Friday 24 August 2012

Server-side TPL Async: Don't risk learning these lessons the hard way

[Level T2]

There has been more than a few times that I have felt I know all about TPL. Only to realise sometime later I was wrong, very wrong. Now you might read this and say to yourself "Come on, this is basic stuff. I know it well, thank you vety much". Well, it is possible that you could be right but I advise you carry on reading; what follows can surprise you.

None of what I am gonna talk about is new or it is being blogged about for the first time. Brad Wilson has an excellent series on the topic here but this is to serve as a digest of his posts targeted at a broader audience in addition to a few other points.

While this post is not directly related to ASP.NET Web API, most examples (and cases) are related to day-to-day scenarios we encounter in ASP.NET Web API.

Remember this covers pre-async/await keywords in .NET 4.5 and what you need to do if you are using .NET 4.0 and not async/await. Using async/await will cover you for some of the problems described below but not all.

Don't fire and forget

Tasks are ideal for decoupling pieces of functionality. For example, I can perform a database operation and at the same time audit the operation by outputing a log entry, writing to a file, etc. Using tasks I can de-couple these operations so that my database task returns without having to wait for audit to finish. This makes sense since database operation is high priority but audit is low priority:

private void DoDbStuff()
   // doing audit entry asynchronously not to bog down database operation
   Task.Factory.StartNew(()=> AuditEntry("Database stuff was done"));

In fact, let's say we do not even care if audit is successful or not so we just fire and forget, it most audit will fail which is low priority. OK, it all seems innocent?

No! This innocent operation can bring down your application. Reason for it is that all async exceptions must be observed even if you do not care about them. If you don't, they will haunt you when you least expect them, at the time finalizer for task is run by GC. Such an unhandled exception will kill your app.

The link above talks about various ways of observing an exception. The most practical is to use a continuation and access the .Exception property of the task (just accessing the property is enough, does not need to do anything with the exception itself).

private void DoDbStuff()
   // doing audit entry asynchronously not to bog down database operation
   Task.Factory.StartNew(()=> AuditEntry("Database stuff was done"))
      .ContinueWith(t => t.Exception); // fire and forget!

Another option which is more of a safe-guard against accidental unobserved exception, is to register to UnobservedTaskException on TaskScheduler:

 TaskScheduler.UnobservedTaskException +=
  (e, sender) => LogException(e);

So we register a handler to handle unobserved exceptions and this way they will be "observed". If you need to read more on this, have a look at Jon Skeet's post here.

This problem has made Ayende Rahien to run for the hills.

Respect SynchronizationContext

Uncle Jeffrey Richter tells us that

By default, the CLR automatically causes the first thread's execution context to flow to any helper threads.

And then we also learn that we can use ExecutionContext.SuppressFlow() to suppress flow of the thread context.

Now, what happens when we use ContinueWith()? It turns out unlike standard thread switches, context does not flow (I do not have a reference, if you do please let me know). This will help with improving performance of asynchronous task as we know context switching is expensive (and big part of it is context flow).

So why is it important? It is important because so many developers are used to HttpContext.Current. This context is stored in the thread storage area and passed along at the time of context switching. So if the context does not flow, HttpContext.Current will be null.

SynchronizationContext is a similar (but not same) concept. It is about a state that can be shared and used by different threads at the time of switching. I cannot explain this better than Stephen here. So using Post on SynchronizationContext ensures that the execution of continuation will happen in the same context and not necessarily by the same thread.

So basically the idea is that if you are in a Task pipeline (best example being MessageHandlers in ASP.NET Web API), you need to take responsibility for passing the context along the pipeline.

This is a snippet from ASP.NET Web API Source code that displays the steps. First of all you check to see if current context is null, if it is not then you have to use Post() to flow the context:

SynchronizationContext syncContext = SynchronizationContext.Current;

    TaskCompletionSource<Task<TOuterResult>> tcs = new TaskCompletionSource<Task<TOuterResult>>();

    task.ContinueWith(innerTask =>
        if (innerTask.IsFaulted)
        else if (innerTask.IsCanceled || cancellationToken.IsCancellationRequested)
            if (syncContext != null)
                syncContext.Post(state =>
                    catch (Exception ex)
                }, state: null);
    }, runSynchronously ? TaskContinuationOptions.ExecuteSynchronously : TaskContinuationOptions.None);

    return tcs.Task.FastUnwrap();

There is a horrifying fact here. Most of the DelegatingHandler code out there (including some of mine) in various samples around internet do not respect this. Of course, looking at ASP.NET Web API source code reveals that they do indeed take care of this in their TaskHelper implementations and Brad tried to make us aware of it in his blog series. But I think we have not taken enough attention of the implications of ignoring SynchronizationContext.

Now my suggestion is to use the TaskHelpers and its extensions in the ASP.NET Web API (it is open source) or use the one provided in Brad's post. In any case,

Don't use Task for CPU-bound operations

Overhead of asynchronous operations is not negligible. You should only use async if you are doing an IO-bound operation (calling another web service/API, reading a file, reading a lot of data from database or running a slow query). I personally think even for normal IO operations, sync is more performant and scalable.

As we have talked about it here, the point about asynchronous programming on server-side is releasing the thread to be able to serve another request. Tasks are normally served by the CLR thread pool. If server already needs managed threads for its operations, it will be using CLR thread pool too. This means that by doing async operations you could be stealing threads needed for server's normal operations. A classic example is ASP.NET, so you should be careful to use async only if needed.

ContinueWith is Evil!

I think by now you should know why standard ContinueWith can be evil. First of all, it does not flow the context. Also it makes it easy for unboserved exceptions to creep into your code. My suggestion is to use .Then() from ASP.NET Web API's TaskHelpers.

Performance comparison

I think it is still early days - but I must say I would love to do a benchmark to quantify overhead of server-side asynchronous programming. Well if I do, this place will be where the result will first appear :)

So. Do I think I know all about TPL now? Hardly!

Monday 6 August 2012

CacheCow.Client, using the benefits of HTTP Caching on the client

[Level T2]

Browsers are very sophisticated HTTP machines. We often fail to remember how much of the HTTP spec is implemented by the browsers.

As I have said before, ASP.NET Web API is a very powerful server-side framework but there is a client-side burden in using it or generally implementing a RESTful system - although Web API does not restrict you to a RESTful style.

Because of the client burden, we need more and more client-side libraries to implement lacking features that browser have had for such a long time - one of which is HTTP caching. If you use HttpClient out of the box, it will not implement any caching even though the resources are cacheable. Also all of the work for conditional GET or PUT calls (using if-none-match, etc) or cache validation (if there is must-revalidate) or checking whether your cache is stale has to be done in your own code.

CacheCow is an HTTP caching library for client and server in ASP.NET Web API that does all of above - see my earlier post on that. Storage of the cache is abstracted in ICacheStore and for now we can use in memory implementation (see below). So the features in the client library include:

  • Caching GET responses according to their caching headers
  • Verifying cached items for their staleness
  • Validating cached items if must-revalidate parameter of Cache-Control header is set to true. It will use ETag or Expires whichever exists
  • Making conditional PUT for resources that are cached based on their ETag or expires header, whichever exists

Today I released v0.1.3 of the CacheCow.Client on NuGet. This library would implement advanced HTTP caching with little or no configuration or hassle. All you have to do is to add the CachingHandler as a delegating handler to your HttpClient:

var client = new HttpClient(new DelegatingHandler()
           InnerHandler = new HttpClientHandler()

This code will create an HttpClient that implements caching and stores the cache in memory. By implementing ICacheStore, you can store the cache in your custom repository. CacheCow is going to have persistent cache stores such as FileCacheStore, SqlCeCacheStore and SqliteCacheStore as a minimum. FileCacheStore will be similar to browser implementation of cache storage. Each of these cache stores will be implemented and released under its own NuGet package. To add an alternative cache store, you need to pass the store as a constructor parameter.


So in order to use, CacheCow.Client, use package manager in Visual Studio to download and add reference to it:

PM> Install-Package CacheCow.Client

This will also download and add reference to ASP.NET Web API client package, if you have not already added a reference to. Make sure try v0.1.3 or above (by the time of reading this).

After this you just need to create an HttpClient as above and add the CachingHandler as a delegating handler. That's it, you are ready to call services and cache the responses!


I am working on a sample project but for now, it is easiest to use the code below to call my CarManager Azure website which implements HTTP Caching. The code can be pasted from this GitHub gist.

CacheCow.Client adds a special header to the response which helps with debugging its various features. The header's name is x-cachecow and has a various flags on the operations done on the request/response. So in the code below, we will use this header to demonstrate the features of this library.

var client = new HttpClient(new CachingHandler()
                        InnerHandler = new HttpClientHandler()
var initialResponse = client.GetAsync(
var initialResponseHeader = initialResponse.Headers.Single(
       x => x.Key == CacheCowHeader.Name).Value.First();

And we will see this to be printed:
As you can probably figure out, we have the ETag and the CacheCowHeader: first value is the version and did-not-exist means that item did not exist in the cache - which is understandable as this is the first call.

Now let's try this again:

var secondResponse = client.GetAsync("").Result;
var secondResponseHeader = secondResponse.Headers.Single(
      x => x.Key == CacheCowHeader.Name).Value.First();

And what will print is:;did-not-exist=false;cache-validation-applied=true;retrieved-from-cache=true
So in fact, it existed in the cache, retrieved from the cache and cache validation was applied. Cache validation is the process by which client makes conditional call to retrieve/update a resource only if the condition is met (see Background section in this post). For example, in GET calls it will send the ETag with a if-none-match header to retrieve

If you call a PUT on a resource that is cached, CacheCow.Client will use its ETag or Expires value to make a conditional PUT, unless you set UseConditionalPut property to false.

By-passing caching

There are some cases where you might not want the result be cached or retrieved from the cache regardless of the caching logic. All you have to do is to set the CacheControl header to no-cache or no-store:

var nocacheRequest = new HttpRequestMessage(HttpMethod.Get, 
nocacheRequest.Headers.CacheControl = new CacheControlHeaderValue()
  NoCache = true
var nocacheResponse = client.SendAsync(nocacheRequest).Result;
var nocacheResponseHeader = nocacheResponse.Headers.FirstOrDefault(
 x => x.Key == CacheCowHeader.Name);

This will print an empty header since we have by passed the caching.

Last but not least

Thanks for trying out and using CacheCow. Please send me your feedbacks and bugs. Just ping me on twitter or use GitHub's issue tracker.

Sunday 5 August 2012

Hierarchical routing for ASP.NET Web API: RESTful resource organisation

Introduction and motivation

[Level T3] A question keeps popping up on various forums (StackOverflow, ASP.NET Forums, etc) on how to define routing in ASP.NET Web API. And more important is that there does not seem to be any consensus on how to approach this - well probably since ASP.NET Web API is still in preview (RC).

In this post, I want to have a fresh look at routing in ASP.NET Web API and present a hierarchical model for organising resources.


Resources are important part of RESTful architectual style. In REST all server operations (API) are defined as interactions with resources - in HTTP terms it would mean Verb interactions with URLs. This is in contrast with RPC style where server operations are defined as method calls. 

ASP.NET Web API's routing mirrors ASP.NET MVC routing - similar to some other aspects of Web API which uses ASP.NET MVC as the baseline since it is a familiar model for developers.

Routing was first introduced to ASP.NET by MVC. Later on routing code was integrated into system.web.dll

Routing in ASP.NET MVC is very flat since all routes are defined from the root. This was one of the reasons MVC Areas were introduced to add another layer to top root routes. This can work for MVC but RESTful resource organisation usually requires more nested structure while using conventionally routing can result in configuration burden as well performance penalty.

How routing works

MVC (and Web API) routes are generally designed for a handful (and in most cases less than 100) routes. You were expected to use the default route for most cases and add a few more routes for occasional cases where the pattern was different. This in fact worked in most MVC applications but RESTful resource design requires richer and a more nested structure as we will see below.

Route definition in ASP.NET Web API - as you all have probably used and know - is based on adding route to the RouteCollection:

var routes = GlobalConfiguration.Configuration.Routes; // in web hosted environment
 name: "DefaultApi",
 routeTemplate: "api/{controller}/{id}",
 defaults: new { id = RouteParameter.Optional }

Each mapping will add a new HttpRoute object to the collection. HttpRoute itself is an implementation of IHttpRoute:

public interface IHttpRoute
    string RouteTemplate { get; }

    IDictionary<string, object> Defaults { get; }

    IDictionary<string, object> Constraints { get; }

    IDictionary<string, object> DataTokens { get; }

    HttpMessageHandler Handler { get; }

    IHttpRouteData GetRouteData(string virtualPathRoot, HttpRequestMessage request);

    IHttpVirtualPathData GetVirtualPath(HttpRequestMessage request, IDictionary<string, object> values);

Most important method is GetRouteData where the matching takes place. Basically if an implementation of IHttpRoute returns a non-null IHttpRouteData then route has matched.

Now how the matching work? Well, RouteCollection will loop through all the routes and calls GetRouteData and the first one to return a non-null will be the matched route for a given URL:

// snippet from HttpRouteCollection
foreach (IHttpRoute route in _collection)
    IHttpRouteData routeData = route.GetRouteData(_virtualPathRoot, request);
    if (routeData != null)
        return routeData;

Did you notice something fundamental above? If you have 1000 routes and your given URL matches the 1000th route, GetRouteData (which involves complex and heavy string processing if you look at the Web API source code) has to be called for the first 999 routes and fail until it reaches your matched route. With 100, this probably not an issue but with numbers going up, performance will take a hit.

RESTful organisation of resources

This StackOverflow question is one of many questions on the Web API routing according to REST style. One of the main challenges is that, we as Microsoft developers, have used to design our API in an RPC fashion. This habit has been ingrained in our psyche since remoting days and then Web Services and more recently WCF. So it is only natural to fall into the same habit when designing or REST API.

Martin Fowler on his article Steps towards the glory of REST talks about 3 levels of REST implementation. We will be talking about the level 1 and briefly about 2. Level 3 which is the most noble constraint of REST focuses on hypermedia which is beyond the topic of our discussion.

So at the level 1, we design the server to expose its API as resources. In case of HTTP and URLs, this will look like the directory/file structure on the disk - and as such hierarchical. If we mix REST with DDD concepts, each aggregate root of the publicly exposed domain (which is called Server domain, see the post on Client-Server) will be exposed at the root (considering API root is /api/):


An example for cars would be /api/Car/1243. As such, we would have a CarController that receives the id through the URL. Now all of this is easily achievable using the default route very much in the good old MVC fashion.

However, the picture gets more complicated when we want to expose the tyres of the car. Let's say a car has Front/Rear Left/Right tyres as such FL, FR, RL and RR. One approach would be to expose the tyres as the aggregate root and have an ID for each tyre:


Well, this will work but tyre is really not a aggregate root since it really would only have a meaning as part of the car. So ideally we should expose them only as part of a car:


So we would need a TyreController to handle the scenario and in this case we need a route similar to below:


Now this can be written in the generic form of:


But as you can see in this case we need to define carId as parentId. Also not all of the domain has similar constraints for ID so this approach will impose a heavy limitation on our routes. On the other hand, we might have more than one nested levels where this can be even more complexed.

In addition to entity levels, we also have operations. Operations also can be defined as a resource, for example in case of a puncture:

POST /api/Car/1243/Tyre/FR/Puncture

This will create a puncture in the tyre. When we say create, we do not mean that necessarily a physical record needs to be created against the tyre. In fact mapping between REST resources and domain models is usually loose. The point is every operation needs to exposed as a resource and all operations to be performed using HTTP verbs. For example, repairing puncture can be represented as:

DELETE /api/Car/1243/Tyre/FR/Puncture

So the operations will complicate the routing even more. If the domain is big and complex, we could end up with many routes. As such, the performance will be hampered and we end up with the burden of defining all these routes at the root level.

So what is the solution? Solution is to turn Web API's flat routing into a hierarchical one.