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Adventures in CI land

Today at work I wrote a CI script to test a react application, and it turned out to be a bit trickier than expected.

Let’s try and reproduce the interesting issues I had and how I solved them.

Setting the stage #

Here’s what you are going to need if you want to try and reproduce what I did.

  • Node.js, yarn
  • Python3 and pipenv
  • The chromedriver binary.

Let’s start by creating a simple React application:

$ yarn global add create-react-app
$ create-react-app hello
$ cd hello
$ yarn

We now have a beautiful React application running in our favorite browser.

Let’s edit the App.js file to display Hello, world instead:

import React, { Component } from 'react';

class App extends Component {
  render() {
    return (
      <p>Hello, world!</p>

export default App;

Adding some end-to-end tests #

Let’s use pipenv to create a virtualenv with what we need:

$ pipenv install pytest
$ pipenv install selenium
$ pipenv shell

Now let’s add some end-to-end using selenium and pytest. 1

# in
import selenium.webdriver

def test_home():
    driver = selenium.webdriver.Chrome()
    assert "Hello, world!" in driver.page_source

We can now run the tests with pytest as usual:

$ pytest
collected 1 item .                            [100%]
1 passed in 4.77 seconds

OK, it works!

Now let’s imagine you have a team of people working on the application, and you would like these tests to run any time someone creates a merge request on this repo.

This is known as continuous integration (CI for short) and, trust me on this, it works a lot better than telling your teammates to remember to run the tests before submitting their changes for review!

Writing the CI script #

We use GitLab at work and are big fan of its CI features.

If you don’t know GitLab CI at all, here’s how it works:

  • You install and configure the gitlab-runner program on some machines (called runners)
  • Then you write a .gitlab-ci.yml file that contains the job description.

At my job we prefer to keep the .gitlab-ci.yml simple, and keep the code of the CI scripts separate, like this:

(note how we use python3 -m pipenv instead of just pipenv. This is to make sure pipenv runs with the expected version of Python)

# in .gitlab-ci.yml

 - check

  stage: check
    - python3 -m pipenv install
    - python3 -m pipenv run python
# in

def main():
    # Call yarn here

if __name__ == "__main__":

We do this because it makes it easy to reproduce build failures found during CI locally. Any developer on the team can run python ci/ on their machine directly instead of trying to copy/paste code from the yaml file.

Going headless #

Right now, the selenium tests use a full-fledged Chrome to run the tests. This is nice for the developers, but not so nice on a GitLab runner.

It would be much better to have those running in a headless Chrome instead, i.e without any GUI.

Let’s fix that by adding a --headless option:

# in

import pytest

def pytest_addoption(parser):
    parser.addoption("--headless", action="store_true")

def headless(request):
    return request.config.getoption("--headless")
# in

from import Options as ChromeOptions

def test_home(headless):
    options = ChromeOptions()
    options.headless = headless
    driver = selenium.webdriver.Chrome(chrome_options=options)

Now if we run pytest with the --headless option, the headless parameter of the test_home function will be set to True by pytest. That’s how pytest fixtures work.

Anyway, we can now check this is working by running:

$ pytest --headless

Writing the CI script #

So now we are faced with a new challenge: we need to run yarn start before running pytest, and kill the React script when the selenium tests have finished.

A nice way to do this in Python is to use the with statement, so let’s do that:

class BackgroundProcess:
    """ Run `yarn start` in the background. Ensure the yarn process
    is killed when exiting the `with` block

    def __init__(self):
        self.process = None

    def __enter__(self):
        self.process = subprocess.Popen(["yarn", "start"])

    def __exit__(self, type, value, tb):

def main():
    with BackgroundProcess("yarn", "start"):["pytest", "--headless"], check=True)

if __name__ == "__main__":

The __enter__ method will be called right before the contents of the with block, so before pytest starts. Then the __exit__ method will be called after pytest is done, even if an exception occurred, passing data about the exception as arguments to the __exit__() method. Since we don’t want do to anything other than re-raise if this happens, we just ignore them.

Anyway, this is much more readable than using try/except/finally, don’t you think?

We still need a tiny fix: by default, yarn start will open a new tab on our browser. This was great while we were working on the JavaScript code, but here we are working on the CI script, so we’d prefer to disable this behavior.

Fortunately, all we have to do is to set the BROWSER environment variable to NONE:

class BackgroundProcess:

    def __enter__(self):
        env = os.environ.copy()
        env["BROWSER"] = "NONE"
        self.process = subprocess.Popen(self.cmd, env=env)

Note: you may wonder why we did not just set the BROWSER environment variable directly in the .gitlab-ci.yml file. This would have worked, but here we create a special copy of the current environment variables, and we set the BROWSER environment variable just for the yarn process. Why?

Well, if you think of environment variables as nasty global variables (and you should: the environment of a process is just a big mutable shared state), it makes sense to limit their scope this way.

Anyway, back to the main topic:

The bug #

The rest of the article assumes you are using Linux. Things may work a bit differently (or not at all) on other operating systems.

Let’s see if the CI script works.

$ python
yarn run v1.7.0
$ react-scripts start
Starting the development server...
1 passed in 4.77 seconds

Let’s run it a second time just to check that the yarn process was indeed killed:

$ python
? Something is already running on port 3000. Probably:
  hello (pid 16508)

Would you like to run the app on another port instead? (Y/n)


Let’s run pgrep to check that the yarn process is dead:

$ pgrep yarn
[err 1]

The yarn process is dead. What gives ?

If we take a look at the .terminate() implementation, here’s what we find:

# in /usr/lib/python3.6/

class Popen:

      def send_signal(self, sig):
          """Send a signal to the process."""
          # Skip signalling a process that we know has already died.
          if self.returncode is None:
              os.kill(, sig)

      def terminate(self):
          """Terminate the process with SIGTERM

So, terminate() just sends the SIGTERM signal using the process ID (pid). The bug’s not there.

The naked truth #

The truth is we’ve just created an orphan (we’re monsters!)

When we ran yarn start, the yarn process looked at a section named start in the package.json and found something like this:

  "scripts": {
    "start": "react-scripts start",

It then created a child process, namely react-scripts start, with a different PID.

So when we killed the parent process, the node process became an orphan since its parent was dead (poor little process).

On Linux at least, all orphans process get automatically re-attached to the first ever process that was created since the machine booted. (systemd on my machine). This process always has a PID equal to 1 and is often referred to as init.

We can check that by running pstree:

$ pstree
systemd─┬                               <- PID 1
        ├─node──                        <- our poor orphan
                      ├─konsole─┬─zsh─  <- our shell

So how do we make sure the node child process gets killed too?

There are some fancy ways to fix these kind of problems (we could use cgroups for instance), but we can do it just with the Python stdlib.

Turns out we can use the start_new_session argument in the subprocess.Popen() call. This will create a session and attach the yarn process (and all its children) to it.

Then we can send the SIGTERM signal to the PID of the parent, and all the processes in the session will receive it:

import os
import signal

def __enter__(self):
  self.process = subprocess.Popen(self.cmd, start_new_session=True)

def __exit__(self):
    os.killpg(, signal.SIGTERM)

Now if we re-run our script, we can see that neither yarn or node remain alive when the CI script terminates:

$ python
$ pgrep yarn
[err 1]
$ pgrep node
[err 1]

That’s all for today. Cheers!

  1. This is not the first time I’ve used those tools to write end-to-end tests for Web application. See Porting to pytest for instance. ↩︎

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