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Figuring out how to automate away the pain of routine front-end web testing; the story behind

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In part two point two in the series of opensource libraries we've created I'll talk about how we test HTTP-based applications.

In preparation for that, let's look at what can go wrong such that your HTTP conversation fails and what you need to test for to ensure that your HTTP application copes with such failure.

This goes beyond HTTP-specified 4xx and 5xx errors and examines failures that result in no HTTP response being received.

The Need For HTTP Testability

You want to test your code with unit tests. Your code retrieves data over HTTP. You want to ensure that when your tests fail it's because your code is faulty not because an HTTP conversation went awry.

Using an HTTP client with additional reliability aspects helps ensure that your application works as best it can when carrying out real work that needs to make real HTTP requests. No amount of additional reliability aspects will ensure that your unit tests fail only due to faults in your code if you're carrying out real HTTP requests in the code you're testing.

Let's have a quick look at how your HTTP conversation could break and how to spot the cause.

How Many Ways Can Your HTTP Conversation Fail?

HTTP conversations over the Internet fail all the time. This is hardly surprising as the Internet itself is a complex system with many potential points of failure.

Make a quick guess - how many ways might your HTTP conversation fail?

Perhaps you considered that your application will generate an invalid HTTP request message. Perhaps your application will generate an invalid URL for the request. Maybe the HTTP server you're talking to is having a bad day, or maybe the developer of the application behind the HTTP server is having a bad day.

We need to go deeper

All non-trivial abstractions, to some degree, are leaky. HTTP conversations are no exception.

We're running an application-layer protocol on top of a range of transport mechanisms which can use a broad range of authentication, indentification and encryption mechanisms which themselves can accept various configurations.

We pretend we're sending simple text-based messages to machines that read them and send back simple text-based messages in response. We can't see, and so forget about, what goes on underneath.

Whilst you were quickly guessing the number of ways in which your HTTP conversation might fail, I was quickly looking up the answer on my phone when you thought I was paying attention to what you were saying.

Take a list of cURL error codes and trim this down to a subset that is relevant to HTTP and then trim that down a little more to ignore error cases about which our HTTP client library is overly pedantic

There are about 30 or so relevant error cases. Some relate to underlying network transport matters (55: "Failed sending network data.", 56: "Failure with receiving network data"), many relate to SSL matters (errors 35, 51, 53, 54, 58, 59, 60, 66 and 77).

Thankfully most SSL-related matters relate to invalid SSL setup or configuration and so aren't matters that would turn up too often.

Common HTTP Failures You Need To Handle

cURL errors 3, 6 and 28 are the ones to look out for which translate, respectively, into:

  • Invalid URL format

  • DNS resolution failure

  • Connection or transfer timeout

I run into these all the time.

Crawling an entire site to find all unique URLs for that site will turn up a few invalid URLs and a few timeouts.

The longer the crawl takes, the greater the chance you'll run into a DNS resolution failure. No matter how well established a domain name is, the DNS server you're querying to translate a domain into an IP will, at various times throughout the day, either be too busy to get back to you or will be updating its records and won't feel like talking to you.

It's these three most common modes of failure that your application needs to handle.

  • How does your application deal with cases where it tries to request data from an externally-supplied URL which could be invalid?

  • How does your application deal with DNS failures when trying to request data over HTTP?

  • How does your application deal with request connection or transfer timeouts?

You need to be aware of the common occurrence of these types of failure and build mechanisms into your application to ensure such errors are handled gracefully.

Once you think you've handled such failures, you need to be able to unit-test your HTTP-based application without actually performing real HTTP requests.

In part two point two in the series of opensource libraries we've created I'll talk about we how use our HTTP client library to simulate not only HTTP responses but also invalid URL format issues, DNS resolution failures and connection or transfer timeouts without any test-specific code inside the application so that we can be sure such cases are handled correctly via unit tests without having to wait around for an actual real life error to occur.