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Running three hours of Ruby tests in under three minutes

Nelson Elhage on August 13, 2015 in Engineering

At Stripe, we make extensive use of automated testing to help ensure the stability and reliability of our services. We have expansive test coverage for our API and other core services, we run tests on a continuous integration server over every git branch, and we never deploy without green tests.

The size and complexity of our codebase has grown over the past few years—and so has the size of the test suite. As of August 2015, we have over 1400 test files that define nearly 15,000 test cases and make over 130,000 assertions. According to our CI server, the tests would take over three hours if run sequentially.

With a large (and growing) group of engineers waiting for those tests with every change they make, the speed of running tests is critical. We’ve used a number of hosted CI solutions in the past, but as test runtimes crept past 10 minutes, we brought testing in-house to give us more control and room for experimentation.

Recently, we’ve implemented our own distributed test runner that brought the runtime of our tests to just under three minutes. While some of these tactics are specific to our codebase and systems, we hope sharing what we did to improve our test runtimes will help other engineering organizations.

Forking executor

We write tests using minitest, but we've implemented our own plugin to execute tests in parallel across multiple CPUs on multiple different servers.

In order to get maximum parallel performance out of our build servers, we run tests in separate processes, allowing each process to make maximum use of the machine's CPU and I/O capability. (We run builds on Amazon's c4.8xlarge instances, which give us 36 cores each.)

Initially, we experimented with using Ruby's threads instead of multiple processes, but discovered that using a large number of threads was significantly slower than using multiple processes. This slowdown was present even if the ruby threads were doing nothing but monitoring subprocess children. Our current runner doesn’t use Ruby threads at all.

When tests start up, we start by loading all of our application code into a single Ruby process so we don’t have to parse and load all our Ruby code and gem dependencies multiple times. This process then calls fork a number of times to produce N different processes that’ll each have all of the code pre-loaded and ready to go.

Each of those workers then starts executing tests. As they execute tests, our custom executor forks further: Each process forks and executes a single test file’s worth of tests inside the child process. The child process writes the results to the parent over a pipe, and then exits.

This second round of forking provides a layer of isolation between tests: If a test makes changes to global state, running the test inside a throwaway process will clean everything up once that process exits. Isolating state at a per-file level also means that running individual tests on developer machines will behave similarly to the way they behave in CI, which is an important debugging affordance.


The custom forking executor spawns a lot of processes, and creates a number of scratch files on disk. We run all builds at Stripe inside of Docker, which means we don't need to worry about cleaning up all of these processes or this on-disk state. At the end of a build, all of the state—be that in-memory processes or on disk—will be cleaned up by a docker stop, every time.

Managing trees of UNIX processes is notoriously difficult to do reliably, and it would be easy for a system that forks this often to leak zombie processes or stray workers (especially during development of the test framework itself). Using a containerization solution like Docker eliminates that nuisance, and eliminates the need to write a bunch of fiddly cleanup code.

Managing build workers

In order to run each build across multiple machines at once, we need a system to keep track of which servers are currently in-use and which ones are free, and to assign incoming work to available servers.

We run all our tests inside of Jenkins; Rather than writing custom code to manage worker pools, we (ab)use a Jenkins plugin called the matrix build plugin.

The matrix build plugin is designed for projects where you want a "build matrix" that tests a project in multiple environments. For example, you might want to build every release of a library against several versions of Ruby and make sure it works on each of them.

We misuse it slightly by configuring a custom build axis, called BUILD_ROLE, and telling Jenkins to build with BUILD_ROLE=leader, BUILD_ROLE=worker1, BUILD_ROLE=worker2, and so on. This causes Jenkins to run N simultaneous jobs for each build.

Combined with some other Jenkins configuration, we can ensure that each of these builds runs on its own machine. Using this, we can take advantage of Jenkins worker management, scheduling, and resource allocation to accomplish our goal of maintaining a large pool of identical workers and allocating a small number of them for each build.


Once we have a pool of workers running, we decide which tests to run on each node.

One tactic for splitting work—used by several of our previous test runners—is to split tests up statically. You decide ahead of time which workers will run which tests, and then each worker just runs those tests start-to-finish. A simple version of this strategy just hashes each test and take the result modulo the number of workers; Sophisticated versions can record how long each test took, and try to divide tests into group of equal total runtime.

The problem with static allocations is that they’re extremely prone to stragglers. If you guess wrong about how long tests will take, or if one server is briefly slow for whatever reason, it’s very easy for one job to finish far after all the others, which means slower, less efficient, tests.

We opted for an alternate, dynamic approach, which allocates work in real-time using a work queue. We manage all coordination between workers using an nsqd instance. nsq is a super-simple queue that was developed at; we already use it in a few other places, so it was natural to adopt here.

Using the build number provided by Jenkins, we separate distinct test runs. Each run makes use of three queues to coordinate work:

  • The node with BUILD_ROLE=leader writes each test file that needs to be run into the test.<BUILD_NUMBER>.jobs queue.
  • As workers execute tests, they write the results back to the test.<BUILD_NUMBER>.results queue, where they are collected by the leader node.
  • Once the leader has results for each test, it writes "kill" signals to the test.<BUILD_NUMBER>.shutdown queue, one for each worker machine. A thread on each worker pulls off a single event and terminates all work on that node.

Each worker machine forks off a pool of processes after loading code. Each of those processes independently reads from the jobs queue and executes tests. By relying on nsq for coordination even within a single machine, we have no need for a second, machine-local, communication mechanism, which might risk limiting our concurrency across multiple CPUs.

Other than the leader node, all nodes are homogenous; they blindly pull work off the queue and execute it, and otherwise behave identically.

Dynamic allocation has proven to be hugely effective. All of our worker processes across all of our different machines reliably finish within a few seconds of each other, which means we're making excellent use of our available resources.

Because workers only accept jobs as they go, work remains well-balanced even if things go slightly awry: Even if one of the servers starts up slightly slowly, or if there isn't enough capacity to start all four servers right at once, or if the servers happen to be on different-sized hardware, we still tend to see every worker finishing essentially at once.


Reasoning about and understanding performance of a distributed system is always a challenging task. If tests aren't finishing quickly, it's important that we can understand why so we can debug and resolve the issue.

The right visualization can often capture performance characteristics and problems in a very powerful (and visible) way, letting operators spot the problems immediately, without having to pore through reams of log files and timing data.

To this end, we've built a waterfall visualizer for our test runner. The test processes record timing data as they run, and save the result in a central file on the build leader. Some Javascript d3 code can then assemble that data into a waterfall diagram showing when each individual job started and stopped.

Waterfall diagrams of a slow test run and a fast test run.

Each group of blue bars shows tests run by a single process on a single machine. The black lines that drop down near the right show the finish times for each process. In the first visualization, you can see that the first process (and to a lesser extent, the second) took much longer to finish than all the others, meaning a single test was holding up the entire build.

By default, our test runner uses test files as the unit of parallelism, with each process running an entire file at a time. Because of stragglers like the above case, we implemented an option to split individual test files further, distributing the individual test classes in the file instead of the entire file.

If we apply that option to the slow files and re-run, all the "finished" lines collapse into one, indicating that every process on every worker finished at essentially the same time—an optimal usage of resources.

Notice also that the waterfall graphs show processes generally going from slower tests to faster ones. The test runner keeps a persistent cache recording how long each test took on previous runs, and enqueues tests starting with the slowest. This ensures that slow tests start as soon as possible and is important for ensuring an optimal work distribution.

The decision to invest effort in our own testing infrastructure wasn't necessarily obvious: we could have continued to use a third-party solution. However, spending a comparatively small amount of effort allowed the rest of our engineering organization to move significantly faster—and with more confidence. I'm also optimistic this test runner will continue to scale with us and support our growth for several years to come.

If you end up implementing something like this (or have already), send me a note! I'd love to hear what you've done, and what's worked or hasn't for others with similar problems.