Fixturies: The speed of fixtures and the maintainability of factories


We had a rails app. We used factories in our tests, and it took ten minutes to run them all.  That was too slow. (spoiler alert: by the end of this blog post, they will run in one minute.)

We suspected that we could speed up the test run time by using fixtures instead, but worried that fixtures would be much more difficult to maintain than our factories.

As it happens, we are not the first developers to deal with the issue that factories are slow and fixtures are hard to maintain.  I cannot explain the issue any better than the following folks do, so I’ll just give you some quotes:

“In a large system, calling one factory may silently create many associated records, which accumulates to make the whole test suite slow …”

“Maintaining fixtures of more complex records can be tedious. I recall working on an app where there was a record with dozens of attributes. Whenever a column would be added or changed in the schema, all fixtures needed to be changed by hand. Of course I only recalled this after a few test failures.”

“Factories can be used to create database records anywhere in your test suite. This makes them pretty flexible and allows you to keep your test data local to your tests. The drawback is that it makes them almost impossible to speed up in any significant way.”

In our case, 99% of our tests were using identical records.  For example, we were calling FactoryGirl.create(:user) hundreds of times, and every time, it was creating the exact same user.  That seemed silly.  It was great to use the factory, because it ensured that the user would always be up-to-date with the current state of our code and our database, but there was no reason for us to use it over and over in one test run.

So we wrote the gem fixturies to solve the problem this way:  Each time we run tests, just once at the beginning, we execute a bunch of factories to create many records in the database.  The fixturies gem then dumps the state of the database to fixtures files, and our tests run blazingly fast using those fixtures.

We saw a 10x improvement in run times, from ten minutes down to one.  We still use factories here and there in our tests when we need a record with specific attributes or when we want to clear out a whole table and see how something behaves with a certain set of records in the database.  But in the vast majority of cases, the general records set up in that single run at the beginning are good enough.

If you are using factories in your tests to re-create the same records over and over again, and your tests are running too slowly, give fixturies a try and let us know how it goes.  It only took us about half a day to refactor 700 tests to use fixturies instead of traditional factories, so there is a good chance it will be worth your time.