Want to hire me?

If you would like to discuss how I can help you with mobile app development (Xamarin/Flutter), back-end development, C#, Dart, .NET Core, Azure, Firebase, Google Cloud Platform, or reactive programming then please get in touch.

The Peril of VirtualTimeScheduler.Start

Pop quiz, hot-shot: does the following test pass or fail?

[Fact]
public void theres_a_bomb_on_the_bus()
{
    var scheduler = new TestScheduler();
    var count = 0;
    Observable
        .Timer(
            TimeSpan.FromMilliseconds(10),
            TimeSpan.FromMilliseconds(10),
            scheduler)
        .Subscribe(_ => ++count);

    scheduler.Start();

    Assert.True(count > 0);
}

Well? Seems pretty clear it should pass, right?

It’s actually a trick question (how devious of me, I know). In actuality, this test never completes. And because I’ve wasted hours of my life tracking this issue down different times in multiple projects, I figure it’s time to blog about it. Perhaps next time I won’t be bitten.

The problem is fairly simple to identify once distilled to a basic form such as that shown above. But when you’re unit testing real-world code that you’re not even certain works yet, it can get horribly confusing to identify.

The documentation for the Start method on TestScheduler (which is actually inherited from its base class, VirtualTimeScheduler) helpfully states:

Starts the virtual time scheduler.

OK, thanks Ghostdoc. Obviously, it’s not at all clear what that means until we look at the code. Here’s the essence:

do
{
    var next = GetNext();

    if (next != null)
        next.Invoke();
    else
        IsEnabled = false;
} while (IsEnabled);

Spot the problem now? The Start method keeps on running until there are no more messages left to process.

If any message processed by Start schedules another message, that second message will also be processed before Start completes. And if that happens recursively (message A schedules message B, which schedules message C, which schedules…) then Start will never complete.

And, of course, that’s exactly the kind of behavior we’d expect from Observable.Timer. When the first message scheduled by Timer executes, it needs to schedule the next, which needs to schedule the next, and so on ad nauseam.

Perhaps a better name for Start - one more evocative of its actual function - would be AdvanceUntilEmpty. Indeed, I am considering defining an extension method of this name which simply invokes Start. At least that way the code is clearer, and a bright orange warning light will flash in my mind each time I invoke it.

So how do we fix our test? In this contrived case we have direct access to the observable produced by Timer, so we could take one of these approaches:

However, in reality we’re unlikely to have access to the observable. It’s probably an implementation detail of an application component, such as a view model. Therefore we can’t use these approaches. To the best of my knowledge, the best solution is to forgo Start altogether and instead use the AdvanceBy method:

[Fact]
public void theres_a_bomb_on_the_bus()
{
    var scheduler = new TestScheduler();
    var count = 0;
    Observable
        .Timer(
            TimeSpan.FromMilliseconds(10),
            TimeSpan.FromMilliseconds(10),
            scheduler)
        .Subscribe(_ => ++count);

    scheduler.AdvanceBy(TimeSpan.FromSeconds(1).Ticks);

    Assert.True(count > 0);
}

As you can see, we’re now using AdvanceBy to ensure that we only execute one second’s worth of messages. Even if the scheduler has more messages after a second has passed, it won’t bother to process them.

Pro-tip: define an AdvanceBy extension method that takes TimeSpan instead of long, and an AdvanceTo extension method that takes DateTime instead of long. Using ticks for timing information leads to tests that are harder to read and easier to screw up.

The moral of this blog post is to beware of the effect of a call to VirtualTimeScheduler.Start, especially when combined with operators such as Observable.Timer where each message queues a subsequent message. If your system under test includes any calls to Observable.Timer that are running under your test scheduler (which they should be because otherwise how would you reliably test?) then don’t call Start in your test.

PS. I will submit a link to this post to the Rx community to gather feedback.

comments powered by Disqus