Undocumented feature of the week: $PIP_DOWNLOAD_CACHE

Use Python? You should be using Pip. A replacement for easy_install, that supports uninstalling and plays nice with virtualenv. An apt-get for Python packages, if you will.

It has a marvellous undocumented feature. Set the environment variable PIP_DOWNLOAD_CACHE to prevent re-downloading the same packages repeatedly when setting up environments on the same machine:

> set | grep PIP
PIP_DOWNLOAD_CACHE=C:\Documents and Settings\jhartley\.pip_download_cache

> pip install mock
Downloading/unpacking mock
Creating supposed download cache at C:\Documents and Settings\jhartley\.pip_download_cache
 Downloading mock-0.7.0b2.zip (242Kb): 242Kb downloaded
 Storing download in cache at c:\documents and settings\jhartley\.pip_download_cache\http%3a%2f%2fpypi.python.org%2fpackages%2fsource%2fm%2fmock%2fmock-0.7.0b2.zip
[snip]
Successfully installed mock

> pip uninstall mock
[snip]
 Successfully uninstalled mock

> pip install mock
Downloading/unpacking mock
 Using download cache from C:\Documents and Settings\jhartley\.pip_download_cache\http%3A%2F%2Fpypi.python.org%2Fpackages%2Fsource%2Fm%2Fmock%2Fmock-0.7.0b2.zip
[snip]
Successfully installed mock

(This text is copied from my unholy bastardised shell of choice at work, Windows CMD shell with Cygwin binaries foremost on the PATH.)

Using the download cache like this is substantially faster. Exactly what you need if you're continually setting up environments under various version of Python for testing or what-have-you.

The directory is created if it doesn't exist. Network access is still required when installing like this, presumably for the version checks.

Thanks to the irrepressible fuzzyman for bringing this to my attention.

I am such a child

Dear Julio,

Many thanks for considering me for this opportunity. I feel as though my skills are a good match for the position, and would like you to consider my application.

I feel as though this is the start of a new phase in life for me, as though I have really rounded a corner. I have not used a computer, but my nephew says he will meet me tomorrow afternoon to teach me how to do it. Also, my therapist says that my bouts of incoherent rage will continue to diminish, so that will be good in my new job. My probation for stealing from my previous employer is almost up.

I am high, but I can absolutely have this under control and be completely sober by Monday, when I trust you will call me at your earliest convenience.

Best regards,

Jonathan Hartley

-------- Original Message --------


Subject: offer number 078 Date: Fri, 9 Jul 2010 17:28:46 -0500 From: To:


My name is Julio YEPES, I am a hiring manager with ...

More Colored Terminal text on Windows: AnsiCon

A reminder for myself:

ANSI escape characters don't work properly in Windows terminals:

Before: Raw ANSI codes. Not nice.

To make them work properly, use AnsiCon. Unzip it somewhere permanent (eg. %ProgramFiles%\ansicon) and install it with:

ansicon.exe -i

start a new terminal, and lo:

After: Pretty.

Fine tune the appearance of the programs generating the color, for example customise 'hg diff' by editing \~/.hgrc:

[extensions]
color =

[color]
status.modified = yellow bold
status.unknown = white
status.deleted = red_background white bold

diff.deleted = red bold
diff.inserted = green bold
diff.file_a = white
diff.file_b = white
diff.diffline = white_background black
diff.extended = yellow bold
diff.hunk = underline black
diff.changed = yellow bold

Fine-tuned

ANSI is correctly stripped out if the output of a program is not a terminal, so the colored output won't interfere with saving to files nor machine-parsing of the text:

Filtered

Finally, insert some ANSI codes into your prompt, by setting environment variable PROMPT:

set PROMPT=$E[0;36m$P$_$E[36;1m$G$E[0m$S

Colored Prompt

Multiple posts on colors and terminal text is perhaps a bit obsessive of me. I think I'm all done now.

More OpenGL from Python

My talk, Flying High : Hobbyist OpenGL from Python, was accepted for EuroPython 2010, \o/. I don't want to reveal the best bits of my talks, but to whet people's appetite, this is some of what my initial preparation involved.

One thing I'm keen on talking about is algorithmic generation of interesting geometry. This is an area in which the flexibility and expressiveness of Python can really shine.

I started with a quick Shape class, to model the vertices and faces of an arbitrary polyhedra (3D shapes with flat faces and straight edges):

Position = namedtuple('Position', 'x y z')

class Shape(object):
    def __init__(self, vertices, faces, color):
        self.vertices = [Position(*v) for v in vertices]
        self.faces = faces
        self.color = color

Each face of the shape is represented as a list of integer indices into the vertex list. The 'faces' attribute is a list of all faces. The color attributes is just a 4 element tuple: (r, g, b, alpha). This class can now be instantiated by factory functions to form particular 3D shapes, such as red cubes or blue tetrahedrons:

def Cube(edge, color):
    verts = [
        (-edge/2, -edge/2, -edge/2),
        (-edge/2, -edge/2, +edge/2),
        (-edge/2, +edge/2, -edge/2),
        (-edge/2, +edge/2, +edge/2),
        (+edge/2, -edge/2, -edge/2),
        (+edge/2, -edge/2, +edge/2),
        (+edge/2, +edge/2, -edge/2),
        (+edge/2, +edge/2, +edge/2),
    ]
    faces = [
        [0, 1, 3, 2], # left
        [4, 6, 7, 5], # right
        [7, 3, 1, 5], # front
        [0, 2, 6, 4], # back
        [3, 7, 6, 2], # top
        [1, 0, 4, 5], # bottom
    ]
    return Shape(verts, faces, color)

A class called 'Glyph' will convert a Shape instance into the set of ctypes arrays that need to be passed to OpenGL:

The real Glyph class also creates arrays for color, and array indexes as well as vertices.

Finally, we have a renderer, whose 'draw' method is invoked by our window draw event. This iterates through all items in our world that have a Glyph attribute, drawing each of them:

def draw(self, items):
    for item in items:
        gl.glPushMatrix()

        gl.glTranslatef(*position)

        # TODO: orientation

        gl.glVertexPointer(3, gl.GL_FLOAT, 0, item.glyph.glVerts)
        gl.glColorPointer(4, gl.GL_FLOAT, 0, item.glyph.glColors)
        gl.glDrawElements(
            gl.GL_TRIANGLES,      # draw disjoint triangles
            len(glyph.glIndices), # number of vertices to draw
            gl.GL_UNSIGNED_SHORT, # type of indices
            glyph.glIndices)      # index array

        gl.glPopMatrix()

So we add a couple of interpenetrated Cube() shaped items into our world:

white = (1, 1, 1, 1)
red = (1, 0, 0, 1)

world.add( GameItem(
    position=Position(0, 0, 0),
    shape=Cube(2, white),
    glyph=Glyph(),
))
world.add( GameItem(
    position=Position(1, 1, 0),
    shape=Cube(1, red),
    glyph=Glyph(),
))

and running the program renders them:

The flat shading is because we have no lighting yet. That gets fixed soon.

Each cube is being drawn by a separate call to glDrawElements. This is fine for small numbers of items, but for performance we'll want to compose our geometry into single arrays that can be rendered by a single call to glDrawElements. To do this, we create a CompositeShape object, that contains several Shapes, and exposes 'vertices' and 'faces' attributes just like a regular Shape, which aggregate the geometry of all their subordinate Shapes.

class CompositeShape(object):

    def __init__(self):
        self.children = []

    def add(self, child, offset=None):
        if offset is None:
            offset = Position(0, 0, 0)
        self.children.append((child, offset))

    @property
    def vertices(self):
        return (vert + offset
                for shape, offset in self.children
                for vert in shape.vertices)

(The real CompositeShape class also defines 'faces', which is elided here.) Instances of CompositeShape can be passed directly to our unmodified Glyph class, allowing us to construct complex geometries out of many individual parts, but now they are all rendered in a single OpenGL API call.

A new factory function creates a fancy CompositeShape called a CubeCluster, consisting of many randomly-positioned small cubes, each one colored by its position in (r, g, b) space. These are surrounded by a sprinkling of black cubes, a large translucent cube-shaped skin:

and buried deep at the centre of the CubeCluster is some sort of mysterious structure:

So using this code, I get 60fps on modest hardware (my 2005 end-of-line Thinkpad T60, an ATI Radeon X1400) while rendering either:

  • 800 independently moving and rotating items, each a simple cube (8 vertices, 8 colors, no normals, 36 indices = 12 triangles) for a total of 9600 triangles.

or

  • 1 composite item comprising 9,000 cubes, (108,000 triangles)

or any linear interpolation between these two extremes. (Update: see improvement on this noted in the final paragraph.)

I've done nothing to try and tune the performance, in particular I'm updating and rendering every single item every frame, and I'm not using vertex buffers, so I suspect my geometry is being sent over the bus to the GPU every frame. So presumably this can be still be much improved.

Next I add some basic lighting, so that our cubes don't look so flat shaded. Lighting needs to know normals, the vector at right angles to a face, so that it can figure out how how strongly each face is illuminated. So our Glyph needs to start generating an array of normals for each vertex.

def get_normal(face, vertices):
    v0 = vertices[face[0]]
    v1 = vertices[face[1]]
    v2 = vertices[face[2]]
    a = v0 - v1
    b = v2 - v1
    return b.cross(a)

class Glyph(object):

    def get_glnormals(self, shape):
        face_normals = (get_normal(face, shape.vertices)
                        for face in shape.faces)
        normals = (normal
                   for face, normal in zip(shape.faces, face_normals)
                   for index in face)

        return gl_array(gl.GLfloat, normals, self.num_glvertices * 3)

This generation of normals also affects the generation of vertex positions, colors and indices, since vertices can no longer be shared between different faces of a cube, because a single vertex position now requires a different normal for each face.

Generating normals made me think more about when I should or should not be using indexed vertex arrays, as opposed to simple contiguous arrays of vertices. My current thoughts on the matter are summarised on this stackoverflow question. If you know a bunch about OpenGL, I'd appreciate you heading over there and setting me straight.

Adding normals increased the vertex count required to draw the same geometry quite considerably, from 8 vertices for a single cube, up to 24. The colors array increases in size correspondingly. Surprisingly, this didn't decrease framerate too much (we went from drawing 9,000 cubes at 60fps down to 8,000.) However, then I converted colors from being floats (eg. white=(1.0, 1.0, 1.0, 1.0), four components for rgb and alpha)) to using unsigned bytes (e.g. white=(255, 255, 255, 255).) This boosted performance noticeably, so now we're up to drawing 12,000 cubes at 60fps, with normals and lighting.

Next up is to start generating some more interesting geometry, other than just a bunch of cubes...

Update: The code that generated the above screenshots is in a Mercurial repo at:\ http://code.google.com/p/flyinghigh-opengl-from-python/

Only the "code" directory is of any interest (the rest is just a dumping ground for my thoughts related to the text of the talk.) There is a hastily-created README in the code directory.

In particular, note that the code may spend a while generating geometry on startup, before displaying anything. This startup time has been fluctuating wildly, as I add new ideas, then refine them to be reasonably performant. To improve performance or startup time, you might want to take a look in the 'flyinghigh/populate_world.py' module and comment out the creation of some of the GameItem instances that are passed to world.add().

Feedback, ideas and questions all welcome.

The Great Resolver IDE Anecdote

Found myself telling this story yet again, so I figured I should just post it here and start linking to it, rather than remembering, retyping and re-embellishing it every time.

Ever since we started at Resolver, developers have been free to choose their own IDE (Integrated Development Environment, although some of the ones I'm going to talk about aren't so integrated, so I guess you should just read 'IDE' herein to mean 'development environment').

Like herding cats, this of course resulted in everyone choosing a different IDE. At one peak, we had fourteen people, and about ten different IDEs. Sigh. To our incredulity though, this worked fine, and everyone was happy. So far, so good.

We pair program, so we see a lot of each other's IDEs. In fact, we end up learning them all pretty thoroughly. Spending eight hours a day, every day, using someone else's IDE, with a bona-fide expert in that IDE sitting in your lap, guiding you through it, will tend to do that. After a few months, we all knew every IDE out there back-to-front. An example of how pairing spreads knowledge.

Every so often, someone would change their mind about their chosen IDE. Having been educated about the alternatives, they would decide to switch. This was also fine, and everyone continued to be happy.

Then, after a few months of this, an interesting thing happened. Gradually, one by one, twelve of our fourteen people each decided, of their own accord, to switch to using either Vi or Emacs.

I regard this of an example of pairing not just spreading knowledge, but spreading enlightenment.

They each had realised that although these hallowed text editors didn't have some of the more advanced features they'd come to expect from an IDE, such as auto-completion or 'go to definition', they were flexible and powerful enough that one could add such features yourself. To do so is a rite of passage for an experienced programmer, akin to Luke building his own lightsaber - so that it's customized to his precise needs, and he understands each nuance of its behaviour.

More than that, all the conveniences of a traditional IDE made it very convenient to do only what the authors of the IDE had envisaged. To do anything else was made very difficult. If you wished to use a different compiler, or write in a different language than those prescribed by your IDE vendor, you were out of luck, and would have to learn an entirely different IDE to do that.

"We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us."

  • Marshall McLuhan ('The media is the message' guy)

On one project, or two, this might seem a trivial restriction. Extended over the course of a lifetime, the conveniences shields a developer from learning anything other than how to drive an IDE, and the restrictions become blinkers, crippling their scope and abilities. The IDE is a cage... for your mind.

The outliers are worth noting: We still use Visual Studio on rare occasions, for the lovely built-in GUI designer. The irrepressible Michael Foord loves Wing, and stuck with that. Will Reade, our tame brainiac, stuck with transparent simplicity of the lightweight but surprisingly useful TextPad. Go figure.

Update: The coda to the outliers is also interesting. Nowadays we're embedded in a huge mission to free our codebase from embedded win32 controls, so that we might have a chance of running under Mono, and hence on other platforms. It would be nice if we could escape Windows Forms altogether - I understand WPF would let us display our GUI on the web. Writing this post makes me wonder - if we hadn't been using Visual Studio's convenient GUI designer all along, is it remotely possible that we might have considered our choice of GUI layer more thoroughly? If we hadn't been entranced by the "obviously right" convenience of the Visual Studio GUI designer, might our minds have been free enough to have made this decision right the first time around?

colorama: Simple cross-platform Python API for colored terminal text

Announcing new Python package, colorama:\ http://pypi.python.org/pypi/colorama

ANSI escape character sequences have long been used to produce colored terminal text on Unix and Macs. Colorama makes this work on Windows, too. It also provides some shortcuts to help generate these ANSI sequences, and works fine in conjunction with any other ANSI sequence generation library, such as Termcolor (http://pypi.python.org/pypi/termcolor.)

This has the upshot of providing a simple cross-platform API for printing colored terminal text from Python, and has the happy side-effect that existing applications or libraries which use ANSI sequences to produce colored output on Linux or Macs can now also work on Windows, simply by calling colorama.init().

I realise that printing colored terminal text is verging on pathalogically superficial, but it has long irked me that this didn't just work. Python should make this easy.

My mapping of ANSI conventions to the equivalent Win32 calls is far from perfect. Currently it has the following results. ANSI codes under Ubuntu on gnome-terminal:

and the exact same ANSI codes printed on Windows under Colorama:

Update: I previously wrote here about discrepancies between the two, which have since been fixed. The only outstanding issue is that colorama does not support 'dim' text on Windows - it looks just the same as 'normal' text, and as far as I know, will never be able to.

http://pypi.python.org/pypi/colorama

My own competency

My single degree was in Electronics and Physics, so although that covered a considerable amount of digital electronics and CPU design, I've pretty much picked up everything I know about software in my own time or on the job. Consequentially, there are aspects of computer science I feel I don't know as well as I could. I'm thinking especially of areas which are less frequently used in practice, but often cited as fundamental and important, such as compiler design.

I stumbled on this 'programmer competancy matrix' the other week, and thought it would be a good first iteration of my own syllabus of areas I'd like learn more about. So I cut'n'paste it into a spreadsheet, and starting annotating it with how confident I feel in each different area, along with the next steps I'll need to strengthen my knowledge in each area.

Startlingly but perhaps unsurprisingly, the tentative next step I arrived at in almost all areas I feel deficient was to finish working through SICP. Alright, alright, my path is clear.

OpenGL Draw API Visualised

To help me grok and remember the OpenGL 3.3 draw API, I drew them in a diagram. I hope this will help me see at a glance what I can and can't achieve with each function call.

OpenGL array draw calls

I haven't annotated any of the parameter types. These days I tend to be calling these functions from Python, so generally only care about the values. Interestingly, the most recent additions to the API, such as glMultiDrawElements, feature parameters such as 'const void ** indices'. Apparently the OpenGL Architecture Review Board has also decided that they also no longer care about the types either. Wise choice. :-)

Updatate: I wanted to publish this diagram as SVG, but apparently these days that works in every browser except IE, surprise surprise.

Acceptance Testing .NET Applications using IronPython

The following was originally published in the excellent Python Magazine. Thier contractual exclusivity period has now long expired, so here it comes again. Many thanks to my technical reviewer Michael Foord, and to the editors Brandon Craig Rhodes and Doug Hellmann, who patiently gave excellent and much needed guidance through its protracted gestation, and especially to all my co-workers at Resolver Systems, from whom I've learned so much.

Acceptance Testing .NET Applications using IronPython

Unit tests demonstrate to developers that individual functions and classes work as expected. Acceptance tests are an orthogonal complement to this. They verify to everybody, including managers and clients, that features they understand and care about are completed and working correctly. They also prove that the system as a whole is correctly integrated and that no regressions have occurred.

Resolver Systems is developing a .NET desktop spreadsheet application, Resolver One, for which we have accumulated an acceptance testing framework. This framework uses Python's standard unittest module, and is executed using IronPython.

While Resolver One is written in IronPython, this technique allows IronPython tests to interact with product code written in any .NET language.

This article describes the principles of this IronPython acceptance testing framework, and demonstrates them by creating an acceptance test for a small sample C# GUI application.

Caveats

When testing products written in static .NET languages such as C#, some common testing practices like monkey-patching will be unavailable. Static language classes are not modifiable at runtime, not even from tests written in IronPython. Fortunately, this is less of a concern for acceptance testing than it is for unit testing - we want the tests to operate on the unmodified whole end-to-end system.

Resolver One is currently 40k lines of IronPython. I would guess this is maybe equivalent to 60-80k lines of C#, demonstrating the viability of this approach for desktop applications of this size.

Our approach requires source code modifications to the system under test (SUT.) In particular, the SUT must provide methods for the test to start and stop the application, and must provide public access to its forms and other GUI objects. This means that this methodology cannot be used to black-box test arbitrary compiled programs - it requires the SUT to be written with testing in mind.

Why Acceptance Test?

Unit tests call individual methods and functions of the SUT, and have a close correspondence with the internal design of the product. Acceptance tests, in contrast, invoke the program as a whole, just like a user would, and have a close correspondence with the product specification.

Acceptance vs unit tests

Acceptance testing automates the expensive, time consuming, error-prone and soul-destroying process of using a team of human testers to fire up the application under test, and exhaustively interact with the user interface to verify the program behaves correctly. Traditionally, a single iteration of this process can take days or weeks for substantial applications. Automating the process can yield the same feedback - or better - in minutes or hours. This reduces costs and provides valuable, rapid feedback to both developers and project stakeholders.

This is useful for assessing whether user-visible features are correctly implemented, for doing quick smoke tests to make sure recent changes haven't accidentally broken other features, or for systematic checking that new functionality works under various conditions, such as on different operating systems, or in various browsers. Acceptance tests can include stress testing, and continually running acceptance tests on an integration server can detect infrequent, intermittent bugs.

Best of all, acceptance tests that are derived directly from the specification can prove to clients that the system does what the requirements ask. This can be invaluable when it comes to client sign-off on deliverables, especially if the client trusts this process due to having participated in the creation of the user-stories or acceptance tests themselves.

Acceptance tests do not yield the same incidental benefits in terms of good code design as unit tests do. However, creating acceptance tests before the product code is implemented does allow developers to focus exclusively on the requirements from a user's point of view. In practice, this turns out to help immeasurably in defining the specifications, and in giving developers a solid understanding of them.

Acceptance Tests Should Derive From User Stories

User Stories are a human-readable specification document that describes a short scenario, using the SUT to perform some actions that a real user cares about. User stories usually form the entire specification. Such documents should be informal yet precise, succinct and easy to understand. In ideal circumstances, your customer would collaborate with you in creating these documents.

An example user story might look like this:

  1. Alice starts WizBang. The window appears.
  2. She sees the three default list entries: 'one', 'two', 'three'. Nothing is selected.
  3. She clicks the 'AddButton'
  4. The 'Add Item' dialog appears
  5. She types an item name into the dialog and clicks OK
  6. The new item is at the end of the list, selected.
  7. She clicks the 'CloseButton'
  8. The application closes

An acceptance test is an executable script that performs the actions described in the user story, and verifies the application responds as expected. To create an acceptance test, at Resolver Systems we paste the entire user story, as comments, into a new test method, on a class derived from Python's unittest.TestCase.

from unittest import main as run_test, TestCase

class AT001_AddItems(TestCase):

    def test_additems(self):
        # 1. Alice starts WizBang. The window appears.
        # 2. She sees the three default list entries:
        #    'one', 'two', 'three'. Nothing is selected.
        # 3. She clicks the 'AddButton'
        # 4. The 'Add Item' dialog appears
        # 5. She types an item name into the dialog and clicks OK
        # 6. The new item is at the end of the list, selected.
        # 7. She clicks the 'CloseButton'
        # 8. The application closes
        self.fail("test not finished")

if __name__ == '__main__':
    run_test()

The call to fail() at the end of this test is a good habit to develop. It stops unfinished tests like this one from passing, making them easy to accidentally overlook and be forgotten, invisible amongst a large collection of passing tests. When the test is complete, this fail can be removed.

Setting up IronPython

In order for IronPython to be able to import from unittest like this, a copy of the CPython standard library must be on sys.path. If you installed version 2+ of IronPython from the MSI installer, this is all taken care of automatically, using a copy of the standard library that is included with the install. Otherwise, you need to set this up manually, either by setting an environment variable:

set IRONPYTHONPATH=C:\Python25\Lib

or by appending this directory to sys.path inside your IronPython install's Lib\site.py file:

import sys
sys.path.append(r'C:\Python25\Lib')

Note that different versions of IronPython require different versions of the CPython standard library:

  • IronPython 1.1: Python 2.4
  • IronPython 2.0: Python 2.5
  • IronPython 2.6: Python 2.6

Once this is done, test it out by starting ipy.exe, and typing:

> import unittest

If this works without complaint, exit ipy.exe, and run the nascent acceptance test above, using the DOS command-line:

> ipy.exe AT001_AddItems.py
F
======================================================================
FAIL: test_add_address (__main__.AT001_AddItems)
----------------------------------------------------------------------
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "AT001_AddItems.py", line 11, in test_add_address
    self.fail("test not finished")
AssertionError: test not finished

----------------------------------------------------------------------
Ran 1 test in 0.141s

FAILED (failures=1)

About IronPython

IronPython is a .NET based reimplementation of the Python language. It combines the strength and elegance of Python as a language with the ability to directly call and interoperate with other .NET code. In daily use, I am continually surprised by how well this works. IronPython faithfully mimics CPython - there are almost no surprising differences between the two. Native Python types are mapped seamlessly and intuitively to equivalent .NET data types with an absolute minimum of fuss. For example, IronPython code can generally pass native Python types, like lists or dictionaries, to .NET functions or methods, instead of having to instantiate and populate .NET collection classes.

To use a .NET library, your IronPython code first has to add a reference to the containing .NET assembly. An assembly is a physical chunk of code, usually contained in a DLL file. To add a reference, use the clr module, which is built-in to IronPython:

import clr
clr.AddReference('System.Windows.Forms')

This AddReference() function behaves just the same regardless of whether you are referencing assemblies from the .NET standard library (as shown here), 3rd party DLLs, or your own .NET projects.

Code within an assembly is contained within namespaces. For the .NET standard library, the assemblies are usually given the same name as the namespace they implement. This is the case here, so once the above assembly is referenced, we can import code from the System.Windows.Forms namespace just as if it was a Python module:

from System.Windows.Forms import Form
form = Form()
form.Show()

This will display an instance of the .NET form class on screen. Note that the form does not yet respond to events. For that, we will add a call to Application.Run(), discussed below.

Note that our IronPython projects always contain an automatic reference to the System assembly, so anything implemented in there, such as the System.Threading namespace, can always be imported without having to explicitly add any references.

Ostensibly, using .NET and IronPython limits the operations described in this whole article to Windows only. The Mono project should allow this acceptance testing technique to be used directly on other operating systems, but that has not been tried.

Implementing the Test

To implement the comments pasted into our acceptance test, three things must be done:

Firstly, the test must invoke the SUT, once for every test method, in such a way that the test and the SUT then both run simultaneously.

Secondly, while the test runs, it must be able to make assertions about the behaviour of the SUT. On the GUI, for example, the test must be able to read the state of the form and its controls, in order to assert that the correct text is displayed.

Thirdly, the test must provide simulated input on each of the SUT's external interfaces, to stimulate the program into action. For example, then the test must drive the SUT by providing simulated button clicks or keyboard input.

The method chosen to fulfil all three of these requirements is for the test to invoke the SUT in the same process, but on a new thread. Since IronPython is a .NET language, it can directly access the SUT's form and control objects, making assertions about the state of the controls that are visible to the user. It can also simulate user actions by calling methods and firing events on the SUT's GUI controls.

For this acceptance testing technique to work, the start-up of the SUT must be structured so as to expose a few public members and objects that are monitored and manipulated by the test. For example, elements of the GUI must be public. This obviously makes the tests fairly invasive.

We've justified this to ourselves at Resolver Systems by taking a pragmatic philosophy: These are the smallest set of changes to our application that we could find in order to make it testable. This technique has allowed us to create a set of working acceptance tests that wouldn't otherwise have existed.

The System Under Test

The public methods and objects required from our SUT are shown in the following minimal C# GUI application, called WizBang. This was created using the free Visual Studio Express Edition, but could easily be created using your own development tools of choice. At Resolver Systems, we prefer to create form layouts using Visual Studio's excellent GUI designing tool, and then inherit from these generated classes in other editors, such as Wing, Emacs or Vi.

WizBang defines a couple of simple forms, MainForm and AddItemForm:

WizBang has a public class called Program, which provides public access to the application's forms, and handles the startup and shutdown of the application. During startup, it creates and shows an instance of the main form.

// C# scaffolding for the WizBang application.
// Exposes public functions and GUI forms, for use by tests.
using System;
using System.Threading;
using System.Windows.Forms;

namespace WizBang
{
    public class AllForms
    {
        public static MainForm mainForm;
        public static AddItemForm addItemForm;
    }

    public class Program
    {
        public ManualResetEvent eventloopReady =
            new ManualResetEvent(false);

        public void Start()
        {
            AllForms.mainForm = new MainForm();
            AllForms.mainForm.Show();
            eventloopReady.Set();
            Application.Run();
        }

        public static void Stop()
        {
            Application.Exit();
        }
    }
}

Program.cs and its respective forms can be compiled to a .NET assembly, WizBang.dll. When the application is run normally by users, Program.Start() is called by a second Visual Studio project, RunWizBang, which exists simply to create a minimal Windows executable.

To run WizBang during testing, the test code references the WizBang.dll assembly, and calls Program.Start() itself.

Importantly, a new instance of the main form is created every time Program.Start() is called. This allows many successive tests to run, each with their own instance of the main form, so that state changes in one test do not affect subsequent tests. This is important - the application's state should be completely reset before the start of each test. Take particular care to do this right if your application has global state, such as class-level variables, singletons, or relies on external systems such as the file system, the registry or databases.

After the main form is created and shown, Application.Run() is called. This is a .NET method which starts the main form's event loop, making the form responsive to events such as form moves and resizes, control clicks and keyboard presses.

When the test is completed, it can call the public Program.Stop() method, which safely disposes of resources and unconditionally closes the application by calling Application.Exit(). This is a .NET method which closes all our forms and ends their event loops.

Program.Stop() should be the same method that your application calls when quitting, after any user confirmations have happened. The following handler on the main form's Closed event ensures this:

// C# event hander for the main form of the WizBang application
private void MainForm_Closed(object sender, EventArgs e)
{
    Program.Stop();
}

Invoking the SUT on a New Thread

If the test calls Program.Start() directly, as described above, then the program will run, and the main form will be displayed and responsive, but the test will not work. The reason is that the call to Application.Run() is synchronous - it does not return until the program exits. The test will be blocked, waiting for the application's event loop to end.

The test must invoke the SUT in such a way that the program and the test can run together in parallel. Invoking the SUT in a new process would be nice for the sake of decoupling one test from the next. For our approach, however, the SUT has to run in the same process, to give the test access to the SUT's public methods and objects.

Program.Start() therefore needs to be called on a new thread, created by the test. The program's event loop can proceed on the new thread, handling events to let the application run normally. Meanwhile, our test can proceed on the original thread, stimulating the GUI and watching the application's behaviour.

This threading is the reason for the ManualResetEvent instance in Program.cs. Manual reset events are a .NET construct to facilitate synchronisation between threads. In this case, the SUT calls Set() in Program.Start(), to tell the test thread that the main form has been created and shown. The test can then start to make assertions about the state of the main form's controls, and trigger events to manipulate those controls.

For many activities in IronPython, there is a choice of using the familiar Python libraries, or the .NET equivalents. Threads are no exception to this - we may use the Python thread or threading modules, or we may use .NET's Threading library.

Incidentally, these threads differ from those in CPython in one important respect - there is no Global Interpreter Lock (GIL). The GIL is an implementation detail of the CPython interpreter. The threads created by .NET will run concurrently on multiple cores, no matter which library we use.

We implement this in a new class AcceptanceTest, which sits between AT001_AddItems and unittest.TestCase in the inheritance hierarchy:

On a real project, many ATxxx test classes would inherit from AcceptanceTest, which looks like this:

# Python acceptance test base class
# References .NET assemblies - requires IronPython
import clr
clr.AddReference('WizBang')

# import from .NET namespaces - requires IronPython
from System.Threading import ApartmentState, Thread, ThreadStart

# import from the Python standard library
from unittest import TestCase

# import from the .NET namespace of the system under test
from WizBang import Program

class AcceptanceTest(TestCase):
    """
    Starts up the program under test (PUT) on a new thread at the start
    of each test, and shut it down again after each test has run
    """

    def __init__(self, *args):
        TestCase.__init__(self, *args)
        self.program = None
        self.eventloop = None

    def setUp(self):
        TestCase.setUp(self)
        self.program = Program()
        self.eventloop = Thread(ThreadStart(self.program.Start))
        self.eventloop.Name = "eventloop"
        self.eventloop.SetApartmentState(ApartmentState.STA)
        self.eventloop.Start()
        self.program.eventloopReady.WaitOne()

    def tearDown(self):
        self.program.Stop()
        self.eventloop.Join()
        TestCase.tearDown(self)

Python's unittest module will call AcceptanceTest's setUp() method before each test method is run, so this is an ideal place to create a new thread and invoke Program.Start() on it. The new thread is given a name, for ease of hypothetical future debugging. It must be set to a single threaded apartment state to prevent possible errors if your code calls any COM components, even indirectly.

Once the new thread has been started, starting the WizBang application, setUp() waits for a signal from the application on the ManualResetEvent eventloopReady. This is used by the application to signal to the test that the main form is shown and its event loop is started. This prevents over-eager tests from attempting to access the main form before it is visible and responding to events.

Similarly, tearDown() will be called by unittest after every test has completed. In this method, Program.Stop() is called to exit this instance of WizBang. tearDown() then waits for the SUT's event loop thread to end, by joining it. This is to ensure the next test is not affected in some way, by allowing it to start before this test has ended.

This can all be tried out, by modifying AT001_AddItems to inherit from AcceptanceTest instead of TestCase, and adding a sleep in the body of the test method, before the fail:

from System.Threading import Thread
from unittest import main as run_test
from AcceptanceTest import AcceptanceTest

class AT001_AddItems(AcceptanceTest):

    def test_add_address(self):
        # 1. Alice starts WizBang. The window appears.
        # etc (not yet implimented)

        Thread.Sleep(5000)
        self.fail("test not finished")

if __name__ == '__main__':
    run_test()

Running this test now displays the SUT's form for the duration of the sleep, and during that time it is responsive to move and resize events. Unlike the last version, this test proceeds to execute while the form is visible, so at the end of the sleep, the test fails, with 'test not finished', and the SUT is ended, closing its form.

Note that the sleep triggers a runtime warning from ipy.exe on stdout, about sleeping threads not pumping GUI events. This makes no difference here, but from now on, we'll do as this warning suggests and replace sleeps with calls to Thread.CurrentThread.Join(), which behaves the same as sleep, but continues to process any events that arrive while sleeping.

Now that our acceptance test is properly starting and stopping the SUT, we are in a position to start making assertions about the state and behaviour of the main form.

Asserting Correct Behaviour

We can now start coding the requirements that have been pasted into our acceptance test as comments. We might be tempted to implement the first requirement of the acceptance test as follows:

import clr
clr.AddReference('WizBang')
from WizBang import AllForms

# 1. Alice starts WizBang. The window appears.
mainform = AllForms.mainform
self.assertEquals(mainform.Visible, 'form should be visible')

On first glance, this appears to work - you can run this and this assert will pass. However, there is an insidious problem here, because it accesses properties of a .NET control from a thread other than the one it was created on. Such access can sometimes result in an InvalidOperationException, with a message along the lines of "Cross-thread operation not valid: Control 'mainform' accessed from a thread other than the thread it was created on." Worse, depending on circumstances, sometimes no exception is raised, but values are returned which may not be correctly synced to the current value of mainform.Visible.

The proper way to access properties like this is to invoke such code on the control's own thread. All .NET controls, of which forms are a subclass, have an Invoke() method for just this purpose.

Conceptually, Invoke() takes a callable, which is executed synchronously by passing it as an event to the control's event loop (or the event loop of its parent form). When the event loop processes this event, the passed callable is invoked on the event loop's thread - which can safely access the properties of its own controls. The return value from the callable is passed back by the event-handler, and then safely marshalled back to the invoking thread as the return value from Invoke().

In practice, the callable passed to Invoke needs to be wrapped in a delegate. Delegates are .NET's type-safe function pointers. An appropriate delegate can be constructed using the IronPython construct CallTarget0, which denotes a delegate taking zero arguments.

The above sounds like quite a mouthful, and the code is correspondingly verbose:

import clr
clr.AddReference('IronPython')
from IronPython.Runtime.Calls import CallTarget0

# 1. Alice starts WizBang. The window appears.
getVisible = CallTarget0(lambda: mainform.Visible)
self.assertTrue(mainform.Invoke(getVisible), 'form not visible')

Note that the location of CallTarget0 was changed between IronPython versions 1 and 2. The location of the import will need to change for the above code to work on IronPython 1.

Invoking on the control's own thread like this means that our callable (the lambda: mainform.Visible) can safely access any of mainform's properties and methods.

More Concise Test Code

The cross-thread invoking described above will be used frequently throughout our acceptance tests, whenever the properties or methods of a control are accessed. Such code can be abbreviated slightly, by defining a method on AcceptanceTest, to help us invoke on the main form's thread:

def on_gui(self, target):
    return self.program.mainform.Invoke(CallTarget0(target))

Which can be used to reduce the length of our assertion to:

# 1. Alice starts WizBang. The window appears.
self.assertTrue(self.on_gui(lambda: mainform.Visible), 'form not visible')

Even so, wrapping access to each attribute individually like is still a little fiddly, especially if it is happening many times. To improve this, there is nothing to stop us wrapping larger callables instead. For example, consider the second user story requirement:

# 2. She sees the three default list entries:
#    'one', 'two', 'three'. Nothing is selected.
self.on_gui(self.assert_list_at_startup)

The function assert_list_at_startup(), shown below, can now have access to properties on all controls without using Invoke(), since it runs entirely on the GUI thread:

def assert_list_at_startup(self):
    wizList = self.program.mainform.Controls['WizList']
    self.assertEquals(wizList.SelectedIndex, -1,
        'should be nothing selected')
    self.assertEquals(wizList.Items[0], 'one', 'list[0] wrong')
    self.assertEquals(wizList.Items[1], 'two', 'list[1] wrong')
    self.assertEquals(wizList.Items[2], 'three', 'list[2] wrong')

If any of these assertions should fail, raised exceptions are correctly propagated back to our test thread. The only problem is that the stack trace displayed in the test output ends at on_gui()'s cross-thread invoke - i.e. it does not display the line within assert_list_at_startup() which failed. However such stack traces are accompanied by the error message from the failing assertion, so this is not usually a problem. If this turns out to be critical for your situation, it is possible to create your own cross-thread exception handler which fixes this, reconstituting the entire stack trace even across thread boundaries.

Wrapping callables, as on_gui() does, is often usefully implemented as a decorator. This can be provided by our AcceptanceTest module:

def guithread(target):
    def wrapper(*args, **kwargs):
        test = args[0]
        return test.on_gui(lambda: target(*args, **kwargs))
    return wrapper

This decorator expects to be applied to methods on AcceptanceTest, so that it can call .on_gui() on this method's first parameter. if the decorated function is not a method on AcceptanceTest, the decorator will not work.

Functions like assert_list_at_startup(), above, which make frequent access to properties of controls, can now be decorated:

@guithread
def assert_list_at_startup(self):
    wizList = self.program.mainform.Controls['WizList']
    self.assertEquals(wizList.SelectedIndex, -1,
    # etc

Such a decorated method can then be conveniently called by the acceptance test:

# 2. She sees the three default list entries:
#    'one', 'two', 'three'. Nothing is selected.
self.assert_list_at_startup()

It is tempting at this point to simply decorate our entire test method with @guithread, so that the whole thing can execute on the GUI thread and have unfettered access to the form's attributes and controls. However, this would not work since the test needs to surrender its use of the GUI thread from time to time, to allow the form to process all the events on its event loop. Without this, the form would be blocked, waiting for the test to finish, and would be unable to handle button clicks and other input. Amongst other things, this would prevent the form from reacting to the simulated user input that our test is about to provide.

Simulating User Button Clicks

The next part of our acceptance test requires that the test provides some input to the SUT, simulating the actions of a user:

# 3. She clicks the 'AddButton'

Buttons provide a method specifically to simulate being clicked, which our test can use. A small utility method on AcceptanceTest calls this on the GUI thread:

@guithread
def click_button(self, form, buttonName):
    form.Controls[buttonName].PerformClick()

This can be used in our acceptance test:

# 3. She clicks the 'AddButton'
self.click_button(mainform, 'addButton')

Running the test will now correctly click the add item button. However, the Wizbang application does not yet have any button click handlers, so the button has no effect.

Up until this point, all the assertions in AT001_AddItems have passed without us having to modify WizBang the application. This is because the conditions being tested were already set up correctly by the design-time properties of the main form, or by the application's scaffolding code in WizBang.Program.

When using test-driven development (TDD), this is generally not the case, and in fact, this is not true for our next requirement, which tests that the add item button click caused the add item form to appear. Since this is not yet implemented, when the test is run, this assertion will fail:

# 4. The 'Add Item' dialog appears
addItemForm = AllForms.addItemForm
self.assertTrue(self.on_gui(lambda: addItemForm.Visible),
    'additem form should be visible')

To make this requirement pass, the following click handler is attached to the Add Item button on WizBang's main form. We're going to skip unit tests for this article, but on a real project, this is the perfect time to create them - after the acceptance test, but before the implimentation. Once they are done, the handler to make them and the acceptance test both pass looks like this:

// C# click handler for the AddItem button on WizBang's main form
private void AddButton_Click(object sender, EventArgs e)
{
    if (AllForms.addItemForm == null)
        AllForms.addItemForm = new AddItemForm();
    AllForms.addItemForm.Show();
}

In a real application, this handler would need to be a little more robust, able to handle multiple clicks of the button, and forms which are disposed or already visible. However, this behaviour is not yet tested by our acceptance test, and therefore TDD conveniently suggests that for the moment, it should remain unimplemented.

Simulating User Keyboard Input

The next requirement asks that our test simulate the user typing into a TextBox control on the add item form. This can be trivially implemented using the techniques discussed thus far:

# 5. She types an item name into the dialog and clicks OK
self.set_text(addItemForm.addItem, 'hello')
self.click_button(addItemForm, 'okButton')
self.assertFalse(
    self.on_gui(lambda: addItemForm.Visible),
    "additem form should close")

Where set_text() is a small helper function provided by AcceptanceTest:

@guithread
def set_text(self, textbox, text):
    textbox.Text = text

Running this test will successfully populate the TextBox with the word "hello". However, this is a fairly poor acceptance test. If the TextBox control did not have focus, then a real user would have to perform extra steps before being able to type into it. If the TextBox was not visible or enabled, then a user would not be able to type into it at all. Our test implementation, by simply setting the Text attribute, performs an end-run around many of the restrictions that real users would face, and hence is not a good test of the application's behaviour as a user would actually experience it.

The simplest way to improve on this for the moment is to explicitly test for these conditions:

@guithread
def set_text(self, textbox, text):
    self.assertTrue(textbox.Visible, 'textbox should be visible')
    self.assertTrue(textbox.Focused, 'textbox should have focus')
    self.assertTrue(textbox.Enabled, 'textbox should be enabled')
    textbox.Text = text

Running this test does actually reveal a genuine error - the add item form's textbox does not have focus. A real user, on running WizBang, would have to click or use the tab key to give the textbox focus, a step which our test has previously been able to obliviously skip. We would prefer that our user didn't have to do this either, so we add an Activated handler on the AddItemForm:

// C# handler for the add item form's Activated event
private void AddItemForm_Activated(object sender, EventArgs e)
{
    addItem.Focus();
}

This makes the acceptance test pass. Implementing the next test requirement is straightforward:

# 6. The new item is at the end of the list, selected.
self.assert_list_after_add()

where:

@guithread
def assert_list_after_add(self):
    self.assertEquals(self.item_count(), 4, 'should be 4 items')
    wizList = AllForms.mainForm.Controls['WizList']
    self.assertEquals(wizList.Items[3], 'hello', 'list[3] wrong')
    self.assertEquals(wizList.SelectedIndex, 3, '4th should be selected')

This is asserting that the text we typed into the add item form ("hello") is added to the end of the main form's list, and is selected. In order to make this pass, we need a click handler for the OK button on the add item form:

// C# handler for add item form's ok button
private void okButton_Click(object sender, EventArgs e)
{
    ListBox wizList = AllForms.mainForm.WizList;
    wizList.Items.Add(addItem.Text);
    wizList.SelectedIndex = wizList.Items.Count - 1;
    this.Close();
}

Finally, the test closes down the application and ends:

# 7. She clicks the 'CloseButton'
self.click_button(mainForm, 'closeButton')

# 8. The application closes
self.assertTrue(mainForm.IsDisposed, 'mainform should close')

Notice how access to mainForm.IsDisposed is not invoked on the GUI thread. By this point in the test, all being well, the main form has been closed, and its thread will be ended. Attempting to invoke on it will fail. Instead, we read this property directly.

To make this pass, we add a simple button click hander to the main form's Close button:

// C# handler for click event on main form's close button
private void CloseButton_Click(object sender, EventArgs e)
{
    this.Close();
}

Simulating Mouse and Keyboard Events

Directly calling controls' methods and setting their properties, as described above, can be problematic, since the controls will not behave precisely as they would when in use by a real user. Our assertions above that controls being manipulated are currently visible, enabled and focussed are a partial solution to this problem.

However, there are many other possible ways in which our tests could unintentionally get the SUT to behave in ways that are different from the behaviour a real user would see. For example, a textbox could have a custom keypress handler, which performs input validation of some kind. Such a handler would not be invoked when our test simply sets the .Text property of the control, as we do above.

In a worst case scenario, acceptance tests could pass even though the application was completely unusable by a real user.

To combat this, the approach taken at Resolver Systems is to stimulate controls by generating fake Win32 mouse and keyboard events. This drives the application by, for example, actually moving the mouse cursor over a button, then issuing a mouse click event. Windows itself then fires the button click event, which ends up calling the click event handlers.

This approach guarantees that our acceptance tests are only able to perform the same actions that a human user would be able to, and is more of a true 'end-to-end' test - which seems like a good principle for acceptance tests to aim for in general.

Simulating user input in this way, however, is not without drawbacks.

The acceptance test framework sends low level mouse events, using the win32 function SendInput(), from the Windows user32.dll. Calling win32 functions from IronPython like this requires creating a C# assembly, in which we expose SendInput(), and more than a dozen similar functions, by declaring them as follows:

using System.Runtime.InteropServices;

namespace UnmanagedCode
{
    // extensive type declarations for type 'Input' go here

    public class User32
    {
        [DllImport("user32.dll", CharSet = CharSet.Auto)]
        public static extern int SendInput(
            int nInputs, ref Input pInputs, int cbSize);
    }
}

It turns out that populating the large Input data structure to be passed to this function takes another 50 lines of code. Similar scaffolding is required to support keyboard events. This is a substantial extra layer of complexity - albeit one that has proven reliable and stable since it was created.

Having said that, the acceptance tests written this way are not completely reliable in operation - developers (or office cleaners) moving the mouse or leaning on the keyboard can interfere with the running tests. Sometimes, due simply to race conditions, the GUI does not respond as quickly as the test script expects, causing spurious failures. While issues such as these can be accounted for, for example by waiting for events or for conditions before allowing tests to proceed, this still causes a significant level of false positives in our test failures, as new tests 'bed down' and we gradually discover and compensate for their intermittent failure modes.

Finally, it is probable that our tests run more slowly than they would if they invoked event handlers directly. To some extent this is mitigated by a distributed test runner, which splits any given test suite across all idle desktop machines in the office. However, there are many tests, some of which are stress tests, and running our full acceptance test suite still takes at least a couple of hours. Having it run faster would always be beneficial.

Because both speed and reliability might be improved to some extent by reducing our use of keyboard and mouse events, it would be advisable to at least consider trying the simpler techniques described earlier in this article, before attempting to generate mouse and keyboard events like this.

Conclusion

We've seen how to construct an IronPython acceptance test for an application written in C#.

Despite the pitfalls described in the last section, we're very happy with acceptance testing of our .NET desktop application at Resolver Systems. It has proven to be eminently feasible, and of great value to us. In addition to the well-known benefits of unit-testing, acceptance testing provides an orthogonal layer of information about the system-under-test.

Most directly, it gives concrete, rapid feedback on the completion and robustness of features at a level that managers care about and users understand. Also, it provides thorough smoke tests to check that recent changes have not broken existing functionality. Perhaps most important of all, however, acceptance tests provide a method to precisely specify detailed requirements which can be easily created by users, are intimately understood by developers, are provably met, and are trivially traceable through to the final phases of the project.

Given acceptance tests such as those described in this article, test-driven development then provides developers with the ability to navigate from requirements through to working code that provably fulfils the specification, using a series of small, discrete and well-understood steps. This gives projects practical tools with which to make rapid progress, to avoid major risks, and to meaningfully measure the project's current status and velocity.

Readers who are interested in using IronPython, for testing or for other purposes, should check out IronPython in Action, a pragmatic and densely informative new book by Michael Foord, which caters to both Python and .NET developers.

Quote from Tim Bray

The iPhone vision of the mobile Internet's future omits controversy, sex, and freedom, but includes strict limits on who can know what and who can say what. It's a sterile Disney-fied walled garden surrounded by sharp-toothed lawyers. The people who create the apps serve at the landlord's pleasure and fear his anger.

I hate it.

I hate it even though the iPhone hardware and software are great, because freedom's not just another word for anything, nor is it an optional ingredient.

I'm increasingly aware that many of my lifestyle choices, from my Android phone and my long-standing affection for Linux, through to my choices of where I live and who I work for, are driven by my instinctive dislike for being told what I can and can't do. I value my freedom.