I am a software developer from Poland, currently working in banking industry. For the past few years I have been writing software in Java, however I actively seek for a close alternative. Certified in SCJP, SCJD, SCWCD and SCBCD, used to be active on StackOverflow. I feel comfortable at the back-end, however recently rediscovered front-end development. In spare time I love cycling. Tomasz is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 84 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Fake System Clock Pattern in Scala with Implicit Parameters

07.18.2013
| 3101 views |
  • submit to reddit

Fake system clock is a design pattern addressing testability issues of programs heavily relying on system time. If business logic flow depends on current system time, testing various flows becomes cumbersome or even impossible. Examples of such problematic scenarios include:

  1. certain business flow runs only (or is ignored) during weekends
  2. some logic is triggered only after an hour since some other event
  3. when two events occur at the exact same time (typically 1 ms precision), something should happen

Each scenario above poses unique set of challenges. Taken literally our unit tests would have to run only on specific day (1) or sleep for an hour to observe some behaviour. Scenario (3) might even be impossible to test under some circumstances since system clock can tick 1 millisecond at any time, thus making test unreliable.

Fake system clock addresses these issues by abstracting system time over simple interface. Essentially you never call new Date()new GregorianCalendar() or System.currentTimeMillis() but always rely on this:

import org.joda.time.{DateTime, Instant}
 
trait Clock {
 
    def now(): Instant
 
    def dateNow(): DateTime
 
}

As you can see I am depending on Joda Time library. Since we are already in the Scala land, one might consider scala-timeor nscala-time wrappers. Moreover the abstract name Clock is not a coincidence. It’s short and descriptive, but more importantly it mimics java.time.Clock class from Java 8 - that happens to address the same problem discussed here at the JDK level! But since Java 8 is still not here, let’s stay with our sweet and small abstraction.

The standard implementation that you would normally use simply delegates to system time:

import org.joda.time.{Instant, DateTime}
 
object SystemClock extends Clock {
 
    def now() = Instant.now()
 
    def dateNow() = DateTime.now()
 
}

For the purposes of unit testing we will develop other implementations, but first let’s focus on usage scenarios. In a typical Spring/JavaEE applications fake system clock can be turned into a dependency that the container can easily inject. This makes dependence on system time explicit and manageable, especially in tests:

@Controller
class FooController @Autowired() (fooService: FooService, clock: Clock) {
 
    def postFoo(name: String) =
        fooService store new Foo(name, clock)
 
}

Here I am using Spring constructor injection asking the container to provide some Clock implementation. Of course in this case SystemClock is marked as @Service. In unit tests I can pass fake implementation and in integration tests I can place another, @Primary bean in the context, shadowing the SystemClock.

This works great, but becomes painful for certain types of objects, namely entity/DTO beans and utility (static) classes. These are typically not managed by Spring so it can’t inject Clock bean to them. This forces us to pass Clock manually from the last “managed” layer:

class Foo(fooName: String, clock: Clock) {
 
    val name = fooName
    val time = clock.dateNow()
 
}

similarly: 

object TimeUtil {
 
    def firstFridayOfNextMonth(clock: Clock) = //...
 
}

It’s not bad from design perspective. Both Foo constructor and firstFridayOfNextMonth() method do rely on system time so let’s make it explicit. On the other hand Clock dependency must be dragged, sometimes through many layers, just so that it can be used in one single method somewhere. Again, this is not bad per se. If your high level method has Clockparameter you know from the beginning that it relies on current time. But still is seems like a lot of boilerplate and overhead for little gain. Luckily Scala can help us here with:

implicit parameters

Let us refactor our solution a little bit so that Clock is an implicit parameter:

@Controller
class FooController(fooService: FooService) {
def postFoo(name: String)(implicit clock: Clock) =
fooService store new Foo(name)
}
@Service
class FooService(fooRepository: FooRepository) {
def store(foo: Foo)(implicit clock: Clock) =
fooRepository storeInFuture foo
}
@Repository
class FooRepository {
def storeInFuture(foo: Foo)(implicit clock: Clock) = {
val friday = TimeUtil.firstFridayOfNextMonth()
//...
}
}
object TimeUtil {
def firstFridayOfNextMonth()(implicit clock: Clock) = //...
}

Notice how we call fooRepository storeInFuture foo ignoring second clock parameter. However this alone is not enough. We still have to provide some Clock instance as second parameter, otherwise compilation error strikes:

could not find implicit value for parameter clock: com.blogspot.nurkiewicz.foo.Clock
controller.postFoo("Abc")
^
not enough arguments for method postFoo: (implicit clock: com.blogspot.nurkiewicz.foo.Clock)Unit.
Unspecified value parameter clock.
controller.postFoo("Abc")
^

The compiler tried to find implicit value for Clock parameter but failed. However we are really close, the simplest solution is to use package object:

package com.blogspot.nurkiewicz.foo
package object foo {
implicit val clock = SystemClock
}

Where SystemClock was defined earlier. Here is what happens: every time I call a function with implicit clock: Clock parameter inside com.blogspot.nurkiewicz.foo package, the compiler will discover foo.clock implicit variable and pass it transparently. In other words the following code snippets are equivalent but the second one provides explicit Clock, thus ignoring implicits:

TimeUtil.firstFridayOfNextMonth()
TimeUtil.firstFridayOfNextMonth()(SystemClock)

also equivalent (first form is turned into the second by the compiler):

fooService.store(foo)
fooService.store(foo)(SystemClock)

Interestingly in the bytecode level, implicit parameters aren’t any different from normal parameters so if you want to call such method from Java, passing Clock instance is mandatory and explicit.

implicit clock parameter seems to work quite well. It hides ubiquitous dependency while still giving possibility to override it. For example in:

fooService.store(foo)
fooService.store(foo)(SystemClock)


Tests

The whole point of abstracting system time was to enable unit testing by gaining full control over time flow. Let us begin with a simple fake system clock implementation that always returns the same, specified time:

class FakeClock(fixed: DateTime) extends Clock {
def now() = fixed.toInstant
def dateNow() = fixed
}

Of course you are free to put any logic here: advancing time by arbitrary value, speeding it up, etc. You get the idea. Now remember, the reason for implicit parameter was to hide Clock from normal production code while still being able to supply alternative implementation. There are two approaches: either pass FakeClock explicitly in tests:

val fakeClock = new FakeClock(
new DateTime(2013, 7, 15, 0, 0, DateTimeZone.UTC))
controller.postFoo("Abc")(fakeClock)

or make it implicit but more specific to the compiler resolution mechanism:

implicit val fakeClock = new FakeClock(
new DateTime(2013, 7, 15, 0, 0, DateTimeZone.UTC))
controller.postFoo("Abc")

The latter approach is easier to maintain as you don’t have to remember about passing fakeClock to method under test all the time. Of course fakeClock can be defined more globally as a field or even inside test package object. No matter which technique of providing fakeClock we choose, it will be used throughout all calls to service, repository and utilities. The moment we given explicit value to this parameter, implicit parameter resolution is ignored.

Problems and summary

Solution above to testing systems heavily dependant on time is not free from issues on its own. First of all the implicitClock parameter must be propagated throughout all the layers up to the client code. Notice that Clock is only needed in repository/utility layer while we had to drag it up to the controller layer. It’s not a big deal since the compiler will fill it in for us, but sooner or later most of our methods will include this extra parameter.

Also Java and frameworks working on top of our code are not aware of Scala implicit resolution happening at compile time. Therefore e.g. our Spring MVC controller will not work as Spring is not aware of SystemClock implicit variable. It can be worked around though with WebArgumentResolver.

Fake system clock pattern in general works only when used consistently. If you have even one place when real time is used directly as opposed to Clock abstraction, good luck in finding test failure reason. This applies equally to libraries and SQL queries. Thus if you are designing a library relying on current time, consider providing pluggable Clock abstraction so that client code can supply custom implementation like FakeClock. In SQL, on the other hand, do not rely on functions likeNOW() but always explicitly provide dates from your code (and thus from custom Clock).



Published at DZone with permission of Tomasz Nurkiewicz, author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)