Command and query separation in Pester tests

Do you feel that writing tests is confusing, and you often end up with complicated test code? I did too, before I learned about Command-query separation principle (or CQS). This principle lead me to start thinking about data flow directions in tests and in the end I realized there are few basic patterns that I use in my test code over and over.

Command-query separation principle

The command and query separation principle tells us that we should separate commands from queries (duh!). To do that, we first need to learn the difference between a command and query: A command is a function that has an observable side-effect and returns no result. A query is the opposite. A function that has no observable-side effect, and returns a result.

https://gist.github.com/nohwnd/fb5616fb92995555480c

The call to Set-Variable has a side effect of creating a variable named "a" and setting it to value "1". This side effect is clearly observable, because we had no variable $a before the call and now we have one, so Set-Variable must be a command. Also the Set-Variable does not return any output which should be another clue (unless you provide the -PassThru parameter, more on that later).

The other call, the call to Get-Variable, has no observable side effect. You could call it once or 100 times and that would have no effect on the value of the $a variable. Plus the Get-Variable returns a result so it must be a query.

PowerShell also gives us another clue whether a function is a command or query with the Verb used for that function. Anything with Set, Add and New verb is supposed to be a command. Anything with Get verb should be a query.

Understanding the difference between commands and queries is important, because data flows through them in opposite directions, and so you need to test them differently.

Data flow in commands and queries

Let's see some (almost) real-life examples of tests that deal with commands and queries, identify the data flow in them, and try to discover some patterns.

https://gist.github.com/nohwnd/f6be402363baa4fb15e7

In this code the first two functions only act as place-holders for the actual Active Directory cmdlets, feel free to ignore them. The next two functions are more interesting, they are the actual production code that we test - the SUT (System Under Test). Notice that the first function, New-SalesUser is a command, and the second, Get-SalesUser is a query. The most important part are the actual tests, let's have a closer look on each one of them separately.

Testing New-SalesUser

The New-SalesUser is a command, it won't return any value, but it should have an observable side-effect. The side-effect is that a new user is created in the Sales department. The New-SalesUser is not able to do that by itself, instead it delegates the work to the New-ADUser cmdlet. Because we believe that the New-ADUser will do it's work, all we need to test is if it was invoked with the correct parameters, and that's exactly what's happening.

As you can hopefully see the data (input parameters) flow from the input of the New-SalesUser (SUT) towards the internal function New-ADUser, we then use the Assert-MockCalled to verify that the internal command was called correctly. I call this the command direction.

Testing Get-SalesUser

The Get-SalesUser is a query. It will return a value and will have no side-effect. We know that the Get-ADUser is a query as well, so the only part that needs testing is whether or not the FullName property was added. To do that we create a mock of the Get-ADUser function that returns an object and set it's GivenName and Surname properties. We run the Get-SalesUser function and check the values of FullName property.

In this case the data go from the internal function Get-ADUser to the output of the Get-SalesUser (SUT), and we use the Should assertion to check if data was processed correctly. I call this the query direction.

Command-Query hybrids

Unfortunately the world of PowerShell is not so black and white as we might like. There are numerous commands that support -PassThru parameter. The -PassThru parameter breaks the clean separation between commands and queries, and so our example function would become a New-Get-SalesUser hybrid.

Such hybrids are a source of confusion and lot of people end up with code like this:

https://gist.github.com/nohwnd/86dc22cede6736c2647c

As you can see both the production code and the tests are simply a merge of the Get-SalesUser and New-SalesUser seen in the previous example. The test no longer tests a single thing. If you take your time and track the flow of the data you should see the both the command and query directions are used, and asserted.

The test still works, but is unnecessarily complex and can fail for at least two different reasons. It would be way better to have two separate simpler tests. One testing the query path of the command and another testing the command path. Such conversion is easily done, all we need to do is take the Get-SalesUser test and change the command to New-SalesUser:

https://gist.github.com/nohwnd/31df2ef5686f77f1b910

The tests were split into two and the -PassThru switch was implemented in the New-SalesUser function.

The first It tests the command part of the function, it does not specify the -PassThru switch and so the New-SalesUser acts as a pure command and is tested like that.

The second It tests the query part of the function, specifying the -PassThru switch, and hitting the mock, which produces no side-effects, in result it acts as a pure query function, and is also tested like one.

Are query-command hybrids really that bad?

No not really. Such hybrids have some useful properties that make PowerShell better. Probably the most useful is that they enable you to combine both queries and commands in a single pipeline. The also enable you to immediately retreive result of your changes and for example print them to screen.

All in all such hybrids are quite useful beasts. The downside unfortunately is that a lot of people unconiously end up with such hybrid, and without seeing the way to split it they start to produce overly-complicated tests. Often copy pasting the code to set up the whole environment, just to assert the result of the "query". Setting up twenty properties on the resulting object just to ignore it while testing the "command". Or worst all of this together.

Summary

Hopefully this article gave you the minimum to tell commands from queries and outlined possible approaches to testing them. You should now be aware of the command query hybrids and be able to identify them even if they don't specify a -PassThru parameter.

Happy coding!

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