The Software Simpleton

Nomadic cattle rustler and inventor of the electric lasso

Unit Testing Ember.js, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Runloop

I am currently using Ember.js for a side project and I have ran into some interesting and unexpected behaviour while driving the development of the front end code test first. I am using the excellent javascript bdd library Jasmine as my test runner and I must also issue a warning that the code examples listed below are in coffeescript. I have also been using the excellent guard-jasmine gem to automatically run my tests when any files are modified which really is a great experience.

I had vaguely heard of the Ember runloop in a few of the articles that I had read but I had not had to deal with it directly until I started getting more and more unexpected behaviour in my tests.

This is best illustrated with some code. Below is a simple Ember controller/object that creates a view in its constructor:

The above code creates an Ember model object in the constructor of the controller on line 5 which is then bound to the view on line 9. The view is then attached to the DOM on line 12.

Below is my original failing test that I wrote:

I wrongly expected that the code on line 4 would create the controller and subsequently attach the view to the DOM immediately. What was equally as perplexing was that the view appeared to be immediately appended onto the DOM when viewed in the browser.

I threw this question out to the ever expanding universe (twitter) and the ever expanding universe (twitter) responded in kind. I cannot actually remember who answered (apologies) but the response was along the lines of:

Ember defers the DOM manipulation until later via the runloop. You can make the runloop execute immediately by calling Ember.run.end()

This advice was only half right, more on that later.

So what was this crazy man’s talk of a runloop? To understand what the runloop is, it is worth considering one of Ember’s strengths or main selling points which is its bindings support. A binding simply connects the properties of two objects in such a way that when one property changes, the value of the other one changes. With Ember you would generally not change the DOM directly, you would instead make a change to the model and let the relevant bindings reflect this change. This is MVC done properly with changes to view being reflected in the model via the observer pattern. With backbone.js, you generally react to DOM events which is quite limited because it is all too easy for the model and view to become unsynchronised and tedious error prone code is required to keep the two in sync.

It turns out that the runloop is a critical piece of the Ember machinery that ensures all bindings propagate data changes to their bound listeners. In the example I outlined above, I have the following binding that binds my model to the view:

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urlSearchBinding: 'controller.url_search'

Then in my handlebars template, I am binding the value of an input field to the search_url property of the model:

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view Ember.TextField size="60" valueBinding="urlSearch.search_url"

The upshot of this is that when a user enters some text into the input field, the search_url property of the model will change to the text that has been entered into the input field. The reverse is also true, a change to the model will result in the input changing. We could take this further and have another bound object whose property subsequently changes when the search_url property changes of our model and so on. This is could turn into a performance and synchronisation overhead if the Ember runtime was constantly reacting to each binding as and when they change.

Behold the runloop

The runloop is charged with batching up all the binding updates into one final set that can be executed all at once at a designated point in the runloop. Typically Something triggers the start of the runloop which is more often than not, one of the many supported browser DOM events that Ember has registered itself to listen for, e.g. click, mouseup, etc., etc., etc. The runloop can also be triggered manually with code or from the expiration of a timer. If we change a property using the set method of an ember object like below:

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@url_search.set('search_url', 'http://thesoftwaresimpleton.com/')

The change to the binding is not propagated immediately but instead is placed on a queue or deferred for later execution at the end of a running runloop. When a runloop is triggered from a DOM event or manually in code, the bindings are not flushed until a certain point in the execution lifecycle of the runloop. The runloop is also in charge of other things like executing expired timers.

The important thing to remember here is that Ember waits until all the bindings have been propagated or flushed before updating any views which is why my code works fine when running in the browser but not in my test. The runloop had not finished and the bindings had not been flushed so the view did not update.

It is thankfully possible to manually start a runloop with code which turned out to be the missing link in my initial tests. A runloop can be manually started at any time by placing your code between an Ember.run.begin() and an Ember.run.end() statement. Once Ember.run.end() is called, you can be assured that all your binding changes will be flushed and any timers will be expired. Only after Ember.run.end() has been called will any views be updated. With this assurance, I can now test for the existence or changed state of DOM elements in my tests. Below is how the now infamous failing test can be made to pass:

On line 5, I am triggering the runloop via the convenience method Ember.run which accepts a function as an argument. Ember.run() will take care of wrapping the passed in function between Ember.run.begin() and Ember.run.end() statements. Needless to say, the test now passes.

The runloop is now incorporated into the majority of my tests where I ensure that the unit or critical part of the application that I want to test is running in the context of a runloop. Below is an example of a test where I test my interaction with an Ember state manager:

On line 8 I ensure that the send method of the state manager is wrapped in a runloop.

Conclusion

I am not sure if I would have discovered the runloop had I not been writing tests. I think the runloop is an amazingly powerful concept and is used in many other frameworks and platforms. I think one of the IPhone frameworks uses it in a similar fashion.

Before I finish, I want to point out another trapdoor that I fell down before becoming better acquainted with the now infamous runloop. My first attempt at dealing with the runloop is in the gist below where I just blindly added Ember.run.end() to my test on line 5 in order to end the runloop and flush the changes:

This is bad for a number of reasons, namely because other tests will now rely on Ember.run.end() being called from this test and as we all know, tests should be atomic and not rely on things being in a particular state due to the execution of another test. If I delete the test, the runloop no longer completes. What is equally as bad is that the runloop is being terminated unexpectedly for other tests. This was another blind alley I gladly wandered down before deciding to do the research and write about it in this blog.

If I have got any of the above wrong then please leave a comment below. I would love to be corrected.

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