Using PHPUnit to verify parameter types

Update (13 Oct) : updated the patch for the latest SVN code of PHPUnit (5277)

PHP is dynamically typed

PHP is a dynamically typed language. What this means is that it allows you to do things like :

$a = 5;
$a = 'test';
$a = false;

The reason this works, is because PHP enforces type rules during execution, not at compile-time.

In many other languages this is impossible, since you need to define a type for the variable at compile-time. Languages such as Java, C, C++, C# and VB.Net are good examples of statically typed languages.

Problems with dynamic typing

Although dynamic typing is considered to be one of PHP’s strong suites, it does pose some problems. Let me illustrate with an example :

Suppose we have a piece of code that processes the amount of money each employee must be paid. Employees can file expense notes that are paid back in cash or when their monthly wages are paid. Our code will make the calculation for the pay check.

The data for our 4 employees is located in a CSV-file :

employeeId, firstname, lastname, wage, expenses, processexpenses
1, Claire, Clarckson, 2000, 212, false
2, Tom, Whitney, 1910, 111, false
4, Jules, verne, 1932, 98, true
5, Gregory, Jameson, 2131, 241, false

If the last field is true, the expenses must be paid in the paycheck. So our code might look like this :

class Wages
{
/**
* Process the wages
*
* @return boolean
*/
public function processWages()
{
$handle = fopen('some-file.csv', 'r');
while (($data = fgetcsv($handle, ',')) !== false) {
if (is_numeric($data[0])) {
$result = $this->processLine($data[2], $data[3], $data[4]);
$this->sendPaycheck($data[0], $result);
}
}
return true;
}

/**
* Calculate wages based on processExpenses parameter
*
* @param float $wage
* @param float $expenses
* @param boolean $processExpenses
* @return float
*/
private function processLine($wage, $expenses, $processExpenses)
{
if ($processExpenses) {
return $wage + $expenses;
} else {
return $wage;
}
}

/**
* Pay the employee
*
* @param int $id
* @param float $amount
*/
private function sendPaycheck($id, $amount)
{
echo 'Paycheck for id ' . $id . ' for the amount of : ' . $amount ."\n";
}
}

When we run the code, everyone will be paid their expenses, even those that have ‘false’ in the last field. The reason ? The last field of each line might look like a boolean, but is in fact a string. The “false” is read as a string and is boolean true.

You might say that we didn’t follow best coding practices in our :

if ($processExpenses) {

which should have been

if ($processExpenses === true) {

but that would only have reversed the effect : nobody would have been paid.

Similar non-boolean situations cause the same problem. There’s a huge list of problems that might be caused by passing incorrect types to a function.

So what’s the solution ?

Since we don’t want to give up on our dynamic typing, we need a way to verify that parameters being passed to a function/method are of the type that we intend them to be. That way, anyone who wishes to use our function/method will be forced to pass the right parameter.

One solution would be to use type safe objects like the ones described by Sebastian Bergman (author of PHPUnit) in his Type-Safe Objects in PHP presentation. However, this is unusable for existing projects as it requires a massive rewrite. Furthermore, as Sebastian indicates, it poses a lot of new problems. And finally, it slows things down quite a bit, since it uses reflection to verify types during execution…

So should or shouldn’t we check the type of a parameter before using it ?

That’s the big dillema : should you check each parameter’s type in each single function at runtime ? Some would say it’s the safest way and the only way to be absolutely sure.

I believe there’s a different and better approach : if you can integrate type checking in your unit testing, there’s no need to explicitely check the type during runtime.

So how do we make sure types are checked ?

What system is better suited for the job than the most popular testing PHP framework, PHPUnit ?

A few weeks ago, I added this to the latest release of PHPUnit.

Upon execution of each PHPUnit Testcase, it will verify parameters for each of the called functions/methods. You can define the depth of calls using a parameter (the default is 2, which means functions called from the testcase itself and any functions called from those functions).

How does the system know what types are expected if we don’t have type hints ?

The system presumes that if you’re using PHPUnit, you most clearly know proper development methods. This also means you’ll be using docblocks to comment your functions.

So, since there are no type hints to rely on, it will instead rely on the types you specify in the docblock

It will analyze the docblock of each function/method and compare each parameter type with the expected parameter type. If it finds an inconsistency, it will produce a PHPUnit warning.

So does it support…

– Classes : yes

– Abstract classes / parent classes : yes

– Interfaces : yes

– Multiple types definitions in the docblock : yes – separate them by a pipe (|)

– Return values : yes – needs Xdebug patch, see below

Is it perfect ?

Nothing is… there’s a few problems at this point :

– It requires a very recent release of Xdebug (seems like it’s not even working with anything but the latest CVS release)

– If you want to analyze return values, you’ll need a patch for Xdebug I wrote last week. You can download that patch here : XDebug bug #416 patch

– It still needs a bit of tuning… some types are not validated correctly. It’s a work in progress !

The MySQL problem : something most people don’t know

Data from any external source might cause problems. MySQL is the best example : any data being returned from MySQL is a string, even if the column is defined as int, decimal, bool (tinyint), …

MySQL’s protocol returns all data as a string and the PHP mysql and mysqli extensions don’t convert it into the expected datatype. The result is that any data from MySQL will be passed as a string, which can cause havoc when doing type checks.

There are 3 solutions to this problem :

  • Cast everything : not really fun, since you’ll need to change all your code. It might also be bad for performance, although it does set the types right ofcourse…
  • Use Propel or some other database layer, which does the casting for you… same performance problem ofcourse.
  • Wait a few more weeks for patches to the mysql extensions or a little while longer for patches to MySQL itself – also a work in progress

In the meantime, if you want to use the type checking, but you have some problems with MySQL, you can use a docblock tag to disable type checking for some functions : @phpunit-no-type-check

How to run it

After applying the patch to PHPUnit (and Xdebug if you want return type checking), run it like this :

php [path to phpunit.php] --check-param-types [TestCase.php|TestSuite.php]

Optional parameters are :

  • –check-param-type-depth= sets the depth to which it needs to check parameter types. Your test is depth 0, any called function within your test is 1, etc. – default is 2 although 3 might be handy too
  • –check-param-type-strict sets strict mode, currently only used for integer<->long comparisons

The output

This is the kind of output you can expect :

2) ATest::testMultiply

Invalid type calling A->multiply : parameter 2 ($factor2) should be of type int but got string(1) instead in C:\development\Test\ATest.php:42

Note that if you use the ‘–check-param-type-depth’ parameter and set it to a high number, you might see errors about libraries you use. Ofcourse, that might be the right moment to notify the library author (or contribute a fix yourself !)

Advantages

  • No need to use is_int, is_bool, etc. in a function that was type-checked
  • Consistent use of types
  • Developers will learn to focus not just on the content of a variable, but on the type as well. In time, it will become second nature to use the correct types from the start. Code hinting in most IDEs should in fact already help out with this, but now there’s a way to verify this too.
  • Verification of each function/method call, not just in terms of functionality (PHPUnit’s job), but also in terms of data types
  • Forces developers to keep the docblock up-to-date (!)

Using type checking basically brings the best of the dynamically and statically typed worlds together : you still have the flexibility of dynamic typing, but assurance that functions are called with the parameter types they were designed to be called with (as well as return the correct types). It’s the perfect middle-of-the-road approach for teams with a mix of ‘strict’ and ‘not-so-strict’ developers.

Where to get it

Since the patch isn’t included in PHPUnit, you can download it here : PHPUnit parameter type check patch

Note that it will work only against the latest SVN release (4940 at this time).

As always, feedback much appreciated !

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