Autotools Mythbuster: On parallel testing

A “For A Parallel World” crossover!

Since now the tinderbox is actually running pretty good and the logs are getting through just fine, I’ve decided to spend some more time expanding the Autotools Mythbuster guide with more content, in particular in areas such as porting for automake 1.12 (and 1.13).

One issue though which I’ll have to discuss in that guide soon, and for which I’m posting already right now, is parallel testing, because it’s something that is not really well known, and is something that, at least for Gentoo, involves the EAPI=5 discussion.

Build systems using automake have a default target for testing purposes called check. This target is designed to build and execute testcases, in a pretty much transparent way. Usually this involves two main variables: check_PROGRAMS and TESTS. The former defines the binaries to build for the testcases, the latter which testcases to run.

This is counter-intuitive and might actually sound silly, but in some cases you want to build test programs as binaries, but call scripts instead to compare them. This is often the case when you test a library, as you want to actually compare the output of a test program with the known-good output.

Now, up to automake 1.12, if you run make -j16 check, what is parallelized is only the building of the binaries and targets; you can for instance make use of this with check_DATA to preprocess some source files (I do that for unpaper which only ships in the repository the original PNG files of the test data), but if your tests take time, and you have little stuff that needs to be built, then running make -j16 check is not going to be a big win. This added with the chance that the tests might just not work in parallel is why the default up to now in Gentoo is to run the tests in series.

But that’s why recent automake introduced the parallel-tests option, which is actually going to be the default starting from 1.13. In this configuration, the tests are executed by a driver script, which launches multiple copies of them at once, and then proceeds with receiving the results. Note that this is just an alternative default test harness, and Automake actually supports custom harnesses as well, which may or may not be run in parallel.

Anyway, this is something that I’ll have to write about in more details in my guide — please be patient. In the mean time you can see unpaper as an example, as I just updated the git tree to make the best use of the parallel tests harness (it actually saved me some code).

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