The mock object approach to test-driven development

Jordan Schaenzle, Atomic Object

October 16, 2012

Jordan Schaenzle, Atomic ObjectOctober 16, 2012

Editor’s Note: Jordan Schaenzle provides a guide to implementing test-driven development methods for your embedded systems using mock objects, whether or not you are doing your design in the C language or in C++.

Test Driven Development (TDD) is growing in popularity as developers realize they produce better code and have greater confidence in their work when using TDD. Project managers are also discovering that TDD allows teams to maintain a more predictable, stable pace and greatly reduces the debugging phase that typically occurs at the end of the development cycle.

Unfortunately, in the embedded software world TDD practices aren’t gaining much traction. This is a concern as the nature of embedded devices makes good coding practices all the more important. One “minor” bug could result in inconvenient firmware updates or a product recall, putting a significant scar on a company’s reputation.

Some embedded developers believe it’s not possible to use automated testing because their code has to interact with hardware peripherals. Also, a large percentage of developers are not actively writing new code, but instead are updating and improving existing code bases. They often believe that it’s too late in the game to implement a testing process or that doing so would require them to change the entire structure of their project.

In reality, these worries are not based in fact and can be solved by an important piece of TDD called 'mocking', which enables developers to easily write tests that verify isolated chunks of code. Several excellent testing frameworks exist that are custom tailored to embedded development and facilitate the use of mocks.

As embedded applications grow in size they are often broken into subsections that we call modules (Figure 1). In many cases, a given module will make calls into one or more neighboring modules. Those modules, in turn, make calls into other modules and the chain continues all the way down to the lowest-level hardware interactions.

Figure 1. Typical application structure

This chain of interaction poses a problem when writing unit tests. How do you test to ensure a single module is doing what is expected, without also testing all of the modules that it touches? Attempting to specify a state for every module in the chain, for every test, is a huge undertaking. Tests would be lengthy, extremely brittle, and would need to be refactored every time something in the chain changed. 'Mocks' were invented to solve this problem.

What is a Mock?
A mock is a stand-in for a real module. It doesn’t contain any real functionality but rather imitates a module’s interface. When used in a test, a mock intercepts calls between the module under test and the mocked module (Figure 2). If the function being called has a return value, the mock for that function will also return a value as specified in the test.

Additionally, mocks have a special feature that keeps track of the number of times each function is called, and the order of those calls. If function calls occur in an unexpected order, the problem is detected and failure is triggered. Mocks are able to break the chain of interaction and isolate a given module so that it can be easily tested.

Figure 2. Mocks act like a ping-pong paddle by intercepting the function call and immediately returning execution to the calling function.

How are Mocks Created?
Right now, you might be thinking that creating these mocks would mean a lot of additional work. This is where mocking frameworks come into play. A mocking framework is a tool that generates mocks for you. The beauty of it is that you don’t even need to write a module’s implementation to generate a mock.

CMock, for example, is a free mocking framework (Figure 3) that is designed for use with C. To generate a mock, all it needs is a header file. CMock parses the function declarations in the header file and generates mock functions based on the prototypes. GoogleMock and CppUTest are also available for generating mocks for C++ projects.

Figure 3. CMock creates mocks using only header files.

Testing frameworks and mocking frameworks are generally used together within a build automation environment. This integration allows for efficient use of these tools in an automated fashion. The tools work together to automatically detect when a mock is needed and generate it on the fly, during the build process. The mock objects and real objects can then be linked together to create test executables.

How are Mocks Used?
A mock by itself is not very useful. The true value is realized when you use a mock in a unit test. We'll walk through a simple demo, using TDD, to see how mocking comes into play. Explaining the entire TDD process is outside the scope of this article so I will focus primarily on how mocks fit into the overall process. I will be using a C unit testing framework called Unity for the tests, and CMock for the mocking framework. For a good primer on unit testing and an introduction to Unity and CMock, have a look at Also, to download the source code for the complete example see the References section below.

For this example, we'll use an LED controller module. To start out, we’ll implement a single function that simply turns an LED on. The function will take a single parameter to indicate which LED should be turned on. When called, it will invoke a function in a GPIO module to set the correct GPIO pin state.

// test_LedControl.h
#include “LedControl.h”
#include “mock_Gpio.h”
void test_LedControl_TurnLedOn_should_set_GPIO_pin_1_when_turning_on_
   // Setup expected call chain

   // Call the function under test
Listing 1 - Unit Test

Listing 1 is a simple unit test but it illustrates some important points. First, notice that we included mock_Gpio.h rather than the real Gpio.h. This tells the test framework to use a mock (fake) version of the Gpio module. Next, notice the first line of code in the test. This line tells CMock it should expect function GPIO_SetPin will be called with a single argument equal to 1 (the GPIO pin to set). The last line of code in the test tells the testing framework to call the function under test, LedControl_TurnLedOn, with a single argument equal to LED_RED.

It’s important to note that we didn’t check the state of the GPIO pin to verify that it actually changed state. This was intentional, as we are not testing the functionality of the Gpio module in this test. We are isolating the LedControl functionality and verifying that it interacts with other modules correctly.

The test in Listing 1 is complete but will most certainly fail for several reasons. First, the compiler doesn’t know what GPIO_SetPin_Expect is, because a mock cannot be created yet. In order for CMock to generate one we need to create a header file. Let’s do that now, as shown in Listing.

// Gpio.h
void GPIO_SetPin(uint8_t pin_num);

Listing 2 - GPIO Module Header File

That’s it! This function definition is all CMock needs to create the mock implementation of our GPIO module. The last thing we need to do is implement the LedControl module to satisfy the test.

// LedControl.h

#define RED_LED_PIN 1
#define BLUE_LED_PIN 2

typedef enum {
} LED_T;

void LedControl_TurnLedOn(LED_T led);

Listing 3 - LedControl Header File

// LedControl.c
#include “LedControl.h”
#include “Gpio.h”
void LedControl_TurnLedOn(LED_T led)
   if(LED_RED == led)

Listing 4 - LedControl Source File

In Listing 3 and Listing 4 we have the header file and source file for the LedControl module. The header file contains an enumeration to represent the LEDs on the board, a couple of define statements to correlate a GPIO pin to each LED, and a prototype for the function under test. The source file contains the actual definition of the function under test.

When the testing framework builds the test in Listing 1, it will use the real LedController module. However, because we included mock_Gpio.h in the test file, it will link in the mock version of the Gpio module generated by CMock. When the test runs, the real LedControl_TurnLedOn function is called. This function calls GPIO_SetPin, which exists in the mock object. Because we set up the expectation in the first line of our our test, the mock object will validate that the argument used in the call matches that which was specified, and return happily. If the LedControl_TurnLedOn function were to call into the GPIO module again, or if the argument’s value was something other than 1, the mock object would produce an error and the testing framework would report it in the test summary.

This example demonstrates the TDD process for developing entirely new code. If you are working on legacy code, TDD can still be used effectively. Write a test to the existing code and make sure it fails. Then, change the code as needed until the test passes. Use mocks to isolate the module you are updating in the same way we did above. Occasionally, this will require some refactoring but as a side benefit you will end up with a better, object-oriented program structure.

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