Bert's blog

Unit testing with CTest

Let’s talk about code testing. Testing is a very important aspect of developing a code: you wrote a function or class with a specific aim and now you need to make sure that this component of your program actually does what it should do. There is an important saying in (computer) science that data that is not backed up does not exist. Similarly, I would say that code that has not been tested does not work.

Apart from some anecdotes (like a student that spent an entire semester writing a bit of Python code and the week before his thesis deadline said: “Okay, I’m done. Now, how do I run Python?”), most people are acutely aware of the importance of testing. Any code development effort is usually broken down into a lot of small chunks of development, followed by a reasonable amount of testing. So that’s all good.

Unfortunately, scientific code developers tend to be easily satisfied. I have seen a lot of examples of code where testing was definitely done at some point during the development (obvious because sometimes the code used for the test is still there - commented out). But once the testing phase was successfully completed, or - in other words - once the developer had convinced herself that the code was working, the test was simply removed or commented out.

That seems like a normal thing to do. You just tested that everything works, so why bother to ever test it again? Simple: because code changes. Granted, there are some very basic functions that do very simple things that can probably stay the way they are forever (there are only so many ways to implement a simple polynomial expression, so a function that simply returns that is probably safe). But most code is not as simple, and involves functionality from different other parts of the code that could all at some point change. Or code can be written in a naive and slightly inefficient way and then turn out to be the bottleneck for your program, so that it becomes important to rewrite it in a more efficient way… There are plenty of cases where you want to change existing code after it has been written, and in principle that means rerunning the tests you did before.

If you simply commented out your tests, then you can simply uncomment them and hope they still work. If you got rid of them all together, you need to rewrite them, which is more annoying. It becomes really problematic if you forgot that you need to run a test. If a function calls another function that calls another function that calls another function (and so on) and the last function in this series was changed, then it can become very hard to keep track of which tests could be potentially invalidated by the change you just made. Depending on what your function does, it can nonetheless still be necessary to rerun the tests for all functions in this series, as it can sometimes be very hard to predict all use cases of a function for a simple test of that function alone.

What I am really trying to say here is that it is generally a bad idea to get rid of code tests, since you never know when you might need them again. And it is generally also not such a good idea to hand pick the tests you want to run after you made a change to existing code, as that change could sometimes propagate to other parts of the code in unexpected ways. It is a good idea to keep tests and rerun them regularly, even if you don’t think their results should be any different, just to convince yourself that the results are really not any different.

This is sort of what unit testing tries to achieve. The idea of unit testing is to consciously develop dedicated tests for all components of a program, and then keep them in place and run them every time something changes to the program. For this to work, the program has to be broken down into small components with a clear responsibility; they need to act as a unit. Small units can be combined into bigger units, and by testing each of these units for a range of input values against an expected range of output values, you can hope to cover the full complexity of the underlying code and test that your code really does what it should do.

While this principle sounds really nice, it is also incredibly hard. First of all, it is as good as impossible to cover the full complexity of an algorithm with a finite number of tests; large software projects can be very happy if they manage to cover more than 50% of their code base with unit tests. This is not necessarily a bad thing: some code is so trivial that it probably does not require testing (like error handling code, status output…) and other code is so rarely executed that it maybe never gets called in production runs anyway, but is just there because someone thought it might be necessary. If your unit tests test your code for a large enough range of sensible input values, then you can hope that they will still capture any bugs that might affect normal code users, and that is what really matters.

Second, writing and maintaining unit tests can seem very tedious at first. Because that is what you need to do if you want to use unit testing: you have to write additional code (small programs actually) that get executed and call a specific part of your code. While some ways of testing can be automated by using external libraries, you cannot get around actually writing a basic program that at least calls the functions in that library, and you will definitely need to provide all input values and expected output values for your test. Because you are the person that knows what your code is supposed to do.

From personal experience, I can say that having unit tests, however tedious they might be, does have significant long term benefits. I cannot count the number of bugs that I caught in a very early stage because they triggered an unexpected fail of one of my unit tests. Bugs that otherwise would have gone unnoticed until they caused some major issue somewhere else, by which time it would become very hard to find them. On top of that, the overhead of unit tests is not that big if you really think about it. Normal code needs to be tested too (because untested code does not work, see above), so you would need to spend time writing some kind of test anyway. The only overhead of the unit test is that you need to write it in a separate program, so you cannot just add some extra lines to the function you are testing. I would argue that this is actually a good think, because it forces you to think more about code structure and code inter-dependencies. But that is my opinion.

In the last couple of years I have developed a personal code development style that starts from the unit tests. Whenever I write a new component for a program, I start by writing the unit test program that calls it, and use that to test the basic functionality of the component before adding it to the main program. I find that this actually works very well: it helps me to think about the design of my components better, gives me a clear path to implement the components, and in the end gives me a unit test that will keep testing that component in the future.

All that being said, unit testing does require a good framework to implement, compile and run tests in an efficient and hopefully automated way. One of these frameworks, the CTest framework that ships with the configuration tool CMake, is the subject of this post. I spent an awful lot of paragraphs on this introduction, so I will try to keep the body of this post short.

What is CTest?

CTest is an incredibly powerful tool that automates the task of running unit tests, but there are a lot of things it cannot do. So let me start by mentioning those, to avoid any future disappointments. First of all, CTest does not tell you how to implement unit tests. While I like to write my unit tests in the same language as my program and make them include the relevant parts of my code by including header files and calling functions, CTest does not make any assumptions about what your unit test is. For CTest, a unit test is anything that it can execute: an executable or a script that it can call and that will generate some output and will exit with an exit code. This exit code is all CTest cares about: if the exit code is 0, the test passed and CTest is happy. If it is anything else, then CTest will consider your test to have failed and will report this.

Second, since CTest does not know what your executable is, it will not help you in any way to create your executable. That is something that annoyed me when I first starting using CTest, but ultimately makes sense: to configure the compilation process for an executable, you can use the CMake framework itself. CTest is only concerned with the actual execution of the unit tests.

What CTest will do for you is simple but very important: it will keep track of all things that you list as tests during your CMake configuration, and then create a target for these in the Makefile that CMake generates. This target by default is called test. When you call make test from the directory where the CMake generated Makefile is located, CTest will automatically execute all unit tests, and report on their behaviour. It will automatically time all unit tests, and can be configured to run the tests in parallel. At the end, it will give you an overview of all tests that ran, passed and failed, and produces log files that contain the output of all tests and the output of all tests that failed.

The power of this cannot be understated: there is no need for you to do anything to keep track of unit tests. As soon as you configure a unit test, it will be there and it will be executed, unless you explicitly tell CTest not to execute it.

How do I use CTest?

Simple: you first tell CMake to enable CTest by adding the following line somewhere near the top of you main CMakeLists.txt (usually right after the required cmake_minimum_required() and project() calls:


Next, you can add tests anywhere else in you CMakeLists.txt or configuration files in subfolders that set up tests, like this:

add_test(NAME <name label>
         COMMAND <command that needs to be executed>
         WORKING_DIRECTORY <folder where the command needs to be executed>)

(there is an additional argument CONFIGURATIONS that I have never used and don’t really understand myself). The option values in between <> obviously need to be set to sensible values (the label can be anything, it is simply what CTest displays in its reports). For the working directory, it is usually a good idea to use a subdirectory of ${PROJECT_BINARY_DIR}. That’s it!

What does CTest output look like?

This will of course depend on your specific project. But to give you an idea, here is an example of a project I am currently working on:

> make test
Running tests...
Test project <PATH CENSORED>
    Start 1: testSpecialFunctions
1/9 Test #1: testSpecialFunctions .................   Passed    0.07 sec
    Start 2: testMatrix
2/9 Test #2: testMatrix ...........................   Passed    0.01 sec
    Start 3: testTMatrixCalculator
3/9 Test #3: testTMatrixCalculator ................   Passed   21.97 sec
    Start 4: testOrientationDistribution
4/9 Test #4: testOrientationDistribution ..........   Passed    0.05 sec
    Start 5: testTable
5/9 Test #5: testTable ............................   Passed    0.00 sec
    Start 6: testDraineDustProperties
6/9 Test #6: testDraineDustProperties .............   Passed    0.02 sec
    Start 7: testQuickSched
7/9 Test #7: testQuickSched .......................   Passed   25.72 sec
    Start 8: testTaskBasedTMatrixCalculation
8/9 Test #8: testTaskBasedTMatrixCalculation ......   Passed    6.50 sec
    Start 9: testDraineHensleyShapeDistribution
9/9 Test #9: testDraineHensleyShapeDistribution ...   Passed    0.00 sec

100% tests passed, 0 tests failed out of 9

Total Test time (real) =  54.36 sec

Apart from this console output, CTest will also produce 3 log files in a folder called test/Testing/Temporary located somewhere in the build directory:

  • CTestCostData.txt: this summarises the timing information and contains the time in seconds each test took to run.
  • LastTest.log: this contains the full terminal output of all tests that were run the last time CTest was executed.
  • LastTestsFailed.log: this contains the names of the tests that failed, i.e. the last tests that failed the last time CTest was called and not all of its tests passed (so this file will still contain something, even if your tests currently all pass).

How do I tweak CTest?

There are a few command line options for the CTest command that can tweak the way it behaves. For this to work, you need to call the CTest executable directly, using ctest instead of make test (both commands behave the same). The options I use are:

  • --parallel <NUMBER OF THREADS>: This runs multiple tests at the same time. CTest will use the timing information in CTestCostData.txt to determine an optimal order to schedule the tests in this case; they will not necessarily run in a fixed or predictable order.
  • --output-on-failure: This forces CTest to dump the terminal output of all tests that failed straight into the terminal instead of only putting it in the log files. This is useful if you want to quickly debug your failing tests, e.g. from within an IDE.
  • -R <TEST NAME>: This only runs the test with the given name. I actually use this command to set up custom make targets for individual tests (see below).

How do I automatically compile unit tests?

As I mentioned before, CTest does not help you in any way to set up your unit test executables; it simply assumes that the tests you want the run exist and are up to date. If this is not the case, e.g. because your unit test is itself a small program that needs to be compiled after your code has changed, then you need to manually set up the CMake code that generates this executable.

Since this is the basic way I use unit tests, I have written a convenient CMake macro that automatically sets up unit tests. I’ll simply give it here (this comes straight from the CMacIonize code):

# Add a new unit test
# A new target with the test sources is constructed, and a CTest test with the
# same name is created. The new test is also added to the global list of test
# contained in the check target
    set(options PARALLEL)
    set(oneValueArgs NAME)
    set(multiValueArgs SOURCES LIBS)
    cmake_parse_arguments(TEST "${options}" "${oneValueArgs}"
                               "${multiValueArgs}" ${ARGN})
    message(STATUS "generating ${TEST_NAME}")
    target_link_libraries(${TEST_NAME} ${TEST_LIBS})

                   "./${TEST_NAME}" ${MPIEXEC_POSTFLAGS})
    add_test(NAME ${TEST_NAME}
             WORKING_DIRECTORY ${PROJECT_BINARY_DIR}/rundir/test
             COMMAND ${TESTCOMMAND})


This macro is quite heavy because of all the additional features I use, but the main idea is that it generates a CMake target that compiles the unit test executable, links in all relevant libraries, and then generates a command that calls the executable and registers it as a unit test using add_test(). Unfortunately, this does not automatically compile the unit test before it is executed. To do this, the name of the test created by the macro is added to a list (TESTNAMES). We need to manually make the CTest target depend on this list, by adding the following line to the CMakeLists.txt, after all unit tests have been created:

add_custom_target(check COMMAND ${CMAKE_CTEST_COMMAND}
                        DEPENDS ${TESTNAMES})

This will create a new target, make check, that first compiles all unit tests, and then executes them.

I later added the following call to the end of the add_unit_test macro:

                  COMMAND ${CMAKE_CTEST_COMMAND}
                          -R ${TEST_NAME}
                  DEPENDS ${TEST_NAME})

This will set up an individual make check_<test name> target for each test that only compiles and executes that test.

With this macro, it now becomes very easy to add a unit test: you simply call the macro with the desired test name and source files, and CMake will generate all the relevant targets in the Makefile for you. You simply need to add make check to your default compilation command, and tests will get compiled and run every time you make a change to the code.

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