slow.

Developers should be able to run tests locally — at least the part of the suite directly related to the code they’re working on. A speedy and easy-to-use test suite will encourage developers to run tests before, during, and after their changes.

Tests also affect the speed of CI/CD. The longer they take, the slower your pipeline is. This is important because the pipeline dictates how often you can release. A slow pipeline disrupts the development cycle.

To be more accurate, you’re not really doing continuous integration unless your pipeline takes less than 10 minutes. And because tests run in the pipeline, they should fit comfortably in that 10-minute window.

The CI/CD pipeline

Making slow tests fast again

How do we fix slow tests? And how do we accelerate a CI/CD pipeline? Here are the nine most common performance problems and their solutions:

  1. My tests are too large: break them up.
  2. My tests have multiple dependencies: isolate tests with stubbing or mocking.
  3. My tests are tightly-coupled: refactor them to make them independent.
  4. I have obsolete tests: remove dead code and outdated tests.
  5. My tests use sleep and wait: replace sleep statements with synchronization mechanisms.
  6. My tests use a database: make sure queries are optimized.
  7. My tests always go through the UI: reduce UI interactions. For example, if an API is available, test that instead.
  8. I set up my tests through the UI: use out-of-band channels for setting up and tearing down tests.
  9. My tests cover every edge case in the UI: focus only on the most critical paths for your users.

Breaking up large tests

  • Problem: large tests take a long time to complete, are hard to maintain, and cannot take advantage of concurrency.
  • Solutiondivide et impera. Split the test suite into small units and configure parallel jobs in your pipeline.

Long, single-threaded tests do not benefit from the many cores modern machines come with. Let’s take a look at the following pseudocode, which tests one function in three different ways:

// tests 1 to 3
setup()
value1 = function(input1)
assert value1 == output1
cleanup()

setup()
value2 = function(input2)
assert value2 == output2
cleanup()

setup()
value3 = function(input3)
assert value3 == output3
cleanup()

Breaking this test up could make it up to 3 times faster. Depending on your testing solution, it might be as simple as distributing the code between three files and setting up your framework to use all the available CPUs.

Test1Test2Test3
setup()setup()setup()
value1 = function(input1)value2 = function(input2)value3 = function(input3)
assert value1 == output1assert value2 == output2assert value3 == output3
cleanup()cleanup()cleanup()

Parallelization, however, isn’t without dangers. Tests running in sequence do take longer but are easier to wrap one’s head around. Concurrency, on the other hand, is complex. It may produce unexpected results if tests have side effects and are not isolated. A small mistake can lead to hard-to-debug problems, race conditions, and flaky tests

The truth about multithreaded programming

Parallel jobs in CI/CD

If you take away only one thing in this whole article, let it be this: parallelization has the most immediate benefits with the least effort — mainly when applied to the CI/CD pipeline — despite the aforementioned hurdles in its implementation. Once parallelizing ceases to be cost-effective, continue with the rest of the recommendations in the article.

Parallelization helps speeding up slow tests

Dividing tests opens up a whole new level of optimization. Cloud services like Semaphore allow one to scale up continuous integration and delivery beyond one machine.

Speed up a slow test by breaking it into two jobs

Once a task is split in jobs, Semaphore will automatically parallelize it using its own cloud machines when on a paid plan. Alternatively, you can run parallelized workloads on your own machines by configuring self-hosted agents.

Make tests independently-runnable

  • Problem: tightly-coupled tests sabotage speed and make refactoring difficult.
  • Solution: decouple components so they are independently testable. Don’t break test encapsulation.

Designing testable code means building small, isolated, and decoupled components. We’ve seen that parallelization can help us reduce testing runtime. Separating components is a necessary part of this process.

Tests add value to the extent that they maintain their distance from the implementation. When they are too tightly-coupled , they break more easily and for the wrong reasons. A test should validate an external behavior, not how it works internally. Tests that are too coupled to the code hinder refactoring.

Imagine that we have a class representing a shopping cart, like the one shown below:

class ShoppingCart {

	Item _lastItemAdded;
	Item[] _cartContents;
	float _totalSum;

	function AddItem(Item) {
		_lastItemAdded = Item;
		_cartContents.Add(Item);
		_totalSum =+ Item.cost;
	}

	function getTotal() {
		return _totalSum;
	}

	function getItem(index) {
		return _cartContents[index];
	}
}

And we write the following test:

// test item added
item = new Item("bottle", 10.50);
cart = new ShoppingCart();
cart.AddItem(item);

assert _totalSum == 10.50;
assert _lastItemAdded.name == "bottle";
assert _cartContents.toString() == "bottle-10.50";

The test knows too much about the internal details of the tested class. It’s breaking encapsulation, making it impossible to refactor the class without breaking the test:

  • The test checks on lastItemAdded instead of using the getter.
  • The test accesses private attributes like _cartContents.
  • The test depends on the manner in which objects are serialized.

Think about this: you want the test to fail only if the behavior of the public interface changes. So, let’s make tests all about the behavior.

// test item added
item = new Item("bottle", 10.50);
cart = new ShoppingCart();
cart.AddItem(item);

assert cart.getTotal() == 10.50;
assert cart.getItem[0].name == "bottle";
assert cart.getItem[0].price == 10.50;

Branch by abstraction

Large-scale refactoring doesn’t take place overnight — it’s going to take a few weeks or even months. Gradual change can be achieved using branching by abstraction. This technique allows you to continue shipping releases while change takes place.

Branch by abstraction starts by picking a component to decouple from the rest of the codebase:

Branch by abstration makes slow tests faster

Next, wrap the component in an abstraction layer and redirect all calls to the new layer.

The abstraction layer hides the implementation details. If the component is big and cumbersome, create a copy and work on it until it’s ready. Then, refactor the component until it’s independently testable.

Branch by abstration makes slow tests faster

Once refactoring is done, switch the abstraction layer to the new implementation.

Branch by abstration makes slow tests faster

Making tests self-contained

  • Problem: external dependencies slow down tests and add uncertainty to results.
  • Solution: replace external components with test doubles, stubs, and mocks. Remove services, databases, and APIs from the equation to make unit tests self-contained.

A mock is a simplified instance of a component that responds like the real thing, at least for the scope of the test in question. It doesn’t need to implement the full range of responses, only those deemed relevant. For example, instead of requesting actual data from an API endpoint like this:

function precipitation
      weather = fetch 'https://api.openweathermap.org/data'
      return weather.precipitation
end function

function leave_the_house
      if precipitation() > 0 then
            return "Don't forget your umbrella. It's raining!"
      else
            return "Enjoy the sun."
      end if
end function

We could replace the real precipitation function with a canned response. This would make the test self-contained and, thus, more reliable. This also avoid unintended abuse on the API. As long as the interface is maintained, the test code is still valid.

// Override the precipitation function
function precipitation()
	return 10
end function

message = leave_the_house()
assert message == "Don't forget your umbrella. It's raining!"

Of course, now that we’re decoupled from the actual API, any breaking changes will not be spotted by the test. We could implement a separate test that periodically polls the API and validates the result to mitigate risks. This type of test is called contract testing.

Mocking, stubbing, and test doubles allow you to run a piece of code in isolation. In the process, you make tests much faster because you are not constrained by the limitations of the environment. Without them, you get inconsistent results as your tests depend on external components that are likely out of your control.

To help you isolate tests, Semaphore enforces a clean environment for each job.

Remove obsolete tests and dead code

  • Problem: dead code and obsolete tests waste time and contribute to the project’s technical debt.
  • Solution: do some house cleaning. Remove all obsolete code from your project.

Don’t feel anxious about deleting code and tests. Tests get outdated when the tested code goes out of circulation. Obsolete tests are part of the technical debt a development team has to deal with sooner or later.

Obsolete tests are not necessarily the only ones that deserve deletion. Sometimes a test covers working code, like in the example below. However, if the test is trivial and doesn’t give much value, it shouldn’t be in your suite. In such cases, it is often better to remove it.

person = new Person()
person.setName("John")
name = person.getName()
assert name == "John"

How to delete a test

It’s safer to remove obsolete tests in two stages: 0. Run test suite locally and verify ALL PASS

  1. Remove the tested code.
  2. If nothing breaks, delete the test.

Tests should be falsifiable. In other words, removing the code should make the test fail — if it doesn’t, what were you testing?

Refactor slow tests to make them faster

Once we’re sure there wasn’t any collateral damage from deleting the code, let’s remove the test.

Refactor slow tests to make them faster

Eliminate wait/sleep statements from tests

  • Problem: wait statements slow down the test suite and hide a swath of design problems.
  • Solution: use proper synchronization mechanisms.

The presence of sleep statements in a test shows that the developer needed to wait for something and didn’t know how long. So, they set a fixed timer that made the test work.

Sleep statements are usually found between a function call and it’s verifying assertion:

output1 = my_async_function(parameters)
// wait 2000 milliseconds
wait(2000)
assert(output1 == value1)

While this may work. It’s brittle and unpolished. Why wait two seconds? Because it worked on the developer’s machine? Instead of sleeping, you should use some kind of polling or synchronization mechanism to keep the wait to the minimum. In JavaScript, for instance, await/async solves the problem:

async function my_async_function() {
    // function definition
}

output1 = await my_async_function()
assert(output1 == value1)

Many languages also have callbacks to chain actions:

function callback(output) {
      assert(output == value)
}

function my_function(callback) {
    // function definition

    callback(output)
}

my_async_function(callback)

In both cases, the most correct implementation would also include some form of timeout to handle unresponsive endpoints.

Frequently, waits are added as a workaround for a flaky test — a test that succeeds and fails at times for no apparent reason. Waiting, however, is not a correct solution; it just hides the problem.

Waiting for services

Sleep statements should be replaced with proper polling or messaging to determine when the needed resource is ready. This works, and in some cases it may be the only alternative you have:

while port not open
      sleep(100)
end while

// test that needs port available...

But when you can, it’s much better to open the port and pass the test function as a callback instead. This will chain the actions without needing any explicit waits.

function run_test()
      // the port is open, run your test here
end function

connect(port, run_test)

Optimize database queries in tests

  • Problem: suboptimal database queries waste resources and slow down tests.
  • Solution: profile your queries and optimize them.

When the test calls for a database query, first check if you can replace it with a prefilled dataset instead. The bulk of your unit tests should not depend on a database. It is inefficient and usually unnecessary.

How do you mock database calls? Imagine we want to count all users in a table. We have a function that connects to the database and issues a query.

import mysql

function countUsers(host, port, user, password)
	connection = new mysql(host, port, user, password)
	users = connection.exec("SELECT USERNAME FROM USERTABLE")
	return users.count()
end function

print countUsers('localhost', 3306, 'dbuser', 'dbpassword')

While straightforward, it’s hard to mock. You would need to write a MySQL replacement that accepts the same parameters and behaves similarly enough to be useful. A better alternative is to use inversion of control. This pattern involves injecting code into the tested function to allow more control.

function countUsers(dbobject)
	if dbobject.connected is false
		throw "database not connected"
	end if

	users = dbobject.exec("SELECT USERNAME FROM USERTABLE")
	return users.count()
end function

Here we are sending a database object as a parameter, making the function call a bit more complex:

import mysql

connection = new mysql(host, port, user, password)
print countUsers(connection)

Testing is more straightforward, however:

Class MockedDB
      // always connected
	connected = true

      // returns a canned answer, no db connection required
	function exec
		return ["Mary", "Jane", "Smith"]
	end function

end class

usercount = countUsers(MockedDB)
assert usercount == 3

Querying a real database

Mocks don’t always work. You’ll find that an actual database is sometimes needed, especially during integration and end-to-end testing. Semaphore provides popular database services out-of-the-box that you can quickly spin up in your test environment.

When it comes to using a database, there are a number of classic slip-ups. Perhaps the most common is the N+1 problem, which stems from combining loops and SQL queries.

users = db.exec("SELECT id, name FROM Users")
foreach user in users
	email = db.exec("SELECT email FROM Emails WHERE userid = $user['id']")
	body = "Hello $user['name']"
	sendEmail(body, email)
end foreach

What’s the problem with this? At first glance, there’s nothing wrong: get all users from the Users table, then their email address from a different table. But, think of how many queries are hitting the database: one to get all users and one more for every user found. If you have 10,000 users, that’s 10,001 queries.

Databases, SQL databases in particular, are designed to work in sets. They hate iterations because every query has a large upfront processing cost. We can reduce the 10,001 queries to just 1 by requesting all the records in one go and taking advantage of the JOIN clause:

users = db.exec("SELECT id, name, email FROM Users JOIN Emails ON Users.id = Emails.userid")
foreach user in users
	body = "Hello $user['name']"
	sendEmail(body, $user['email'])
end foreach

Selecting all columns

Don't select all columns. It makes for a slow test.

Selecting all columns is another easy-to-make mistake. The query SELECT * presents several problems:

  • Retrieves unneeded columns, causing more I/O and memory usage.
  • Negates some of the benefits provided by existing indexes.
  • Breaks more easily if column order or column name changes when used in JOINs.

So, instead of selecting all columns:

SELECT *
FROM Users U
JOIN Orders O on O.userid = O.id

You should be more explicit and ask only for the data you need:

SELECT U.id, U.name, O.shipping_address
FROM Users U
JOIN Orders O on O.userid = O.id

Batching operations

Batching is the ability to change multiple records in a single transaction. Reaching data speeds much higher than regular transactions, batching is an excellent way of initializing a test. Thus, instead of inserting one row at a time like this:

INSERT INTO founders (name, surname) values ('John', 'Romero');
INSERT INTO founders (name, surname) values ('John', 'Carmack');
INSERT INTO founders (name, surname) values ('Tom', 'Hall');

Consider bundling the values into a single statement:

INSERT INTO founders (name, surname) values ('John', 'Romero'), ('John', 'Carmack'), ('Tom', 'Hall');

Similarly useful devices exist when setting up a test through an ORM. Take this RSpec example:

before(:each) do
	@user = User.create(name: "Adrian", surname: "Carmack")
end

after(:each) do
	@user.destroy
end

context 'model test' do
	subject { @user }
    it { should validate_presence_of(:name) }
    it { should validate_presence_of(:surname) }
	it { should have_many(:projects) }
end

It takes a bit of knowledge of Ruby to understand that before(:each) and after(:each) are not the optimal choices here. The test creates and deletes a user for every it statement. Since none of the tests mutate data, you can initialize the dataset once with before(:all) and after(all), which run only once at the beginning and end of the test. Consider loading up the sample data once and reusing it in your tests whenever possible.

Test the API instead of the UI

  • Problem: too many UI tests reduce the performance of the suite.
  • Solution: avoid the UI when there are better testable targets such as an API endpoint.

An API is designed for programmatic access and it will always be a better fit for running tests than the UI. This doesn’t mean that the UI should not be tested, only that if you have the choice of testing via API or via UI, the former is easier and less resource-intensive.

The following example shows a basic UI test. It visits a URL, does a search, and verifies the resulting value:

driver = new ChromeDriver();
driver.get("http://myapp/users");

// search for a user
driver.findElement(By.linkText("User")).sendKeys("John");
driver.findElement(By.linkText("Search")).click();

// validate result
firstTableCell = driver.findElement(By.Xpath("//table/tbody/tr[0]/td[0]"));
assertEquals(firstTableCell.getText(), "John")

Even such a simple test requires a lot: we need to open a browser, wait for the page to render, and simulate all the interactions. Not to mention that the entire application must be up and running before we even begin.

Compare that with a more subcutaneous test pinging the same API endpoint that the application consumes.

request = fetch("http://myapi/v1/users$?name=John");

assertEquals(request.status(), 200);
assertEquals(request.header.contentType, "application/json");
assertEquals(request.body.users.name, "John");

Here we’re testing that the API behaves according to the spec, and achieving the same thing as the test that went through the UI. This kind of test scales up much better because it uses fewer resources and can be more easily parallelized.

Reduce UI interactions during setup

  • Problem: setting up tests using the UI is suboptimal.
  • Solution: prepare the test out-of-band and only go through the UI for elements under test.

Since UI tests take more time to run and more effort to maintain, we need to keep them lightweight. If you want to test the checkout button, test the checkout button and nothing else. You don’t need the UI to fill the shopping cart with products. You can do it behind the scenes by populating the database or directly calling an API.

Of course, you still need to do end-to-end testing, and it is more approachable with a BDD framework such as Cucumber or JBehave. Test cases can be written down using Gherkin’s structured Given-When-Then pattern, which helps to make them more streamlined:

Feature: Checkout cart
  User must be able to buy their products

  Scenario: Successful purchase
    Given cart has products
    When I press the checkout button
    Then my order should be accepted

Cheating in the test

The scenario above calls for a shopping cart with products. This is a given precondition, but the test doesn’t care how the cart was filled. We can “cheat” and prefill the cart directly with a database query, which means that we don’t have to go through the UI. The point here is that not everything needs to go through the UI.

@Given("cart has products")
public void cart_has_products() {
    stmt.executeUpdate("INSERT INTO Cart (user_id,product_id) VALUES (1,1000), (1,2000), (1, 3000)");
}

In comparison, both the When and Then clauses need to deal with the UI since they are testing it in order to validate the checkout experience. Under the hood, each clause in the test is implemented using a framework such as Selenium:

public class StepDefinitions {

    private WebDriver driver = new ChromeDriver();

    @When("I press the checkout button")
    public void i_click_checkout() {
        driver.findElement(By.linkText("Checkout")).click();
    }

    @Then("my order should be accepted")
    public void i_should_get_order_number() {
        assertNotNull(driver.findElement(By.xpath("//*[matches(@id, 'Your order number is \d+')]")));
    }

}

Testing frameworks have ways of reusing scenarios and conditions. Cucumber, for instance, has backgrounds. Time spent optimizing UI interactions is usually time well-spent.

Keep UI tests focused on the happy paths

  • Problem: trying to test every corner of the UI.
  • Solution: be clever about which cases to test. You don’t need to try every possible combination.

By now, you may have realized that the motto for UI and end-to-end testing is “keep it short, keep it valuable”. Each test should earn its keep.

Being too strict about the UI is not a good idea, as it makes it easy to break a test by moving a button or changing a string. You should be able to make cosmetic changes and improvements without breaking your end-to-end test layer.

That doesn’t mean that UI tests aren’t valuable. We just need to be picky about which paths to test. As an example, you most definitely want to ensure that new users can create an account or that existing users can log in. Conversely, testing what happens when a user enters a non-Unicode character into a search box is better served by a unit test.

Should you write an UI test?

There are no hard and fast rules. Finding what works depends entirely on the nature of your application. Think about the primary user experience (the happy paths) and forget about edge cases — at least where UI testing is concerned.

Parallelizing UI tests

Even focusing only on the happy paths can mean a lot of testing. When this happens the only solution is recurring to parallelization. There are two ways of implementing parallel UI tests:

  • In-pipeline parallelization: means running the tests simultaneously inside the CI/CD pipeline using advanced features like the build matrix.
  • Third-party parallelization: specialized services like LambdaTest allow you to delegate UI testing. You get the added benefit of running the tests against multiple operating systems, device and browser combinations, and getting detailed logs and even video captures of the test session.

Don’t neglect your tests

The importance of responsive tests cannot be overstated. Tests are code and should be treated with the same care. Time must be allocated to upkeep them because the speed of the test suite directly correlates to how often you can release software. A test suite will gradually slow down unless it is dutifully maintained, dragging the team’s morale down and making your organization miss deadlines. Don’t let that happen!

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mm
Writen by:
I picked up most of my skills during the years I worked at IBM. Was a DBA, developer, and cloud engineer for a time. After that, I went into freelancing, where I found the passion for writing. Now, I'm a full-time writer at Semaphore.
Avatar for Tomas Fernandez
Reviewed by:
I picked up most of my soft/hardware troubleshooting skills in the US Army. A decade of Java development drove me to operations, scaling infrastructure to cope with the thundering herd. Engineering coach and CTO of Teleclinic.