This post is the third in a short series about automated testing in node.js web applications with Docker. So far, we have looked at backend testing and frontend testing. This post will be about end-to-end testing, which covers both frontend and backend together.

To illustrate, we’ll continue building and testing our example application: a simple TODO list manager, which comprises a RESTful backend and a React frontend:

Create some todos and complete them

In particular, we’ll:

  • Use Docker Compose projects to create separate development and test environments, while sharing some services between the two for efficiency.
  • Upgrade our bin scripts to manage these separate ‘projects’.
  • Extract the storage layer from the backend so that the end-to-end tests can use it.
  • Set up end-to-end tests with puppeteer in Docker.
  • Promote some frontend integration tests using jsdom from the previous post to end-to-end tests, reducing the number of mocks we need to maintain.

As usual, the code is available on GitHub, and each post in the series has a git tag that marks the corresponding code.

Separate Test and Development Environments

The main idea of end-to-end testing is to stand up the whole system, put it into a given state, and then run automatic tests against it. In most cases, this means wiping out the state in the database before each test run, so we’d rather not run them against a development environment used for more manual or exploratory testing. Instead, we’d like to have separate development and test environments.

The simplest approach is to have two completely separate environments, but this can be expensive. For a large application, just running two copies of every service can tax your development machine. And we have to keep these two environments in sync in terms of installed packages and code. Sharing resources between the two environments can help with these problems.

In this case, the shared resources will be the application’s postgres server (with separate logical databases for development and test), to save having to run two full postgres instances, and its node_modules folders, to keep dependencies in sync between development and test environments. Of course, in a larger application, there might be more that could be shared. In diagram form, what we’re aiming for is:



  • The development and test environments each have their own network and on it their own instances of the application’s services. This means that development and test services can use the same names in both environments without collisions, which reduces the amount of configuration that has to differ between the environments.

  • The postgres database server lives in a third shared environment, with a presence on both development and test networks, so both development and test applications can talk to the same database server (but use different logical databases).

  • For faster edit-test cycles, and to keep code in sync between development and test environments, both the development and test services need to have the source code on the host bind mounted in, which means two instances of the ‘node modules trick’ with a nested node_modules volume per service. To keep the dependencies in sync, both the development and test instance of each service mount the same shared node_modules volume. That way changes to packages in the development environment are automatically reflected in the test environment.

To set this up, we use several Docker Compose features: project names, variable substitution, Compose file merging, and external links and volumes.

Project Names

Compose prepends a project name to all of the resources that it creates in Docker so that they don’t conflict with those of other projects. This is why, in the last post, the backend and frontend services in the Compose file produced containers called todo_backend_1 and todo_frontend_11:

$ docker-compose ps
Name                    Command               State           Ports
todo_backend_1 npx n ...   Up
todo_frontend_1 npx w ...   Up>8080/tcp
todo_postgres_1 postgres    Up      5432/tcp

By default, Compose uses the basename of its working directory, but this can be overridden with the --project-name flag. Here we’ll use --project-name todo_development and --project-name todo_test to create two projects for the development and test environments, respectively. We’ll also create a third project for the shared environment just called todo.

Variable Substitutions and Merging Compose Files

Running the same Compose file with different project names lets us create isolated and identical environments, but usually what we actually want is nearly-identical environments with small differences. For example, the development and test environments should be as similar as possible, but we need them to use different logical databases. Compose provides two useful features that enable this.

Firstly, for single-value changes, we can use variable substitution to inject environment variables from the host into the Compose file. Here we’ll use an environment variable called ENV to control the database name in the database connection string, for example.

Secondly, for larger structural changes to Compose files, the --file flag lets us load multiple Compose files, which Compose intelligently merges together. Here we’ll have a root Compose file with the shared configuration for the development and test environments, and then an environment-specific Compose file for each environment.

To allow Compose to find resources defined in other environments, we’ll use the external and external_links properties in the Compose file. The development and test projects will refer to networks and volumes in the shared project using external, and the services’ link to the postgres database container is an external link.

Putting this all together, we need three new Compose files and some modifications to our existing Compose file from part 2, which we’ll take in turn. First, there’s the compose file for the shared environment, which sets up the networks, the postgres database, and the node_modules volumes.


version: '3.7'


    image: postgres
      - development_default
      - test_default


We’ll run this docker-compose.shared.yml Compose file with the project name set to todo, so the development_default network here will have the todo prefix added, yielding todo_development_default as its full name in Docker. The test network will similarly end up being called todo_test_default. The shared postgres sits on both networks.

The volumes similarly pick up this todo prefix and so end up being called todo_backend_node_modules and todo_frontend_node_modules in Docker.

The main docker-compose.yml file then has to change to reference these shared resources, as follows:


diff --git a/todo/docker-compose.yml b/todo/docker-compose.yml
index 37983ad..69fbc29 100644
--- a/todo/docker-compose.yml
+++ b/todo/docker-compose.yml
@@ -1,15 +1,22 @@
 version: '3.7'

+# Use the network set up in the shared compose file.
+  default:
+    external: true
+    name: todo_${ENV}_default
       context: .
       target: development-backend
     command: npx nodemon server.js
-    depends_on:
-      - postgres
+      DATABASE_URL: postgres://postgres:postgres@postgres/${ENV}
       PORT: 8080
+    external_links:
+      - todo_postgres_1:postgres
       - ./backend:/srv/todo/backend
       - backend_node_modules:/srv/todo/backend/node_modules
@@ -24,17 +31,15 @@ services:
       HOST: frontend
       PORT: 8080
-    ports:
-      - '8080:8080'
       - ./frontend:/srv/todo/frontend
       - frontend_node_modules:/srv/todo/frontend/node_modules

-  postgres:
-    image: postgres:12
-    environment:
+# Use the node_modules volumes set up in the shared compose file.
+    name: todo_backend_node_modules
+    external: true
+    name: todo_frontend_node_modules
+    external: true

The main changes here are to:

  • Redefine the default network as external and point it to the appropriate network from the shared environment. Here we use our ENV environment variable, which is set to either development or test, and Compose variable substitution to switch between the two networks. Our bin scripts will handle setting this ENV variable, as we’ll see shortly.

  • Remove the postgres service and instead point the backend service at the shared postgres service using an external link. The external link has to refer to the full container name, which due to the shared environment’s todo prefix turns out to be todo_postgres_1; however, we alias it to just postgres within the current environment, so nothing else needs to know about this. Removing the postgres service also means that we have to remove the backend service’s dependency on it; instead we have to take responsibility for making sure that postgres starts up. The bin scripts will again help with this.

  • Mark the named node_modules volumes as external and point them at the shared volumes.

  • Stop exposing port 8080 on the host for the frontend by default. We’re going to run the development and test environments at the same time, so they can’t both expose the same port.

This brings us to our third and fourth Compose files, which are specific to the development and test environments, and are fortunately very short. The development Compose file lets us expose 8080 for the frontend service only in the development environment:


version: '3.7'

      - '8080:8080'

The test Compose file doesn’t (yet) have anything to add on top of the common configuration from the root docker-compose.yml, so it is empty but for its Compose version number:


version: '3.7'

The bin Scripts

At this point you may be thinking that it would be a pain to list out all these Compose files and environment variables on the command line, and you would be right. It’s no longer practical to run docker-compose directly — instead we will run it only through helper scripts.

The first of these scripts is bin/dc, which wraps the docker-compose command so it takes as its first argument the environment we want it to run in:


#!/usr/bin/env bash

# Run docker-compose in the given environment.
# Usage: bin/dc <d[evelopment]|t[est]|s[shared]> <arguments for docker-compose>

source "${BASH_SOURCE%/*}/"

docker_compose_in_env "$@"

It supports abbreviations, so bin/dc d ps or bin/dc development ps will both run docker-compose ps in the development environment.

The lynchpin of the whole approach is the docker_compose_in_env function, which is defined in helper file so other bin scripts can use it, so let’s look at that:


set -e

# Run docker-compose in the given environment.
function docker_compose_in_env {
  local ENV=$(get_full_env_name $1)
  case $ENV in
  development | test )
    ENV=$ENV docker-compose \
      --project-name todo_$ENV \
      --file docker-compose.yml \
      --file docker-compose.$ENV.yml \
  shared )
    docker-compose \
      --project-name todo \
      --file docker-compose.shared.yml "${@:2}" ;;
  * ) echo "Unexpected environment name"; exit 1 ;;

# Get the full environment name, allowing shorthand.
function get_full_env_name {
  case $1 in
    d | development ) echo development ;;
    t | test ) echo test ;;
    s | shared ) echo shared ;;
    * ) echo "Expected environment d[evelopment]|t[est]|s[hared]"; exit 1 ;;

In the development and test environments, the docker_compose_in_env function

  1. sets the Compose project name to todo_development or todo_test,
  2. sets the ENV variable to either development or test for Compose to use for variable substitutions, and
  3. loads both the root docker-compose.yml Compose file and the appropriate environment-specific Compose file.

It then passes the rest of its arguments on to docker-compose with a somewhat cryptic "${@:2}", which makes sense when you know that $@ expands to all arguments, and the :2 says we should drop the first one, $1, which is the environment name.

The shared environment is simpler: it runs docker-compose with the project name set to just todo 2 and loads the shared Compose file, docker-compose.shared.yml.

Another important script that uses the docker_compose_in_env function is the bin/up script, which is responsible for starting up the environments. It requires the following changes, compared to last time with a single environment:


diff --git a/todo/bin/up b/todo/bin/up
index 3fa0a0e..d4d6d75 100755
--- a/todo/bin/up
+++ b/todo/bin/up
@@ -1,20 +1,20 @@
 #!/usr/bin/env bash

-set -e
+source "${BASH_SOURCE%/*}/"

-docker-compose up -d postgres
+docker_compose_in_env shared up -d

 WAIT_FOR_PG_ISREADY="while ! pg_isready --quiet; do sleep 1; done;"
-docker-compose exec postgres bash -c "$WAIT_FOR_PG_ISREADY"
+docker_compose_in_env shared exec postgres bash -c "$WAIT_FOR_PG_ISREADY"

 for ENV in development test
   # Create database for this environment if it doesn't already exist.
-  docker-compose exec postgres \
+  docker_compose_in_env shared exec postgres \
     su - postgres -c "psql $ENV -c '' || createdb $ENV"

   # Run migrations in this environment.
-  docker-compose run --rm -e NODE_ENV=$ENV backend npx knex migrate:latest
+  docker_compose_in_env $ENV run --rm backend npx knex migrate:latest

-docker-compose up -d
+docker_compose_in_env development up -d

The script essentially does the same things, but it runs the database-related commands in the shared environment, and the migrations in the development or test environment, as appropriate.

Other useful bin scripts include bin/test to run all the tests (now in the test environment), bin/stop to stop all the containers, and bin/down to tear things down (now optionally preserving the data in the shared environment).

The End-To-End Test

Now that we have a separate test environment, we’re nearly ready to add an end-to-end test into that environment. The final bits of preparation are to separate out the model layer from the backend into its own package, here called storage, and then to write an end-to-end-test package to contain the end-to-end test and its dependencies.

The reason to extract a storage package is that both the backend service and the end-to-end test will need to access the database, and that will be easier if we can share the database-related code between them. Our TODO application is actually simple enough that we could test everything using only public interfaces, using a black box approach. However, in more complicated applications, end-to-end tests often benefit from a more grey box approach — at minimum they need to be able to efficiently reset the database state in between tests, and it is helpful to be able to set up more complicated test scenarios by using the model layer directly.

The full diff for splitting out the storage package is long, but essentially it moves the database dependencies, configuration, migrations and test helpers, and our model class, Task, into the new package:

$ tree storage
├── index.js
├── knexfile.js
├── migrations
│   └── 20190720190344_create_tasks.js
├── node_modules
├── package-lock.json
├── package.json
├── src
│   ├── knex.js
│   └── task.js
└── test
    └── support
        ├── cleanup.js
        └── knex-hook.js

The backend service’s package.json then gains a local path dependency on the storage package, instead of depending on the database packages directly:


diff --git a/todo/backend/package.json b/todo/backend/package.json
index 36855a1..40c2363 100644
--- a/todo/backend/package.json
+++ b/todo/backend/package.json
@@ -13,9 +13,7 @@
   "dependencies": {
     "body-parser": "^1.19.0",
     "express": "^4.17.1",
-    "knex": "^0.19.5",
-    "objection": "^1.6.11",
-    "pg": "^7.12.1"
+    "storage": "file:../storage"
   "devDependencies": {
     "mocha": "^6.2.0",

The local path dependency lets us update the storage package locally without having to publish it to npm every time, which would be extremely tedious. This approach also requires the usual changes to the Dockerfile to npm install the package and changes to the docker-compose.yml file to bind mount the source for the storage package into the containers that need it.

Now we can create the end-to-end-test package that also depends on the storage package and declares our other test dependencies, which are here mocha to drive the test and puppeteer to drive the headless browser that will exercise the frontend. Its Dockerfile requires some specific setup to allow run puppeteer in a container, but it is well documented.

So, finally, here is the end-to-end test:


const assert = require('assert')
const puppeteer = require('puppeteer')

const { Task } = require('storage')
const cleanup = require('storage/test/support/cleanup')

const BASE_URL = process.env.BASE_URL

before(async function() {
  global.browser = await puppeteer.launch({
    executablePath: 'google-chrome-unstable',
    headless: process.env.PUPPETEER_HEADLESS !== 'false'

after(async function() {
  await global.browser.close()


describe('TO DO', function() {

  beforeEach(async function() {
    await Task.query().insert([{ description: 'foo' }, { description: 'bar' }])

  it('lists, creates and completes tasks', async function() {
    const page = await global.browser.newPage()
    await page.goto(BASE_URL)

    await waitForNumberOfTasksToBe(page, 2)
    let tasks = await page.$$('.todo-task')

    // Complete task foo.
    assert.strictEqual(await getTaskText(tasks[0]), 'foo')
    let complete = await tasks[0].$('button')
    await waitForNumberOfTasksToBe(page, 1)

    // Create a new task, baz.
    await page.type('.todo-new-task input[type=text]', 'baz')
    await'.todo-new-task button')
    await page.waitForSelector('.todo-task button')
    await waitForNumberOfTasksToBe(page, 2)

    // Complete task baz.
    tasks = await page.$$('.todo-task')
    assert.strictEqual(await getTaskText(tasks[1]), 'baz')
    complete = await tasks[1].$('button')
    await waitForNumberOfTasksToBe(page, 1)

    // Only bar should remain.
    tasks = await page.$$('.todo-task')
    assert.strictEqual(await getTaskText(tasks[0]), 'bar')

async function waitForNumberOfTasksToBe(page, n) {
  await page.waitForFunction(
    `document.querySelectorAll(".todo-task").length == ${n}`

async function getTaskText(elementHandle) {
  return elementHandle.$eval('span', node => node.innerText)

Key points:

  • A global puppeteer instance, global.browser is shared by all the tests (though here there’s only one test).

  • The BASE_URL environment variable points it at the frontend container (in the test environment), which proxies requests from the browser through to the backend container, as discussed in the previous post.

  • Before each test, it uses functionality from the shared storage package to first reset the database state, with cleanup.database, and then seed the database with two starter Tasks, foo and bar.

  • The test itself is based mainly on query selectors. For example, page.$$('.todo-task') finds all of the elements on the page with the todo-task CSS class, which are the list items for the tasks, as per the frontend. More on this later.

  • The waitForNumberOfTasksToBe helper function uses puppeteer’s waitForFunction primitive to poll until the given number of tasks are on the page. This is the main way in which the test handles the asynchronous loading and rendering of data.

Now, to run the test, we need to tell Compose how to start a container for it. To do this we create a separate Compose file that we’ll merge together with the other Compose files using the --file flag discussed above:


version: '3.7'

      context: .
      dockerfile: end-to-end-test/Dockerfile
      - SYS_ADMIN # for puppeteer
    command: npm test
      - frontend
      DATABASE_URL: postgres://postgres:postgres@postgres/test
      BASE_URL: http://frontend:8080
      - ./end-to-end-test:/srv/todo/end-to-end-test
      - end_to_end_test_node_modules:/srv/todo/end-to-end-test/node_modules
      - ./storage:/srv/todo/storage
      - storage_node_modules:/srv/todo/storage/node_modules

    name: todo_storage_node_modules
    external: true


  • This Compose file defines an end-to-end-test ‘service’ that we’ll only ever run as a one-off command, with docker-compose run instead of docker-compose up.

  • The end-to-end-test service defined here depends on the frontend service, which is defined in the main Compose file. It therefore depends on the backend service too, through the frontend. Compose will automatically bring up all the application services required for the end-to-end test. It won’t automatically bring up the postgres service in the shared environment, however, because it’s external — we have to run the bin/up script to make it work.

  • It sets the test database URL and the base URL where it can find the frontend as environment variables.

  • Like other node services, the source is bind mounted into the container, and we again apply the node modules trick.

So, we’ve again reached a point in this series where we can run npm test in a container:

bin/dc t --file docker-compose.end-to-end-test.yml run --rm end-to-end-test

This runs docker-compose in the test environment (t) with our extra Compose file and runs the tests in the container. It’s a lot to type, so we’ll usually run it through the bin/test script, which runs all the tests:


#!/usr/bin/env bash

source "${BASH_SOURCE%/*}/"

docker_compose_in_env test run --rm backend npm test "$@"
docker_compose_in_env test run --rm frontend npm test "$@"
docker_compose_in_env test --file docker-compose.end-to-end-test.yml \
  run --rm end-to-end-test

The last line runs the end-to-end tests:

$ bin/up
$ bin/test
Starting todo_test_backend_1 ... done
Starting todo_test_frontend_1 ... done

> end-to-end-test@1.0.0 test /srv/todo/end-to-end-test
> mocha --timeout 10000

    ✓ lists, creates and completes tasks (1724ms)

  1 passing (2s)

Revisiting a Frontend Integration Test

In the previous post about frontend testing, we had a frontend integration test running with jsdom that made fairly heavy use of request mocking to simulate responses from the backend. Now that we have the infrastructure for end-to-end tests, we have the option of just letting the jsdom tests talk to the backend, so let’s see how that looks.

The main change required is that the frontend tests (but not the frontend itself) also needs to load the storage package and to be able to talk to the database and the backend. We can add the required config to the test environment Compose file that we stubbed out earlier:


version: '3.7'

      DATABASE_URL: postgres://postgres:postgres@postgres/test
      BASE_URL: http://backend:8080

Then we can remove the mocking from the frontend integration test, which makes it much more succinct:


diff --git a/todo/frontend/test/integration/todo.test.js b/todo/frontend/test/integration/todo.test.js
index bb0d6dd..bd0a56e 100644
--- a/todo/frontend/test/integration/todo.test.js
+++ b/todo/frontend/test/integration/todo.test.js
@@ -1,23 +1,23 @@
+import assert from 'assert'
 import React from 'react'
 import {
-  cleanup,
+  cleanup as cleanupReactTest,
 } from '@testing-library/react'

-import fetchMock from '../support/fetch-mock'
+import { Task } from 'storage'
+import { database as cleanupDatabase } from 'storage/test/support/cleanup'
 import App from '../../src/component/app'

 describe('TO DO App', function() {
-  afterEach(cleanup)
-  afterEach(fetchMock.reset)
+  beforeEach(cleanupDatabase)
+  afterEach(cleanupReactTest)

   it('lists, creates and completes tasks', async function() {
-    // Load empty list.
-    fetchMock.getOnce('path:/api/tasks', { tasks: [] })
     const { getByText, getByLabelText } = render(<App />)

     const description = getByLabelText('new task description')
@@ -25,49 +25,24 @@ describe('TO DO App', function() {

     await waitForElementToBeRemoved(() => getByText(/loading/i))

-    // Create 'find keys' task.
-    fetchMock.postOnce('path:/api/tasks', {
-      task: { id: 1, description: 'find keys' }
-    })
-    fetchMock.getOnce('path:/api/tasks', {
-      tasks: [{ id: 1, description: 'find keys' }]
-    })
     fireEvent.change(description, { target: { value: 'find keys' } })

     await waitForElement(() => getByText('find keys'))

-    // Create 'buy milk' task.
-    fetchMock.postOnce('path:/api/tasks', {
-      task: { id: 2, description: 'buy milk' }
-    })
-    fetchMock.getOnce('path:/api/tasks', {
-      tasks: [
-        { id: 1, description: 'find keys' },
-        { id: 2, description: 'buy milk' }
-      ]
-    })
     fireEvent.change(description, { target: { value: 'buy milk' } })

     await waitForElement(() => getByText('buy milk'))

-    // Complete 'buy milk' task.
-    fetchMock.deleteOnce('path:/api/tasks/2', 204)
-    fetchMock.getOnce('path:/api/tasks', {
-      tasks: [{ id: 1, description: 'find keys' }]
-    })
-'mark buy milk complete'))

     await waitForElementToBeRemoved(() => getByText('buy milk'))

-    // Complete 'find keys' task.
-    fetchMock.deleteOnce('path:/api/tasks/1', 204)
-    fetchMock.getOnce('path:/api/tasks', { tasks: [] })
-'mark find keys complete'))

     await waitForElementToBeRemoved(() => getByText('find keys'))
+    assert.strictEqual(await Task.query().resultSize(), 0)

Compared to the fully end-to-end test we wrote with puppeteer above, which depended on a lot of CSS classes to make the query selectors work, this mostly end-to-end test with jsdom uses React Test Library matchers that are hopefully much less fragile and more closely resemble how the user uses the application, improving the fidelity of the test 3. One disadvantage is that we lose the ability to run the frontend integration test in a normal browser, where loading the storage package is impossible, but we could still run the rest of the frontend tests in a normal browser. End-to-end testing with jsdom instead of a full headless browser is worth considering for many applications.


In this post we’ve added end-to-end tests to our example TODO list application. We’ve seen how to:

  • Create separate test and development environments with Docker Compose, while still sharing some resources between environments for efficiency.
  • Write scripts to help manage the more complicated docker-compose commands required for this approach.
  • Extract the model layer into its own package to allow tests to access the database.
  • Use puppeteer via Docker in the test environment for an end-to-end test using a headless browser.
  • Use jsdom in the test environment for a lighter weight approach to (mostly) end-to-end testing, blurring the boundary somewhat between frontend integration testing and end-to-end testing.

Next time, we’ll expand into the world of multiple backend services and explore some strategies for managing and testing them. Until then, happy testing!


If you’ve read this far, you should follow me on twitter, or maybe even apply to work at Overleaf. :)



  1. The numeric suffix is so you can run multiple instances of the same container with the --scale flag to docker-compose up. We won’t use this feature here. 

  2. One disadvantage of hard coding the project name in this way is that you can’t run two instances of the project in different folders, which the default Compose behavior of using the directory name as the project name allows. Setting it based on $(basename $(pwd)) would bring this back. 

  3. There is a package, pptr-testing-library, that brings some DOM Testing Library-style queries to Puppeteer. At the time of writing, some of the key features around waitForElement are not yet implemented, but it’s a good start and a promising direction!