Unit Testing Guidelines


Unit tests are simple to write, easily invoked, and confer large benefits throughout the software development process, from early stage exploratory code, to late stage maintenance of a long-established project. Unit testing often becomes indispensable to those who give it a try. Here we explain how to write unit tests, how to run them, and how they are woven into the standard Bioconductor build process. We hope that unit tests will become a standard part of your software development, and an integral part of your Bioconductor package.

We recommend the RUnit package from CRAN to write unit tests — an R implementation of the agile software development 'XUnit' tools (see also JUnit, PyUnit) each of which tries to encourage, in their respective language, the rapid development of robust useful software.

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Why bother with unit testing?

Imagine that you need a function divideBy taking two arguments, which you might define like this:

divideBy <- function(dividend, divisor) { 
    if (divisor == 0) 
    dividend / divisor

As you develop this function you would very likely test it out in a variety of ways, using different arguments, checking the results, until eventually you are satisfied that it performs properly. Unless you adopt some sort of software testing protocol, however, your tests are unlikely to become an integral part of your code. They may be scattered across different files, or they may not exist as re-runnable code in a file at all, just as ad hoc command-line function calls you sometimes remember to make.

A far better approach, we propose, is to use lightweight, formalized unit testing. This requires only a very few conventions and practices:

Here is such a unit test for divideBy:

test_divideBy <- function() {
    checkEquals(divideBy(4, 2), 2)
    checkTrue(is.na(divideBy(4, 0)))
    checkEqualsNumeric(divideBy(4, 1.2345), 3.24, tolerance=1.0e-4)

Adopting these practices will cost you very little. Most developers find that these practices simplify and shorten development time. In addition, they create an executable contract — a concise and verifiable description of what your code is supposed to do. The experienced unit-testing programmer will create such a test function to accompany every function, method and class they write. (But don't let this scare you off. Even adding a single test to your package is worthwhile, for reasons explained below.)

Developers often rebel when unit tests are recommended to them, calculating that creating unit tests for existing code would be a lengthy and tedious job, and that their productivity will suffer.

Unit tests, however, are best written as you develop code, rather than after your package is written. Replace your informal testing with a few lightweight formal practices, and you will see both your immediate and long-term productivity increase.

Consider that every unit of software (every function, method, or class) is designed to do a job, to return specific outputs for specific inputs, or to cause some specific side effects. A unit test specifies these behaviors, and provides a single mechanism — one or more test functions residing in one or more files, within a standard directory structure — to ensure that the target function, method or class does its job. With that assurance, the programmer (and her collaborators) can then, with confidence, proceed to use it in a larger program. When a bug appears, or new features are needed and added, one adds new tests to the existing collection. Your code becomes progressively more powerful, more robust, and yet remains easily and automatically validated.

Some proponents suggest that the benefits of unit testing extend further: that code design itself improves. They argue that the operational definition of a function through its tests encourages clean design, the 'separation of concerns', and sensible handling of edge cases.

test_dividesBy illustrates all the crucial features of a good test function. It uses the simple RUnit check functions. It makes sure that reasonable values are returned across a range of normal and pathological conditions. Its name begins with test_ so that it is recognized and run by the Bioconductor build process. It would reside (more about this below) in the inst/unitTests directory.

Finally, unit testing can be adopted piecemeal. Add a single test to your package, even if only a test for a minor feature, and both you and your users will benefit. Add more tests as you go, as bugs arise, as new features are added, when you find yourself puzzling over code your wrote some months before. Soon, unit testing will be part of your standard practice, and your package will have an increasingly complete set of tests.

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Adding Tests For Your Code

Three things are required:

  1. Create a file containing functions in the style of test_dividesBy for each function you want to test, using RUnit-provided check functions.
  2. Add a few small (and idiosyncratic) files in other directories.
  3. Make sure the RUnit and BiocGenerics packages are available.

Steps two and three are explained in conventions for the build process.

These are the RUnit check methods:

checkEquals(expression-A, expression-B)
checkEqualsNumeric(a, b, tolerance)

Less commonly used, but recommended if your code throws exceptions:

checkException(expr, msg)

In a typical test function, as you can see in test_divideBy, you invoke one of your program's functions or methods, then call an appropriate RUnit check function to make sure that the result is correct. RUnit reports failures, if there are any, with enough context to track down the error.

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Conventions for the Build Process

Writing unit tests is easy, though your Bioconductor package must be set up properly so that R CMD check MyPackage finds and run your tests. We take some pains to describe exactly how things should be set up, and what is going on behind the scenes. (See the next section for the simple technique to use when you want to test only a small part of your code).

The standard command R CMD check MyPackage sources and runs all R files found in your MyPackage/tests/ directory. Historically, and sometimes still, R package developers place test code of their own invention and style into one or more files in this tests directory.

RUnit was added to this already-existing structure and practice about 2005, and the additions can be confusing, beginning with the indirect way in which your test functions are found and executed. (But follow these steps and all should be well. Post to bioc-devel if you run into any difficulty.)

There are two steps:

  1. Create the file MyPackage/tests/runTests.R with these contents:

  2. Create any number of files in MyPackage/inst/unitTests/ for your unit test functions. You can put your tests all in one file in that directory, or distributed among multiple files. All files must follow the naming convention specified in this regular expression:


    For our example, therefore, a good choice would be MyPackage/inst/unitTests/test_divideBy.R or if the dividesBy function was one of several home-brewed arithmetic functions you wrote, and for which you provide tests, a more descriptive filename (a practice we always recommend) might be MyPackage/inst/unitTests/test_homeBrewArithmetic.R

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Using Tests During Development

R CMD check MyPackage

will run all of your tests. But when developing a class, or debugging a method or function, you will probably want to run just one test at a time, and to do so when an earlier version of the package is installed, against which you are making local exploratory changes. Assuming you have followed the directory structure and naming conventions recommended above, that your current working directory is inst, here is what you would do:


[1] TRUE

A failed test is reported like this:

Error in checkEquals(divideBy(4, 2), 3) : Mean relative difference: 0.5

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Summary: the minimal setup

A minimal Bioconductor unitTest setup requires only this one-line addition to the MyPackage/DESCRIPTION file

Suggests: RUnit, BiocGenerics 

and two files, MyPackage/tests/runTests.R:


and MyPackage/inst/unitTests/test_divideBy.R:

test_divideBy <- function() {
    checkEquals(divideBy(4, 2), 2)
    checkTrue(is.na(divideBy(4, 0)))
    checkEqualsNumeric(divideBy(4, 1.2345), 3.24, tolerance=1.0e-4)

Remember that your unitTests/test_XXXX.R file, or files, can have any name(s), as long as they start with test_.

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Additional Resources

Some web resources worth reading:

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Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center