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02 Sep 2011

Combustion - Better Rails Engine Testing

I spent a good part of last month writing my first Rails engine – although it’s not yet released and for a client, so I won’t talk about that too much here.

Very quickly in the development process, I was looking around on how to test Rails engines. It seemed that, beyond some basic unit tests, having a full Rails application within your test or spec directory was the accepted approach for integration testing.

That felt kludgy and bloated to me, so I decided to try something a little different.

The end goal was full stack testing in a clear and manageable fashion – writing specs within my spec directory, not a bundled Rails app’s spec directory. Capybara’s DSL would be nice as well.

This, of course, meant having a Rails application to test through – but it turns out you can get away without the vast majority of files that Rails generates for you. Indeed, the one file a Rails app expects is config/database.yml – and that’s only if you have ActiveRecord in play.

Enter Combustion – my minimal Rails app-as-a-gem for testing engines, with smart defaults for your standard Rails settings.

Setting It Up

A basic setup is as follows:

  • Add the gem to your gemspec or Gemfile.
  • Run the generator in your engine’s directory to get a small Rails app stub created: combust (or bundle exec combust if you’re referencing the git repository instead).
  • Add Combustion.initialize! to your spec/spec_helper.rb (currently only RSpec is supported, but shouldn’t be hard to patch for TestUnit et al).

Here’s a sample spec_helper, mixing in Capybara as well:

require 'rubygems'
require 'bundler'

Bundler.require :default, :development

require 'capybara/rspec'


require 'rspec/rails'
require 'capybara/rails'

RSpec.configure do |config|
  config.use_transactional_fixtures = true

Putting It To Work

Firstly, you’ll want to make sure you’re using your engine within the test Rails application. The generator has likely added the hooks we need for this. If you’re adding routes, then edit spec/internal/config/routes.rb. If you’re dealing with models, make sure you add the tables to spec/internal/db/schema.rb. The README covers this a bit more detail.

And then, get stuck into your specs. Here’s a really simple example:

# spec/controllers/users_controller_spec.rb
require 'spec_helper'

describe UsersController do
  describe '#new' do
    it "runs successfully" do
      get :new

      response.should be_success

Or, using Capybara for integration:

# spec/acceptance/visitors_can_sign_up_spec.rb
require 'spec_helper'

describe 'authentication process' do
  it 'allows a visitor to sign up' do
    visit '/'

    click_link 'Sign Up'
    fill_in 'Name',     :with => 'Pat Allan'
    fill_in 'Email',    :with => ''
    fill_in 'Password', :with => 'chunkybacon'
    click_button 'Sign Up'

    page.should have_content('Sign Out')

And that’s really the core of it. Write the specs you need to test your engine within the context of a full Rails application. If you need models, controllers or views in the internal application to fully test out your engine, then add them to the appropriate location within spec/internal – but only add what’s necessary.

Rack It Up

Oh, and one of my favourite little helpers is this: Combustion’s generator adds a file to your engine, which means you can fire up your test application in the browser – just run rackup and visit http://localhost:9292.


As already mentioned, Combustion is built with RSpec in mind – but I will happily accept patches for TestUnit as well. Same for Cucumber – should work in theory, but I’m yet to try it.

It’s also written for Rails 3.1 – it may work with Rails 3.0 with some patches, but I very much doubt it’ll play nicely with anything before that. Still, feel free to investigate.

And it’s possible that this could be useful for integration testing for libraries that aren’t engines. If you want to try that, I’d love to hear how it goes.

Final Notes

So, where do we stand?

  • You can test your engine within a full Rails stack, without a full Rails app.
  • You only add what you need to your Rails app stub (that lives in spec/internal).
  • Your testing code is DRYer and easier to maintain.
  • You can use standard RSpec and Capybara helpers for integration testing.
  • You can view your test application via Rack.

I’m not the first to come up with this idea – after I had finished Combustion, it was pointed out to me that Kaminari’s test suite does a similar thing (just not extracted out into a separate library). It wouldn’t surprise me if others have done the same – but in my searching, I kept coming across well-known libraries with full Rails apps in their test or spec directories.

If you think Combustion could suit your engine, please give it a spin – I’d love to have others kick the tires and ensure it works in a wider set of situations. Patches and feedback are most definitely welcome.


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07 Sep 2011
José Valim said:

Hey Pat!

I am likely the main responsible for the practice of bundling Rails apps inside gems. It started with “Crafting Rails Applications” and the target was to make very clear what is happening when you boot your application and when config/application.rb and config/environment.rb are loaded (it is explained with a dummy app right in the first chapter!).

That said, I think combustion provides a nice alternative to the problem for those who want completely hide away the Rails initialization process.

Just one note: I disagree that bundling a Rails app is brittle, it does exactly the same as combution, except that it does it explicitly. However, I agree that bundling the whole Rails app can be considered “bloat” but you really don’t need all those files. You can get away by keeping only config/{boot,application,environment}.rb (plus the database.yml if you are using AR), which is basically what combustion defines.

07 Sep 2011
pat said:

Hi José

I realise there’s not a huge difference in the two approaches (and I had someone point out you’d made the full-app suggestion in your book halfway through developing Combustion – I should probably get myself a copy to read!).

I didn’t actually intend for Combustion to end up being a full Rails app, I just wanted full-stack testing with as little code as possible – and just added things bit by bit until it worked.

And yeah, brittle isn’t quite the right description – I got a little carried away.

08 Sep 2011
Dan Croak said:

Very cool, Pat. Take a look at and for some other ideas about testing engines and testing different versions of Rails, respectively.

08 Sep 2011
pat said:

Very cool, thanks for sharing those Dan – I’m surprised I never found diesel in my searching. Appraisal reminds me of a gem I wrote some time ago for the same purpose – Ginger – – but that was before Bundler, and Appraisal seems a much cleaner approach now.

19 Sep 2011
Millisami said:

Nice setup to test the engine.
But there is built in engine generator in Rails 3.1 with the following command.

rails plugin new my_engine —mountable

This command also generates a dummy rails app to test against. Its described in Ryan Bigg’s Rails3InAction book. Though it generates the test setup for TestUnit, but its easy to tweak for RSpec too.

Did you build Combustion just to ease the setup or find anything with the built-in plugin generator?

19 Sep 2011
pat said:

I’ve not used the built-in engine/plugin generator in a long, long time (before engines existed) – Combustion was just built to make testing of engines simpler and DRYer.

It’s no surprise that the generator adds a dummy app, since that is the established approach for testing engines.

29 Jan 2013
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New link to README:

29 Jan 2013
pat said:

Thanks Brad, just updated the post with the newer link.

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