DataSource and Data-driven Testing Using XUnit

If you are anything like me, you avoided data-driven tests in MSTest because they were such a pain to write and maintain. However, I know not everyone is like me and I also know that even though we try to avoid things, we do not always succeed. So, in this entry in the series on migrating from MSTest to XUnit, we will look at migrating your data-driven tests, but before we get into the details, let's briefly recap on what MSTest provides for data-driving tests; the DataSource attribute.

The DataSource attribute specifies a data source from which data points are loaded. The test can then reference the specific data row in the data source from the TestContext's DataRow property. You may recall that we touched on the jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none TestContext back in the entry on outputting from our tests. As MSDN explains, given a table of data rows like this:


DataSource is used like this:

I do not recall using this attribute in earnest, and though perhaps others think of it more fondly, I found it a frustration to use. Thankfully, XUnit is much more inline with my intuition1.

Data-driven test methods in XUnit are called theories and are adorned with the Theory attribute2. The Theory attribute is always accompanied by at least one data attribute which tells the test runner where to find data for the theory. There are three built-in attributes for providing data: InlineData, MemberData, and ClassData. Third-party options are also available (check out AutoFixture and its AutoData attribute) and you can create your own if you find it necessary.

InlineData provides a simple way to describe a single test point for your theory; MemberData takes the name of a static member (method, field, or property) and any arguments it might need to generate your data; and ClassData takes a type that can be instantiated to provide the data. A single test point is provided as an array of type object, and while XUnit provides the TheoryData types to allow strongly-typed declaration of test data points, fundamentally, every data source  is IEnumerable<object[]>. Finally, rather than the obscure TestContext.DataRow property, data points are provided to a theory test method via the test method's arguments.

So, given all this information, the above example from MSDN could be expressed as follows:

I took the liberty of using the arrange/act/assert test layout as part of this rewrite as I think it enhances test readability. However, you can see from this example how much easier data-driven testing is under XUnit when compared with traditional MSTest3.

Of course, I totally skipped the fact that the MSTest example used a database for the test data source. That was deliberate to simplify the example, but if we still wanted to use a database to obtain our data points (or some other data source), we can leverage the MemberData or ClassData attributes, or even roll our own.

That brings us to the end of this post on migrating data-driven tests from MSTest to XUnit. This also brings us almost to the end of the whole series on migrating from MSTest to XUnit; if you think I missed something important, please leave a comment. Next time, we will finish up with a look at some of the bits around running XUnit tests such as parallel execution, test runners, and the like.

  1. in case you hadn't noticed, I like XUnit 

  2. instead of [Fact] as on non-data-driven tests 

  3. This approach makes so much sense that MSTest introduced it for phone and WinRT app tests and is bringing it to everyone with MSTest version 2 

TestContext Equivalence in XUnit2, or How Do I Write Output in XUnit2?

So far, in discussing the migration of MSTest to XUnit2, I have only touched on the basics. First, I covered using the XUnitConverter to make the transition a little easier, then I provided an overview of how the basic MSTest concepts tests, test initialization, and test cleanup were supported. In this post I want to look at the confusing dumping group that is TestContext. My goal with these posts is to provide useful search results for those looking for information on XUnit, especially when migrating from MSTest. For a moment though, let me rant about TestContext.

I am sure that there are people out there who totally get all the values and functions TestContext provides; however, other than writing log messages, I have found the TestContext properties wildly confusing and unhelpful. I somehow doubt I am alone. Not only that, but the inconsistent ways a method gets access to the TestContext dependent on whether it is an instance method or a static method makes things confusing1.

TestContext Properties

TestContext Properties

TestContext Methods
TestContext Methods

Looking at the documentation from MSDN (shown above), it should be clear to anyone that TestContext is trying to do a lot of different things. There are methods in there for outputting things to the test trace messages, adding results files, and running timers, and properties for getting all sorts of information from directories for results, to the name of the test, to things related to data driven tests. Overall, it is convoluted and confused; do you know the difference between ResultsDirectory, TestResultsDirectory, and TestRunResultsDirectory? Even after working with MSTest for nearly 10 years, I could not begin to tell you. In my opinion, TestContext does too much and is almost always unintuitive to use, so how does XUnit tackle these things?

Well, first of all, XUnit does not even begin to replace the timer stuff because, well, there are plenty of timer options available in the .NET framework, so just use one of them.

Second, XUnit manipulates the current directory when running tests, so the location retrieved from Environment.CurrentDirectory will be where the tests are running and where test data will live. We will focus on data-driven testing in another post, but suffice to say that you do not need to decipher pages of documentation or debug tests to understand where to find your test data or where to output your test results (if you have something to output, of course).

Finally, if you want to write to the test output, XUnit provides an interface that you can inject into your constructor for doing just that and only that; ITestOutputHelper.


Since the XUnit documentation is very helpful on how to use this interface, I won't go into great detail here. However, for those looking to replace TestContext.WriteLine, this is what you need to do.

The test runner observes from the signature of the class constructor that it requires the ITestOutputHelper interface and injects it, making it available throughout the test execution, including during the Dispose method, if present.

Next time, we will take a look at how XUnit tackles sharing initialization across multiple tests. In the meantime, if you are finding these posts useful or have any questions, please leave a comment.

  1. a property called TestContext with public getter and setter for instance methods; or passed as a parameter for static methods 

TestMethod, TestInitialize, and TestCleanup in XUnit2

In the last post, I briefly described how to automatically migrate your MSTest tests to XUnit by using the XUnitConverter utility. Of course, nothing is ever that simple; MSTest has some concepts that XUnit expresses very differently1 like how to share code between tests whether that is setup, fixtures, cleanup, or data. Some of these concepts are implemented differently enough that automating the migration from one to the other would be very difficult if not impossible. However, some of it really is that simple. Before we look at the difficult examples, I thought it would be useful to illustrate how some of the simple concepts map from MSTest to XUnit using an example2.

So, let's look at an MSTest example (contrived, of course):

Clearly, I cheated by not actually making the tests do anything, but the content of the test methods is mostly irrelevant; you set some stuff up, you do something, and you assert a result–it's all the same regardless of the test framework. However, this is a simple example of a test class written for the MSTest framework. There are attributes to tell the framework that the class is a test class, which methods inside of it are test methods, and which methods should be called before and after each test. In this case, our test initialization creates a stream, which is then disposed of in the cleanup method; each test method would get sandwiched in the middle.

After converting to XUnit with the converter tool, the same class will look something like this:

There are a few things that happened.

  1. The class no longer has an attribute. XUnit knows the class is a test class because it contains tests3.
  2. The tests are decorated with a [Fact] attribute, which is equivalent to [TestMethod].
  3. The [TestInitialize] and [TestCleanup] attributes are gone. Instead, the class constructor is used for test initialization and the Dispose method along with deriving from IDisposable indicates that there is test cleanup code.

Overall, I love how the XUnit syntax works with C# syntax and .NET idioms in declaring tests. Not only does this reduce the ceremony around defining tests by reducing the various decorators, but it also allows for cleaner coding practices. For example, we can now correctly mark our memory stream member variable as readonly.

By relying on C# syntax and standard interfaces in this way, the lifecycle of a test is clearer too; XUnit will construct and dispose the class for each test in the class, making it easy to see how each test will run. This idiomatic way of declaring tests allows for separation of concerns, keeping test classes light and focused. This will be illustrated when we later look at other concepts in MSTest like [ClassInitialize] and [ClassCleanup], TestContext, and [DeploymentItem], and how XUnit tackles the problems these concepts solved.

  1. and for good reasons, IMHO 

  2. XUnit documentation has a handy table but I don't think it's as illustrative as it could be 

  3. why MSTest did not make assumptions like this, I do not know