The target software is built with special options or libraries and/or run under a special environment such that every function that is exercised (executed) in the program(s) are mapped back to the function points in the source code.
This process allows developers and quality assurance personnel to look for parts of a system that are rarely or never accessed under normal conditions (error handling and the like) and helps reassure test engineers that the most important conditions (function points) have been tested. The resulting output is then analysed to see what areas of code have not been exercised, and the tests are updated to include these areas as necessary. Combined with other code coverage methods the aim is to develop a rigorous yet manageable set of regression tests.
Test engineers can look at code coverage test results to help them devise test cases and input or configuration sets that will increase the code coverage over vital functions. Two common forms of code coverage used by testers are statement (or line) coverage, and path (or edge) coverage. Line coverage reports on the execution footprint of testing in terms of which lines of code were executed to complete the test. Edge coverage reports which branches, or code decision points were executed to complete the test. They both report a coverage metric, measured as a percentage. The meaning of this depends on what form(s) of code coverage have been used, as 67% path coverage is more comprehensive than 67% statement coverage.
Generally code coverage tools and libraries exact a performance and/or memory or other resource cost which is unacceptable to normal operations of the software. Thus they are only used in the lab. As one might expect there are classes of software that cannot be feasibly subjected to these coverage tests, though a degree of coverage mapping can be approximated through analysis rather than direct testing.
There are also some sorts of defects which are affected by such tools. In particular some race conditions or similar real time sensitive operations can be masked when run under code coverage environments; and conversely some of these defects may become easier to find as a result of the additional overhead of the testing code.
Code coverage may be regarded as a more up-to-date incarnation of debugging in that the automated tools used to achieve statement and path coverage are often referred to as “debugging utilities”. These tools allow the program code under test to be observed on screen whilst the program is executing, and commands and keyboard function keys are available to allow the code to be “stepped” through literally line by line. Alternatively it is possible to define pinpointed lines of code as “breakpoints” which will allow a large section of the code to be executed, then stopping at that point and displaying that part of the program on screen. Judging where to put breakpoints is based on a reasonable understanding of the program indicating that a particular defect is thought to exist around that point. The data values held in program variables can also be examined and in some instances (with care) altered to try out “what if” scenarios. Clearly use of a debugging tool is more the domain of the software engineer at a unit test level, and it is more likely that the software tester will ask the software engineer to perform this. However, it is useful for the tester to understand the concept of a debugging tool.