Design by Contracts

Can code test itself? In this chapter, we discuss what design by contracts and property-based testing are.

Self Testing

A self testing system is, in principle, a system that tests itself. This may sound a bit weird, so let us take a step back first.

The way we tested systems so far was by creating separate classes for the tests. The production code and test code were completely separated. The test suite (consisting of the test classes) exercises and then observes the system under test to check whether it is acting correctly. If the system does something that is not expected by the test suite, the test suite fails. The code in the test suite is completely redundant. It does not add any behaviour to the system.

With self-testing, we "move" part of the test suite into the system itself. These assertions we insert into production code allows the system to check if it is running correctly by itself. We do not have to run the test suite, but instead the system can check (part of) its behaviour during its normal execution. Like with the test suite, if anything is not acting as expected, an error will be thrown. In software testing, the self-tests are used as an additional check in the system complementary to the test suite.

Assertions

The simplest form of this self-testing is the assertion. An assertion is a Boolean expression at a specific point in a program which will be true unless there is a bug in the program. In other words, an assertion states that a certain condition has to be true at the time the assertion is executed.

In Java, to make an assertion we use the assert keyword:

assert <condition> : "<message>";

The assert keyword checks if the <condition> is true. If it is, nothing happens. The program just continues its execution as everything is according to plan. However, if the <condition> yields false, the assert throws an AssertionError.

Let us walk through an example. Take the implementation of a Stack, of which we just show the pop method:

public class MyStack {
  public Element pop() {
    assert count() > 0 : "The stack does not have any elements to pop";

    // ... actual method body ...

    assert count() == oldCount - 1 : "Size of stack did not decrease by one";
  }
}

In this method, we check if a condition holds at the start: the stack should have at least one element. Then, after the actual method, we check whether the count is now one lower than before popping.

These conditions are also known as pre- and post-conditions. We cover these in the following section.

The assertion's message is optional, but can be very helpful for debugging. Always include a message that describes what is going wrong if the assertion is failing.

In Java, asserts can be enabled or disabled. If the asserts are disabled, they will never throw an AssertionError even if their conditions are false. Java's default configuration is to disable the assertions.

To enable the asserts, we have to run Java with a special argument in one of these two ways: java -enableassertions or java -ea. When using Maven or IntelliJ, the assertions are enabled automatically when running tests. With Eclipse or Gradle, we have to enable it ourselves.

Note how assertions play the role of test oracles here, but in a slightly different way. Just to remember: oracles inform us whether the software behaved correctly.

So far, we only used "value comparison" as oracle. Given an input that we devised, we knew what output to expect. For example, in a program that returns the square root of a number, given n=4, the value we expect as output is 2. Instead of focusing on a specific instance, like we did so far, property checks, like the ones we are going to see in the remainder of this chapter, are more general rules (properties) that we assert on our code. For example, a program that, given nn, returns n2n^2, has a property that it should never return a negative number.

Assertions also serve as an extra safety measure. If it is crucial that a system runs correctly, we can use the asserts to add some additional testing during the system's execution.

Note that assertions do not replace unit tests. Assertions are often of a more general nature. We still need the specific cases in the unit tests. A combination of both is what we desire.

Pre- and Post-conditions

We briefly mentioned pre- and post-condition in an example. Let us formalise the idea and see how to create good pre- and post-conditions and their influence on the code that we are writing.

Tony Hoare pioneered reasoning about programs with assertions, proposing what is now called Hoare Triples. A Hoare Triple consists of a set of pre-conditions {P}\{ P \}, a program AA and a set of post-conditions {Q}\{ Q \} We can express the Hoare Triple as follows: {P} A {Q}\{ P \}\ A\ \{ Q \}. This can be read as: if we know that PP holds, and we execute AA, then, we end up in a state where QQ holds. If there are no pre-conditions, i.e., no assumptions needed for the execution of AA, we can simply set PP to true.

In a Hoare Triple, the AA can be a single statement or a whole program. We will take AA to be a method. As such, PP and QQ are the pre- and post-condition of the method AA respectively. Now we can write the Hoare Triple as: {preconditions} method {postconditions}\{ \mathit{pre-conditions} \}\ \mathit{method}\ \{ \mathit{post-conditions} \}.

Pre-conditions

When writing a method, each condition that needs to hold for the method to successfully execute can be a pre-condition. These pre-conditions can be turned into assertions.

Suppose a class that keeps track of one's favourite books. Let us define some pre-conditions for the merge method. The method adds the given books to the list of favourite books and then sends some notification to, e.g., a phone.

public class FavoriteBooks {
  List<Book> favorites;

  // ...

  public void merge(List<Book> books) {
    favorites.addAll(books);
    pushNotification.booksAdded(books);
  }
}

When creating pre-conditions, testers have to think about what needs to hold to let the method execute. We can focus on the parameter books first. It cannot be null, because then the addAll method will throw a NullPointerException. It should also not be empty, because then no books will be added to the favourites. Finally, there has to be at least a single book that is not yet in the favourites list.

Now let us take a look at favorites. This also cannot be null because then it is not possible to call addAll on favourites.

This gives us 4 pre-conditions and, thus, 4 assertions in the method:

public class FavoriteBooks {
  // ...

  public void merge(List<Book> books) {
    assert books != null : "The list of books is null";
    assert favorites != null : "The favorites list is null";
    assert !books.isEmpty() : "There are no books in the given list";
    assert !favorites.containsAll(books) : "All books in the given list are already in favorites";

    favorites.addAll(books);
    pushNotification.booksAdded(books);
  }
}

The number of assumptions made before a method can be executed (and, with that, the number of pre-conditions) is a design choice.

One might want to weaken the pre-conditions, so that the method accepts/is able to handle more situations. To that aim, we can remove a pre-condition as the method itself can handle the situation where the pre-condition would be false. This makes the method more generally applicable, but also increases its complexity. The method always has to check some extra things to handle the cases that could have been pre-conditions. Finding the balance between the number of pre-conditions and complexity of the method is part of designing the system.

We can remove some of the pre-conditions of the merge method by adding some if-statements to the method. First, we can try to remove the !books.isEmpty() assertions. This means that the method merge has to handle empty books lists itself.

public class FavoriteBooks {
  // ...

  public void merge(List<Book> books) {
    assert books != null : "The list of books is null";
    assert favorites != null : "The favorites list is null";
    assert !favorites.containsAll(books) : "All books in the given list are already in favorites";

    if (!books.isEmpty()) {
      favorites.addAll(books);
      pushNotification.booksAdded(books);
    }
  }
}

By generalising the merge method, we have removed one of the pre-conditions.

We can even remove the !favorites.containsAll(books) assertion by adding some more functionality to the method.

public class FavoriteBooks {
  // ...

  public void merge(List<Book> books) {
    assert books != null : "The list of books is null";
    assert favorites != null : "The favorites list is null";

    List<Book> newBooks = books.removeAll(favorites);

    if (!newBooks.isEmpty()) {
      favorites.addAll(newBooks);
      pushNotification.booksAdded(newBooks);
    }
  }
}

Note that, although we increased the complexity of the method by removing some of its pre-conditions and dealing with these cases in the implementation, the method is now also easier to be called by clients. After all, the method has less pre-conditions to be considered.

Post-conditions

The pre-conditions of a method hold when the method is called. At the end of the method, its post-conditions should hold. In other words, the post-conditions formalise the effects that a method guarantees to have when it is done with its execution.

The merge method of the previous examples does two things. First, it adds the new books to the favorites list. Let us turn this into a Boolean expression, so we can formulate this as a post-condition.

public class FavoriteBooks {
  // ...

  public void merge(List<Book> books) {
    assert books != null : "The list of books is null";
    assert favorites != null : "The favorites list is null";

    List<Book> newBooks = books.removeAll(favorites);

    if (!newBooks.isEmpty()) {
      favorites.addAll(newBooks);
      pushNotification.booksAdded(newBooks);
    }

    assert favorites.containsAll(books) : "Not all books were added to favorites";
  }
}

The other effect of the method is the notification that is sent. Unfortunately, we cannot easily formalise this as a post-condition. In a test suite, we would probably mock the pushNotification and then use Mockito.verify to verify that booksAdded was called.

It is important to realise that these post-conditions only have to hold if the pre-conditions held when the method was called. In other words, if the method's pre-conditions were not fully satisfied, the method might not guarantee its post-conditions.

You also saw in the example that we could not really write assertions for some of the post-conditions of the method. Post-conditions (and pre-conditions for that matter) might not cover all the possible effects; however, hopefully they do cover a relevant subset of the possible behaviour.

For complex methods, the post-conditions also become more complex. That is actually another reason for keeping the method simple. Suppose a method with multiple return points. That might require the developer to define different post-conditions for each of its different outcomes:

if (A) {
  // ...
  if (B) {
    // ...
    assert PC1;
    return ...;
  } else {
    // ...
    assert PC2;
    return ...;
  }
}
// ...
assert PC3;
return ...;

The method above has three conditions and three different return statements. This also gives us three post-conditions. In the example, if A and B are true, post-condition 1 should hold. If A is true but B is false, post-condition 2 should hold. Finally, if A is false, post-condition 3 should hold.

The placing of these post-conditions now becomes quite important, so the whole method is becoming rather complex with the post-conditions. Refactoring the method so that it has just a single return statement with a general post-condition is advisable. Otherwise, the post-condition essentially becomes a disjunction of propositions. Each return statement forms a possible post-condition (proposition) and the method guarantees that one of these post-conditions is met.

How do weak pre-conditions affect the post-conditions?

Based on what we saw about pre- and post-conditions, we can come up with a few rules:

  • The weaker the pre-conditions, the more situations a method is able to handle, and the less thinking the client needs to do. However, with weak pre-conditions, the method will always have to do the checking.

  • The post-conditions are only guaranteed if the pre-conditions held; if not, the outcome can be anything. With weak pre-conditions the method might have to handle different situations, leading to multiple post-conditions guarded by conditions over the inputs or the program state.

Invariants

We have seen that pre-conditions should hold before a method's execution and post-conditions should hold after a method's execution. Now we move to conditions that always have to hold, before and after a method's execution. These conditions are called invariants. An invariant is thus a condition that holds throughout the entire lifetime of a system, an object, or a data structure.

In terms of implementation, a simple way of using invariants is by creating a "checker" method. This method will go through the data structure/object/system and will assert whether the invariants hold. If an invariant does not hold, it will then throw an AssertionError. For simpler invariants, it is common to see a Boolean method that checks the invariants of the structure/object/system.

Suppose we have a binary tree data structure. An invariant for this data structure would be that when a parent points to a child, then the child should point to this parent.

We can make a method that checks if this representation is correct in the given binary tree.

public void checkRep(BinaryTree tree) {
  BinaryTree left = tree.getLeft();
  BinaryTree right = tree.getRight();

  assert (left == null || left.getParent() == tree) &&
      (right == null || right.getParent() == tree) :
      "A child does not point to the correct parent";

  if (left != null) {
    checkRep(left);
  }
  if (right != null) {
    checkRep(right);
  }
}

In checkRep(), we first check if the children nodes of the current node are pointing to this node as parent. Then, we continue by checking the child nodes the same way we checked the current node.

Class invariants

In Object-Oriented Programming, these checks can also be applied at the class-level. This gives us class invariants. A class invariant ensures that its conditions will be true throughout the entire lifetime of the object.

The first time a class invariant should be true is right after its construction (i.e., when the constructor method is done). The class invariant should also hold after each public method invocation. Moreover, methods can assume that, when they start, the class invariant holds.

A private method invoked by a public method can leave the object with the class invariant being false. However, the public method that invoked the private method should then fix this and end with the class invariant again being true.

This is all formalised by Bertrand Meyer as: "The class invariant indicates that a proposition P can be a class invariant if it holds after construction, and before and after any call to a public method assuming that the public methods are called with their pre-conditions being true."

To implement a simple class invariant in Java, we can use the Boolean method that checks if the representation is okay. We usually call this method invariant. We then assert the return value of this method after the constructor, and before and after each public method. In these public methods, the only pre-conditions and post-conditions that have to hold additionally are the ones that are not in the invariant.

Let us return to the FavoriteBooks with the merge method. We had a pre-condition saying that favorites != null. Given that this should always be true, we can turn it into a class invariant. Additionally, we can add the condition that pushNotification != null.

public class FavoriteBooks {
  List<Book> favorites;
  Listener pushNotification;

  public FavoriteBooks(...) {
    favorites = ...;
    pushNotification = ...;

    // ...

    assert invariant() : "Invariant does not hold";
  }

  protected boolean invariant() {
    return favorites != null && pushNotification != null;
  }

  public void merge(List<Book> books) {
    assert invariant() : "Invariant does not hold";

    // Remaining pre-conditions
    assert books != null : "The list of books is null";

    List<Book> newBooks = books.removeAll(favorites);

    if (!newBooks.isEmpty()) {
      favorites.addAll(newBooks);
      pushNotification.booksAdded(newBooks);
    }

    // Remaining post-conditions
    assert favorites.containsAll(books) : "Not all books were added to favorites";

    assert invariant() : "Invariant does not hold";
  }

}

Note that the invariant method checks the two conditions. We call invariant before and after merge and we only assert the pre- and post-conditions that are not covered in the invariant method. We also assert the result of the invariant method at the end of the constructor.

When handling more complicated invariants, we can split the invariant into more methods. Then we use these methods in the invariant method.

Design by Contracts

Suppose a client system and a server system. The client makes use of the server's API. The client and server are bound by a contract. The server does its job as long as its methods are used properly by the client. This relates strongly to the pre- and post-conditions that we discussed earlier. The client has to use the server's methods in a way that their pre-conditions hold. The server then guarantees that the post-conditions will hold after the method call, i.e., makes sure the method delivers what it promises.

Note how the pre- and post-conditions of the server forms a contract between the server and the client. Designing a system following such contracts is called what we call Design by Contracts. In such design, contracts are represented by interfaces. These interfaces are used by the client and implemented by the server. The following UML diagram illustrates it:

Design by Contracts UML diagram

Subcontracting

Imagine now an interface. This interface has its own pre- and post-conditions. Now, what happens to these conditions when we create another implementation of this interface (i.e., a class that implements the interface, or a class that extends some base class)?

In the UML diagram above, we see that the implementation can have different pre-, post-conditions, and invariants than its base interface.

In terms of pre-conditions, the new implementation must be able to work with the pre-conditions that were specified in the interface. After all, the interface is the only thing the client sees of the system. The implementation cannot add any pre-conditions to the server's pre-conditions. In terms of strength, we now know that PP' has to be weaker than (or as weak as) PP.

The post-condition works the other way around. The implementation must do at least the same work as the interface, but is allowed to do a bit more. Therefore, QQ' should be stronger than (or as strong as) QQ.

Finally, the interface guarantees that the invariant always holds. Then, the implementation should also guarantee that at least the interface's invariant holds. So, II' should be stronger than (or as strong as) II.

In short, using the notation of the UML diagram:

  • PP' weaker than PP
  • QQ' stronger than QQ
  • II' stronger than II

The subcontract (the implementation) requires no more and ensures no less than the actual contract (the interface).

Liskov Substitution Principle

The subcontracting follows the general notion of behavioural subtyping, proposed by Barbara Liskov. The behavioural subtyping states that if we have a class T and this class has some sub-classes, the clients or users of class T should be able to choose any of T's sub-classes. This notion of behavioural subtyping is now known as the Liskov Substitution Principle (LSP).

In other words, the LSP states that if you use a class, you should be able to replace this class by one of its subclasses. The sub-contracting we discussed earlier is just a formalisation of this principle. Proper class hierarchies follow the Liskov Substitution Principle. Keep the LSP in mind when designing and implementing a software system.

How can we test that our classes follow the LSP? To test the LSP, we have to make some test cases for the public methods of the super class and execute these tests with all its subclasses. We could just create the same tests to each of the subclasses' test suites. However, this leads to a lot of code duplication in the test code, which we would like to avoid.

In Java, the List interface is implemented by various sub-classes, such as ArrayList and LinkedList. Creating the tests for each of the sub-classes separately will result in the following structure.

Test classes architecture

The ArrayList and LinkedList will behave the same for the methods defined in List. Therefore, there will be duplicate tests for these methods.

To avoid this code duplication, we can create a test suite just for the super class. This test suite tests just the public methods of the super class. The tests in this test suite should then be executed for each of the sub-classes of the super class. This can be done by making the test classes extend the "super test class". The "sub test class" will have all the common tests defined in the "super test class" and its own specific tests.

This is how the test suite looks like:

Parallel Class Hierarchy

Here, the ArrayListTest and LinkedListTest extend the ListTest. List is an interface, so the ListTest should be abstract. We cannot instantiate a List itself, so we should not be able to execute the ListTest without a test class corresponding to one of List's subclasses. ListTest contains all the common tests of ArrayListTest and LinkedListTest. ArrayListTest and LinkedListTest can contain their specific tests.

In the example, one can see that the hierarchy of the test classes is similar to the hierarchy of the classes they test. Therefore, we say that we use a parallel class hierarchy in our test classes.

Implementation-wise, how do we make sure that the "super test class" executes its tests in the correct subclass? This depends on the test class that is executed and the subclass it is testing. If we have class T, with subclasses A and B, then when executing tests for A we need the test class of T to use an instance of A; when executing tests for B, we need the test class of T to use an instance of B.

One way to achieve this behaviour is by using the Factory Method design pattern, which works as follows: In the test class for the interface level (the "super test class"), we define an abstract method that returns an instance with the interface type. By making the method abstract, we force the test classes of the concrete implementations to override it. We return the instance of the specific subclass in the overridden method. This instance is then used to execute the tests.

We want to use the Factory Method design pattern in our tests for the List. We start by the interface level test class. Here, we define the abstract method that gives us a List.

public abstract class ListTest {

  protected final List list = createList();

  protected abstract List createList();

  // Common List tests using list
}

Then, for this example, we create a class to test the ArrayList. We have to override the createList method and we can define any tests specific for the ArrayList.

public class ArrayListTest extends ListTest {

  @Override
  protected List createList() {
    return new ArrayList();
  }

  // Tests specific for the ArrayList
}

Now, the ArrayListTest inherits all the ListTest's tests, so these will be executed when we execute the ArrayListTest test suite. Because the createList() method returns an ArrayList, the common test classes will use an ArrayList.

Exercises

Exercise 1. See the code below:

public Square squareAt(int x, int y) {
  assert x >= 0;
  assert x < board.length;
  assert y >= 0;
  assert y < board[x].length;
  assert board != null;

  Square result = board[x][y];

  assert result != null;
  return result;
}

What assertion(s), if any, can be turned into a class invariant?

Exercise 2. Consider the piece of code in the previous example. Suppose we remove the last assertion (line 10), which states that the result can never be null.

Are the existing pre-conditions of the squareAt method enough to ensure the property in the original line 10? What can we add to the class (other than the just removed post-condition) to guarantee this property?

Exercise 3. Your colleague works on a drawing application. He has created a Rectangle class. For rectangles, the width and height can be different from each other, but can't be negative numbers.

Your colleague also defines the Square class. Squares are a special type of rectangle: the width and height should be equal and also can't be negative. Your colleague decides to implement this by making Square inherit from Rectangle.

The code for the two classes is the following.

class Rectangle {
  protected int width;
  protected int height;

  protected boolean invariant() { return width > 0 && height > 0; }

  public Rectangle(int width, int height) {
    assert width > 0;
    assert height > 0;
    this.width = width;
    this.height = height;
    assert invariant()
  }

  public int area() {
    assert invariant();
    int a = width * height;
    assert a > 0;
    return a;
  }

  public void resetSize(int width, int height) {
    assert width > 0;
    assert height > 0;
    this.width = width;
    this.height = height;
    assert invariant();
  }
}

class Square extends Rectangle {
  public Square(int x) {
    assert x > 0;
    super(x, x);
  }

  @Override
  public void resetSize(int width, int height) {
    assert width == height;
    assert width > 0;
    super.resetSize(width, height);
  }
}

Inspired by Bertrand Meyer's design by contracts, he also uses asserts to make sure contracts are followed. He explicitly defines pre-conditions and post-conditions in various methods of the base Rectangle class and the derived Square class.

A second colleague comes in and expresses concerns about the design. How can you use the assertions provided to discuss the correctness of this design?

Is the second colleague's concern justified? What principle is violated, if any? Explain with the assertions shown in the code.

Exercise 4. You run your application with assertion checking enabled. Unfortunately, it reports an assertion failure signalling a class invariant violation in one of the libraries your application makes use of.

Assume that the contract of the library in question is correct, and that all relevant pre-conditions are encoded in assertions as well.

Can you fix this problem? If so, how? If not, why?

Exercise 5. HTTP requests return a status code which can have several values. As explained on Wikipedia:

  • A 4xx status code "is intended for situations in which the error seems to have been caused by the client". A well known example is the 404 (Page not found) status code.
  • A 5xx status code "indicates cases in which the server is aware that it has encountered an error or is otherwise incapable of performing the request." A well known example is the 500 (Internal Server Error) status code.

What is the best correspondence between these status codes and pre- and post-conditions?

Exercise 6. A method M belongs to a class C and has a pre-condition P and a post-condition Q. Now, suppose that a developer creates a class C' that extends C, and creates a method M' that overrides M. Which one of the following statements correctly explains the relative strength of the pre (P') and post-conditions (Q') of the overridden method M'?

  1. P' should be equal or weaker than P, and Q' should be equal or stronger than Q.
  2. P' should be equal or stronger than P, and Q' should be equal or stronger than Q.
  3. P' should be equal or weaker than P, and Q' should be equal or weaker than Q.
  4. P' should be equal or stronger than P, and Q' should be equal or weaker than Q.

Exercise 7. Which of the following is a valid reason to use assertions in your code?

  1. To verify expressions with side effects.
  2. To handle exceptional cases in the program.
  3. To conduct user input validation.
  4. To make debugging easier.

Exercise 8. Can static methods have invariants? Explain.

References

  • C2 Wiki, What are assertions? http://wiki.c2.com/?WhatAreAssertions

  • Mitchell, R., McKim, J., & Meyer, B. (2001). Design by contract, by example. Addison Wesley Longman Publishing Co., Inc..

  • Meyer, B. (2002). Design by contract. Prentice Hall.

  • Liskov, B. H., & Wing, J. M. (1994). A behavioural notion of subtyping. ACM Transactions on Programming Languages and Systems (TOPLAS), 16(6), 1811-1841.

  • "Polymorphic Server Test" in Binder, R. V. (1994). Object-oriented software testing. Communications of the ACM, 37(9), 28-30.

  • Regehr, John. Use of Assertions. https://blog.regehr.org/archives/1091

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