Real World Examples of Property-based Testing

Property-based testing is a great tool, but it’s sadly underutilized. I believe that it’s superior to unit testing and should be used over unit testing whenever possible. If you are not familiar with it, you should google it. These days all major languages have a library for it, so just look for a resource that uses your favorite language to introduce it. Nevertheless, for the most in-depth introduction I recommend the following videos:

Unfortunately, property-based tests are much harder to write than unit tests. Writing tests for a property of the program requires that you understand the said property, and express it without using the implementation of the function being tested. Sometimes it even feels like solving a brain teaser. Here’s one of the most commonly given out examples: how can I write a test that a function that reverses a list works correctly? The answer: reversing a list twice should return the original list. Just like brain teasers, writing property-based test becomes easier the more examples you see.

So I’d like to share some property-based tests I wrote for my big number library for Elm language. It was the perfect fit for property-based tests, as there are existing mathematical properties I can test for, and unit tests, even dozens or hundreds of them, don’t provide enough correctness for this kind of library.

decDecimalFuzzer : Fuzzer Decimal
decDecimalFuzzer =
        int =
            Fuzz.intRange 1 5
                |> Fuzz.andThen (\i -> List.repeat i (Fuzz.uniformInt Random.maxInt) |> Fuzz.sequence)
                |> ( String.fromInt >> List.foldl (++) "")

        fraction =
            Fuzz.intRange 0 3
                |> Fuzz.andThen (\i -> List.repeat i (Fuzz.uniformInt Random.maxInt) |> Fuzz.sequence)
                |> ( String.fromInt >> List.foldl (++) "")

        sign =
            Fuzz.oneOfValues [ "", "-" ]
    Fuzz.map2 (++) (Fuzz.constant ".") fraction
        |> Fuzz.map2 (++) int
        |> Fuzz.map2 (++) sign
        |> (Decimal.fromString >> Maybe.withDefault (Decimal.fromInt 0))

Here’s the custom generator for a big decimal. It generates string representations of big decimal numbers, then turn them into the Decimal type that the library uses. For the string representation, it follows this process:

  1. Generate the integer part by concatenating 1 to 5 random number between 0 and 2^32 - 1.
  2. Generate the fraction part by concatenating 0 to 3 random number between 0 and 2 ^32 - 1.
  3. Randomly choose between positive and negative sign.
  4. Concatenate them all, and parse them into Decimal value.
describe "negate"
    [ Test.fuzz fuzzer "should return original i when applied twice" <|
        \i ->
                i_ =
                    Integer.negate << Integer.negate <| i
            Expect.equal i i_

This is the test for negate function. Just like reversing a list, it relies on the fact that negating a number twice should return the original number.

describe "fromString and toString"
    [ Test.fuzz fuzzer "should be inverse functions" <|
        \i -> Expect.equal (Integer.fromString (Integer.toString i)) (Just i)

This is the test for fromString and toString function. It relies on the fact that these two functions are inverse of each other.

describe "add"
  [ Test.fuzz2 fuzzer fuzzer "should have transitivity property" <|
      \i1 i2 ->
          Expect.equal (Integer.add i1 i2) (Integer.add i2 i1)
  , Test.fuzz3 fuzzer fuzzer fuzzer "should have associativity property" <|
      \i1 i2 i3 ->
          Expect.equal (Integer.add (Integer.add i1 i2) i3) (Integer.add i1 (Integer.add i2 i3))
  , Test.fuzz fuzzer "should have identity property" <|
      \i ->
          Expect.equal (Integer.add i) i
  , Test.fuzz fuzzer "should return zero for addition with negative self" <|
      \i ->
          Expect.equal (Integer.add i (Integer.negate i))
  , Test.fuzz2 "should have same result for addition as Int" <|
      \i1 i2 ->
          Expect.equal (Integer.add (Integer.fromInt i1) (Integer.fromInt i2)) (Integer.fromInt (i1 + i2))

This is the test for add function. It tests associativity, transitivity, and identity properties of numbers. It also tests that adding self with negative self returns zero. Note that the last test relies on Elm’s Basic library to test that addition produces correct result at least for Integer values within Javascript’s integer range.

describe "mul"
    [ fuzz2 fuzzer fuzzer "should have transitivity property" <|
        \d1 d2 ->
            withinTolerance (Decimal.mul d1 d2) (Decimal.mul d2 d1)
    , fuzz3 fuzzer fuzzer fuzzer "should have associativity property" <|
        \d1 d2 d3 ->
                (Decimal.mulToMinE (Decimal.minExponent * 2) (Decimal.mulToMinE (Decimal.minExponent * 2) d1 d2) d3)
                (Decimal.mulToMinE (Decimal.minExponent * 2) d1 (Decimal.mulToMinE (Decimal.minExponent * 2) d2 d3))
    , fuzz fuzzer "should have identity property" <|
        \d ->
            withinTolerance (Decimal.mul (Decimal.fromFloat 1) d) d
    , fuzz3 fuzzer fuzzer fuzzer "should have distributive property" <|
        \d1 d2 d3 ->
                (Decimal.mulToMinE (Decimal.minExponent * 2) d1 (Decimal.add d2 d3))
                (Decimal.add (Decimal.mulToMinE (Decimal.minExponent * 2) d1 d2) (Decimal.mulToMinE (Decimal.minExponent * 2) d1 d3))

This is the test for mul function for Decimal type. It follows similar pattern by using inverse functions, but now the stake is higher than Integer because Decimal is a much more complex data type. I would have been fine, if slightly uneasy, about correctness of Integer type with unit tests. I’m familiar with the usual suspects for that type - 0, NaN, positive and negative infinity, sufficiently long numbers, and so on.

Decimal is a different beast. I was not familiar with edge cases for Decimal at the time of writing the library, and there were simply too many combinations that I would have to test to be even moderately confident with the correctness of the program. And property-based tests helped me find several bugs for mul, div, and sqrt functions that I would have been unable to discover with unit tests.

And that’s it for the examples. You can look at more tests in my library, but there isn’t any new technique there. I hope this post was helpful in getting started with writing property-based tests.