Two weeks ago, I updated the packages containing the BioPerl modules bioperl and bioperl-run, which allowed to resume the work done on GBrowse, one of the genome browsers available in Debian. As many Perl modules, BioPerl has extensive regression tests. Some of them need access to external services, and are disabled by default as the Internet is not available in our build farm. Nevertheless, they can be triggered through the environment variable DEB_MAINTAINER_MODE when building the package locally.
Bioperl successfully passes all off-line tests, and a part of the on-line tests is already corrected its development branch. In contrary, BioPerl-Run fail the tests for Bowtie, DBA, EMBOSS, Genewise, Hmmer, PAML, SABlastPlus, T-Coffee and gmap-run. In some cases, like EMBOSS, it is because a command has been renamed in Debian. In other cases, in particular DBA et Genewise, it is much more difficult to figure out on which side is the problem.
Regression tests are essential to determine if a package works or not on ports others than the one used by the packager (amd64 in my case). Even simple ones can be useful. In the case of T-Coffee, that has a rudimentary test that I have activated recently, it showed that the packages distributed on armel are not working at all.
Running regression tests when building packages have advantages, in particular to have the results published for each port automatically as part of the build logs. But is also cause problems. First, a package would need to build-depend on every software it can interact with, in order to test it comprehensively. In the example of bioperl-run, it makes it impossible to build on armel as long as t-coffee is broken there. Second, this approach does not help the user to test similarly a program installed on his computer.
Maybe the Debian Enhancement Proposal 8, to test binary packages with material provided by their source packages, will solve these two problems.