Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Scala closures as poor man's mocks

Groovy has this feature that you can use a closure whenever you need an interface with one method only. A class implementing the interface is automatically created, and the closure provides the implementation of this single method. This process is called closure coercion and is particularly convenient to make tests readable and concise.

I'm not yet sure about the relative advantages of such code everywhere, since there might be ambiguities or the intent might be obscured. Tests usually contain a lot of boilerplate, though, so I'm all for making them more concise. Except for readability, people would be more likely to write a test if it doesn't take much effort to create yet another trivial mock.

Who tests your tests though? You don't need to answer. Still, the page about implementing interfaces in Groovy warns of this trap: "Be careful that you don't accidentally define the map with { }". Type safety could help sometimes when writing tests. Or at least that's a very good excuse to try to emulate this Groovy feature in Scala.

In Scala there are implicit conversions, which help define a controlled way to coerce a value to a different type. We cannot automatically convert all closures to all possible single-method interfaces in scope, but we can choose several we are using especially often (as it happens in tests). For instance, if we want to use a mock of java.lang.Readable often enough, we could define the following implicit conversion:

import java.nio.CharBuffer

implicit def fun2readable(f: Function1[CharBuffer,Int]): Readable =
new Readable { def read(cb: CharBuffer) = f(cb) }

So now everywhere we need a Readable, we might just drop in the appropriate closure instead (technically, this is not a mock, but a stub):

val readable: Readable = {cb: CharBuffer => cb.put("12 34"); 5}
val s = new java.util.Scanner(readable)
assert (s.nextInt == 12)

Compare this with the Groovy version:

def readable = { it.put("12 34"); 5 } as Readable
def s = new Scanner(readable)
assert s.nextInt() == 12

In the Scala version, we are explicitly defining the type of the variable in order to force the implicit conversion. In methods, where Readable is expected as an argument, explicitly naming the type will not be necessary, whereas in Groovy you always need to coerce using "as Readable":

val s = new java.util.Scanner({cb: CharBuffer => cb.put("12 34"); 5})

So in Scala you're trading some verbosity up front for some conciseness in all of the code where the implicit conversion is visible. Furthermore, the type checker guarantees that only closures with the correct signature are converted to the interface in question (i.e. with an input of CharBuffer and output of Int) and will flag a compile-time error otherwise.

The reader might be tempted to also emulate map coercion, but beware of an unexpected difficulty: it's not easy to define both a closure (with one argument) and map coercion. Since a Map in scala is a function and due to type erasure, the compiler won't know whether to substitute the Map or the Function!

Can you generate these implicits automatically without defining them? Maybe with a Scala compiler plugin, but then you lose some of the transparency of knowing which implicits you've defined.