Processes vs. Threads for Integration Testing

python code .....

Later: Introduction to Context Managers in Python
Earlier: Resources for Learning Clojure

Python has become notorious for being somewhat problematic when it comes to concurrency. The language supports threads, but performance is known to be dismal in some cases. In particular, as David Beazley discovered, when I/O-bound and CPU-bound threads run in the same program, the GIL performs very badly (worse than if you ran the tasks one after the other on a single thread/CPU). Alternative approaches which have become popular are to use asynchronous or event-driven programming techniques (Twisted, asyncore), or to make heavy use of the multiprocessing module.

These wrinkles aside, there are situations where threads in Python are still very useful. One of these is integration testing of distributed systems.

Imagine you have a distributed system with some 30 (or 3, or 300) software components running on some cluster. These programs might interact with a database, with a user via command line or a GUI (Web or otherwise), and with each other via a messaging or RPC protocol (XML-RPC, ZeroMQ, …).

While low-level (functional, unit) testing will perhaps be the bulk of your tests, integration tests are important to make sure all the programs talk to each other as they should. Like your other tests, you want to automate these. And they should run as fast as possible to optimize the feedback cycle during development.

A straightforward way to test these components is to run them all in separate programs (locally or distributed), each in their own process. However, you’re likely to get much better performance from your many short-running tests if you run the components as local threads in a single process. The components running in these threads would, of course, still talk to each other via RPC, ZeroMQ, etc., same as if they were processes. But for short tests the setup and teardown for threads is much faster. The most trivial example (assigning a value to a variabled) shows the difference dramatically:

# in ipython:

import threading, subprocess

doproc = lambda: subprocess.Popen(["python", "-c", "'a=1'"],

def dothread():
    def run():
        a = 1
    th = threading.Thread(target=run)

time junk = [doproc() for _ in range(500)]

# CPU times: user 0.18 s, sys: 1.81 s, total: 1.98 s
# Wall time: 14.30 s

time junk = [dothread() for _ in range(500)]

# CPU times: user 0.09 s, sys: 0.05 s, total: 0.14 s
# Wall time: 0.16 s

That’s a factor of about a hundred – something you will most definitely notice in your test suite.

Another advantage of this approach is that, when you write your code so that it can be run as threads, you can put as many or few of these threads in actual processes (programs) as you’d like. In other words, the coupling of processes to components is loosened. Your automated tests will force you to implement clean shutdown semantics for each thread (otherwise your test program will likely not terminate without manual interruption).

Finally, it’s much easier to interrogate the state of each component when it’s running as a thread, than it is to query a subprocess (via e.g. RPC). This greatly simplifies the assertions you have to make in your integration tests, since you don’t have to send a message of some sort via RPC or message queues – you can just query variables.

I found, while writing the automated tests in IceCube Live (the control and monitoring system of the IceCube Neutrino Detector), that making components that could be instantiated in threads (for testing) or in processes (for production) greatly sped up my test suite and simplified the actual tests quite a bit. I should note that, prior to release, there is still a final integration test done on a mirror test system which simulates actual data collection and makes sure IceCube Live can play along with other systems. The mirroring, however, is not exact, since the actual detector elements we deployed at South Pole are expensive and rely on a billion tons of crystal-clear ice to work as intended.

In the next post we will explore the use of context managers, which are helpful for organizing setup and teardown of complex tests cases involving multiple components.

Later: Introduction to Context Managers in Python
Earlier: Resources for Learning Clojure