Friday, September 07, 2012

The State of .NET Integration Frameworks

I have been increasingly working with teams that are largely operating within the .NET platform, so I’ve needed to abandon my old favorites in the Scala / Java / Python world. An interesting thing that strikes me (and many others I’ve discussed the topic with) about the .NET ecosystem is how there are no good analogs for .NET frameworks to Java or Python frameworks. Yes, there are projects such as NHibernate, Log4Net or even Spring.NET - but these often are exercises in trying to shave a square peg down so it can fit into a round hole. Even SpringSource seems to be pulling back from .NET support, as its support has becoming increasingly shallow when compared to Java.

Gone are the days of relying on integration frameworks such as Apache Camel. Instead I needed to survey the .NET landscape for integration frameworks that would allow for the development of loosely-coupled service components that can be horizontally scaled and messages intelligently routed. While there were a few frameworks that helped with RPC-style message passing to private queues, not a whole lot implemented the whole EIP enchilada.

Following is a brief survey of what I found for .NET frameworks or libraries that can help build a distributed message-based architecture. I would love any feedback - so much of this is subjective, and I’m sure I’m still only scratching the surface. I tried to weigh the weaknesses and strengths of each framework to see which would best provide implementations of Enterprise Integration Patterns.

Windows Communication Foundation

Windows Communication Foundation (WCF) was released by Microsoft as a way to unify different ways the .NET framework communicated with other services. WCF abstracts SOAP and REST API calls, queued messaging, .NET remoting and other technologies under a single framework for service-oriented development.

Strengths

WCF is integrated natively within .NET 3.5 and beyond as a supported tenant of the Microsoft .NET framework. Since WCF is a first-party solution it enjoys the full support of Microsoft, receives regular updates and is in tune with the .NET release cycle.

WCF is a straight-forward integration framework that provides a familiar interface for remote connectivity using well-known messages. Its endpoint design is analogous to the messaging endpoints defined by Enterprise Integration Patterns (EIP), and it appears message construction follows EIP as well.

Weaknesses

While WCF provides a working implementation of EIP messaging endpoints and message construction, it does not necessarily provide concrete implementations of the message routing, messaging channels or message transformation. Instead WCF provides bindings to other routing and channel implementations such as MSMQ, datagram sockets, REST and SOAP.

NIntegrate

NIntegrate appears to have been discontinued and is no longer eligible for evaluation.

NServiceBus

NServiceBus is a nearly decade-old SOA framework built to a custom set of distributed service patterns. In its own words: "If you design your system according to the principles laid out [as part of its design patterns], NServiceBus will make your life a lot easier. On the other hand, if you do not follow these principles, NServiceBus will probably make them harder."

The principles of NServiceBus are largely aligned with those of asynchronous messaging, which is referred to as the "one-way messaging" pattern. It also offers several stand-alone helper processes for distributing tasks, managing timeouts, and providing service gateways.

Strengths

NServiceBus does not appear to be as complex as an Enterprise Service Bus, but is more robust than WCF. While WCF does not provide a queue-based message bus by default, NServiceBus does dictate that queued messages be used.

Both Publish/Subscribe as well as Request/Reply messaging is supported by NServiceBus, which is another strength over WCF’s focus on remote process invocation. In addition NServiceBus appears to provide transaction support and durable messaging for guaranteed message exchanges. Transactional and durable messages are persisted via RavenDB (an ACID-compliant document database).

Messages within NServiceBus are well-defined constructs that include headers for routing message exchanges. Marshalling is provided by NServiceBus to automatically convert objects into documents for submission to message queues.

[update 2013-08-16: Udi Dahan has brought to my attention that, at the time of this blog post, NServiceBus also supported sagas as a way for workflows to be defined as long-lived transactions. Unit testing libraries were also provided. Both appear to have later inspired similar implementations within MassTransit.]

Weaknesses

NServiceBus is strongly coupled to its underlying implementation. MSMQ is currently the only supported messaging channel, albeit with a good deal of custom bindings for transaction support, durable messaging, quality of service and publish/subscribe support. Support for other channels such as AMQP has been considered as part of NServiceBus’ roadmap, but has not yet been implemented.

Durable messaging is only provided via RavenDB, which is a freely available open source project. A RavenDB instance must be separately maintained and managed.

MassTransit

MassTransit is "a lean service bus implementation for .NET," not unlike NServiceBus. Instead of working on top of WCF, MassTransit has created an endpoint and message abstraction of its own. In doing so, MassTransit allows for a wider breadth of implementations for messaging channels and document marshalling.

MassTransit message handling and channels are defined using Dependency Injection and Inversion of Control, which allows for better protoyping and unit testing of components.

Strengths

One of MassTransit’s primary strengths is its flexible channel architecture. Implementations can leverage MSMQ, ActiveMQ, RabbitMQ and TIBCO for message channels and JSON, XML or other document types for marshalling. MassTransit also supports a wide variety of IoC containers (or no container at all, in theory).

Messages can be simple POCOs without annotation or implementation of another interface. Likewise message handlers (i.e. message consumers) can be simple classes that require a minimum of instrumentation.

Transactional and persistent messaging is supported. This also has multiple methods of implementation depending on preference.

MassTransit has an interesting implementation of .NET state machines for managing workflow and transactional messaging, called “sagas.” Sagas provide a way for workflows to be succinctly defined and efficiently process long-lived transactions. This could possibly be an efficient way to implement an Aggregator or Scatter-Gather Enterprise Integration Pattern.

So that developers can more easily create unit tests over consumers and handlers, MassTransit offers a testing library that more easily allows a local message bus to be constructed within the context of a given unit test. This greatly eases the development of unit tests by providing a supported framework for local unit testing.

Weaknesses

The MassTransit project itself can give the appearance of not being well maintained and entirely documented. The project has shifted from Google Code to GitHub while documentation is hosted within a stand-alone site. On occasion one will find dead links, outdated examples and incomplete documentation.

The AMQP routing implementation (the wire protocol also used by RabbitMQ) used by MassTransit is sub-par. The documentation indicates that routing keys are often lost from the message headers, and it appears only fanout exchanges are supported. MassTransit’s routing engine appears to compensate for this, however this obviates the efficiencies often gained when using AMQP bindings. In particular this hurts interoperability, since reply queues can be difficult to create based upon a fanout exchange. While MassTransit can use AMQP as a transport layer, it does not fully take advantage of AMQP’s capabilities.

Concurrent consumption is determined based on the entire message bus, not on each message consumer. This does not allow developers or operations to throttle the precise number of concurrently running threads permitted to respond to incoming messages. These sorts of quality of service levels are determined for the entire message bus.

Rhino Service Bus

The authors of Rhino Service Bus are the organization Hibernating Rhinos, who are also responsible for the document store RavenDB. There are many similarities between NServiceBus and Rhino Service Bus, most notably the emphasis on "one-way" asynchronous messaging. Also not unlike NServiceBus the primary queueing mechanism is MSMQ, however Hibernating Rhinos’ own Rhino Queues service is also supported for durable and transactional messages.

Rhino Service Bus was designed to be architecturally very much like NServiceBus and MassTransit, but more lightweight and with a slightly different design for private subscription storage.

Strengths
Rhino Service Bus implements both request/reply as well as publish/subscribe message exchange patterns using "one-way" asynchronous messaging. Message handling within Rhino Service Bus is very succinct; processing an inbound message requires only the implementation of an interface with a known message type.

While most integration frameworks in this survey appear to favor programmatic configuration by defining configuration variables in code, Rhino Service Bus defines settings with an external configuration file. In environments already accustomed to using external configuration files as part of their build process, this can reduce implementation cost.

Since the Rhino Service Bus’ persistent messaging schemes are directly integrated with Rhino Queues, it appears that installation, maintenance and patching will be more straight-forward than with NServiceBus.

The method for the selective consumption of messages is interesting - Rhino Service Bus uses generics to match endpoints with inbound messages. Only inbound messages of a declared type will be dispatched to a local endpoint.

Weaknesses

Rhino Servie Bus can only use either MSMQ or Rhino Queues as the message channel. More advanced brokers such as RabbitMQ are currently not supported, and there appears to be no proposed support on Hibernating Rhinos’ roadmap.

Once again, Rhino Service Bus configuration is XML based. While this is also cited as a strength, I know several engineers who instead consider this a liability. Personal preference on behalf of many developers seems to favor programmatic configuration over static configuration files.

Rhino Service Bus appears to have limited quality of service properties, likely due to an emphasis on transactions and stateful messaging via MSMQ. The service bus itself seems to have a central focus of maintaining stateful messaging, as opposed to routing stateless exchanges.

Spring.NET Integration

The Spring framework was one of the premier IoC frameworks for the Java Platform, and the SpringSource team has released a similar IoC framework for the .NET platform as well. Current incarnations of Spring (including those on the .NET platform) span beyond just depdency injection; it also includes data abstraction layers, messaging frameworks and service integration components.

A large initiative released by the SpringSource team in 2008 was Spring Integration, an integration framework that was meant to simplify the development of service oriented application development. Just as the initial Spring container was meant to be a concrete implementation of the "Gang of Four" (GoF) Programming Design Patterns, Spring Integration was meant to be a strict implementation of Gregor Hohpe’s Enterprise Integration Patterns.

Strengths
Adherence to the Enterprise Integration Patterns is one of Spring Integration’s primary strengths. An integration framework with a focus on pattern-driven development helps designers and engineers develop applications with well-defined solutions to problems. Spring Integration relies heavily on the Spring IoC framework, which also enforces GoF Design Patterns. By matching both of these well-proven enterprise design patterns developer productivity can be increased and code can be more easily tested.

Spring Integration offers an abstraction of message routing and message channels that allows the integration of best-of-breed implementations to more easily be performed. Broker implementations can range from AMQP, JMS, flat files, peer-to-peer, etc.

Weaknesses
Currently Spring Integration for .NET is in “incubator” stage within SpringSource. This can be considered to an open beta release of a project, where development is heavily underway and the given framework is subject to change at any time. Judging by the activity stream on the project’s issue tracker, it appears that there is currently only one engineer assigned to the project who last committed changes in March of 2010.

Since Spring Integration is closely tied to the Spring Framework, no alternate dependency injection containers are supported. While many integration frameworks surveyed rely on Castle Windsor, Spring Integration instead relies on the Spring IoC framework.

Spring.NET AMQP

The Spring framework was one of the premier IoC frameworks for the Java Platform, and the SpringSource team has released a similar IoC framework for the .NET platform as well. Current incarnations of Spring (including those on the .NET platform) span beyond just depdency injection; it also includes data abstraction layers, messaging frameworks and service integration components.

Spring.NET AMQP is not an integration framework, but instead provides "templates" as a high-level abstraction for messaging. While this doesn’t provide message routing directly, Spring.NET AMQP allows developers to establish routing keys and bindings that permit an AMQP broker to properly route messages.

The scope of Spring.NET’s abilities is roughly analogous to that of Microsoft’s WCF, with the addition of dependency injection and inversion of control containers.

Strengths

Within the Spring.NET AMQP project, adherence to the AMQP feature set is the primary focus of SpringSource. This allows engineers to fully leverage brokers such as RabbitMQ and perform topic exchanges, content-based routing and multicasting.

Weaknesses

Spring.NET AMQP is a lightweight templating library which does not provide any adherence to Enterprise Integration Patterns. Routing and message transformation is not supplied by the framework, however it can more easily be implemented by the developer.

EasyNetQ

When users encounter difficulties when integrating .NET integration frameworks, a common alternative cited is EasyNetQ. While not necessarily an integration framework, EasyNetQ allows for messages to be more easily routed via RabbitMQ, not unlike the Spring AMQP project.

The EasyNetQ was inspired by MassTransit and created for use by the airline travel company 15below. The primary goals of the project are maintaining a very simple API and requiring minimal (if not zero) configuration. Code required for requests, replies and subscriptions are fairly minimal.

Strengths

EasyNetQ was created from the ground-up to take advantage of the AMQP specification’s message routing capabilities, and attempts to fully leverage the routing capabilities inherent to AMQP brokers. By adhering to the AMQP standard and expected behavior, interoperability between .NET and other platforms becomes an easier task. To accomplish the goal of zero or little configuration required to start using EasyNetQ, the framework accomplishes most setup tasks by convention. This allows for safe defaults to be easily chosen and reduced the amount of code that needs to be written.

Just as MassTransit implements "sagas" for long-running business processes, EasyNetQ provides a saga framework for workflows to be succinctly defined and efficiently process long-lived transactions. In a very similar way the EasyNetQ saga support could be an efficient way to implement an Aggregator or Scatter-Gather Enterprise Integration Pattern.

Connection management to the message broker has been implemented in a fail-safe way within EasyNetQ. Broker connections are performed using a "lazy connection" approach which by default assumes the broker will not be available at all times. If a broker is not available, messages are queued locally and the broker is polled until it comes online. Once the message broker is available, messages resume transmission. Bear in mind publishers of message are not aware of this outage; they continue without halting. This works in contrast to most other integration frameworks which throw exceptions or halt when the broker goes offline.

Weaknesses

Many integration frameworks under review directly integrate with another dependency injection framework such as Castle Windsor, however EasyNetQ does not have a direct integration with any such dependency injection framework. This has the benefit of requiring less dependencies, however it also makes the management of endpoint objects a bit more convoluted. This is not to say that a dependency injection framework cannot be used - indeed a IoC container can be very easily used alongside EasyNetQ. Other integration frameworks, however, effectively use dependency injection frameworks to auto-discover endpoints by type and greatly simplify the registration of message consumers. Such auto-discovery is not immediately available from EasyNetQ libraries.

Limiting the number of concurrent consumers is currently not something readily supported by EasyNetQ. While most integration frameworks allow you to rate limit consumption based on the number of concurrent threads, EasyNetQ does not currently offer this as a configurable property. Instead EasyNetQ provides the scaffolding for asynchronous responses backed by a blocking collection. Worker threads are added to the blocking collection, which them accept each request as they become available.

Time to Live settings are not easily accessible within the EasyNetQ framework, however facilities do exist to set message expiration settings directly within AMQP. Since this facility is not readily available, it makes quality of service a bit more difficult to establish for messages.

EasyNetQ does not offer a testing framework to assist with the construction of unit tests. Instead it is up to the developer to construct a mock message bus with which to test message production and consumption. This may not necessarily make the development of unit tests more difficult however, since endpoints are much more simply defined than with other frameworks.

Creating A New, Internal Framework

Creating a new integration framework is often regarded as a universally poor idea among developers. The YAGNI development assistant was created explicitly for monitoring an engineer’s behavior within an IDE and preventing the independent development of yet another framework for features "that aren’t necessary at the moment, but might be in the future."

If proper alternatives do not seem to exist as integration frameworks, it may be necessary to evaluate creating a new, first-party integration framework. If the sponsoring organization is committed to contributing to the open-source community, leveraging the community at large to develop an inter-operable solution may provide a unique framework that fills a need within the .NET ecosystem.

7 comments:

  1. Updated to reflect suggestions provided by Udi with concern to NServiceBus' implementation as of September of 2012.

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  2. Have you by any chance had a look at Rebus (https://github.com/rebus-org/Rebus)?

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    1. I did not evaluate Rebus, not sure why. I do like the leaner approach however.

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  3. Anonymous2:10 PM

    Hi,

    Does Spring.NET Integration works the same way as it works for Java?

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    1. That was the plan it seems, but of course that also relied on Spring IoC management. The project was sent to the Spring attic not long ago, and now the wiki is 404'd on GitHub. At the moment the whole initiative seems to have been stopped.

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  4. For those who are interested - we abandoned .NET as a platform and instead have moved on to Scala + Play + JVM + Linux/AWS. This platform has a wide variety of integration frameworks to chose from, but likely will start with simple Akka remoting.

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    1. You can have .NET and actor frameworks together too. See Akka.Net + remoting with something like RabbitMQ or Azure Service Fabric for .NET Core. I think with .NET core there are more and more support and options as far as integration frameworks go.

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