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Levels Of Testing

Using three equivalent UML class diagrams, the graphic below conveys how to represent a system design using the “C” terminology of the aerospace and defense industry. On the left, the system “contains” CSCIs and CSCIs contain CSCs, etc. In the middle, the system “has” CSCIs. On the right, CSCIs “reside within” the system.

Leaving aside the question of “what the hell’s a unit“, let’s explore four “levels of testing” with the aid of the multi-graphic below that uses the “reside within” model.

In order to test at any given level, some sort of test harness is required for that level. The test harness “system” is required to:

  • generate inputs (for a CSU, CSC, CSCI, or the system),
  • inject the inputs into the “Item Under Test” (CSU, CSC, or CSCI),
  • collect the actual outputs from the IUT,
  • compare the actual outputs with expected outputs.
  • declare success or failure for each test

When planning a project up front, it’s easy to issue the mandate: “we’ll formally test and document at all four levels; progressing from the bottom CSU level up to the system level“. However, during project execution, it’s tough to follow “the plan” when the schedule starts to, uh, expand, and pressure mounts to “just shipt it, damn it!“.


  • the number of IUTs in a level decreases as one moves up the ladder of abstraction (there’s only a single IUT at the top – the system),
  • the (larger and fewer) IUTs at a given level are richer in complex behavior than the (smaller and more plentiful) IUTs at the next lowest level,
  • it is expensive to develop high fidelity, manual and/or automated test harnesses for each and every level
  • others?

there’s often a legitimate ROI-based reason to eschew all levels of formal testing except at the system level. That can be OK as long as it’s understood that defects found during final system level testing will be more difficult and time consuming ($$$) to localize and repair than if lower levels of isolated testing had been performed prior to system testing.

To mitigate the risk of increased time to localize/repair from skipping levels of testing, developers can build in test visibility points that can be turned on/off during operation.

The tradeoff here is that designing in an extensive set of runtime controllable test points adds complexity, code, and additional CPU/memory loading to both the system and test harness software. To top it off, test point activation is often needed most when the system is being stressed with capacity test scenarios where the nastiest of bugs tend surface – but the additional CPU and memory load imposed on the system/harness may itself cause tests to fail and mutate bugs into looking like they are located where they are not. D’oh! Ain’t life a be-otch?

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  1. March 1, 2012 at 1:11 am

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