Behaviour-Driven Development with RailsEdit

Created , updated


This article was originally written in 2007. For more up-to-date information, see:


I first used Behaviour-Driven Development in a relatively disciplined way when writing Walrus. BDD is an incredible safety net for a beginner (Walrus was my first ever real Ruby project; previously I had only written 10-line scripts). It allows you to ensure the correctness of your code at every step of development, and provides you with confidence about your code that you otherwise couldn’t possibly have as a beginner.

As I learned more about Ruby I needed to lean less and less heavily on BDD as a development aid, but I continued to write specs in parallel with new code. In the end BDD allowed me to develop a fully working prototype (in use in production) of a very complex system (object-oriented templating built using an automated packrat PEG parser generator). I am almost certain that I wouldn’t have been able to complete the project without BDD. Having made this journey I can now claim to "know" Ruby.

So for a beginning Rails programmer BDD is also an excellent fit. The notes in this article describe how to set up a new Rails application and incorporate BDD from the very first moment.

Creating the application

After installing Ruby on Rails and any other prerequisites (see "Rails application bootstrapping") we can go ahead and create a new application:

rails application_name
cd application_name

SVK set-up

Seeing as I am working inside an SVK working copy I also do:

svk add .
svk ci -m "Create new Rails application"

There are some files and folders which shouldn’t really be stored in version control (see "Checking a new Rails application into an existing Subversion repository") so these need to be removed and ignored:

svk rm log/*
svk propset svn:ignore '*.log' log
svk rm tmp/*
svk propset svn:ignore '*' tmp
svk mv config/database.yml config/database.example
svk propset svn:ignore 'database.yml' config
svk ci -m "Set-up ignored files"

Setting up the database

First we need to set-up the config/database.yml file:

cp config/database.example config/database.yml

Default settings will work just fine if using a MySQL set-up as described in "Rails application bootstrapping" but we’ll add encoding: utf8 to each database as described in "Unicode support in Rails". Now to actually create the development and test databases:

sudo -s
mysqld_safe &
mysql -u root -e "CREATE DATABASE application_name_development CHARACTER SET 'UTF8';"
mysql -u root -e "CREATE DATABASE application_name_test CHARACTER SET 'UTF8';"
rake db:migrate
env RAILS_ENV=test rake db:migrate

As explained in "Unicode support in Rails", note that I explicitly force the databases to be created with a default UTF-8 character set.

And set-up for SVK:

svk add db/schema.rb
svk ci -m "Initial database schema"

Installing the RSpec plug-ins

When I first wrote this, the latest RSpec release was 0.9.4, so I used the following commands:

script/plugin install svn://
script/plugin install svn://

But nowadays the latest release is always tagged as CURRENT so the following can be used instead:

script/plugin install svn://
script/plugin install svn://

After this:

script/generate rspec
rake spec

And if working with SVK:

svk add script/spec* vendor/plugins/rspec* spec
svk propset svn:ignore previous_failures.txt .
svk ci -m "Install RSpec 0.9.4 plug-ins"

Unfortunately, SVK doesn’t (yet) support Subversion externals, so we have to install the plug-ins as shown here (at the time of writing, the latest version of SVK is 2.0.1). When SVK adds the required support we’ll be able to pass the -x switch to script/plugin install for a slightly more elegant solution.

The official Rspec installation instructions for Rails can be found at:

Setting up Autotest

As part of the BDD approach we’ll be using Autotest to do continuous integration. After installing and configuring Autotest as described in "Using autotest with Rails" we can start it by invoking:


Beginning development

As an example, create a User model:

script/generate rspec_model User
svk st | grep '?' | awk '{print $2}' | xargs svk add
svk ci -m "Create User model"

Autotest should notice the newly created files and run automatically:


ActiveRecord::StatementInvalid in 'User should be valid'
Mysql::Error: Table 'application_name_test.users' doesn't exist: SHOW FIELDS FROM users
./spec/models/user_spec.rb:5:in `new'

Finished in 0.051379 seconds

1 example, 1 failure

So the spec is failing because the users table hasn’t been set up yet. To be fully behaviour-driven we should do the minimum required to get the spec passing, and that means running rake db:migrate to set up the table in the database. This may be counter-intuitive because you haven’t actually specified any behaviour yet, but you’ll remain truer to the BDD philosophy if you always employ this "minimum change to get the spec passing" approach; this approach is described and demonstrated in great detail by lead RSpec developer David Chelimsky in this weblog post.

rake db:migrate
env RAILS_ENV=test rake db:migrate
svk ci -m "Perform migration for User model"

As soon as you do this the specs will start passing again:

Finished in 0.050375 seconds

1 example, 0 failures

Setting up RCov

Now that the first examples are running it’s a good time to set up RCov to ensure code coverage by our specs. In the Rakefile we add:

require 'spec/rake/spectask'

desc 'Run all examples with RCov''coverage') do |t|
  t.spec_files = FileList['spec/**/*.rb']
  t.rcov = true
  t.rcov_opts = ['--exclude', 'spec']

Now running rake coverage will run all the specs and measure the code coverage at the same time, writing a report out to a coverage directory.

The first run shows 100%, apart from 10 lines in config/boot.rb. We can exclude this file from the coverage analysis for two reasons:

  1. The file is part of Rails itself, there is no need to test it (Rails has its own tests).
  2. It is impossible to cover all 100% of this file because it depends on the method in which Rails is installed (there are two different code paths depending on whether Rails is frozen into vendor/rails or loaded via RubyGems.

So we update the rcov_opts in the Rakefile to:

t.rcov_opts = ['--exclude', 'config,spec']

This brings code coverage up to 100%; to keep it this way we add a new task to the Rakefile:

require 'spec/rake/verify_rcov' => :spec) do |t|
  t.threshold = 100.0 # only adjust upwards, never downwards
  t.index_html = 'coverage/index.html'

Now you can verify coverage using rake verify; output should resemble:

Finished in 0.049242 seconds

1 example, 0 failures
Coverage: 100.0% (threshold: 100.0%)

We can keep the coverage directory out of version control as follows:

# add coverage to svn:ignore list
svk propedit svn:ignore


You can further enhance your testing efforts by using Heckle to test the quality of your specs. After installing Heckle using RubyGems you can specify a spec and class (or module, or method) to mutate:

spec spec/models/user_spec.rb --heckle User

As noted by the author of Heckle in this post:

If it modifies code, can’t bad things happen?<br /> Well, yes. Heckle could feasibly break things. It throws crap into your code on purpose. It flips unless and while loops so infinite loops will probably occur at some point. For the next release I’m planning to put in some sort of timeout to avoid that.<br /> <br /> Additionally, know what your code is doing. If randomly changing a string is going to actually break things irrevocably in testing, you probably should be stubbing those dangerous methods (eg. You probably shouldn’t run Heckle against methods that really delete files during testing if it’s based on a string)

For this reason there is no way to automatically invoke Heckle; you have to select a target to mutate and then perform the mutation manually.

Developing iteratively

From here on development takes place iteratively: write a new spec (should fail), write code necessary to make spec pass (should pass).

For example, let’s start with a simple requirement for our User model:

  • A User without a login name
    • should be invalid

We express this with the following spec in user_spec.rb:

describe User, 'without a login name' do
  before(:each) do
    @user =
  it 'should be invalid' do
    @user.should_not be_valid

This spec fails because we don’t have any code to make a user without a login name be considered invalid. We correct this by editing the user.rb file and adding a validates_presence_of call:

class User < ActiveRecord::Base
  validates_presence_of :login_name

Now the other spec in the user_spec.rb file will start failing because the previously valid instance is no longer considered to be valid:

describe User do
  before(:each) do
    @users =

  it "should be valid" do
     @users.should be_valid

We make it valid by adding a login name:

describe User do
  before(:each) do
    @users = => 'Bob')

  it "should be valid" do
     @users.should be_valid

But now we still have a failing spec because there is not yet a login_name= accessor. We therefore create a new migration:

script/generate migration add_login_name_to_users

The contents will be:

class AddLoginNameToUsers < ActiveRecord::Migration
  def self.up
    add_column 'users', 'login_name', :string, :null => false

  def self.down
    remove_column 'users', 'login_name'

We run the migration:

rake db:migrate
env RAILS_ENV=test rake db:migrate

And all the specs start passing again. Now we can check our changes into SVK:

svk add db/migrate/002_add_login_name_to_users.rb
svk ci -m "Add login_name to User model"

Development will now continue iteratively:

  1. Decide on a new required behaviour
  2. Write a spec for it (should fail)
  3. Write code (or take other actions such as performing database migrations as shown above) to make spec pass
  4. Check changes into version control
  5. Repeat

Periodically we will also do the following

  • Check code coverage using rake coverage and/or rake verify; you should try to keep coverage at 100%
  • If necessary, refactor specs to avoid duplicated code; if any of your specs break then you know that your refactoring introduced an error
  • Selectively run Heckle against specific specs, classes, modules and methods to look for holes, flaws or weaknesses in the specs

I’ve posted this screencast to my personal weblog showing one cycle of this iterative development approach in action.

General guidelines

Try to keep coupling between models, views and controllers to a minimum

The above example tests a model in isolation with no involvement from any views or controllers. This is a good thing because it means that bugs in those views and controllers won’t have a cascade effect which causes your model specs to fail.

This post by David Chelimsky shows how to tests views in isolation with the help of mock objects. In this way views can be tested before the corresponding models and controllers are even written.

For more information see "Independently testing models, views and controllers".

Test the coupling too

I know I just said that it’s a good thing to keep coupling to a minimum, but you also need to separately test that all of the components work effectively together. In Rails parlance this is called "integration testing". RSpec doesn’t directly support that yet (as of version 0.9.4, the latest at the time of writing) but it does allow you to use third-party add-ons to perform high-level testing. For more information see "Using Watir with RSpec and Rails".

Don’t test Rails

Make sure that you are testing the behaviour of your application and not that of Rails itself. Rails is already pretty thoroughly tested. In the example above, we are not testing the functionality of Railsvalidates_presence_of method; we take it as a given that it works as advertised. What we are testing is the required behaviour of our application, as specified in the example, a "User without a login name should be invalid". That is the externally visible behaviour that we care about and it is what we use RSpec to confirm; the internal implementation details are not relevant and your specs should be written in an implementation-detail-neutral way (that is, when the implementation details change the spec should continue to pass).

See also