23 August 2012

CQRS - Lessons Learned

So I'm thinking about what I might do differently next time I write an enterprise web app of sufficient complexity. The CQRS principle is great, and provides a lot of clarity to the problems created by using domain objects for both reads and writes. However, many of the presented examples have extra architectural trappings that were not needed in my case: especially a message bus.

Here's what I think my next one might look like.

Javascript-based MVVM UI

No one reads my blog, but if you had, this seems contradictory to previous posts and the fact that I hate JavaScript. But hating JavaScript as a web developer proves about as useful as hating air as a human. I pretty much have to have it, so why not make my experience with it as positive as possible. I ultimately really enjoyed my JS-MVVM experiences, despite being out of my comfort zone (without Intellisense or type checking). The performance of the application was amazing.

My flavor of JS-MVVM was Kendo UI for the last project. It's still a relatively new framework, but it's fairly well-rounded for its age. It's biggest strength to me is that it's only one product for UI controls, MVVM, validation, etc. That's as opposed to integrating several products for the same purpose like Knockout.js, jQuery UI, Chosen, etc. Now what it has in breadth, it lacks in depth. The controls are great, but not as customizable as I would like in many cases. Documentation is lacking, but so far it has at least had enough hints to get me pointed in the right direction.


I have really liked the clean separation that messages provide. Particularly, I like commands and events. They break up user intent and domain activity into bite-sized chunks. This has helped guide me to focus on, analyze, and encapsulate the business value of a feature, more than just it's technical requirements. These chunks are much easier to understand, and react to than in a traditional data-centric model where a lot of interpretation code (based on what fields on the record have changed) has to take place before you can get into the business value.

Partial Synchronicity

In my last implementation, command executions were synchronous up until events were published, then the integrations (event handlers) ran asynchronously. If any domain errors were generated during command execution, the dispatcher would catch them and return the exception message to the client. (Bear in mind these are domain exceptions like "An item cannot be it's own parent, except in sci-fi.") If there were no errors, the dispatcher returned success.

I will likely do the same thing next time. I really like being able to give the user immediate feedback about their actions. A lot of CQRS literature espouses asynchronous commands, but I find it is much better to give the user immediate results of a command where possible. So I take this approach first, and I will adjust if I run into scenarios where immediate results aren't feasible.

MVC Actions as Command Handlers

In the last project, I used a separate Command Handler project, consisting of simple objects with Handles() methods for the commands they handled. The UI would post the command to an MVC action, which would then call a dispatcher to find the handler and give it the command to handle.

Next time, I will instead try to setup MVC controller actions as my command handlers and cut out the dispatcher part. This would allow me to eliminate two bits of reflection code; a custom model binder, and a command dispatcher (router). The dispatcher does do a few things for me; logging the command, executing the validate routine, returning something to the client on error. But I can implement an abstract controller class to do those things.

I'm not entirely sure I will be able to make this work. I'm hoping I will be able to use the ActionSelectionAttribute to use overloaded methods as actions. Otherwise, each command will need a distinct URL that I will have to keep track of and give to the client; then all I've done is moved the command routing code up a level. (Not desirable.)

Update: Upon further reflection, I think this is a bad route to go as it mixes concerns between UI infrastructure and command handlers. I think I will keep doing what I was doing, but use the open command messages mentioned below so I don't have to instantiate them and set their properties with my custom reflection code. Instead, I can just call the default model binder to create the class after I figure out what it is from the type hint in the POST data.

If I did go this route, my command messages would have to be open objects (have default constructors and public setters) for the default model binder to be able to construct them. Currently, I am using reflection to get around the private setters, so I'm essentially using them as though they were open objects (with much reflection pain). But once they get in my architecture, they are immutable. But I'm not sure how much benefit this ends up being since their entire life span would be 1) being constructed in the model binder, and 2) have it's data used by the command handler. Private setters would keep the command handler code from changing anything, but ostensibly the command handler's only purpose is to use data from the command object to call a domain method. So, I'm still inclined to give open command messages a try next time.

Provide a JavaScript Command Library to Clients

Currently, I take the .NET commands, convert them to JavaScript, add a type-hint attribute, and provide them in a library to client apps. I don't like having to do this, but I really don't see away around it, since JavaScript is a loosely-typed language. I need some way of identifying the command that the UI is trying to send. Attributes alone are not enough, since two commands could have the same attributes, but trigger different business actions (e.g. DisableUser vs DeleteUser). I feel like this area is one that could still use some further exploration, because that's not really code that I want to maintain.

Event Integration

How to route events (integration) is another area that needs more exploration. What I did previous works rather well, but I feel that it could be streamlined a bit.

Again, I did not use a message bus, since I didn't foresee a need for external integrators. I put all the integration handlers in the same assembly (but different namespaces / folders), so I could use reflection to find them all and be able to route events to them.

Next time, I think I will have each integrator manually registered with the event publisher. The number of integrators is typically low, so the code maintenance would be negligible, and much clearer than a reflection-based solution. Then in the event publisher, when an event comes in, I can use a simple "is" check (e.g. if (integrator is IHandles)) to see if the integrator handles an event before trying to invoke the handler.

If I do need to provide an event stream to external integrators one day, I will have to break down and use a message bus. (I'd be leaning towards MassTransit / MSMQ in that case.) I might keep my current way of doing things, and then add a separate internal integrator which just repeats the message out to a message bus for outsiders. That way I could also control which messages are allowed out.

Possibly Sans Event Store

My last application was a brownfield scenario with an existing RDBMS, so I couldn't start with an event store. I can't get there until I migrate all of the business functionality into the new architecture. I'm not storing events, so I can't load from them. Since I am using events to drive integration, and I did want the load-from-event-store capability in the future, I setup the aggregates to take an array of events in the constructor as though there were an event store. Then, when the repository loads the aggregate, it reads the data from the database (which only has current state, and not the events) and makes a massive CreatedForLoad event to pass to the aggregate, which initializes all of the aggregate's properties from the event when applied. (As opposed to replaying many smaller, actual events that occurred to get the current state.)

I have mixed feelings on an event store going forward. I already want to use messaging and events, and the idea of an event store is absolutely grand. But what's currently out there to provide and support an event store is sorely lacking.

The main event store offering out there is Jonathan Oliver's EventStore. It is a great piece of software (and happens to be free / open source), but it lacks all but the most basic documentation (last I checked). I really didn't find it at all intuitive to setup. I did manage to get it working, but I felt that my knowledge of operating it was far too inadequate for the level of trust I wanted in a piece so integral to the application.

Supposedly there will be an event store offering from Greg Young next month, but I can't really say it will help the situation without seeing it. I guess we'll see.

The other problem with event sourcing is visualization of data. How do I look at information from the event store to triage/verify production issues? How do I achieve the advertised "going back in time" to previous states? There's no Management Studio for event stores (to my knowledge). At this point, you have to develop your own toolkit for this purpose. Therefore, these features have a non-trivial cost.

So the jury's still out on this one. I want to try it with a new app, but I have reservations.

UPDATE: Most of the stricken text above was based on impressions formed when I implemented CQRS+Messaging+ES for the first time in spike code, when it was too new to me to really grok. After implementing such an architecture, I can see that it fits in right where it should, and the config makes more sense. I will definitely use an event store next time.

Read Layer

I really don't have anything innovative on this front. I have an MVC action that basically executes a query to get a DataSet. It then converts the DataSet into a Dictionary and then serializes that with the built-in JavascriptSerializer and returns it as JSON to clients. (That way has the least hops to get from DataSet to JSON that I found.)

I don't anticipate this changing in a new application. Using some naming conventions, it's very quick to add new reads. The most time consuming part is developing a query. In a new application, I will probably have tables for each read model, so even that should be quick too.

That's all I can think of for now.


Daniel Comer said...

Great post! I am just getting into doing MVVM and CQRS via a javascript client. Only different conclusions I have come to are I definitely intend to use a message bus.

I really like this post though. I feel if done correctly, MVVM can fit in VERY well with CQRS.

Kasey said...

I suppose you could say that I am using a message bus, but it's an internal one only. Since this post, GetEventStore came out, which is an Event Store and message bus (for integrators) combined. So I have changed my view somewhat. I will likely setup Windows services as listeners for sagas, integration, and denormalization. I will still use my internal bus for last-leg delivery to an appropriate handler.

Be mindful in your use of MVVM. A lot of folks try to use it as the end-all. It is a joy to use for UI, but bear in mind that the function of the UI (in this system) is only to use read models and user interaction to generate commands. Not that this is trivial to do, but the I/O is straightforward.