Testing Channels

As developers we typically value tests since they help to ‘future-proof’ our applications by minimizing regression and provide updated documentation. Phoenix recognizes this and helps make it easier to write tests by providing conveniences for testing its different parts, including Channels.

In the Channels Guide, we saw that a “Channel” is a layered system with different components. Given this, there would be cases when writing unit tests for our Channel functions may not be enough. We may want to verify that its different moving parts are working together as we expect. This integration testing would assure us that we correctly defined our channel route, the channel module, and its callbacks; and that the lower-level layers such as the PubSub and Transport are configured correctly and are working as intended.

The Channel Generator

As we progress through this guide, it would help to have a concrete example we could work off of. Phoenix comes with a Mix task for generating a basic channel and tests. These generated files serve as a good reference for writing channels and their corresponding tests. Let’s go ahead and generate our Channel:

$ mix phoenix.gen.channel Room
* creating lib/hello_web/channels/room_channel.ex
* creating test/hello_web/channels/room_channel_test.exs

Add the channel to your `lib/hello_web/channels/user_socket.ex` handler, for example:

    channel "room:lobby", HelloWeb.RoomChannel

This creates a channel, its test and instructs us to add a channel route in lib/hello_web/channels/user_socket.ex. It is important to add the channel route or our channel won’t function at all!

The Channel Test Helpers Module

Upon inspecting the file test/hello_web/channels/room_channel_test.exs, we see a line that looks like use MyAppWeb.ChannelCase. Note - we assume that our app is named MyApp throughout this guide. Where does this come from?

When we generate a new Phoenix application, a test/support/channel_case.ex file is also generated for us. This file houses the MyAppWeb.ChannelCase module which we will use for all our integration tests for our channels. It automatically imports conveniences for testing channels and the Ecto model and query functions(if we use Ecto).

Some of the helper functions provided there are for triggering callback functions in our channel. The others are there to provide us with special assertions that apply only to channels.

If we need to add our own helper function that we would only use in channel tests, we would add it to MyAppWeb.ChannelCase by defining it there and ensuring MyAppWeb.ChannelCase is imported every time it is used. For example:

defmodule MyAppWeb.ChannelCase do

  using do
    quote do
      import MyAppWeb.ChannelCase

  def a_channel_test_helper() do
    # code here

The Setup Block

Now that we know that Phoenix provides with a custom Test Case just for channels and what it provides, we can move on to understanding the rest of test/hello_web/channelsj/room_channel_test.exs.

First off, is the setup block:

setup do
  {:ok, _, socket} =
    socket("user_id", %{some: :assign})
    |> subscribe_and_join(RoomChannel, "room:lobby")

  {:ok, socket: socket}

The setup/2 macro comes with ExUnitwhich comes out of the box with Elixir. The do block passed to setup/2 will get run for each of our tests. Note the line {:ok, socket: socket}. That line ensures that the socket from subscribe_and_join/3 will be accessible to all our tests. In this way, we won’t need to call subscribe_and_join/3 for every test block we create.

subscribe_and_join/3 emulates the client joining a channel and subscribes the test process to the given topic. This is a necessary step since clients need to join a channel before they can send and receive events on that channel.

Testing a Synchronous Reply

The first test block in our generated channel test looks like:

test "ping replies with status ok", %{socket: socket} do
  ref = push socket, "ping", %{"hello" => "there"}
  assert_reply ref, :ok, %{"hello" => "there"}

This tests the following code in our MyAppWeb.RoomChannel:

# Channels can be used in a request/response fashion
# by sending replies to requests from the client
def handle_in("ping", payload, socket) do
  {:reply, {:ok, payload}, socket}

As is stated in the comment above, we see that a reply is synchronous since it mimics the request/ response pattern we are familiar with in HTTP. This synchronous reply is best used when we only want to send an event back to the client when we are done processing the message on the server. For example, when we save something to the database and then send a message to the client only once that’s done.

In the test "ping replies with status ok", %{socket: socket} do line, we see that we have the map %{socket: socket}. This gives us access to the socket in the setup block.

We emulate the client pushing a message to the channel with push/3. In the line ref = push socket, "ping", %{"hello" => "there"}, we push the event "ping" with the payload %{"hello" => "there"} to the channel. This triggers the handle_in/3 callback we have for the "ping" event in our channel. Note that we store the ref since we need that on the next line for asserting the reply. With assert_reply ref, :ok, %{"hello" => "there"}, we assert that the server sends a synchronous reply :ok, %{"hello" => "there"}. This is how we check that the handle_in/3 callback for the "ping" was triggered.

Testing a Broadcast

It is common to receive messages from the client and broadcast to everyone subscribed to a current topic. This common pattern is simple to express in Phoenix and is one of the generated handle_in/3 callbacks in our MyAppWeb.RoomChannel.

def handle_in("shout", payload, socket) do
  broadcast socket, "shout", payload
  {:noreply, socket}

Its corresponding test looks like:

test "shout broadcasts to room:lobby", %{socket: socket} do
  push socket, "shout", %{"hello" => "all"}
  assert_broadcast "shout", %{"hello" => "all"}

We notice that we access the same socket that is from the setup block. How handy! We also do the same push/3 as we did in the synchronous reply test. So we push the "shout" event with the payload %{"hello" => "all"}.

Since the handle_in/3 callback for the "shout" event just broadcasts the same event and payload, all subscribers in the "room:lobby" should receive the message. To check that, we do assert_broadcast "shout", %{"hello" => "all"}.

Testing an Asynchronous Push from the Server

The last test in our MyAppWeb.RoomChannelTest verifies that broadcasts from the server are pushed to the client. Unlike the previous tests discussed, we are indirectly testing that our channel’s handle_out/3 callback is triggered. This handle_out/3 is defined in our MyApp.RoomChannel as:

def handle_out(event, payload, socket) do
  push socket, event, payload
  {:noreply, socket}

Since the handle_out/3 event is only triggered when we call broadcast/3 from our channel, we will need to emulate that in our test. We do that by calling broadcast_from or broadcast_from!. Both serve the same purpose with the only difference of broadcast_from! raising an error when broadcast fails.

The line broadcast_from! socket, "broadcast", %{"some" => "data"} will trigger our handle_out/3 callback above which pushes the same event and payload back to the client. To test this, we do assert_push "broadcast", %{"some" => "data"}.


In this guide we tackled all the special assertions that comes with MyAppWeb.ConnCase and some of the functions provided that help you test channels by triggering its callbacks. We found the API for testing channels is largely consistent with the API for Phoenix Channels which makes it easy to work with.

If interested in learning more about the helpers provided by MyAppWeb.ChannelCase, check out the documentation for Phoenix.ChannelTest which is the module that defines those functions.