Testing iOS apps

We recently released an update to our iPhone app. The app was originally developed by a third-party, so releasing an update required bringing the app development and testing in-house. We develop our projects in a continuous build environment, with automated builds, unit and acceptance tests. It allows us to develop fast and release often, and we wanted the iPhone project to work in the same way.

This article covers some of the tools we used to handle building and testing the app.

Build Automation

We use Git for our version control system, and Jenkins for our continuous integration server. Automating the project build (i.e. building the project to check for compilation errors) seemed like a basic step and a good place to start.

A prerequisite to this was to create a Mac Jenkins Build Slave, which is outside of the scope of this blog post (but if you’re interested, I followed the “master launches slave agent via SSH” instructions of the Jenkins site).

A quick search of Jenkins plugins page revealed a Xcode plugin which allows for building Objective-C applications. Setting up the plugin was a snap – search and install the “XCode integration” plugin from the Jenkins server plugin page, point the plugin to your project directory on the build slave, enable keychain access, and save.

Now for every commit I made to the project, this task would automatically run, and send me a rude email if project compilation failed. In practice I found that this was an excellent way of reminding me of any files I had forgot to check-in to Git; the project would compile on my laptop but fail on the CI server due to missing classes, images, etc.

Unit testing

I looked briefly into the unit testing framework Apple provides, which ships with Xcode. I added a unit test project to the Songkick app, and looked into creating mocks using OCMock, an Objective-C implementation of mock objects.

We already have fairly extensive API tests to test for specific iPhone-related user-flows (such as signing up, tracking an artist, etc), and due to time constraints we opted to concentrate on building acceptance tests, and revisit unit tests if we had time.

Acceptance Testing

There are a bunch of acceptance testing applications available for iOS apps. Here’s a few of the tools I looked into in detail:


Frank is an iOS acceptance testing application which supports a Cucumber-style test syntax. I was interested in Frank as we already make use of Cucumber to test our Ruby projects, so the familiarity of the domain-specific language would have been a benefit.

I downloaded the project and got a sample test up-and-running fairly quickly. Frank ships with some useful tools, including a web inspector (“Symbiote”) which allows for inspecting app UI elements using the browser, and a “Frank console” for running ad-hoc commands against an iPhone simulator from the command line.

Frank seems to be a pretty feature rich application. The drawbacks for me were that Frank could not be run on real hardware (as of March 2013, this appears to now be possible), and Frank also requires recompiling your application to make a special “Frankified” version to work with the testing framework.


Apple provides an application called Instruments to handle testing, profiling and analysis of applications written with Xcode. Instruments allows for recording and editing UIAutomation scripts – runnable JavaScript test files for use against a simulated iOS app or a real hardware install.


Being able to launch your app with Instruments, perform some actions from within the app, and have those actions automatically converted into a runnable test script was a really quick and easy way of defining tests. Instruments also supports running scripts via the command line.

The drawback of test scripts created with Instruments is that they can be particularly verbose, and Instruments does not provide a convenient way of formatting and defining individual test files (outside of a single UIAutomation script per unique action).


Designed to be used as an accompaniment to UIAutomation scripts created using Instruments, Tuneup_js is a JavaScript library that helps to ease the pain of working with the long-winded UIAutomation syntax.

It provides a basic test structure for organising test steps, and a bunch of user-friendly assertions built on top of the standard ones supported by Instruments.


I found that recording tests in Instruments, and then converting them into the Tuneup_js test syntax was a really quick way of building acceptance tests for iOS apps. These tests could then be run using a script provided with the Tuneup_js package.


I settled on using Instruments and Tuneup_js to handle acceptance testing. Instruments because of the ability to quickly record acceptance test steps, and Tuneup_js because it could be used to wrap recorded test steps into repeatable tests and allowed for a nicer test syntax than offered out-of-the-box with UIAutomation. What was missing with these applications was a way to handle running the test files in an easily repeatable fashion, and against the iOS simulator as well as hardware devices.

I couldn’t find an existing application to do this, so I wrote Scenarios (Scenar-iOS, see what I did there?) to handle this task. Scenarios is a simple console Ruby app that performs the following steps:

  • Cleans any previous app installs from the target test device
  • Builds the latest version of the app
  • Installs the app on the target test device
  • Runs Tuneup_js-formatted tests against the installed app
  • Reports the test results

Scenarios accepts command-line parameters, such as the option to target the simulator or a hardware device (with the option of auto-detecting the hardware, or supplying a device ID). Scenarios also adds a couple of extra functions on top of the UIAutomation library:

  • withTimout – Can be used for potentially long-running calls (e.g. a button click to login, where the API call may be slow):
  • slowTap – Allows for slowing-down the speed at which taps are executed. Instruments can run test steps very fast, and sometimes it helps to slow down tests to see what they are doing, and help create a more realistic simulated user experience:

Scenarios ships with a sample project (app and tests) that can be run using the simulator or hardware. Here’s a video of the sample running on a simulator:

Jenkins Pipeline

Now I had build and acceptance tests in place, it was time to hook the tests up to Jenkins. I created the following Jenkins projects:

  • “ios-app” – runs the build automation
  • “ios-app-acceptance-tests-simulator” – runs the app (via Scenarios) on a simulator
  • “ios-app-acceptance-tests-iPhone3GS” – runs the app (via Scenarios) on an iPhone 3GS


Committing a code change to the iOS app Git repo caused the projects in the Jenkins pipeline to build the app, run the acceptance tests against the simulator, and finally run the acceptance tests on an iPhone 3GS. If any stage of the pipeline failed, I received an email informing me I had broken something.


Manual testing with TestFlight

As well as an automated setup, we also made use of the excellent TestFlight service, which enables over-the-air distribution of apps to testers. We had 12 users and 16 devices set up in TestFlight, and I was releasing builds (often daily) over-the-air. It enabled us to get some real-user feedback on the app, something that build and acceptance tests cannot replace.

Jenkins also has a TestFlight plugin, which enables you to automatically deploy a build to TestFlight as part of the pipeline. Very cool, but as we were committing code changes often throughout the day (and only wanted to release to TestFlight once a day), we decided to skip this step for the time being.

Overall, I think that the tools (both open-source and proprietary) available today for automated testing of iOS apps are feature rich (even if some are still in their infancy), and I’m pretty happy with our development setup at Songkick.

Safely dealing with magical text

Boy, what a week it’s been. A remote-code-execution bug was discovered in Ruby on Rails, and we’ve all been scrambling to patch our servers (please patch your apps before reading any further, there is an automated exploit out there that gives people a shell on your boxes otherwise).

What the Ruby community, and those of other dynamic languages, must realize from recent Rails security blunders is that very similar problems can easily exist in any non-trivial web application. Indeed, I found a remote-execution bug in my own open-source project Faye yesterday, 3.5 years into the life of the project (again: patch before reading on).

There are a lot of lessons to be had from recent Rails security blunders, since they involve so many co-operating factors: excessive trust of user input, insufficient input validation and output encoding, the behavioural capabilities of Ruby objects and certain Rails classes, ignorance of cryptography and the computational complexity of data transport formats. In this post I’d like to focus on one in particular: safely encoding data for output and execution.

Ugh, do I have to?

I know, I know, booooooring, but so many people are still getting this really badly wrong and it continues punish end users by exposing their data to malicious manipulation.

Robert Hansen and Meredith Patterson have a really good slide deck on stopping injection attacks with computational theory. One core message in that paper is that injection exploits (including SQL injection and cross-site scripting) involve crafting input such that it creates new and unexpected syntactic elements in code executed by the software, essentially introducing new instructions for the software to execute. Let’s look at a simple example.

Learn you a query string

I found the code that prompted me to write this post while updating some Google Maps URLs on our site this afternoon. Some of this code was constructing URLs by doing something like this:

def maps_url(lat, lng, zoom, width, height)
  params = [ "center=#{lat},#{lng}",
             "size=#{width}x#{height}" ]

  "http://maps.google.com/?" + params.join("&")

maps_url(51.4651204, -0.1148897, 15, 640, 220)

# => "http://maps.google.com/?center=51.4651204,-0.1148897& ...
#                             zoom=15& ...
#                             size=640x220"

You can see the intent here: whoever wrote this code assumes the URL is going to end up being embedded in HTML, and so they have encoded the query string delimiters as & entities. But this doesn’t fix the problem entities are designed to solve, namely: safely representing characters that usually have special meaning in HTML. What is telling is that the comma in the query string should really also be encoded as %2C, but isn’t.

So although the ampersands are being encoded, the actual query data is not, and that means anyone calling this function can use it to inject HTML, for example:

link = '<a href="' + maps_url(0, 0, 1, 0, '"><script>alert("Hello!")</script>') +
           '">Link text</a>'

# => '<a href="http://maps.google.com/?center=0,0&amp; ... 
#     zoom=1&amp; ... 
#     size=0x"> ...
#     <script>alert("Hello!")</script> ...
#     ">Link text</a>'

By abusing the maps_url() function, I have managed to inject characters with special meaning — <, >, etc. — into the output and thereby added new HTML elements to the output that shouldn’t be there. By passing unexpected input I’ve created a lovely little cross-site scripting exploit and stolen all your users’ sessions!

Note that you cannot cleanly fix this by using an HTML-escaping function like ERB::Util.h() on the output of maps_url(), because this would serve to re-encode the ampersands, leaving strings like &amp;amp; in the href attribute.

Stacks of languages

Meredith Patterson of the above-linked paper gave another presentation at 28C3 called The Science of Insecurity. I’ve been telling absolutely everyone to watch it recently, so here it is.

This talk describes how we should think of data transfer formats, network protocols and the like as languages, because in fact that’s what they are. It covers the different levels of language power – regular languages, context-free languages and Turing-complete languages – and how use of each affects the security of our systems. It also explains why, if your application relies on Turing-complete protocols, it will take an infinite amount of time to secure it.

When you build HTML pages, you are using a handful of languages that all run together in the same document. There’s HTML itself, and embedded URLs, and CSS, and JavaScript, and JavaScript embedded in CSS, and CSS selectors embedded in CSS and JavaScript, and base64 encoded images, and … well this list is long. All of these are languages and have formal definitions about how to parse them, and your browser needs to know which type of data it’s dealing with whenever it’s parsing your code.

Every character of output you generate is an instruction that tells the browser what do next. If it’s parsing an HTML attribute and sees the " character, it truncates the attribute at that point. If it thinks it’s reading a text node and sees a <, it starts parsing the input as an HTML tag.

Instead of thinking of your pages as data, you should think of them as executable language.

Back to reality

Let’s apply this idea to our URL:


Outside of an HTML document, the meaning of this list of characters changes: those & blobs only have meaning when interpreting HTML, and if we treat this query string verbatim we get these parameters out:

  'center'   => '51.4651204,-0.1148897',
  'amp;zoom' => '15',
  'amp;size' => '640x220'

(This assumes your URL parser doesn’t treat ; as a value delimiter, or complain that the comma is not encoded.)

We’ve seen what happens when we embed HTML-related characters in the URL: inserting the characters "> chops the <a> tag short and allows injection of new HTML elements. But that behaviour comes from HTML, not from anything about URLs; when the browser is parsing an href attribute, it just reads until it hits the closing quote symbol and then HTML-decodes whatever it read up to that point to get the attribute value. It could be a URL, or any other text value, the browser does not care. At that level of parsing, it only matters that the text is HTML-encoded.

In fact, you could have a query string like foo=true&bar="> and parsing it with a URL parser will give you the data {'foo' => 'true', 'bar' => '">'}. The characters "> mean something in the HTML language, but not in the query string language.

So, we have a stack of languages, each nested inside the other. Symbols with no special meaning at one level can gain meaning at the next. What to do?

Stacks of encodings

What we’re really doing here is taking a value and putting it into a query string inside a URL, then putting that URL inside an HTML document.

                                | "51.4651204,-0.1148897" |
    |                                +-------V------+ |
    | http://maps.google.com/?center=| centre_value | |
    |                                +--------------+ |
              <a href="| url_value |">Link</a>

At each layer, the template views the value being injected in as an opaque string — it deosn’t care what it is, it just needs to make sure it’s encoded properly. The problem with our original example is that it pre-emptively applies HTML encoding to data because it anticipates that the value will be used in HTML, but does not apply encodings relevant to the task at hand, namely URL construction. This is precisely backwards: considering the problem as above we see that we should instead:

  1. Decide what type of string we’re creating — is it a URL, an HTML doc, etc.
  2. Apply all encoding relevant to the type of string being made
  3. Do not apply encodings for languages further up the stack

In other words, we should make a URL-constructing function apply URL-related encoding to its inputs, and an HTML-constructing function should apply HTML encoding. This means each layer’s functions can be recombined with others and still work correctly, becasue their outputs don’t make assumptions about where they will be used. So we would rewrite our code as:

def maps_url(lat, lng, zoom, width, height)
  params = { "center" => "#{lat},#{lng}",
             "zoom"   => zoom,
             "size"   => "#{width}x#{height}" }

  query = params.map do |key, value|
    "#{CGI.escape key.to_s}=#{CGI.escape value.to_s}"
  "http://maps.google.com/?" + query.join("&")

url = maps_url(51.4651204, -0.1148897, 15, 640, 220)

# => "http://maps.google.com/?center=51.4651204%2C-0.1148897& ...
#                             zoom=15& ...
#                             size=640x220"

html = '<a href="' + ERB::Util.h(url) + '">Link</a>'

# => '<a href="http://maps.google.com/?center=51.4651204%2C-0.114889
#     &amp; ... 
#     zoom=15&amp; ... 
#     size=640x220">Link</a>'

Now we see that we get two valid pieces of data: url is a valid URL with all its query parameters correctly encoded but no HTML entities present, and html is a valid HTML fragment with its attributes correctly entity-encoded.

Also, note how we have treated all incoming data as literal (i.e. not already encoded for the task at hand), and we have not hand-written any encoding ourselves (e.g. hand-writing entities like &amp;). You should deal with data assuming it contains the literal information it represents and use library functions to encode it correctly. There’s a very good chance you don’t know all the text transformations required by each layer.

Thinking in types

At this point you’re probably thinking that I’ve made something quite simple seem very complicated. But thinking in terms of types of strings, treating your output as a language stack and following the bullet list above is a good discipline to follow if you want to make sure you handle data safely.

There are some systems that do this for you, for example Rails 3 automatically HTML-escapes any value you insert into an ERB template by default. I’m working on a more general version of this idea: Coping is a templating language that checks your templates conform to the language you’re producing, and doesn’t let input introduce new syntactic elements.

If you’re feeling very brave, I recommend taking the Coursera Compilers course. Although it doesn’t seem immediately relevant to web devs, many concepts from parser theory, type checking and code generation can be applied to security and are well worth learning.

Above all, learn from other people’s security failures and consider where you may have made similar mistakes.

A month at Songkick

I love Songkick.

Not in a soppy “no you hang up first” kinda way, but in a “I haven’t missed a great gig in over a year” way. Which is why when I was given the opportunity to work here, I jumped at it.

After working at Songkick for a few weeks now, I thought I’d write about my experiences so far, from the interview process through to day-to-day development.

Here are the six simple steps I took to Songkick happiness.

Step 1 – Network

I’ve been a fan of Songkick’s service for a long time, and after I met some of the team at the Silicon Milkroundabout event in May 2012, I was invited to start the interview process. This was great news (Songkick are awesome[1]).

Initially, I did have a few concerns about my technical compatibility with the company; I’ve spent the last few years in a Windows and .NET environment, and Songkick are a long way from that. I was soon to find that these worries were misplaced.

Step 2 – Code

To kick off the interview process, I received an email from Songkick – “Hey Aaron, You seem pretty rad, fancy taking a technical test?”. At least that’s how I remember it.

The rules:

  • Complete an hour long programming challenge
  • From home, at a time that suited you
  • In a programming language of your choice

I let them know when I could set an hour aside, and at the agreed time I was emailed a PDF describing the challenge. I can’t give too much away, but the challenge was really interesting, and Songkick-specific.

I hacked away in C#, making use of third-party libraries as required, and after the hour was up, emailed my solution. I didn’t have time to fully complete the challenge, but I had concentrated on getting a clean design, stubbing all core interfaces, classes and methods, and adding comments and pseudo-code where necessary.

After a few days, I received an email informing me that I was through to round two.

Step 3 – More Code

I was invited to have a couple of face-to-face interviews, and sit another coding test. This time I was to complete a 90-minute pair-programming exercise, in Ruby.

The test was a little daunting as I was a complete Ruby novice. However, with it being a pair-programming exercise, I had a friendly developer (Sabrina) sitting with me to help with syntax questions. Any time I was unaware of the syntax in Ruby (quite a lot!), I could scribble on a notepad how I would solve the problem in C#, and Sabrina would show me the equivalent syntax in Ruby.

This was a test-driven development exercise, and I was introduced to the challenge with a brief overview of the task, and a collection of failing Cucumber tests. I wrote code to gradually pass each test, until all passed – and in the nick of time too. I had a couple of minutes to discuss my solution and what I would add to it if I had more time, and the 1.5 hours were up.

Step 4 – Meet and Greet

As a firm believer in The Joel Test, I agree that writing code during the interview process is important, but equally important is the rapport between yourself and your potential colleagues.

During the interview process, I met a large percentage of the company over a number of interviews, including a coffee and chat with the entire development team. It’s pretty intimidating stuff, but it gives both parties the opportunity to make sure each will be a good fit for the other.

After a few more days of waiting, I received the call I was hoping for.

Step 5 – On-boarding

Joining Songkick was a super-smooth operation. We run a tight ship (as I was to find out), and my first few days were as follows.

Day 1

I spent the morning being shown around the office: an open plan environment with everything a professional developer needs to maintain a high level of productivity (ping pong table, foosball table, a fully-stocked kitchen and a proper coffee machine).

I was provided with a mentor for the week – Robin. Having someone to sit with you, explain the development environment and application design really helped me to become productive quickly. In fact, I made my first code commit on day one.

Day 2 & 3

I spent the next two days divided between coding (with Robin) and various presentations from the different departments in Songkick. These ranged from the data science team (who handle making sense of the huge amounts of data we have), to QA and infrastructure.

Day 4

The whole company boarded a vintage Routemaster bus, and we were taken to End of the Road festival for the weekend. Did I mention Songkick are awesome[1]?

Step 6 – Develop

By far the biggest change (and probably worry) in my move to Songkick was the development environment. I’ve been working in a .NET ecosystem for a number of years, the framework is stable and Visual Studio is in my opinion, a great IDE; it’s feature-rich and has some useful plugins. On the other hand, Songkick’s development environment is entirely Unix-based, making use of (and contributing back to) lots of open-source projects.

I do have experience developing in a Linux environment, but haven’t touched it for a few years, so had a feeling I was going to be rusty. After a few days, I was pleasantly surprised to see how far the tools and frameworks have come. Again, having a mentor to guide me through this transition was crucial; I could ask questions and receive answers immediately.

All in all, joining Songkick has been an amazing experience. I’m surrounded by different teams of people (ranging from developers and testers, through to UX experts and designers), all of which are the best at what they do (but don’t take my word for it, check out the team page). Having a passion for the product is essential, but if you love live music, Songkick is for you.

[1] How about developing for a platform that has millions of users, and enables fans from across the world to see their favourite artists live. And the perks are pretty amazing too; great office, free food and drink, table tennis and foosball, monthly ticket allowance, annual festival trip for the company, etc. I could go on, but you should probably just apply.