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  6. Testing External Apis in Ruby With Webmock and Vcr
Testing External APIs in Ruby with Webmock and VCR

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Testing External APIs in Ruby with Webmock and VCR

Automated testing has long been an integral part of the software development and deployment process, the benefits of which are well-established. Among other things, we use tests to ensure code quality, to prevent regression, and in the context of Test-Driven Development (TDD), as part of the code-writing process.

As developers, we're familiar and comfortable with the concept of writing automated test suites as part of our development workflow. When our application leverages external APIs, however, writing those tests comes with a particular set of challenges. Let's explore some of those with an example.

Example: Sending an SMS with the Vonage Messages API

Imagine a scenario where we're developing an application that includes the functionality to send text messages via SMS. This would be an excellent use-case for the Vonage Messages API. In order to implement this functionality using the Messages API, our application could perhaps include a MessagesClient class which defines a send_sms method. The purpose of this method would be to send an appropriately formatted POST request to use the Messages API endpoint:

https://api.nexmo.com/v1/messages

In terms of the dependencies required for testing, our Gemfile might look something like this (though in reality, our application would likely include some additional dependencies).

Gemfile

# Gemfile

source "https://rubygems.org"
ruby "3.0.0"

gem 'faraday'

group :test do
  gem 'rspec'
end

The Faraday gem is a Ruby library for managing HTTP requests and responses.

Our application file would define the MessagesClient class with its send_sms method.

app.rb

# app.rb
require "json"

class MessagesClient
  URI = 'https://api.nexmo.com/v1/messages'

  def send_sms(from_number, to_number, message)
    headers = generate_headers(message)
    body = {
      message_type: 'text',
      channel: 'sms',
      from: from_number,
      to: to_number,
      text: message
    }
    Faraday.new.post(URI, body.to_json, headers)
  end

  # additional methods omitted for brevity

end

In the above example, our send_sms method defines parameters for the message text, to number, and from number. It includes these details in a message body which is sent in a POST request to the API endpoint using Faraday's post method. The send_sms method then returns an object representing the HTTP response received by the Faraday instance.

So, how would we approach testing this method? One approach for testing the happy path would be to write a test that invokes the method, thus hitting the live API endpoint, and asserting that we receive a response code that indicates success. In the case of the Messages API v1, this would be a HTTP response code of 202.

messages_client_spec.rb

require "spec_helper"

describe MessagesClient do
  let(:app) { MessagesClient.new }

  describe "#send_sms" do
    let(:from_number) { "447700900000" }
    let(:to_number) { "447700900001" }
    let(:message) { "Hello world!" }

    it "returns status 202 Accepted" do
      response = app.send_sms(from_number, to_number, message)

      expect(response.status).to eq 202
    end
  end
end

There are some issues with this testing approach.

First of all, any test that interacts with an external dependency, such as a database or external API, is likely to be much slower than one that doesn't. If we look at an example run for this test, we can see that it takes 1.63 seconds.

Finished in 1.63 seconds (files took 0.36557 seconds to load)
1 example, 0 failures

While this might not seem that slow, this is a single test for a single method. Depending on the size and complexity of our application, we could have numerous similar tests. In such a scenario, running the entire test suite would become painfully slow.

Secondly, since our test relies on an HTTP request being sent over the network and being processed by an external dependency, we can't be certain on the fact that a valid response will be received, or indeed any response at all. There could be network issues, temporary outages, or other external factors beyond our control, which mean that we might not receive the expected response every time we run our test.

There's plenty of discussion on the topic of best practices for writing automated testing, and what different types of tests should and shouldn't do. Some generally agreed principles though, particularly when working with unit tests and small integration tests, is that we should try to make our tests fast and deterministic.

The further down the 'testing pyramid' we go, the more tests we have, and the more often we run them. Fast tests are therefore important at this level. Additionally, when using tests as part of the development process or for early feedback, it's important that our tests be deterministic; in other words, we want to be sure that, when provided with a specific input, the test should produce a pre-determined output.

Considering these principles in the context of our send_sms test presents with a problem. We want our test to be fast and deterministic, but the issues involved with hitting the live API endpoint go against those principles.

There are other possible considerations when using an external API, such as non-idempotent HTTP methods (for example, the POST request in our method will create an actual SMS messages will be created every time we run our test), or potential issues with costs or rate limits. Many of these additional issues could be addressed by using an API sandbox, and the Messages API provides a sandbox for some messaging channels.

Using a sandbox is more relevant to tests higher up the pyramid, such as end-to-end or functional tests and some larger integration test, and doesn't really solve our speed and determinism issues. What we really want for our lower level tests is a way of not hitting the external dependency at all. One solution to this is mocking.

Mocking

For anyone not familiar with the term, mocking is a technique in testing whereby a mock or 'fake' response is used as a stand-in for a real response from an internal or external part of our application. At an internal level, this could mean a mock object being returned by a method or function call. In the context of external APIs, it will generally mean substituting a real HTTP response with a mocked one.

A big advantage of this approach when working with an external API is that, by not sending a request out over the network and waiting for the response, running a test becomes much faster. Additionally, by pre-defining the HTTP response, we make our tests deterministic.

Mocking sounds like it's ideally suited to addressing the issues we've identified with our current test set-up, so how can we implement it in our send_sms test?

Introducing Webmock

Webmock is a Ruby library for stubbing and setting expectations on HTTP requests. It supports a number of of different HTTP libraries, and can be integrated into various testing frameworks, including rspec.

As a high-level mental model, Webmock essentially does the following:

  • Intercepts any outgoing HTTP requests made by our application
  • Matches those requests against a pre-registered 'stub'
  • Returns a pre-defined response for that request, in place of the actual HTTP response

Let's explore this mental model in action by adding Webmock to our test set-up.

Updated Example: Mocking our HTTP responses with Webmock

First, we need to add webmock to our Gemfile and run bundle install.

Gemfile

# Gemfile

source "https://rubygems.org"
ruby "3.0.0"

gem 'faraday'

group :test do
  gem 'rspec'
  gem 'webmock'
end

Note: we also need to add require 'webmock/rspec' to our spec_helper.

We can then update our test to use Webmock.

messages_client_spec.rb

require "spec_helper"

describe MessagesClient do
  let(:app) { MessagesClient.new }

  describe "#send_sms" do
    let(:from_number) { "447700900000" }
    let(:to_number) { "447700900001" }
    let(:message) { "Hello world!" }

    it "returns status 202 Accepted" do
      stub_request(:post, "https://api.nexmo.com/v1/messages").to_return(status: 202)
      response = app.send_sms(from_number, to_number, message)

      expect(response.status).to eq 202
    end
  end
end

Our updated test registers a stub, using Webmock's stub_request method. The stub is set to match any POST request to https://api.nexmo.com/v1/messages, and return a :status of 202.

Webmock intercepts the outgoing HTTP request, and instead returns the pre-determined response, so running our test is much quicker than before:

Finished in 0.00749 seconds (files took 0.50786 seconds to load)
1 example, 0 failures

Limitations of mocking

Adding Webmock has made our test fast and deterministic, and so it seems likes a good fit for our testing needs. Using a mocking tool for testing external APIs does, however, come with some caveats.

Mocks can be time-consuming to write

Our example mock is only defining the :status code for the response. Other mocks might need to also define the response :headers and/ or :body. Depending on the API being tested, those headers and body could be quite large and complex, and require a fair amount of time to define in the mock.

Scale that up for multiple tests against multiple API endpoints, and we could soon looking at a significant time investment for writing those mocks.

Mocks can be difficult to maintain

Related to this first point is maintenance. External APIs can change over time, adding new features or releasing new versions. For example, the Vonage Messages API recently released a new version. If we have a large number of complex mocks for our tests, maintaining those mocks to keep up with the changes can take a lot of time and effort that could be better invested elsewhere.

Mocks might make incorrect assumptions about dependencies

Since mocks are written to represent a particular response rather than being an actual response, they are necessarily based on assumptions about what that actual response would be. This might not be an issue for our example test, but as the responses we want to mock increase in complexity, so too does the possibility of making an incorrect assumption about that response. Such incorrect assumptions could lead to code which passes the mocked test but doesn't work correctly. Hopefully we'd have tests higher up the pyramid that would identify such issues, but ideally we want to catch them as early as possible with our lower-level tests.

In order to address these limitations, we can look to another Ruby library: VCR.

VCR

VCR is a library which follows the 'record and replay' testing pattern in the context of HTTP requests and responses. Essentially, it records a test suite's HTTP interactions and replays them during future test runs.

VCR implements this pattern using the idea of 'cassettes' (based on the cassette tapes from the obsolete Video Cassette Recorder technology). Each 'cassette' is a file, containing data which represents a recording of a specific HTTP interaction. The first time a test is run, an actual HTTP request/ response cycle occurs and the details of this cycle are recorded as a cassette.

The cassette includes information about both the request and response. The request data is used for request matching during subsequent test runs, and the response data is used for mocking the expected response for those runs. Since the 'mocks' use actual response data, this deals with the issues outlined earlier surrounding the time to write and maintain mocks and the assumptions made in doing so.

This way in which VCR works might be easier to visualise if we examine it in the context of our test set-up.

Updated Example: Integrating VCR to our testing set-up

We first need to add vcr to our Gemfile and run bundle install

Gemfile

# Gemfile

source "https://rubygems.org"
ruby "3.0.0"

gem 'faraday'

group :test do
  gem 'rspec'
  gem 'webmock'
  gem 'vcr'
end

We can then update our test to use VCR.

messages_client_spec.rb

require "spec_helper"
require "vcr"

VCR.configure do |config|
  config.cassette_library_dir = "spec/cassettes"
  config.hook_into :webmock
  config.configure_rspec_metadata!
end

describe MessagesClient do
  let(:app) { MessagesClient.new }

  describe "#send_sms" do
    let(:from_number) { "447700900000" }
    let(:to_number) { "447700900001" }
    let(:message) { "Hello world!" }

    it "returns status 202 Accepted" do
      response = VCR.use_cassette('send_sms') do
        app.send_sms(from_number, to_number, message)
      end

      expect(response.status).to eq 202
    end
  end
end

In this file we require vcr and then configure our VCR set-up, (though if we had multiple spec files, we could move the configuration to our spec_helper file).

  • The cassette_library_dir configuration tells VCR where to store the 'cassettes'. Here we specify a directory spec/cassettes, if this directory doesn't exist, VCR will create it.

  • The hook_into configuration tells VCR how to hook into the HTTP requests. Since, we already have webmock as a dependency we specify it here (though we could remove it from our Gemfile and hook straight into Faraday instead).

There are also plenty of other configuration options available.

In the test itself, we've removed Webmock's stubbed request. Instead, we set the response variable to the return value of VCR's use_cassette method, to which we pass in a cassette name as an argument and also a block. Under the default recording configuration, if the cassette exists, VCR will use it to construct a response object that we can then assert against in our test. If the cassette doesn't exist, VCR will call the block and use what it returns to create the cassette.

When we first run our test, since the cassette doesn't exist at that point, we hit the API endpoint and VCR uses that HTTP interaction to create a send_sms.yml file, which stores details of the HTTP request and response.

send_sms.yml

---
http_interactions:
- request:
    method: post
    uri: https://api.nexmo.com/v1/messages
    body:
      encoding: UTF-8
      string: '{"message_type":"text","channel":"sms","from":"447700900000","to":"447700900001","text":"Hello
        world!"}'
    headers:
      User-Agent:
      - Faraday v1.8.0
      Authorization:
      - Basic xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx==
      Content-Type:
      - application/json
      Host:
      - api.nexmo.com
      Content-Length:
      - '12'
      Accept-Encoding:
      - gzip;q=1.0,deflate;q=0.6,identity;q=0.3
      Accept:
      - "*/*"
  response:
    status:
      code: 202
      message: Accepted
    headers:
      Server:
      - nginx
      Date:
      - Thu, 18 Nov 2021 12:35:49 GMT
      Content-Type:
      - application/json
      Content-Length:
      - '55'
    body:
      encoding: UTF-8
      string: '{"message_uuid":"c26213be-2916-4c64-903e-4125158eedd8"}'
  recorded_at: Thu, 18 Nov 2021 12:35:49 GMT
recorded_with: VCR 6.0.0

When the test is first run, since we are hitting the API endpoint, the run is just as slow as when we weren't using Webmock or VCR at all.

Finished in 1.61 seconds (files took 0.58899 seconds to load)
1 example, 0 failures

On all subsequent test runs, VCR will use the cassette. First it will check that the request details for the test execution match those recorded in the cassette. If they do match, then the response details from the cassette will be used to create a response object. In this case, the response code recorded is 202 and so this will be set as the status for our response object. Since our test is asserting that response.status should equal 202, our test passes.

These subsequent test runs are also much quicker than the first.

Finished in 0.01033 seconds (files took 0.55884 seconds to load)
1 example, 0 failures

VCR tips and tricks

VCR provides lots of flexibility in terms of configuration options.

Configure request matching

In order to replay a recording, VCR needs to match new HTTP requests against the details of a previously recorded one. That matching can be done against various elements of a request.

The default configuration is to match against the HTTP method and the URI, but this configuration can be amended to match the host and path separately (rather than the full URI), query parameters, request headers, and request body.

Additionally, custom matchers can be created to provide even more flexibility.

Re-record, not fade away

As previously mentioned, external API can change over time or release new versions, meaning that recordings can go 'out of date'. If this happens, rather than having to re-write an entire mock (as we would do with a standard mocking set-up) we can record a new HTTP interaction to replace the outdated one. There's a few ways to approach re-recording:

  • The most brute-force way is to delete the file for the current recording. If no recording exists for a specific test, VCR will automatically record a new one.

  • There are also various recording modes that can be set to determine when new recordings are made. For example, :once (which is the default) only records new interactions if there is no cassette file, whereas :new_episodes will record a new interaction if there is an existing file for a test but the request details for that test don't exactly match those recorded in the file.

  • We can enable automatic re-recording in order to re-record interactions at regular intervals. We can set the :re_record_interval option in the setup for a particular cassette. When that cassette is then used, VCR will check the recorded_at timestamp in the cassette against the current time. If more time has elapsed than specified by the :re_record_interval, the interaction will be re-recorded.

Beware of sensitive data

When interacting with an external API, depending on the authentication method for that API, we may well be including sensitive data such as API keys as part of our requests, such as in an Authorization header. This data will be present in the VCR recording as part of the interaction. If we're also making our project code publicly available, say by pushing it to a public repository on GitHub, this can present us with a problem.

One solution might be to add individual recordings, or our entire cassettes directory, to a .gitignore file. Alternatively, we can make use of VCR's filter_sensitive_data configuration option to specify a substitution string for certain data, which will be shown in the recording in place of the actual data.

Use the documentation

VCR provides some detailed usage documentation for these, and many other, configuration options, as well as API documentation for the library itself.

Alternative tools

The tools covered here are well-established within the Ruby eco-system, but there are also many alternatives available, for both Rubyists and non-Rubyists.

In terms of mocking capabilities, the rspec-mocks library can provide mocking capabilities to rspec. Some HTTP libraries such as Faraday provide adapters that let you define stubbed requests. The Faraday mocking functionality (among others) is also compatible with VCR.

Additionally, there are many ports of VCR to other programming languages, such as vcrpy for Python, php-vcr for PHP, and scotch and Betamax.Net for .net/ C#. Nock provides functionality similar to the VCR and Webmock combination for Node.

There are plenty more ports to other languages listed in the VCR README, so whichever language you use there should be hopefully a record and replay tool for you to use.

Happy testing!

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