Sunday 18 August 2013

OWIN and Katana challenges: blues of a library developer

[Level T4] I have to be very careful on how to phrase what I am about to write here. The .NET community celebrates OWIN's integration into .NET HTTP frameworks such ASP.NET Web API, NancyFx and others. This is the result of months and months of hard work and sleepless nights. While I am also jubilant to see this happening, we need to stay objective and keep a self-critical attitude to ensure we make the best of this opportunity. 


Developing a middleware library on top of OWIN that can be equally used by native frameworks is possible but at the current state far from ideal as the overhead of translation between different frameworks can be big. OWIN application and middleware are clearly defined as separate entities in the spec while they are regarded the same in the OWIN implementation itself which renders the distinction redundant.


OWIN (Open Web Interface for .NET) is a community effort led by Benjamin Vanderveen and Louis Dejardin to "decouple server and application and, by being an open standard, stimulate the open source ecosystem of .NET web development tools". OWIN consists of a specification which is currently at version 1.0, a set of extension specifications and a small library owin.dll.

Katana is a project lead by Microsoft which provides implementation on top of minimal owin.dll implementation for abstractions such as OwinResquest, OwinResponse and OwinMiddleware. It also provides an HTTP server built on top of HttpListener.

Now each web platform also provides its own plumbing to OWIN.

What OWIN has nailed it

As we saw, the goal of OWIN has been defined as below:

The goal of OWIN is to decouple server and application and, by being an open standard, stimulate the open source ecosystem of .NET web development tools.
There is absolutely no doubt that OWIN has successfully delivered this promise. Regardless of what Server you are using (IIS, Kayak, HttpListener, etc) you can use web framework of choice.

Now this is all well and good. But we do expect more from OWIN. We would like to be able to write a middleware once and use it in any framework. There are many examples of this but main ones are security, formatting, caching, conneg, and alike. This all seemed easy and accessible to me so I set out to implement CacheCow as an OWIN middleware. But the task proved more convoluted than I though.

OWIN application and middleware

Here are how OWIN's application and middleware are defined:
Web Application – A specific application, possibly built on top of a Web Framework, which is run using OWIN compatible Servers.
Middleware – Pass through components that form a pipeline between a server and application to inspect, route, or modify request and response messages for a specific purpose.

Based on the specification (and definition above), an OWIN runtime can be viewed as below: 

Now if we look at the Application Startup section of the sepc, we see applicatrion as the engulfing runtime of the functionality. This is the interface for "application" startup:

public interface IAppBuilder

    IDictionary<string, object> Properties { get; }

    IAppBuilder Use(object middleware, params object[] args);

    object Build(Type returnType);

    IAppBuilder New();

So our view would probably change to this:

But after more digging, we realise that this cannot represent the use cases because:
  • It is possible to have an application which mixes different web frameworks, i.e. register multiple frameworks each covering a route. Now in this case, is application is composed of all smaller applications or each one is an application?
  • It is possible to have middlewares each based on a different framework. So similar to applications, they can based on a framework.
  • Middlewares does not have to be pass-through, they can be prematurely terminate pipeline chain.
  • Applications can be pass-through. This has been mainly implemented as 404-based chain of responsibility but any implementation is possible.
  • IAppBuilder does not have a notion of application - only middleware. There is no explicit means of registering an application and .Use method has a middleware parameter. Now we all know that this is also meant for applications and all extension methods currently available register applications such as .UseWebApi and .UseNancy.
So in essence, it seems like "application" is a redundant abstraction as far as runtime is concerned. This has no representation in OWIN code and I personally would like it to be removed from the spec or alternatively the definition of middleware and application merged for clarity. So this is how I see OWIN runtime:

ASP.NET Web API and OWIN HTTP Pipeline: Impedance mismatch

ASP.NET Web API provides a very powerful HTTP Pipeline expressed as SendAsync method below:

public Task<HttpResponseMessage> SendAsync(
 HttpRequestMessage request, CancellationToken cancellationToken

For those who have worked this pipeline it is clear that building a "middleware" as a DelegatingHandler is very easy.

On the other hand, OWIN provides a similar pipeline with this AppFunc signature:

using AppFunc = Func<
        IDictionary<string, object>, // Environment
        Task>; // Done

In this one, the operation is more or less the same since both request and response exist as part of the dictionary passed in.

As such, one might think that a DelegatingHandler should be very easy to convert to OWIN middleware. I personally expected this to take a few hours and set out to implement CacheCow as an OWIN middleware and show it off in a NancyFx app. I wish that was the case, but as I dig deeper it turned out we are facing hard challenges. At first googling around found this exact question, but to my surprise I found that .UseHttpMessaageHandler() (where a simple handler is returning data) and .UseWebApi() (where a whole ASP.NET Web API application is being set up) have been implemented yet no .UseDelegatingHandler() in site. That did not discourage me as I set out to build one using this little experimental rough and ready bridge:

public class OwinHandlerBridge : HttpMessageHandler
    private readonly DelegatingHandler _delegatingHandler;
    private readonly FixedResponseHandler _fixedResponseHandler = new FixedResponseHandler();
    private readonly HttpMessageInvoker _invoker;

    private const string OwinHandlerBridgeResponse = "OwinHandlerBridge_Response";

    private class FixedResponseHandler : HttpMessageHandler
        protected override Task<HttpResponseMessage> SendAsync(HttpRequestMessage request, 
            CancellationToken cancellationToken)
            return Task.FromResult(


    public OwinHandlerBridge(DelegatingHandler delegatingHandler)
        _delegatingHandler = delegatingHandler;
        _delegatingHandler.InnerHandler = _fixedResponseHandler;
        _invoker = new HttpMessageInvoker(_delegatingHandler);

    protected override Task<HttpResponseMessage> SendAsync(HttpRequestMessage request, 
        CancellationToken cancellationToken)
        var owinContext = request.GetOwinContext();
        request.Properties.Add(OwinHandlerBridgeResponse, owinContext.Response.ToHttpResponseMessage());
        return _invoker.SendAsync(request, cancellationToken);

This bridge turns a DelegatingHandler into a HttpMessageHandler so that I can use .UseHttpMessaageHandler(). But there are problems. First of all, I cannot turn use back an OWIN response body since it is implemented as a write-only stream. Also the process of converting Message to and from OWIN to ASP.NET Web API has been reported to be expensive - and prohibitive.

Another issue is also the difference in pipelines so that an OWIN middleware is different from a DelegatingHandler. In ASP.NET Web API, every DelegatingHandler is visited twice in the pipeline (or none in case of a short-circuiting - shown as faded arrows):

In OWIN, a middleware gets the chance to change the request or response only once (or none in case of a short-circuit - shown as faded arrows):

[Correction: since middleware interface is Task-based, practically every component is called twice and you can re-process in the Task continuation, pretty much similar to ASP.NET Web API]

So here is the question, which model should I build my middleware? While many believe it is OWIN, Dominick Baier (@leastprivilege) has already decided to abstract it away from both and created his own model in Thinktecture.IdentityModel to represent an HTTP request and response. Pedro Felix also believes the same.

And the quest for a common HTTP pipeline paradigm continues...