Saturday, 8 December 2012

5 levels of media type

[Level C4HTTP spec defines use of media type in the value of serveral headers including content-type and Accept. Server and client can engage in the process of content negotiation to decide on the best suitable media type.

With the rising popularity of the REST systems and adoption of pure HTTP APIs, we are using media type not only for delivering content formatting information but also metadata for domain level application data. Advanced use of the media type and its controversies has been discussed before.

IANA is responsible for registering internet media types. RFC 4288 defines the process of media type registration through IANA.

As can be seen below, registration of media types increased by 2000 dot-com boom and then declined. This trend was reversed again by the REST awareness and resurgence of web 2.0 around 2006. Recently, we see a slight decline in the registrations - partly explained by the use of private media types.

Source: IANA -
While there will always be a need for registering new formats, media type has been used to described not only the format but also the schema and domain level description of the application data. Use of media type for versioning resources is a controversial yet fairly popular trend.

The problem with creating new media types for describing anything other than format is that you you will be requiring the clients to understand the new media type - hence the client burden of the media type. Such clients could be very well capable of handling the format (and all they need might be to use understand the format) but unable to comprehend the media type. For example an XmlSerializer is capable of handling the XML format and that is all it cares about.

One such attempt to conserve the formatting information of the media types yet provide higher level constructs is the use of + in the second part of the media types such as application/rss+xml which combines formatting with schema (see below). But as I explained before many systems use a dictionary-based media type processing and cannot separate format and schema information and also this is rather a convention and not a canonical implementation.

I will review the logical levels of media type and then propose a solution for the current issues we are experiencing in the industry.

5 levels of media type

Media type deals with different levels of information. Any solution needs to take into account backward-compatibility, interoperability and extensibility. Media type can provide information at different levels. As the level goes up, the number of clients able to comprehend and interact with that level diminishes.

Lowest level of information is whether the content is human-readable. This was initially envisaged in the text/* media type but there again, it was mixing human-readability with the formatting. As we know text/xml and text/javascript later were converted to application/xml and application/javascript.

Next level is formatting, i.e. how a parser/processor can read and understand the media type. This is the most important aspect of a media type. Examples are application/xml, image/* and video/*.

Schema is a common superset of the formatting. Here we define different schema commonly within the same  format. Examples of this are application/rss+xml, application/atom+xml and application/collection+json.

Domain level is where we have a lot of new interest. Many companies are using private and public APIs for exposing their data and services. As such, a recent trend is to take the schema to the next level where it defines a domain object model. As we have described before here, domain model is part of the server's public domain and could be in the format of command or query messages.

Including version information for a domain object model is the highest level of a media type. This is useful by only a subset of the clients capable of version coherence and version content negotiation.

In fact clients each can use the media type at a particular level:
So forcing he higher levels of media type upon clients will reduce interoperability.


I propose using additional properties for preserving the interoperability and backward-compatibility yet allowing rich higher level information. Currently HTTP 1.1 allows for custom additional parameters to be defined.

For example, if I am using application/atom+xml for passing customer domain object model in a CRM API, I can keep the format in the value of the content-type header and include the rest of the information (Note: we have to replace / with _ since it is not allowed in the parameter value according to HTTP spec):
content-type: application%2fxml;schema=application%2fatom+xml;is-text=true;domain-model=MyDomain.Customer;version=
Or alternatively use the schema level information as the main value:
content-type: application%2fatom+xml;format=application%2fxml;is-text=true;domain-model=MyDomain.Customer;version=
Please note the values of parameters need to be UrlEncoded.

Compared to single-token approach, this will preserve the interoperability and backward-compatibility while allowing for extensibility.
Difference of single-token vs. 5LMT. Please note the the values need to be UrlEncoded so application/xml will appear as application%2fxml


Registering media types should be done mainly for new formats. The problem with using a single token is that by setting the token at a any level, lower levels need to be inferred - as such client needs to understand the exact media type.

5-level media type compared to the single token approach provides a more robust solution for extensibility and interoperability of clients and servers in private and public APIs.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Introducing Client-Server Domain Separation

[Level C4]

If you have followed my posts on REST and its client-server implications, you already know I have a thing for the client-server relationship.

I have been thinking about Client-Server Domain Separation CSDS for a while. And I think it is time to do a brain dump.


So here is the definition CSDS - if you don't want to read the whole post. CSDS defines a single constraint which is just an expansion on REST's client-server constraint:
Client and server must define and live in their own bounded context
This will lead to 1) cleaner separation of concerns among clients and servers and 2) adoption of API as the building blocks of complex systems in an SOA world. CSDS is also not compatible with HATEOAS - as we will see. If you need to find out how such a seemingly trivial constraint can have such an impact, read the rest.


REST defines a set of constraints that will lead to better architecture and design - well that is the claim but I personally do believe in it. One of those constrains is client-server. As far as REST is concerned, client and server are decoupled entities - these ideas were successfully used in the design of HTTP. Yet considering limitations of the clients back in the day REST dissertation was being written, I think we need to re-visit this constraint.

I suppose it all started with smartphones. We now have more processing power in our pockets than the Apollo that landed on the moon for the first time. Native apps allow for developing pretty complex applications while HTML/JS app has become a reality (better browsers, adoption of HTML5, better javascript runtime and development tools). 

The dilemma we are faced now is to decide where to implement a functionality (in other words put the business logic): client or server. Back in the late 90s or early 2000s we did not have a choice - we had to implement most of the functionality on the servers and use client-side code mainly for limited validation. We lived in a time of server dominance. Now we have the liberty to implement a sizeable chunk of functionality in both places but getting the balance right is difficult and has lead to mainly two opposing camps: Single Page Application followers and server domination supporters. I am more inclined towards the first but shall explain below why CSDS will lean more on the SPA side rather than server domination - although not as a matter of taste but as a matter of principle - question is whose concern is a functionality.

Other changes in the industry have contributed to the need to define client and server. Nowadays, it is only incidental that the client code in an html/js application is served from the server - we can package up javascript files with the application as in PhoneGap or Windows 8 metro applications. In mash-up applications, there is no single server defining the flow as such HATEOAS is meaningless.


In here I briefly re-iterate what I explained in two related posts.

First of all, in order to decide where a functionality belongs - server or client - we need to understand whose concern it is. I talked about server-concern, client-server and mixed-concern and I explained their anti-patterns, each with an example.

In this post I tried to define client and server - as they stand now. So I am going to go back to the same definitions - with client definition slightly changed.

Server is responsible for defining a domain (server domain) and maintaining its state and consistency/integrity. Server is usually very complex but a good server hides its complexity behind its API. Server should not expose its internals to the outside world.

Server in CSDS

Client is responsible for using server(s) services to provide value to the end user - either directly if it is a client device or indirectly if client itself is a server. Client can also maintain a state but it is not its primary function.

We also touched on Application. For me application => value => user => client. Application, use and usability is mainly a client concern. Having said that, server will define a secondary level of API which could use underlying basic APIs and present a more useful representation of its state. As such, server is not completely oblivious to the user/value. For example, a high-street bank could have an API returning 10 most recent transactions on your account defined as a resource at /account/{id}/transaction/mostrecent,since this is a very common query. This is instead/or in addition to providing an API which allows client to define date ranges and number of transactions returned. The application sitting on a client device does have the liberty to show only 6 of them if its usability mandates such restriction.

CSDS definition

So CSDS can be seen as a superset style on the top of REST with a single constraint on REST's client-server constraint. This is similar to, for example, HATEOAS which builds upon hypermedia constraint. So the constraint is:
Client and server must define and live within their own bounded context.
In other words, decision to where put a functionality is to ascertain whose concern it is. Is that it? Yes, that is it. Yet, this is going to have quite a big impact as well as important repercussions.

First of all since each defines its own boundary, client's domain is separate from server's domain. Their interaction is only through the API. "Domain objects" in the diagram above are usually regarded as view-models which are a translated version of the corresponding models in these two different domains - which in DDD terms are called context map.

By keeping client and server in their own bounded context, internals of each can be changed independently. By separating the domains, we achieve the client-server decoupling which is the goal of the client-server constraint - as Fielding puts it.

So here are some of the aspects and implications of CSDS:

Client has full coherence of server's public domain

This means that client is free to have full coherence of server's public domain including all its public API, domain objects and schemata. It is able to call, discover and make full use of the public API in any order or fashion it needs.

Server is responsible for versioning its public domain

In CSDS, client building dependency on the top of the public domain is not regarded harmful and actually is seen as essential. Server already knows that by changing the public domain, it will be breaking clients as such server is responsible for visioning its public domain.

Server has got no clue about the client

In CSDS, server has no reliance on its knowledge about the client calling it. Of course, in HTTP, it can use user-agent header for statistical purposes. Or in the case of OAuth, it can know the name of the application and perhaps even limit the scope of the public API according to that but this is an authorization concern - authentication and authorization of the calls are server concerns. In other words, it should not make any assumptions about the client, client device or its capabilities.

Server got no clue about the client - one of the clients could be a server itself (not shown, could not find the original visio to add the server :( )

CSDS, HATEOAS and hypermedia

CSDS is not compatible with HATEOAS. Why? Well, HATEOAS talks about hypermedia (a server concern but part of public domain) as the engine of the application. What application? Server got no clue about it. When I am listening to Spotify, I can tweet the song I am listening to. Publishing this tweet is no different to doing this from a twitter client, TuneIn radio client, etc. Server does not know what application is using it (although as we said it could know the name of the application in OAuth as a string) or where in the application this tweet happens. As such it cannot be the engine of the application. Also in a mash-up application, no single server could be the engine - there are multiple servers. 

CSDS regards hypermedia an important aspect of REST; it is a semantic web of interconnected resources. Client will have full coherence of the axes of such relationships and can effectively use to navigate the semantic web - since it is part of the public domain. But for it to become the engine of the application is server dominance.

Server has a lot to worry about

CSDS acknowledges utmost complexity of the server. Reliable storage, big data, high availability HA, sharding, resilience, redundancy, etc are all server concerns. Implementing the right server-side architecture is not easy as such server is best to focus on its own concerns rather than dominating the client by implementing client's concerns too.

CSDS leads to a cleaner SOA, especially when client itself is a server

Recent server-side challenges and trends in achieving a scalable and highly available architecture has added the focus for achieving the right balance in the client-server separation.

Listening to Adrian Cockcroft's talk in Cambridge on Netflix's architecture and having read Daniel Jacobson's book, I have a lot of appreciation for what these guys are doing and I think this will become a roadmap for a cleaner and more decoupled SOA. Adrian explained how in Netflix, they have used a web of micro-SOA services through REST APIs to create a resilient architecture whereby they even send chaos monkeys and gorillas to bring down servers or even server zones. I believe this is only possible with separating domains of each micro-SOA service. So a lot of kudos to them and it is a place to watch.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

NoSQL Benchmarking - Redis, MongoDB, Cassandra, RavenDB and SQL Server


[Level C2] In the last post, I explained how limitation can lead to a better solution. This is an integral part of the NoSQL offering for me: the fact that we cannot abuse it by storing logic as well as data.

In this post I am going to report my NoSQL benchmark results. There are quite a few benchmarks already reported and available out there but this one focuses on NoSQL offerings available on windows. If you are not a windows developer, you might still find the results useful. My benchmark treats all these technologies as key/value store - although most of them have many other features.

The code used for benchmarking is available in GitHub.


In a distributed system, performance is not as important of scalability - which is not compared here. Take this for whatever it is worth. I have used a method (key/value storage/retrieval described below) which might or might not match the way you intend to use these technologies. 

Use a storage system that suits you best. This report does not necessarily recommend or disapprove a particular technology. Performance of the NoSQL stores are affected also by the client technology used. However, this is a price we normally pay so I think it is relevant to be included in the measurement. The variety in usage of these technologies mean some results might have been skewed by the serialisation techniques.

Each of these technologies have different degrees of availability, consistency and partition tolerance. They also present different settings that can affect these variables. As such, the result of this benchmark must be interpreted in the light of them.


Here I briefly explain the technologies compared.


Redis is a high throughput caching/nosql technology which is written in C. This is mainly available on linux but windows ports can be used although its replication currently not supported on windows. Client library of choice is fully-async library by uber-geek Marc Gravell called BookSleeve. There is an alternate library available which is part of ServiceStack.

I used Redis port by MSOpenTech which can be downloaded from here. Full instruction for installation and running it is provided in there. I have used all the settings out of the box. Redis provides two different persistence mechanisms: RDB and AOF. RDB is faster and default but affects reliability depending on what you need from it.

To clear the data, just delete inst1 folder. Version used was 2.4.11.


MongoDB is written in C++ and it has a stable port for windows. It is a classic document database and provides its own query language which has been abstracted away nicely by NoRM library. It provides many nice querying features which we do not use here.

Downloading and installation easy - unzip it. You just need to create the folder C:\data\db which is the default storage area and then run the mongod.exe.

To wipe out the data, just delete contents of C:\data\db folder. Version used was 2.0.2.


RavenDB is an emerging document database fully written in C#. It comes with its own client library which uses HTTP for communication. It is a transactional database which is an important feature. It also has features such as map-reduce.

Downloading easy and no installation required. Just unzip the package and run Raven.Server.exe. To wipe out the data you just need to delete data folder. Version used was 1.0.960.

RavenDB's recommended approach is to open and close the session every time which I also used for tests (there is a default cap of 30 operations per session). I also tried a single session for the whole lot but performance was actually worse.


Out of all NoSql stores I know, this one looks more like RDBMS - and I know it the least. It is written in Java and is schema-full. Its power is high throughput and ability for unlimited scale-out unlike conventional RDBMS.

There are currently two client libraries available for accessing Cassandra which I used Fluent Cassandra by Nick Berardi. Version of the Cassandra used was 1.1.6.

SQL Server

OK, this one is a conventional RDBMS! But nothing stops you from using it as a key/value store and as we will see it competes very well with NoSql stores - while being transactional.

There are tens, if not hundreds, of libraries for accessing SQL Server and I used none of them. My approach was raw ADO.NET over store procedures. I kept the connection open - normally we would not do that but with a single connection we would not be using connection pooling so I think my approach more realistic.

I have a script that generates the table and stored procedures for database "benchmark". Please find/replace if your database is called something else. To empty the table I used truncate. Version of the SQL Server was SQL Server Express 2008.


I used my personal laptop for test which had 6GB of RAM and a 256 GB Samsung SSD. CPU would never reach 100% as the test was single-threaded. I am planning to run another sets of tests in a multi-thread fashion.

SQL Server Express and Cassandra were running as service while others where running as normal exe (similar to daemon). All of servers were used with out of the box settings. They all run on their standard port. All servers running on localhost so no network latency incurred.

I used a GUID string as the key (with no hyphens) and a randomised byte array of 4-20KB (random size) as the value. The process without storage had negligible effect - taking 0.2 millisecond per operation. Each operation consists of inserting the value against the key, retrieving value using the key and then asking for a non-existent key.

I ran operations for 10,000 and got the average for each operation measured in milliseconds (see results).

Serialisation or conversion to base64 would happen for all but SQL Server and Redis.

If you are running the test yourselves, make sure you run the exe outside IDE (Visual Studio) since RavenDB will look to perform very poorly in this case as non-existence key searches throw exception.


Since performance degrades when there are more items in database, I generated results in two scenarios: empty database, database with 200,000 items in the same collection/table/familyColumn, etc.

This is the result for the empty database:

As can be seen, Redis is ultra fast (0.7ms) while RavenDB is slowest with 11.3ms:

Performance degrades in some stores when we have more items in the store but ordering do not change. Redis still shines with the best performance and RavenDB is slow compared to the rest. So this is the result when each store already contains 200,000 items (this is especially marked in SQL Server):

This is the breakdown of the results:


First of all, it is not about who is the fastest, it is about making an informed decision considering all parameters including speed. When choosing a NoSQL you would consider other factors which do not come into this benchmark and in fact some cannot be benchmarked.

In terms of results, Redis in all scenarios provides the best performance. I think this also in part is due to its excellent totally async client library. Marc Gravell has done a ton of work to make the client efficient.

Performance of MongoDB, Cassandra and SQL Server are close. SQL Server proves to be a valuable tool as a simple key/value scenario, if you already pay for its license. RavenDB is the slowest of all  - considering it is still under development.

Feel free to run the test yourselves. Find the code on GitHub here.

In my next series of tests, I will run the tests in a multi-threaded fashion.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

How limitation can be source of goodness - NoSQL, REST and more

[Level C3]

It just dawned on me. I came to a startling realisation that limitation/restriction/constraint  - which are words with negative connotation - can/will generate creativity and lead to goodness. This is more or less is saying "less is more". But looking at it from another angle.

Story of twitter

I do not know about you but I think Twitter is one of the biggest inventions of recent decades, somewhere along the lines of Gutenberg's printing or Priestly's Soda. Regardless of what most think about the revolution of social networking, I believe Twitter is not of the same breed - it is not a compressed facebook.

Twitter is centred around a stupidly simple idea: you have 140 characters to express yourself. No more. Yes, it also has re-tweet, follow, favourite, etc but these are features, if you remove them twitter will be more or less twitter although its usefulness will be limited. But if you remove the 140 character limitation suddenly it is not twitter anymore. Twitlonger is not twitter. With all due respect to @daltonc with a limitation much different from 140 characters will not make a new twitter.

But why? Because by limiting you to use only 140 characters, you are forced to express yourself more succinctly. Makes you think really hard about what you want to say and remove all that matters less. Limitation leads you towards the ethos of twitter. You cannot write a line in the terms and condition of twitter  asking users to write only intelligent tweets but twitter has achieved this by enforcing its 140 characters limitation.

Why NoSQL matters

They say behind every successful man, there is a powerful woman. And I would say behind every inflexible and crippling architecture in the enterprise there is a big legacy database. Database becomes legacy soon after the first release, since other layers change but database cannot keep up. What I mean by database is an RDBMS database (SQL Server, Oracle, you name it.

We have cut down our processes, we do agile, we do lean, we have got continuous integration, we do unit testing and TDD, we do BDD and continuous deployment, we do ... we have built a process to minimise the risk and impact of change. Yet it is so difficult to change and the hardest to change is database.

The crux of this issue goes to the fact that business logic creeps into database. I recently witnessed how a complex calculation had to be done in an inaccurate rounding since it had to match the database calculation logic - yes there was calculation in database. 

We all believe that we should not put the business logic in database. But why do we keep doing it? Because we can. The problem is best practices and disciplines are difficult to enforce when project is late, we have a critical bug to fix or we need to make a quick change to the system and easiest solution is to change the stored procedure.

As far as SQL Server is concerned, we can have intra-model logic (calculated fields), domain-wide logic (stored procedure and user-defined functions) and cross-boundary logic (service broker) - and you can even deploy compiled code (SQL CLR). And since we can, we will.

And here is why I think NoSQL is useful - apart from all the hype around it. You simply cannot put business logic in it, so you don't. And this will lead into better design. So I like NoSQL not because of what I can do but because of what I cannot do. I would agree with Stonebraker's article and believe that NoSQL technologies could be low-tech compared to hi-tech RDBMS, but I cannot abuse them in the same way. NoSQL fully focuses on storage and retrieval and not replicating all those features that should not be implemented in a database (XML Manipulation, Message Bus, logic etc)

A table in SQL can translate to 5-6 Redis data structures so that you could effectively query and access data. So there is more work to be done but I like it since I would really think about what I need to store and what I need to query back (remember twitter?).

Lessons from REST

Regardless of all the bloated hype and endless controversies in interpreting REST, it works. It just simply works. So we have a set of constraints and if you follow them it will lead to goodness. Example? HTTP.

REST is an absolute example of how constraints can lead to a better design.

Limitation in creative arts

I am big fan of minimalism and Philip Glass is one of my favourite contemporary composers. In minimalism, a compact musical idea is repeated to create rhythm, melody and ultimately harmony - and this is usually created using layers of repetitive chords. For me who love minimal music, Satyagraha opera is the pinnacle of minimal musical expression through a limiting set of musical material. 

Apart from musical material, limitation in number of instruments is also an important aspect. String quartet is one of the most expressive forms of music - and I just love it be it Beethoven or Shostakovich. Rock counterpart for the string quartet is probably the rock trio (singer as an instrument?) where some of the best music ever produced (from Jimi Hendrix and Cream to Rage Against The Machine and Nirvana). 

In social and political terms, we have experienced an explosion of modern and beautiful art in the eastern bloc during the oppression of communist governments. Composers and film directors had to find their own language to express their art. Since they could no longer look outside for inspiration, they turned inside and a new era of creativity and great art flourished: Andrei Tarkovsky, Istvan SzaboAndrzej Wajda, Shepitko and many more. Shostakovich arguably produced his best works during the fierce Stalinist oppression. It is interesting that when the restrictions are lifted, artist is no longer able to produce the same quality of works. Wajda's Iron Man seemed like just a shabby copy of Marble Man. And Tarkovsky's two last films made outside Russia did not feel like the previous ones. 

The same oppression created the new wave of Iran Cinema with the likes of Makhmalbaf, Mehrjui, Kiarostami and others.

Now should we create an oppressive government so that we get a great artistic output?! No, but perhaps we can have a 60's style drug revolution which does the same :)

Monday, 22 October 2012

Media type: how much can you cram into a single token?

[Level C4]


This post discusses the problems associated with the use of a single token as media type (usually as the main value of the Content-Type header in HTTP response or Accept header in request) to describe all attributes of the content.

Motivation and background

This has been bugging me for a while. But recently I engaged in a discussion on twitter with Glenn Block @gblock and the rest of the REST enthusiast community on the options in versioning RESTful services. There are generally 2 camps: those advocating using Content Negotiation for versioning (putting version number in Content-Type header) and those preferring to stick to classic resource based versioning (including version number in the URL). Regardless of which one is better, MediaType lacks the richness required to express a media type and adding version information to a media type is not possible considering current status of the media type.

One of the main problems associated with the use of media type is its current implementation in various systems is key based, i.e. it involves matching all or none of the media type. As we will see this causes considerable problems in effective consumption of media types.

Media Type

Media type has been described in various RFCs (main one being RFC 2046) while historically these have been limited what is known as MIME types. RFC 4288 defines the procedure for registering the media types describing a formal process which needs to be followed to publicly register.

Registering a media type for a public API is all well and good but as described by this book, use of private APIs far exceeds use of public ones and registering all media types exposed within private APIs is impractical and unwarranted.

Also with popularity of REST-based APIs, there are going to be more and more service endpoints exposed. If all such services are to define new media types, we would have an explosion of media types rendering current implementation of content negotiation 

Media type is a case of an extreme semantic mix-up. A single token has been used to express many different facets of a media type. In fact the semantic space with all its axes will contain many useful points yet industry currently uses a very sparse set of points defined as media type values. Rest of this space is unusable - as such a very inefficient solution.

We will now have a look at facets/axes.

1- Human-illegibility

This is the lowest and least specific level of semantic definition of a media type. It is very simple: content of a media type can be read by a human (for example text/plain, application/xml or application/json) or the data is meant for the machine comprehension or rendering (for example image/png or video/mpeg)

Having this information separate to the actual media type can help tools such as Fiddler to decide whether they can display text of the content whose media type is unknown to the tool. Media types initially used "text" to denote such information (e.g. text/xml or text/javascript) but these have been replaced with 

2- Formatting

This is the most common and important axis of a media type information which informs the tools/clients which parser/interpreter/renderer to use for consuming such content. text/plainapplication/xml, application/json, image/png or video/mpeg are all examples of such use of the media type. 

There are several known vendor-specific media types in this space such as application/

3- Schema

This is a further specialisation of the formatting. Common examples include application/rss+xml or application/hal+json. Basically these mean that in terms of formatting, they are the same as their parent (application/xml or application/json) yet they follow a superset schema. Use of + sign - as far as I know - is not canonical and is merely a convention followed by the industry to add schema to the established formats. Comprehension of this convention would be crucial to correct interpretation of the media type without the need for having a dictionary of all possible values, however, I believe most tools we have at the moment lack such features.

4- Domain/Vendor specific

This is where we see most of the expansion in the media type space. Basically you could output your own media type via your private API. Since you will be the main consumer of the API, integration could be easy but it is very common for private APIs to go public - especially if they are successful. An example of such media types can be found here.

5- Versioning

Versioning is the highest aspect of a media type which is normally added to Domain-specific media types. This is a popular solution to the Web API versioning problem.

For example, you could have application/mydomain.customer.1.1 as opposed to application/mydomain.customer or application/mydomain.customer.1.0

So where is the problem?

Basically information gets lost.

First problem is that clients might be interested in a lower order of these aspects of media type while in order to consume the resource, they are forced to comprehend higher order and extract the axes they are interested in. For example, a tool such as fiddler could be only interested in only whether it could display the information for the end user as plain text. A client capable of consuming XML and deserialising to objects is only interested at knowing whether it is XML while it might be represented with a media type which is essentially XML but has a different value. On the other hand, if a server uses HAL to send domain objects/view models to the client, either it has to use the standard application/hal+json or use the domain level name of the media type (with or without a version).

Another problem is that the content negotiation process will become more complex. In the lack of a standard in defining multi-axial media types, most systems implement a dictionary based rule on content negotiation as such maintaining list of possible content types becomes a burdensome task.

A solution

Basically I believe we can solve this by keeping the common media types but use media type extensions in the Content-Type header (or in the Accept header). For example:
Content-Type: application/xml; human-illegible=true; domain-name=customer; domain-version=1.1
This will ensure that existing clients and servers will not break while new clients and servers can use new extensions for content negotiation and more loosely coupled resource consumption. I will try to expand upon this idea in another post.


Cramming as much as information into a single token and then try parsing that one token is not a good idea especially when it comes to media type which is the communication bridge between loosely coupled world of HTTP clients and servers.

Media type token value covers 5 different aspects of the resource and separating the concerns of breaking these aspects into their own tokens can result in more robust and decoupled systems.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

How PayPal is helping Iranian government's internet censorship

[Level N]

I have difficulty believing what I read in Hacker News around the same time my account was blocked and closed by PayPal trying to pay 3$ for internet proxy to combat filtering which has rendered internet pretty much useless in Iran. Did he read my email? I do not know but it left me frustrated and hopeless in one of the most difficult times in my life.

As some of you might know, I have been going through rough times for the last 18 months. My mother in law   passed away 3 weeks ago after a long battle during which my wife spent mostly with her - which is a consolation.

So when I visited her and family in Iran (that's where I am from) around 2 months ago, I realised that internet censorship is so bad that it has become really unusable. Sites such as twitter which I am addicted to are obviously blocked as they played an important role in Iran's suppressed Green Revolution, arguably first Twitter Revolution in world . In fact even this blog that you are reading and anything hosted on Google's blogspot is filtered - Iran had highest number of bloggers in the Middle East and a number of them are in prison. But even Gmail gets its share and gets blocked from time to time. According to some reports, 40% of Iranians (30 million) use internet which is second in Middle East after Israel, and as far as I know, most of them use either internet proxies, anti-filters, anonymisers and VPNs to bypass the censorship. So even if we say only half use anti-censorship tools, we are talking about 15 million people. I had actually setup a dedicated PC in UK for my wife to use as remote desktop connection (RDP) since sometimes these proxies are found by the government and blocked. But slow speed of internet (intentionally kept low) makes it almost useless since each refresh of the screen takes a few seconds.

So how does PayPal come into this? Most of these companies only accept PayPal. And PayPal blocks all accounts if it realises the IP is from Iran. Regardless of the amount, who is the receiver, how long the account has been used or behaviour of the account. Why? That is a a very good question, but maybe because someone is trying to purchase nuclear equipments or funding terrorism or ...! Honestly is that not silly? Paying 3$ for anti-censorship filter is illegal because you are connected from Iran? If anyone wants to use their PayPal account for illegal activities, they sure will use a proxy first so that they mask their IP. This will only affect ordinary people like me that are trying to pay for proxies as surely with the sanctions, you cannot buy anything that ships to Iran.

Now out of everyone, I am among the people least would wish to help Iran's government. My family was struck by this very government when my uncle working as Political Analyst for British Embassy was arrested by the authorities charged with spying back in 2009. He was then released after months but due to constant pressure and persecution from the authorities he had to flee from Iran and now has resumed his work in the Foreign Office in UK.

So where does this leave me?

Well it leaves my account blocked and closed. Having come back, I cannot use my account anymore. Emails I have sent have been responded with utter disinterent and "We don't care" attitude. And I have really hard time believing whether PayPal CEO does read complaint emails. I think I might have been rash with my tone in some emails but my frustration was extreme because of the unjustice.

But I am only one in many. Lives of many millions of Iranians have been affected by sanctions. Ordinary people suffer from the hands of the brutal government yet they find no consolation by the way they are treated outside Iran especially PayPal. For them, internet is the only way out of the oppression but blocking purchase of anti-censorship accounts is standing side-by-side with the Iranian regime. Does this make you happier Mr. David Marcus?

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Take your Web API service consumption up to 11 with CacheCow.Client

ASP.NET Web API is here and a lot of teams have already started building software using it. If you have followed this and other blogs on, you probably have seen many various possibilities and avenues this framework brings for designing and building clean and scalable services.

ASP.NET Web API exposes all the goodness of HTTP. Caching is an important feature of HTTP and ASP.NET Web API allows for building services and clients that take advantage of this feature. I, along with a few friends in the Web API community, have been busy building caching extensions for Web API in a project called CacheCow which is hosted on GitHub.

CacheCow has two separate components: server and client. These will be used independently by service providers (server) and their consumers (client).

Server component allows for easy handling of HTTP caching scenarios on server by generating ETag, responding to validation of cache (see earlier posts on this subject, especially this and for full list here), cache invalidation and storage of cache metadata. Storage of cache metadata is possible in various stores, currently in-memory and SQL Server have been implemented and RavenDB and Redis is on the pipeline [UPDATE: RavenDB is implemented and NuGet package is available here]. Since storage has been abstracted away, any storage mechanism can be plugged in without making any server changes.

Client component looks after making cache-aware requests, cache validation and cache storage. Currently in-memory and file-based storage is available but other stores such as Redis, SQL Server, MongoDB and RavenDB are in the pipeline. Since storage has been abstracted away, any storage mechanism can be plugged in without making any client changes. One of important features of storage is total and per-site quota.

It is important to note that while clients can be browsers or native Apps (WPF, Silverlight, iOS, Android, etc), arguably more often than not they will be server components themselves. For example, an ASP.NET web site can call services of an ASP.NET Web API server. Also middleware components could similarly use resources exposed by Web API. As such it is very crucial that cache storage solutions are performant, scalable and configurable.

In this post, I will look into CacheCow.Client a little but more. For more info, you can read previous posts on the topic in this blog.

CacheCow.Client alternatives

The only alternative to CacheCow.Client (that I am aware of) is using WinINET caching. Internet Explorer also uses this so the cache store will be the same. This is basically windows' HTTP request stack which has been exposed in .NET Framework since v 2.0 through WebRequest:

RequestCachePolicy policy = 
        new RequestCachePolicy( RequestCacheLevel.Default);
WebRequest request = WebRequest.Create(uri);
request.CachePolicy = policy;
WebResponse response = request.GetResponse();

As you can see, we can define a cache policy which will be applied to the request and according to the policy, Internet Explorer cache is used. Cache policy has a few possible values that are defined here. Notable values include:

  • CacheOnly: retrieves the request only from cache
  • BypassCache: does not use cache at all and goes straight to the server
  • CacheIfAvailable: retrieves from local or intermediate cache if resource available otherwise retrieve from server
  • Default: Similar to previous but current cache policy takes effect 

This same mechanism is now exposed in HttpClient but basically is built on the top of WebRequest. Henrik fully covers this feature in his blog here.

Basically in order to use WinINET caching with the new Web API stack, you need to create an HttpClient but provide WebRequestHandler as the MessageHandler:

HttpClient client = new HttpClient(new WebRequestHandler()
                               CachePolicy = new RequestCachePolicy( RequestCacheLevel.Default)
// this is a sample. It is not advised to use .Result since can lead to deadlock!
var httpResponseMessage = client.GetAsync("").Result;
var httpResponseMessage2 = client.GetAsync("").Result;

Using this feature, you can enable caching with little coding on the client.

Why I would choose CacheCow.Client rather than WinINET

Because it goes to 11! As we saw, it is very easy to get started with caching in HttpClient. But as we noted, it is very likely that HttpClient could be used in a server context hence having a reliable and scalable solution is very important in production.

Here are a few advantages of CacheCow.Client over WinINET (or rather disadvantages of WinINET):

1. Caching will be shared with Internet Explorer

In a production scenario, you need an implementation which is predictable and reliable. If someone uses Internet Explorer on the machine, storage area for your application's resources will be taken by just simple browsing. This can lead Internet Explorer to flush application resources in order to store resources for the browsing session. 

2. You have little control over quota

With CacheCow.Client, you can define a global and a per-site quota for storage of resources while such feature is not accessible (although there could be some registry entries for changing these variables) in WinINET caching. Also these variables could be overwritten by installation of a newer version of Internet Explorer.

3. Cache is local to the machine and cannot be shared across servers

In a production scenario, it is desirable to be able to store caches in a central store so network traffic and requests could be limited while with WinINET caching, each server will use its own local cache store.

4. WinINET is file-based

With WinINET, cache is stored in a file location while for a high-throughput production environment, robust caching using solutions such as Redis is required. CacheCow client by abstracting the storage can use any number of storage mechanisms such as Redis, MongoDB, RavenDB, etc.

5. CachePolicy is global for the HttpClient instance

Sometimes you might need to bypass caching. With WinINET, this has to be done with changing policy at the client level which applies across all requests for that HttpClient while CacheCow.Client respects will not use cached resources if you set CacheControl header of the request to no-cache. This basically recommended implementation based on HTTP specification (RFC2616).

6. With WinINET you do not know if request was retrieved from cache

With WinINET, there is no way to tell if response was retrieved from the cache or origin server. CacheCow.Client provides x-cachecow header which provides various information which can be used for debugging and troubleshooting scenarios.

Introducing CacheCow.Client.FileCacheStore

Last week I finished first version of a persistent cache store which is file based. This is available using NuGet and (package name is CacheCow.Client.FileCacheStore) and the code available at GitHub.

Using this persistent store is very easy. After getting the package from NuGet, create an HttpCient while as a delegating handler, pass CachingHandler (covered before here) while setting the store to a new instance of FileStore. While creating a FileStore, you need to specify a folder for storing the cached resources:

var httpClient = new HttpClient(
 new CachingHandler(
 new FileStore("c:\\Cache"))
 InnerHandler = new HttpClientHandler()

That is all you have to do! Now all your requests will store cacheable resources in a file-based persistent store. 

Currently for quota it uses default values but I am in the process of exposing values so you can configure quota.

CacheCow roadmap

After exposing quota settings, I will be working on CacheCow.Client.RedisCacheStore for a high throughput production level cache storage.

Please keep me posted by your comments, feedback and raising bug/issues on the GitHub page. You are awesome!

Monday, 17 September 2012

Server-side Async: Careful with that Axe, Eugene

[Level T3]

In a previous post, I talked about the dangers lurking in doing server-side async operations in .NET 4.0. As you know, .NET 4.5 provides a much better syntax allowing async/await keywords to take your TPL Task-Soups to a much more readable and organised code. But even so, async will make debugging your application more difficult and bugs could take much longer to be reproduced, isolated and fixed.


In .NET 4.0, when we add up continuations to create a chained task, we could end up with a few problems:

  1. We could end up with an unobserved exception problem. This is nicely described by Ayende here
  2. Nested lambda expressions could create unexpected problems with closure of variables
  3. The code becomes hard to read.
On the third note, I will just bring an example from my own code in CacheCow. What is it that we are actually returning here?

return response.Then(r =>
 if (r.Content != null)
  TraceWriter.WriteLine("SerializeAsync - before load",

  return r.Content.LoadIntoBufferAsync()
   .Then(() =>
    TraceWriter.WriteLine("SerializeAsync - after load", TraceLevel.Verbose);
    var httpMessageContent = new HttpMessageContent(r);
    // All in-memory and CPU-bound so no need to async
    return httpMessageContent.ReadAsByteArrayAsync();
   .Then( buffer =>
       TraceWriter.WriteLine("SerializeAsync - after ReadAsByteArrayAsync", TraceLevel.Verbose);
       return Task.Factory.FromAsync(stream.BeginWrite, stream.EndWrite,
        buffer, 0, buffer.Length, null, TaskCreationOptions.AttachedToParent);                                                        


Even looking at brackets gives me headache.

Is Async worth it at all?

Now we talk a lot about Async operations and its role in improving scalability. But really, is it worth it? How much scalability would it bring? Would it help or hinder?

The answer to these questions is yes, it does help. The more IO you do on your server-side actions, the more you benefit from improvement from scalability. So it is highly advisable to implement your ApiController actions as Async by returning Task or Task<T>

The truth is, it will help even with your non-IO-bound operations although it is not advisable to use Async in such scenarios. You can test it for yourself, create a sync and an async controller to do exactly the same operation and use a benchmarking tool to compare the performance.

I have a CarManager sample on GitHub which I use for testing CacheCow.Server and it contains two simple  controllers: CarController and CarAsyncController. All these do is to use an in-memory repository and their GET only looking up the dictionary by its key:

// sync version
public Car Get(int id)
 return _carRepository.Get(id);

// async version (on another controller)
public Task<Car> GetAsync(int id)
 return Task.Factory.StartNew(() => _carRepository.Get(id));

So if you use a benchmarking tool such as Apache Benchamrk ab.exe, you could see a slight increase in throughput using the async controller. In my case, there was a 10% increase in throughput using async.

My ordeal with a bug

Development of CacheCow has been marred by existent of a problem which as we will see, turns out to be not in my code. I have been battling with this for a few weeks (on and off) and could not progress CacheCow development because of that.

OK, here is how my story begins; I think the Sherlock Holmes nature of this troubleshooting could be amusing for others too. After realising that using simple ContinueWith will not flow the context (see previous post) I was tasked with changing all such cases with Then in the TaskHelpers which checks existence of SynchronizationContext and flows the context if it exists.

On the other hand, lostdev, one of CacheCow's most loyal users, informed me of an occasional null reference exception in CacheCow.Server. Now, I had already fixed a bug related to null reference exception when the a resource was being retrieved for the first time. I attributed the problem to the fix I had made and reported that the problem is fixed in the current version.

So I started developing file-based cache storage for CacheCow.Client (which will have its own post very soon) and replaced all ContinueWith cases with Then.

And then I started to experience deadlocks in CacheCow.Client when I was using file-based caching and sending concurrent GET requests to the server. As soon as I would remove FileStore, and replace with InMemoryCacheStore, it would work. So I started searching through the client code, debug, look at the threads, debug again, change code, debug... to no avail. As soon as I was using file-based caching it would start to appear so it had to be on the client.

Then I noticed a strange thing: I could only run 4 concurrent calls and rest would be blocked. Why? Then I started playing with the maxconnection property of the configuration:

   <add address = "*" maxconnection = "N" />

and interestingly, by setting the N to a high number, I would get more concurrent connections - but only up to the number defined. Hmmm... so the requests do not quite finish. OK, I fired up Sysinternals' TcpView but unfortunately these connections did not show up (and I do not know why).

I was getting nowhere until I accidentally loaded an earlier version of the server code. To my surprise, I did not get the deadlock but this error which @Tugberk separately reported earlier but attributed to order of handlers:

[NullReferenceException: Object reference not set to an instance of an object.]
System.Web.Http.WebHost.HttpControllerHandler.EndProcessRequest(IAsyncResult result) +112
System.Web.Http.WebHost.HttpControllerHandler.System.Web.IHttpAsyncHandler.EndProcessRequest(IAsyncResult result) +10
System.Web.CallHandlerExecutionStep.OnAsyncHandlerCompletion(IAsyncResult ar) +129

OK, so it is probably happening on the server but the continuation code gets deadlocked on unhandled exception. I am close! So it was time to go to bed and I was positive that I would nail it the day after.

It was funny that I woke up the day after and with my in-bed reading on tweets, stumbled on @Tugberk's tweet on issue he had just created. That sounds exceedingly similar, so we just doubled checked our scenarios and it turned out that an HttpResponseMessage with empty RequestMessage property is not handled in Web API and a null reference exception is thrown at the end of the response clean-up code. And the reason I was seeing it only with file-based cache store was that the part of server-side code to return such responses was being triggered only using file-based store (since it was capable of persisting caches and was trying to validate the cache).

So as you can see, a seemingly unrelated problem can really confuse the nature of the bugs in async scenarios.


First of all, always use request.CreateResponse() instead of using new HttpResponseMessage. I googled for cases of new HttpResponseMessage and found +3000 entries. This is really dangerous and I think this is a bug in Web API and needs to be fixed. If you are using new, make sure you set the RequestMessage property.

And in general, be careful with doing server-side async operations. It is really a powerful axe but with it you are not quite sure what a slightly off swing could bring. Careful with that axe Eugene.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Going away

There are feelings that are so complex they don't have a name - unless we make one. They can be described, but not easily. Now "Going away" is one of those feelings.

Have you ever been to a place, on a holiday, and enjoying the places you visit and yet you cannot stop thinking about the fact that this is probably the last time you see this place? That is why you start taking pictures, videos, you want to register everything since you know your memory won't. It is likely that you would not go back to those pictures but having them is like you "own" those memories.

* * *

Beaumaris (map) is a tiny town in the remotest corner of the north west of Wales - in the Anglesey island. Once visiting Wales (we love Wales), on our hunt for nice places to eat, we found ourselves in there. Passing sailing boats on a green road with the Irish Sea on the right and stony walls on the left, we approached a town boasting a rich history - later found out about its Castle. We had no idea what we will find there.

Memory of that night was not captured on any picture. It did not need to. It felt like a surreal experience of two invisible tourists/observers entering an almost dream-like banquet. It was almost fictional. It reminds me of the opening (and closing) scene of the Russian Ark.

We parked in the corner of the square overlooking the Irish Sea and found our way through a small entrance to the main street. Ye Olde Bull's Head Inn was easy to find: a very old traditional pub with a classy hotel on the top. We ordered drinks and sat down in very old wooden chair and benches. While walking we were careful of our head: like all old pubs ceiling is low and wooden bars are visible.

And there was a banquet: a reunion of army forces of some sort - many of them American. Now out of  all places, why Beaumaris? Had they travelled all the way from the ocean to meet at such a remote place? I had no answer. I did chat to a few officers walking around there but my inquiry did not produce much more information. I have not been able to find any reference to this reunion on internet.

After 40 minutes, we were ushered to the brasserie where food was served. Suddenly atmosphere changed. It was a modern extension to the old building and an ethereal ambient light had made the chic contemporary design even more magical. Starter, food and dessert were excellent. Probably among best foods we ever had.

On leaving, I felt like "going away". But it did not matter. I had absorbed all those beautiful yet surreal moments.
* * *

I am visiting my family in Iran now. I do go back almost every year although now most my friends and my brother and sister are abroad.

My mother-in-law is ill. Medically speaking she is terminal. But everything is possible. Isn't it?

This is a chance to spend time with her and my parents. Things are not easy. Seeing suffering and not being able to cure is not easy - although there are things we can do. My wife is doing most of them so really there is not much for me to do. I occasionally help them out and I am just there, in case. My mother-in-law is a brave woman. She has been fighting and keeps fighting. This is so important for someone battling with a fierce illness. My wife is also very brave. She is fighting her emotions trying to help medically as much as she can - she is a doctor, a real one not like me who chickened out to do what he likes to do.

My holiday is running out - and the feeling of "going away" is coming back.

* * *

We visited Beaumaris again only after two years. This time there were no banquets but the place had no less magic: it was exactly as we had seen in that evening two years ago. Ye Olde pub with its crisp beers and the food excellent like before. 

I felt really special. It felt like an honour to visit the place again. I was fortunate enough to visit a "gone away" place.

And with my mother-in-law, I think it is possible - and perhaps definite. In this world. Or in the next.

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.