Book review: Django 1.1 Testing and Debugging

In April Packt published Django 1.1 Testing and Debugging by Karen M. Tracey. After reading it I figured I might as well write a review.

The book is written for Django application developers and requires basic knowledge of Python and Django. And although the code samples are indeed explained, the context is not always expanded on. This makes sense for this book and the author recommends to at least do the Django tutorial. I think you’ll get even more out of the book if you’ve got a bit more experience with building Django applications.

As the title already gives away, the book focusses on two subjects: testing and debugging. These topics are discussed while developing a survey application. Because this application is used consistently in the book, the examples require less explanation which means that the focus in more on the subject at hand (e.g. writing a unit test) instead of developing this specific application.

Testing

The first five chapters dive into the world of testing. Karen starts with explaining how to run the tests and what success and failure looks like. The second chapter has a focus on doctests. Not only does she show examples of tests, she also lists pros and cons of using doctests. Meanwile she also discusses whether a test is even useful (example: you should not test Django itself). The examples in the book consist of doctests that are placed in the docstring of functions. She does not show how to run a doctest in a separate file (e.g. README.txt) which can be more useful for explaining or demonstrating the API of the application as a whole, or doing integration tests.

Unit tests are discusses more extensively in chapters three to five. Karen starts by reimplementing the doctests as unit tests and continues by showing things like the setUp and tearDown methods and also django.test.Client to test views. In the last chapter about testing she introduces the reader to test runners, test coverage and using twill instead of django.test.Client. The only thing I want to nag about is the style of some of the examples. Occasionally she writes things like:

def testHome(self):
    from django.core.urlresolvers import reverse
    ...

Where I would write:

from django.core.urlresolvers import reverse
def testHome(self):
    ...

In my opinion every programming book should pay attention to programming style. Although it does not have to be addressed explicitly, the style of the examples should be consistent and follow the appropriate coding standards/guides (like PEP8 for example which states that imports must be at the top of the file).

Debugging

Anyway, on with the book review… The remainder of the book is about debugging and troubleshooting. Karen first describes the functionality Django offers to debug your application. For instance, the debug error pages are explained in detail. The style Karen chose for this part of the book resembles watching a programmer at work: a mistake is made and results in an error page, the error reported by Django is investigated to discover the cause of the problem and the code is fixed.

Next subject is how to find errors that are less obvious: Django does not show an error page, but the application does not work as it should. Initially some custom code is created to show the SQL queries involved in a view. Although this code is replaced by the Django Debug Toolbar later on, it is also used to show how to package the custom code for reuse. (Personally, I would have kept the custom query display section a bit shorter and skip the packaging altogether. It’s beyond the scope of the book and I think there are other resources that describe developing for reuse much better.) Karen does a great job describing the features offered by the Django Debug Toolbar. She also explains why using print statements is evil and using logging is good.

The next subject (chapter nine) is the Python debugger (pdb). Not only is this chapter a thorough description of the debugger, there’s also a number of pages devoted to race conditions. Although this is an important subject, I personally sometimes forget about it when developing an application. So I think it’s great that it the subject is brought up in this book!

Chapter ten (“When All Else Fails: Getting Outside Help”) is a nice description about what you should do when you encounter a problem in Django. Karen points the reader to the Django documentation (to confirm you are using the API as it was intended) and the Trac site (where you can may already find a fix for your problem). She also gives clear instructions and tips on what to do when the problem isn’t already fixed or perhaps hasn’t even been reported yet.

The last chapter of the book is about moving your code to production and making it accessible for the world. It gives an example for the required WSGI script and the Apache configuration. Furthermore, it also describes debugging the production environment and load testing with siege. Finally Karen discusses the use of Apache and mod_wsgi during development. Although she claims that the Apache/mod_wsgi setup can be made nearly as convenient as using the Django development server I think it really depends on the situation. I agree that it may be a good way to tackle some problems and setup issues early on. But if you are working with a number of developers on the project and each developer is working on several different projects (sometimes even switching projects throughout the day), I’m not sure whether it’s worth the effort.

Conclusion

I’ve been developing in Python a couple of years, mainly working on Plone projects since 2007 and doing Django applications since 2009. I was already more than familiar with the topics in the book (doctests, unit test, logging, debugging, et cetera) and have also done a bit of test driven development. As a result, the book did not open a whole new world for me. However, I do think that the book was worth the read. I picked up a few new tricks and gained an even better insight in testing and debugging Django applications.

One last complaint though: the title of the book could have been a bit better: by putting the Django version number in the title, the book seems to target Django 1.1 specifically. Sure, Django 1.1 and 1.1.1 have been used in the book. And sure, some examples might not work in earlier or later versions of Django. However, the principles remain the same! In my opinion the version should have been left out of the title.

Although I may not agree with everything, I think Django 1.1 Testing and Debugging is a good book. So I’d like to thanks Karen and Packt for writing and publishing it.