Functional Core, Imperative Shell

Testability is the idea that code should be designed so that it’s easy to write tests for. In Boundaries Gary Bernhardt introduces a programming technique he calls functional core, imperative shell that (among other advantages) helps to make code very easy to test.

I tried to apply the approach to some real-world code: an OAuth 2.0 plugin for CKAN.

The idea is that each function or method in your code is one of two types:

Functional core

These are functions that take values in as parameters, and give values out as return values. They use explicit parameters instead of implicit dependencies. They have few or no side effects, and each one of these functions is very well isolated from the rest of the code.

You try to put all the logic and decisions of your code into these “pure functions”, so there are many potential paths through one of these functions. But you try to keep things like the network, the database, rendering to the screen, disk, etc out of these functions.

Imperative shell

These “shell functions” are where all the side effects and persistent state go: the network and database etc. They are highly integrated with the rest of your code and with other code that you’re using (e.g. your web framework).

You try to keep logic and decisions out of the shell functions, there should be few possible paths through a shell function (ideally only one). If possible, they should be trivial one-liner functions.

Writing code in this way has many advantages. All the logic is in the pure functions which are very modular and easy to understand. They’re also much easier to test, and you can get 99% coverage by just testing your pure functions and ignoring the shell.

An OAuth 2.0 Plugin for CKAN

ckanext-oauth2waad is a CKAN plugin that lets users login to a CKAN site using their Windows Azure Active Directory (WAAD) account instead of creating a new username and password for the site.

The way it works is:

Logging into CKAN using Persona
Logging into CKAN using Persona
  1. On the CKAN login page the user clicks a “Login with WAAD” link that sends them to the WAAD login server. This link’s URL contains a redirect URI as a URL parameter that tells the WAAD server where to redirect the user’s browser to after a successful login: ?redirect_uri=

  2. The user enters their WAAD username and password into the WAAD login page and clicks sign in. After a successful sign in the WAAD server redirects the user’s browser to the redirect URI. The server appends an authorization code to the redirect URI as a URL param: ?code=ffhjkl434387jlkmdfsas.

  3. CKAN receives the request with the authorization code. The oauth2waad plugin’s login() method is called, and handles the request in four steps:

    1. It makes a request to the WAAD server for the user name corresponding to the given authorization code, and receives the user name back from the WAAD server.

    2. It finds the user account with the given user name in CKAN’s database. If no account exists, it silently creates a new account.

    3. It logs the user in to CKAN by saving the user name in CKAN’s session.

    4. It redirects the user’s browser to the dashboard page for the account they’ve just logged in to.

There’s also a cross-site request forgery (CSRF) check, but we’ll ignore that for this explanation.

This is how the “login experience” looks, from the user’s point of view:

Logging into CKAN with Windows Azure Active Directory
Logging into CKAN with Windows Azure Active Directory

The oauth2waad plugin’s login() method that handles actually logging the user into CKAN is the method we’re going to try to test using a functional core, imperative shell approach.

A Naïve Implementation

Here’s a naïve implementation of the login() method:

class WAADRedirectController(toolkit.BaseController):

    def login(self):
        """Handle a login request from the WAAD server.

        When the WAAD server wants to log a user into our CKAN site, it
        redirects the user's browser to a CKAN URL that routes to this
        login() method.

        The URL params contain an auth code which we can use to get the
        user's name from the WAAD server, and then log the user in to CKAN
        by saving the name in CKAN's session.

        # Look for the auth code in the URL that the WAAD server requested
        # from CKAN.
        auth_code = pylons.request.params['code']

        # The data that we're going to post to the WAAD server.
        # This includes a secret client ID from CKAN's config file
        # (which we access via the pylons.config object).
        data = {
            'client_id': pylons.config['client_id'],
            'code': auth_code,

        # Use the requests library to make an HTTP POST request to the WAAD
        # server.
        response =
            pylons.config['waad_server_url'], data=data)

        # Parse the response to get the user's name.
        name = response.json()['name']

        # Find the CKAN user account corresponding to this WAAD user account.
            user = toolkit.get_action('user_show')(data_dict = {'id': name})
        except toolkit.ObjectNotFound:
            # The user doesn't exist in CKAN yet, create it by calling the
            # CKAN API.
            user = toolkit.get_action('user_create')(
                context={'ignore_auth': True}, data_dict={'name': name})

        # Log the user in to CKAN by adding their name to the Pylons
        # session.
        pylons.session['user'] = name

        # Finally, show the user their dashboard page.
        toolkit.redirect_to(controller='user', action='dashboard',

(This is a simplified version of the method, the production code contains a lot of error-handling and other details, but the above code is closely based on the real thing.)

Testing the Naïve Implementation

TLDR: The naïve implementation is very difficult to test because it requires a lot of mocking patching and simulating. The test code takes a long time to write and is complicated, tightly coupled to CKAN internals, and slow. The rest of this section details the problems with testing the naïve implementation. Skip to A better implementation to see the results.

The code is quite simple, straightforward and readable. But the naïve implementation is very difficult to test. Some of the things you’ll have to do to write a test for this include:

It takes hours to write a test for this and find ways around all of these obstacles, and it requires deep knowledge of CKAN and Pylons, as well as using test libraries for mocking, patching and simulating. The test code that you’ll finally end up with will look something like this:

import json
import webtest
import httpretty
import mock
import pylons.config as config
import ckan.config.middleware
import ckan.model as model

def test_login(mock_base_session, mock_helpers_session, mock_session):
    """login() should add the user's name to the session."""
    # Reset the database contents before each test.

    # Mock the Pylons session.
    session_dict = {}
    def getitem(name):
        return session_dict[name]
    def get(name):
        return session_dict.get(name)
    def setitem(name, val):
        session_dict[name] = val
    mock_session.__getitem__.side_effect = getitem
    mock_session.get.side_effect = get
    mock_session.__setitem__.side_effect = setitem

    # Mock the WAAD server.
    waad_server_url = 'https://fake.auth.endpoint/tenant/token'
    def request_callback(request, url, headers):
        """Our mock WAAD server response."""
        # The params that will go in the response's JSON body.
        params = {'name': 'fred'}

        body = json.dumps(params)
        return (200, headers, body)
    httpretty.register_uri(httpretty.POST, waad_server_url,

    # Insert the settings we need into the Pylons config.
    config['ckan.plugins'] = 'oauth2waad'
    config['client_id'] = 'mock_client_id'
    config['waad_server_url'] = waad_server_url

    # Make a CKAN test app.
    app = ckan.config.middleware.make_app(config['global_conf'],
    app = webtest.TestApp(app)

    # Make a simulated HTTP POST request to the login URL.'/_waad_redirect_uri', {'code': 'mock_auth_code'})

    # Test that the login() method added the user name into the mock Pylons
    # session.
    assert mock_session['user'] == 'fred'

This single test takes about twenty seconds to run, mostly because of the time needed to boot the whole CKAN web app inside the test web server and initialize its database. Even after this initialization the test isn’t particularly fast, it’s exercising the full CKAN app.

This is a simplified version of the test, for a simplified version of the login() method. The real test would be much longer, and you’d need many such tests to test all the paths through the real login() method with all its error handling and everything.

A Better Implementation

Let’s try an alternative implementation of the login() method that moves most of the code into pure, standalone functions and leaves only a minimal imperative shell.

We’ll factor two kinds of dependencies out of our pure functions:

Incoming dependencies are things that call us: the controller class and method that we need to create in order to get CKAN to call our code.

We factor out the incoming dependencies by moving our code out of the class’s login() method and into a standalone _login() function, and turning the original login() method into a one-liner that calls the _login() function.

We can now test the _login() function by importing our plugin module and calling the function directly - we don’t need to initialize a WAADRedirectController object.

Outgoing dependencies are things that we call: the pylons.request.params object that we get the auth code from, the pylons.config object that we get config settings from, the function (from the requests library) that we use to make the HTTP request to the WAAD server, the pylons.session object that we save the user’s name to, and the ckan.plugins.toolkit.redirect_to() function that we call to redirect the browser to the user’s dashboard.

We factor these out by having the _login() function take them as parameters. Instead of calling directly for example, it takes a callable as a post param and calls that. The login() method passes a wrapper function as the argument to this post param. When we come to writing our tests, we can simply pass in a mock post function.

Here’s the refactored code:

def _post(endpoint, data):
    """Make an HTTP POST request and return the JSON from the response."""
    return, data).json()

class WAADRedirectController(toolkit.BaseController):

    def login(self):
        """Handle requests to the WAAD redirect_uri."""

def _login(params, client_id, waad_server_url, post, session, redirect):

    name = _get_user_name_from_waad(params, client_id, waad_server_url,

    user = _log_the_user_in(session, name)

    redirect(controller='user', action='dashboard', id=name)

def _get_user_name_from_waad(params, client_id, waad_server_url, post):
    """Request the user's name from the WAAD server and return it."""

    data = {'client_id': client_id, 'code': params['code']}
    response_json = post(waad_server_url, data=data)
    return response_json['name']

def _log_the_user_in(...):

Testing the Better Implementation

With the code refactored so, we can now write our tests like this:

import ckanext.oauth2waad.plugin as plugin

def test_get_user_name_from_waad():
    """get_user_name_from_waad() should return the user name from the WAAD server."""

    def post(endpoint, data):
        """A mock HTPP post() function.

        Just returns a mock response from the WAAD server containing a mock
        user name, without actually making any HTTP request.

        return {'name': 'fred'}

    # The params of the request to CKAN's redirect URI.
    params = {'code': 'fake_auth_code'}

    name = plugin._get_user_name_from_waad(
        params, 'fake client id', 'fake waad server url', post)

    assert name == 'fred'

This test code is much shorter and simpler, much quicker and easier to write, and the test runs in 0.008s.

The only bit of code that can’t be covered by unit testing _get_user_name_from_waad() and the other pure functions directly is the WAADRedirectControllers login() method, which contains just a single function call. We could either leave this untested and settle for 99% coverage, or we could add a single integration test for the simplest happy path through the code, and leave all the details to be covered by the unit tests.

Epilogue: Mocking the CKAN API

The _log_the_user_in() function not shown above has to find the CKAN user corresponding to the name from the WAAD server, create the user if it doesn’t already exist, and then log the user in by adding the user to the Pylons session.

_log_the_user_in() can be written and tested in the same way as we’ve done for _get_user_name_from_waad() above. But this function has a couple of outgoing dependencies that we haven’t seen yet. It has to call two CKAN API methods: user_show() and user_create() (both must be called via ckan.plugins.toolkit.get_action()). If the function tries to call these API functions when it’s being run by our tests, that’s going to be slow (those API functions pull in all sorts of CKAN code, and they access the database) and it’s probably going to crash with some weird CKAN, Pylons or SQLAlchemy error because they expect to be called during a Pylons HTTP request.

It would be fairly simple to use mock to patch ckan.plugins.toolkit.get_action() during our tests, replacing it with a mock get_action() function that returns mock user_show() and user_create() functions. But that would tightly couple our test code to internal details of both our plugin and CKAN. Our test now needs to know about three implicit dependencies of _log_the_user_in(): get_action(), user_show() and user_create(), and it needs to know that the mock get_action() function should return the mock user_show() or the mock user_create() if called with the argument 'user_show' or 'user_create' respectively, and that _log_the_user_in() shouldn’t call get_action() with any other arguments.

It’s much simpler and better to add user_show and user_create arguments to the _log_the_user_in() function and have the login() shell method pass in CKAN’s real user_show() and user_create() functions as arguments, just like we did with when testing _get_user_name_from_waad(). Then our test function can simply pass in its own mock functions.

This dependency injection approach makes for long parameter lists, but it keeps the dependencies of our functions nice and explicit and it lets us avoid the mock library entirely.


Following this technique might feel like refactoring our production code “just” to make the test code nicer. It can seem obtuse at first to have a login() method that calls a _login() function with a long list of parameters, instead of just putting the code directly in the login() method. Passing in as a parameter instead of just calling it directly also feels needlessly indirect at first.

But I’d argue that testability is a very good reason to design your code in a particular way. Tests are important, and if you’re testing thoroughly then you’re going to be spending just as much time writing tests as writing production code (or more, if your tests are hard to write because your production code isn’t easy to test!).

Designing for testability with a functional core, imperative shell approach also tends to make your code very modular, which is great for readability and reuse as well.