Click here to Skip to main content
Click here to Skip to main content

Tweaking WCF to build highly scalable async REST API

, 31 Jul 2011
Rate this:
Please Sign up or sign in to vote.
You can build async REST API using WCF but due to some bug in WCF implementation it does not scale as you would want it to. Here's my journey with Microsoft's WCF team to explore the problem and find the right fix.

image004.jpg

Download WcfAsyncRestApi.zip - 30.18 KB   

Introduction 

At 9 AM in the morning, during the peak traffic for your business, you get an emergency call that the website you built is no more. It’s not responding to any request. Some people can see some page after waiting for long time but most can’t. So, you think it must be some slow query or the database might need some tuning. You do the regular checks like looking at CPU and Disk on database server. You find nothing is wrong there. Then you suspect it must be webserver running slow. So, you check CPU and Disk on webservers. You find no problem there either. Both web servers and database servers have very low CPU and Disk usage. Then you suspect it must be the network. So, you try a large file copy from webserver to database server and vice versa. Nope, file copies perfectly fine, network has no problem. You also quickly check RAM usage on all servers but find RAM usage is perfectly fine. As the last resort, you run some diagnostics on Load Balancer, Firewall, and Switches but find everything to be in good shape. But your website is down. Looking at the performance counters on the webserver, you see a lot of requests getting queued, and there’s very high request execution time, and request wait time.

image001.jpg

So, you do an IIS restart. Your websites comes back online for couple of minutes and then it goes down again. After doing restart several times you realize it’s not an infrastructure issue. You have some scalability issue in your code. All the good things you have read about scalability and thought that those were fairy tales and they will never happen to you is now happening right in front of you. You realize you should have made your services async.

What is the problem here?

There’s high Request Execution Time. It means requests are taking awfully long to complete. Maybe the external service you are consuming is too slow or down. As a result, threads aren’t getting released at the same rate as incoming requests are coming in. So, requests are getting queued (hence the Requests in Application queue > 0) and not getting executed until some thread is freed from the thread pool.

In an N-tier application you can have multiple layers of services. You can have services consuming data from external services. This is common in Web 2.0 applications gathering data from various internet services and also in Enterprise Applications where you are part of an organization offering some services to your own apps but those services need to consume other services exposed by other parts of the organization. For instance, you have a service layer built using WCF talking to an external service layer which may or may not be a WCF service layer.

ntier_arch.png

In such architecture you need to consider using Async services for better performance if you have high number of requests, say around 100 requests/sec per server. If the external service is over WAN or internet or takes long time to execute, then using Async service is no longer optional to achieve scalability, because long running services will exhaust threads from .NET thread pool. Calling another async WCF service from an async WCF service is easy, you can easily chain them. But if the external service is not WCF and support only HTTP (eg REST), then it gets outrageously complicated. Let me show you how you can chain multiple async WCF services and chain plain vanilla HTTP services with async WCF services.

What is an Async Service?

Async services do not occupy the thread while it is doing some IO operation. You can fire an external async IO operation like calling an external webservice, or hitting some HTTP URL or reading some file asynchronously. While the IO operation is happening, the thread that’s executing the WCF request is released so that it can serve other requests. As a result, even if the external operation takes long to return a result, you aren’t occupying threads from .NET Thread Pool. This prevents thread congestion and improves scalability of your application. You can read details about how to make services Async from this MSDN article. In a nutshell, sync services are what we usually do, we just call a service and wait for it to return the result.

image003.jpg

Here your client app is calling your service which in turn makes a call to an external service to get the data. Until the external service responds, the server has a thread occupied. When the result arrives from StockService, the server returns the result to client and releases the thread.

But in an async service model, server does not wait for the external service to return result. It releases the thread right after firing the request to StockService.

image004.jpg

As you see from the diagram, as soon as Server calls BeginGetData on StockService, it releases the thread represented by the vertical box on the server lifeline. But client does not get any response yet. Client is still waiting. WCF will hold the request and not return any response yet. When the StockService completes its execution, Server picks a free thread from the ThreadPool and then executes the rest of the code in Server and returns the response back to Client.

That’s how Async Services work.

Show me the service

Let’s see a typical async WCF service. Say you have this service:

public interface IService
{
[OperationContractAttribute] string GetStock(string code);
} 

If you want to make this async, you create a Begin and End pair.

public interface IService
{
    [OperationContractAttribute(AsyncPattern = true)]
    IAsyncResult BeginGetStock(string code, AsyncCallback callback, object asyncState);
    //Note: There is no OperationContractAttribute for the end method.
    string EndGetStock(IAsyncResult result);
}  

Now if you have done async services in the good old ASMX service in .NET 2.0, you know that you can get it done in couple of lines.

public class Service : IService
{
 public IAsyncResult BeginGetStock(string code, AsyncCallback callback, object asyncState)
 {
  ExternalStockServiceClient client = new ExternalStockServiceClient();
  var myCustomState = new MyCustomState { Client = client, WcfState = asyncState };
                return client.BeginGetStockResult(code, callback, myCustomState);
 }
 public string EndGetStock(IAsyncResult result)
 {
  MyCustomState state = result.AsyncState as MyCustomState;
  using (state.Client)
   return state.Client.EndGetStockResult(result);
 }
} 

But surprisingly this does not work in WCF. You will get this exception from client when you will call the EndGetStock:

An error occurred while receiving the HTTP response to http://localhost:8080/Service.svc. This could be due to the service endpoint binding not using the HTTP protocol. This could
also be due to an HTTP request context being aborted by the server (possibly due to the service shutting down). See server logs for more details. 

The InnerException is totally useless as well.

The underlying connection was closed: An unexpected error occurred on a receive. 

You will find that the EndGetStock method on the service never gets hit although you call it.

It works perfectly fine in the good old ASMX service. I have done this so many times in creating async webservices. For instance, I have built an AJAX Proxy Service using ASMX in order to overcome the cross domain HTTP call restriction in browsers from Javascript. You can read about it from here and get the code. The solution that works in WCF is impossibly difficult to remember and unbelievably head twisting to understand.

WCF async service is awfully complicated

In WCF the traditional async pattern does not work because if you study the code carefully you will see that the code totally ignores the asyncState passed to the BeginGetStock method.

public IAsyncResult BeginGetStock(string code, AsyncCallback callback, object asyncState)
{
        ExternalStockServiceClient client = new ExternalStockServiceClient();
        var myCustomState = new MyCustomState { Client = client, WcfState = asyncState };
        return client.BeginGetStockResult(code, callback, myCustomState);
} 

The difference between old ASMX and new WCF is that the asyncState is null in ASMX, but not in WCF. The asyncState has a very useful object in it:

image005.jpg

As you see the MessageRpc is there which is responsible for managing the thread that runs the request. So, it’s absolutely important that we carry this along with the other async calls so that ultimately the MessageRpc responsible for the thread running the request gets a chance to call the EndGetStock.

Here’s the code that works in WCF async pattern:

public IAsyncResult BeginGetStock(string code, AsyncCallback wcfCallback, object wcfState)
{
        ExternalStockServiceClient client = new ExternalStockServiceClient();
        var myCustomState = new MyCustomState
        {
                Client = client,
                WcfState = wcfState,
                WcfCallback = wcfCallback
        };
        var externalServiceCallback = new AsyncCallback(CallbackFromExternalStockClient);
        var externalServiceResult = client.BeginGetStockResult(code, externalServiceCallback, myCustomState);
        return new MyAsyncResult(externalServiceResult, myCustomState);
}
private void CallbackFromExternalStockClient(IAsyncResult externalServiceResult)
{
        var myState = externalServiceResult.AsyncState as MyCustomState;
        myState.WcfCallback(new MyAsyncResult(externalServiceResult, myState));
}
public string EndGetStock(IAsyncResult result)
{
        var myAsyncResult = result as MyAsyncResult;
        var myState = myAsyncResult.CustomState;
        using (myState.Client)
                return myState.Client.EndGetStockResult(myAsyncResult.ExternalAsyncResult);            
}

It’s very hard to understand from the code who is calling who and how the callbacks get executed. Here’s a sequence diagram that shows how it works:

image006.jpg

Here’s a walkthrough of what’s going on here:

  • Client, which can be a WCF Proxy, makes a call to WCF service.
  • WCF runtime (maybe hosted by IIS) picks up the call and then gets a thread from thread pool and calls BeginGetStock on it, passing a callback and state of WCF stuff.
  • The BeginGetStock method in Service, which is our own code, makes an async call to StockService, which is another WCF service. However, here it does not pass the WCF callback and state. Here it needs to pass a new callback, which will be fired back on the Service, and a new state that contains stuff that Service needs to complete its EndGetStock call. The mandatory stuff we need is the instance of the StockService because inside EndGetStock in Service, we need to call StockService.EndGetStockResult.
  • Once BeginGetStockResult on StockService is called, it starts some async operation and it immediately returns an IAsyncResult.
  • The BeginGetStock on Service receives the IAsyncResult, it wraps if inside a MyAsycResult instance and returns that back to WCF runtime.
  • After some time, when the async operation that StockService started finishes, it fires the callback directly on the Service.
  • The callback then fires the WCF callback, which in turn fires the EndGetStock on the Service.
  • EndGetStock then gets the instance of the StockService from the MyAsyncResult and then it calls EndGetStockResult on it to get the response. Then it returns the response to WCF runtime.
  • WCF runtime than returns the response back to the Client.

It’s very difficult to follow and it’s very difficult to do it correctly for hundreds of methods. If you have a complex service layer that calls many other services and hundreds of operations on them, then imagine writing this much code for each and every operation.

I have come up with a way to reduce the pain using delegates and some kind of “Inversion of Code” pattern. Here’s the how it looks like when you follow this pattern:

public IAsyncResult BeginGetStock(string code, AsyncCallback wcfCallback, object wcfState)
{
   return WcfAsyncHelper.BeginAsync<ExternalStockServiceClient>(
                new ExternalStockServiceClient(), 
                wcfCallback, wcfState,
                (service, callback, state) => service.BeginGetStockResult(code, callback, state));
}
public string EndGetStock(IAsyncResult result)
{
        return WcfAsyncHelper.EndAsync<ExternalStockServiceClient, string>(result,
                (service, serviceResult) => service.EndGetStockResult(serviceResult),
                (exception, service) => { throw exception; },
                (service) => (service as IDisposable).Dispose());
} 

In this approach, all the plumbing work for creating CustomAsyncResult, CustomState etc, creating a callback function to receive callback from external service and then fire the EndXXX and then dealing with AsyncResults and state again in EndXXX, are totally moved into the generic helper. The amount of code you have to write for each and every operation you want to make is, I believe, quite reasonable now.

Let’s see how the WcfAsyncHelper class looks like:

public static class WcfAsyncHelper 
{
        public static bool IsSync<TState>(IAsyncResult result)
        {
                return result is CompletedAsyncResult<TState>;
        }
        public static CustomAsyncResult<TState>BeginAsync<TState>(
                TState state,
                AsyncCallback wcfCallback, object wcfState,
                Func<TState, AsyncCallback, object, IAsyncResult> beginCall)
        {
                var customState = new CustomState<TState>(wcfCallback, wcfState, state);
                var externalServiceCallback = new AsyncCallback(CallbackFromExternalService<TState>);
                var externalServiceResult = beginCall(state, externalServiceCallback, customState);
                return new CustomAsyncResult<TState>(externalServiceResult, customState);
        }

        public static CompletedAsyncResult<TState> BeginSync<TState>(
                TState state,
                AsyncCallback wcfCallback, object wcfState)            
        {
                var completedResult = new CompletedAsyncResult<TState>(state, wcfState);
                wcfCallback(completedResult);
                return completedResult;
        }
        private static void CallbackFromExternalService<TState>(IAsyncResult serviceResult)
        {
                var serviceState = serviceResult.AsyncState as CustomState<TState>;
                serviceState.WcfCallback( new CustomAsyncResult<TState>(serviceResult,
serviceState));
        }

        public static TResult EndAsync<TState,
TResult>(IAsyncResult result,
                Func<TState, IAsyncResult, TResult> endCall,
                Action<Exception, TState> onException,
                Action<TState> dispose)
        {
                var myAsyncResult = result as CustomAsyncResult<TState>;
                var myState = myAsyncResult.CustomState;
                try
                {
                        return endCall(myState.State, myAsyncResult.ExternalAsyncResult);
                }
                catch (Exception x)
                {
                        onException(x, myState.State);
                        return default(TResult);
                }
                finally
                {
                        try
                        {
                                dispose(myState.State);
                        }
                        finally
                        {
                        }
                }
        }
        public static TResult EndSync<TState,
TResult>(IAsyncResult result,
                Func<TState, IAsyncResult, TResult> endCall,
                Action<Exception, TState> onException,
                Action<TState> dispose)
        {
                var myAsyncResult = result as
CompletedAsyncResult<TState>;
                var myState = myAsyncResult.Data;
                try
                {
                        return endCall(myState, myAsyncResult);
                }
                catch (Exception x)
                {
                        onException(x, myState);
                        return default(TResult);
                }
                finally
                {
                        try
                        {
                                dispose(myState);
                        }
                        finally
                        {
                        }
                }
        }
}

As you see, the BeginAsync and EndAsync has taken over the plumbing work to deal with CustomState and CustomAsyncResult. I have made a similar BeginSync and EndSync, which you can use incase your BeginXXX call needs to return a response immediately without making an asynchronous call. For example, you might have the data cached and you don’t want to make an external service call to get the data again, instead just return it immediately. In that case, the BeginSync and EndSync pair help.

An Async AJAX Proxy made in WCF using Async Pattern

If you want to get data from external domains directly from javascript, you need an AJAX proxy. The javascript hits the AJAX proxy passing the URL it eventually needs to hit and the proxy then transmits the data from the requested URL. This way you can overcome the cross browser XmlHttp call restriction in browsers. This is needed in most of the Web 2.0 start pages like My Yahoo, iGoogle, my previous startup – Pageflakes and so on. You can see AJAX proxy in use from my open source Web 2.0 start page project Dropthings.

proxy.png

Here’s the code of a WCF AJAX proxy that can get data from an external URL and return it. It also supports caching the data. So, once it fetches the data from external domain, it then caches it. The proxy is fully streaming. This means the proxy does not first download the entire response and then cache it and then return it. This way the delay will be almost twice than hitting the external URL directly from browser, if it was possible. The code I have here will directly stream the response from the external URL and it will also cache the response on the fly.

First is the BeginGetUrl function that receives the call and opens an HttpWebRequest on the requested URL. It calls BeginGetResponse on HttpWebRequest and returns.

[ServiceBehavior(InstanceContextMode=InstanceContextMode.PerCall, ConcurrencyMode=ConcurrencyMode.Multiple), AspNetCompatibilityRequirements(RequirementsMode= AspNetCompatibilityRequirementsMode.Allowed), ServiceContract]
public partial class AsyncService
{
  [OperationContract(AsyncPattern=true)]
  //[WebGet(BodyStyle=WebMessageBodyStyle.Bare, UriTemplate="/Url?uri={url}&cacheDuration={cacheDuration}")] 
  [WebGet(BodyStyle=WebMessageBodyStyle.Bare)]
  public IAsyncResult BeginGetUrl(string url, int cacheDuration, AsyncCallback wcfCallback, object wcfState)
  {
      /// If the url already exists in cache then there's no need to fetch it from the source.
      /// We can just return the response immediately from cache
      if (IsInCache(url))
      {
        return WcfAsyncHelper.BeginSync<WebRequestState>(new WebRequestState
            {
                Url = url,
                CacheDuration = cacheDuration,
                ContentType = WebOperationContext.Current.IncomingRequest.ContentType,
            },
            wcfCallback, wcfState);
      }
      else
      {
        /// The content does not exist in cache and we need to get it from the
        /// original source                 
        HttpWebRequest request = WebRequest.Create(url) as HttpWebRequest;
        request.Method = "GET";
        //request.AutomaticDecompression = DecompressionMethods.GZip | DecompressionMethods.Deflate;
        return WcfAsyncHelper.BeginAsync<WebRequestState>(
          new WebRequestState
          {
              Request = request,
              ContentType = WebOperationContext.Current.IncomingRequest.ContentType,
              Url = url,
              CacheDuration = cacheDuration,
          },
          wcfCallback, wcfState,
          (myState, externalServiceCallback, customState) => 
              myState.Request.BeginGetResponse(externalServiceCallback, customState));
      }
  } 

First it checks if the requested URL is already in cache. If it is, then it will return the response synchronously from cache. That’s where the BeginSync and EndSync come handy. If data is not in cache, then it will make a HTTP request to the requested URL.

When the response arrives, the EndGetUrl gets fired.

public Stream EndGetUrl(IAsyncResult asyncResult)
{
  if (WcfAsyncHelper.IsSync<WebRequestState>(asyncResult)) 
  {
    return WcfAsyncHelper.EndSync<WebRequestState, Stream>(
      asyncResult, (myState, completedResult) =>
      {
          CacheEntry cacheEntry = GetFromCache(myState.Url);
          var outResponse = WebOperationContext.Current.OutgoingResponse;
          SetResponseHeaders(cacheEntry.ContentLength, cacheEntry.ContentType, 
              cacheEntry.ContentEncoding, 
              myState, outResponse);               
          return new MemoryStream(cacheEntry.Content);
      },
      (exception, myState) => { throw new ProtocolException(exception.Message, exception); },
      (myState) => { /*Nothing to dispose*/ });
  }
  else
  {
    return WcfAsyncHelper.EndAsync<WebRequestState, Stream>(asyncResult,
        (myState, serviceResult) => 
      {
        var httpResponse = myState.Request.EndGetResponse(serviceResult) as HttpWebResponse;
        var outResponse = WebOperationContext.Current.OutgoingResponse;
        SetResponseHeaders(httpResponse.ContentLength,
            httpResponse.ContentType, httpResponse.ContentEncoding,
            myState, outResponse);
        // If response needs to be cached, then wrap the stream so that
        // when the stream is being read, the content is stored in a memory
        // stream and when the read is complete, the memory stream is stored
        // in cache.
        if (myState.CacheDuration > 0)
          return new StreamWrapper(httpResponse.GetResponseStream(),
            (int)(outResponse.ContentLength > 0 ? outResponse.ContentLength : 8 * 1024),
            buffer =>
            {
              StoreInCache(myState.Url, myState.CacheDuration, new CacheEntry
              {
                Content = buffer,
                ContentLength = buffer.Length,
                ContentEncoding = httpResponse.ContentEncoding,
                ContentType = httpResponse.ContentType
              });
            });
        else
          return httpResponse.GetResponseStream();
      },
      (exception, myState) => { throw new ProtocolException(exception.Message, exception); },
      (myState) => { /*Nothing to dispose*/ });
  }
}  

Here it checks if the request is completed synchronously because the URL was already cached. If it’s completed synchronously then it returns the response directly from cache. Otherwise it reads the data of the HttpWebResponse and returns the data as a stream.

I have created a StreamWrapper which not only returns the data from the original stream, it also stores the buffers in a MemoryStream so that the data can be cached while the data is read from the original stream. Thus it adds no delay in first downloading the entire data and then caching it and only then sending it back to the client. Both returning the response and caching the response happens in a single pass.

public class StreamWrapper : Stream, IDisposable
{
	private Stream WrappedStream;
	private Action<byte[]> OnCompleteRead;
	private MemoryStream InternalBuffer;
	public StreamWrapper(Stream stream, int internalBufferCapacity, Action<byte[]> onCompleteRead)
	{
		this.WrappedStream = stream;
		this.OnCompleteRead = onCompleteRead;
		this.InternalBuffer = new MemoryStream(internalBufferCapacity);
	}
.
.
.
	public override int Read(byte[] buffer, int offset, int count)
	{
		int bytesRead = this.WrappedStream.Read(buffer, offset, count);
		if (bytesRead > 0)
			this.InternalBuffer.Write(buffer, offset, bytesRead);
		else
			this.OnCompleteRead(this.InternalBuffer.ToArray());
		return bytesRead;
	}
	public new void Dispose()
	{
		this.WrappedStream.Dispose();
	}
}

Time to load test this and prove it really scales.

It does not scale at all! 

I did a load test to compare the improvement of the async implementation over a sync implementation. The sync implementation is simple, it just uses WebClient to get the data from given URL. I made a console app which will launch 50 threads and hit the service using 25 threads and use the other 25 threads to hit some ASPX page to make sure the ASP.NET site is functional while the service call is going on. The service is hosted on another server and it is intentionally made to respond very slow, taking 6 seconds to complete the request. The load test is done using three HP ProLiant BL460c G1 Blade servers, 64 bit hardware, 64 bit Windows 2008 Enterprise Edition.

load_test_server_config.png

The client side code launches 50 parallel threads and then hits the service first so that the threads get exhausted running the long running service. While the service requests are executing, it launches another set of threads to hit some ASPX page. If the page responds timely, then we have overcome the threading problem and the WCF service is truly async. If it does not, then we haven’t solved the problem.

static TimeSpan HitService(string url, 
  string responsivenessUrl, 
  int threadCount, 
  TimeSpan[] serviceResponseTimes, 
  TimeSpan[] aspnetResponseTimes, 
  out int slowASPNETResponseCount,
  string logPrefix)
{            
  Thread[] threads = new Thread[threadCount];
  var serviceResponseTimesCount = 0;
  var aspnetResponseTimesCount = 0;
  var slowCount = 0;
  var startTime = DateTime.Now;
  var serviceThreadOrderNo = 0;
  var aspnetThreadOrderNo = 0;
  for (int i = 0; i < threadCount/2; i++)
  {
    Thread aThread = new Thread(new ThreadStart(() => {
            using (WebClient client = new WebClient())
            {
                try
                {
                    var start = DateTime.Now;
                    Console.WriteLine("{0}\t{1}\t{2} Service call Start", logPrefix, serviceThreadOrderNo,
                        Thread.CurrentThread.ManagedThreadId);
                    var content = client.DownloadString(url);
                    var duration = DateTime.Now - start;
                    lock (serviceResponseTimes)
                    {
                        serviceResponseTimes[serviceResponseTimesCount++] = duration;
                        Console.WriteLine("{0}\t{1}\t{2} End Service call. Duration: {2}", 
                            logPrefix, serviceThreadOrderNo,
                            Thread.CurrentThread.ManagedThreadId, duration.TotalSeconds);
                        serviceThreadOrderNo++;
                    }
                }
                catch (Exception x)
                {
                    Console.WriteLine(x);
                }
            }
        }));
    aThread.Start();
    threads[i] = aThread;
  }
  // Give chance to start the calls
  Thread.Sleep(500);
  for (int i = threadCount / 2; i < threadCount; i ++)
  {
    Thread aThread = new Thread(new ThreadStart(() => {
            using (WebClient client = new WebClient())
            {
                try
                {
                    var start = DateTime.Now; 
                    Console.WriteLine("{0}\t{1}\t{2} ASP.NET Page Start", logPrefix, aspnetThreadOrderNo,
                        Thread.CurrentThread.ManagedThreadId);
                    var content = client.DownloadString(responsivenessUrl);
                    var duration = DateTime.Now - start;
                    lock (aspnetResponseTimes)
                    {
                        aspnetResponseTimes[aspnetResponseTimesCount++] = duration;
                        Console.WriteLine("{0}\t{1}\t{2} End of ASP.NET Call. Duration: {3}", 
                            logPrefix, aspnetThreadOrderNo,
                            Thread.CurrentThread.ManagedThreadId, duration.TotalSeconds);
                        aspnetThreadOrderNo++;
                    }
                    if (serviceResponseTimesCount > 0)
                    {
                        Console.WriteLine("{0} WARNING! ASP.NET requests running slower than service.", logPrefix);
                        slowCount++;
                    }
                }
                catch (Exception x)
                {
                    Console.WriteLine(x);
                }
            }
        }));
    aThread.Start();
    threads[i] = aThread;
  }
  // wait for all threads to finish execution
  foreach (Thread thread in threads)
      thread.Join();
  var endTime = DateTime.Now;
  var totalDuration = endTime - startTime;
  Console.WriteLine(totalDuration.TotalSeconds);
  slowASPNETResponseCount = slowCount;
  return totalDuration;
} 

When I do this for the sync service, it demonstrates the expected behaviour, ASP.NET page takes longer than the service calls to execute because ASP.NET requests aren’t getting chance to run.

[SYNC]  15     116 End of ASP.NET Call. Duration: 10.5145348 
[SYNC] WARNING! ASP.NET requests running slower than service.
[SYNC]  16     115 End of ASP.NET Call. Duration: 10.530135
[SYNC] WARNING! ASP.NET requests running slower than service.
[SYNC]  17     114 End of ASP.NET Call. Duration: 10.5457352
[SYNC] WARNING! ASP.NET requests running slower than service.
[SYNC]  12     142 End Service call. Duration: 142
[SYNC]  18     112 End of ASP.NET Call. Duration: 10.608136
[SYNC] WARNING! ASP.NET requests running slower than service.
[SYNC]  19     113 End of ASP.NET Call. Duration: 10.608136
[SYNC] WARNING! ASP.NET requests running slower than service.
[SYNC]  20     111 End of ASP.NET Call. Duration: 11.0293414
[SYNC] WARNING! ASP.NET requests running slower than service.
[SYNC]  21     109 End of ASP.NET Call. Duration: 11.0605418

When it run the test for the async service, surprisingly, it’s the same thing:

[ASYNC] 13      134 End of ASP.NET Call. Duration: 12.0745548
[ASYNC] WARNING! ASP.NET requests running slower than service.
[ASYNC] 14      135 End of ASP.NET Call. Duration: 12.090155
[ASYNC] WARNING! ASP.NET requests running slower than service.
[ASYNC] 15      136 End of ASP.NET Call. Duration: 12.1057552
[ASYNC] WARNING! ASP.NET requests running slower than service.
[ASYNC] 14      111 End Service call. Duration: 111 
[ASYNC] 15      110 End Service call. Duration: 110
[ASYNC] 16      137 End of ASP.NET Call. Duration: 12.5737612
[ASYNC] WARNING! ASP.NET requests running slower than service.
[ASYNC] 17      138 End of ASP.NET Call. Duration: 12.5893614
[ASYNC] WARNING! ASP.NET requests running slower than service.
[ASYNC] 18      139 End of ASP.NET Call. Duration: 12.6049616

The statistics shows that we are having same number of slow ASP.NET page execution and there’s really no visible difference in performance nor scalability between the sync and the async version.

<a name="OLE_LINK1">Regular service slow responses: 25</a> 
Async service slow responses: 25
Regular service average response time: 19.39416864
Async service average response time: 18.5408377
Async service is 4.39993564993564% faster.
Regular ASP.NET average response time: 10.363836868
Async ASP.NET average response time: 10.4503867776
Async ASP.NET is 0.828198146555863% slower.
Async 95%ile Service Response Time: 14.5705868
Async 95%ile ASP.NET Response Time: 12.90994551
Regular 95%ile Service Response Time: 15.54793933
Regular 95%ile ASP.NET Response Time: 13.06594751
95%ile ASP.NET Response time is better for Async by 1.19395856963763%
95%ile Service Response time is better for Async by 6.28605829528921%

There’s really no significant difference. The slight difference we see may well be due to network hiccups or just some threading delay. It’s not something that really shows us that there’s significant improvement.

However, when I do this for an async ASMX service, the good old ASP.NET 2.0 ASMX service, the result is as expected. There’s no delay in ASP.NET request execution no matter how many service calls are in progress. The scalability improvement is significant. Service response time is 33% faster and most importantly, the responsiveness of the ASP.NET webpages, are over 73% better.

Regular service slow responses: 25 
Async service slow responses: 0
Regular service average response time: 23.25053808
Async service average response time: 13.90445826
Async service is 40.1972624798712% faster.
Regular ASP.NET average response time: 11.2884919224
Async ASP.NET average response time: 2.211796356
Async ASP.NET is 80.4066267557752% faster.
Async 95%ile Service Response Time: 14.1493814
Async 95%ile ASP.NET Response Time: 3.7596482
Regular 95%ile Service Response Time: 21.2318722
Regular 95%ile ASP.NET Response Time: 14.06436031
95%ile ASP.NET Response time is better for Async by 73.2682602185126%
95%ile Service Response time is better for Async by 33.3578251285819%

So, does this means all the articles we read about WCF supporting Async, making your services more scalable for long running calls, are all lies?

I thought I must have written the client wrong. So, I used HP Performance Center to run some load test to see how the sync and async services compare. I have used 50 vusers to hit the service and another 50 vusers to hit the ASPX page at the same time. After running the test for 15 minutes, the result is the same, both sync and async implementation of the WCF service is showing the same result. This means there’s no improvement in the async implementation.

image009.jpg

Figure: Async service load test result

image010.jpg

Figure: Sync service load test result

As you can see, both performing more or less the same. This means WCF, off the shelf, does not support async service.

Reading some MSDN blog posts, I get the confirmation. By default, WCF has a synchronous HTTP handler that holds the ASP.NET thread until the WCF request completes. In fact it’s worse than good old ASMX when WCF is hosted on IIS because it uses two threads per request. Here’s what the blog says:

In .NET 3.0 and 3.5, there is a special behavior that you would observe for IIS-hosted WCF services. Whenever a request comes in, the system would use two threads to process the request:

One thread is the CLR ThreadPool thread which is the worker thread that comes from ASP.NET.

Another thread is an I/O thread that is managed by the WCF IOThreadScheduler (actually created by ThreadPool.UnsafeQueueNativeOverlapped).

The blog posts gives you a hack where you can implement a custom HttpModule of your own, which replaces the default sync HttpHandler for processing WCF request with an Async HttpHandler. As per the blog, it’s supposed to support asynchronous processing of WCF requests without holding the ASP.NET thread. After implementing the hack and running the load test, the result is the same, the hack also does not work.

image011.jpg

Figure: Load test report after implementing the custom HttpModule

I have successfully installed the HttpModule by configuring the module in the web.config:

<system.webServer> 
    <validation validateIntegratedModeConfiguration="false"/>
    <httpErrors errorMode="Detailed">
    </httpErrors>
    <modules>
      <remove name="ServiceModel"/>
      <add name="MyAsyncWCFHttpModule" type="AsyncServiceLibrary.MyHttpModule" preCondition="managedHandler" />
    </modules>
  </system.webServer> 

But still no improvement. 

Is that end of the road? No, .NET 3.5 SP1 fixed the problem. 

The final solution that really works 

Finally, I found the MSDN post which confirms in .NET 3.5 SP1, Microsoft has released Async implementation of Http Handlers. Using a tool, you can install the async handlers on IIS to be the default and only then the WCF async services truly become async.

Besides the existing synchronous WCF HTTP Module/Handler types, WCF introduced the asynchronous versions. Now there are total four types of Http Modules implemented:

Synchronous Module: System.ServiceModel.Activation.HttpModule, System.ServiceModel, Version=3.0.0.0, Culture=neutral, PublicKeyToken=b77a5c561934e089
Asynchronous Module (new): System.ServiceModel.Activation.ServiceHttpModule,
System.ServiceModel, Version=3.0.0.0, Culture=neutral, PublicKeyToken=b77a5c561934e089

Synchronous Handler: System.ServiceModel.Activation.HttpHandler, System.ServiceModel, Version=3.0.0.0, Culture=neutral, PublicKeyToken=b77a5c561934e089 
Asynchronous Handler (new): System.ServiceModel.Activation.ServiceHttpHandlerFactory, System.ServiceModel, Version=3.0.0.0, Culture=neutral, PublicKeyToken=b77a5c561934e089 

The following command will install the async http modules and it will set the throttle to 200. This means not more than 200 requests will be queued. This will ensure async requests do not get queued indefinitely and make server suffer from memory unavailability.

WcfAsyncWebUtil.exe /ia /t 200 

Once the tool is installed and I run my client to test the improvement, I can see the dramatic improvement in response times.

After the tool is run

Before the tool is run

Regular service slow responses: 0

Regular service slow responses: 25

Async service slow responses: 0

Async service slow responses: 25

Regular service average response time: 16.46133104

Regular service average response time: 19.39416864

Async service average response time: 12.45831972

Async service average response time: 18.5408377

Regular ASP.NET average response time: 2.1384130152

Regular ASP.NET average response time: 10.363836868

Async ASP.NET average response time: 2.214292388

Async ASP.NET average response time: 10.4503867776

Async 95%ile Service Response Time: 7.1448916

Async 95%ile Service Response Time: 14.5705868

Async 95%ile ASP.NET Response Time: 3.62782651

Async 95%ile ASP.NET Response Time: 12.90994551

Regular 95%ile Service Response Time: 15.32017641

Regular 95%ile Service Response Time: 15.54793933

Regular 95%ile ASP.NET Response Time: 3.30022231

Regular 95%ile ASP.NET Response Time: 13.06594751

After running the tool, WCF service responsiveness is 2x better and ASP.NET page responsiveness is 4x better.

The load test report also confirms significant improvement:

image012.jpg

Figure: Transaction per second improved by 2x after the WCF tool is run

image013.jpg

Figure: Average response time for both the service and the ASP.NET page is nearly half after the WCF tool is run.

So, this proves, WCF supports async services as expected and .NET 3.5 SP1 has made dramatic improvement in supporting true async services.

Wait it is showing same improvement for both sync and async!

You are right, it did not make just async better but also made sync better. Both show same improvement. The reason is the tool just beefs up the number of threads made available to serve the requests. It does not make async service better. You should definitely use the tool to beef up the capacity of your server if you find the server is not really giving its best. But it does not really solve the problem where async services are not giving you significantly better results than sync services.

So, I had some email exchange with Dustin from WCF team at Microsoft. Here’s how he explained:

Hi Omar,

I think this may help to illustrate what’s happening in your test. 

image014.jpg

First, in Wenlong’s blog post WCF Request Throttling and Server Scalability, he talks about why there are two threads per request: one worker thread and one IO thread. Your test illustrates this well and it’s visible in the profile above.

There is a highlighted thread (4364) which I’m showing in particular. This is a worker thread pool thread. It is waiting on HostedHttpRequestAsyncResult.ExecuteSynchronous as highlighted in the stack trace. You can also tell that this is a worker thread pool thread by the three sleeps of 1 second each that happen as soon as that thread is available. What you can also see is that this worker thread is unblocked by a thread immediately below it (3852).

The interesting thing about thread 3852 is that it does not start at the same time as 4364. The reason for this is because you’re using the async pattern in WCF. However, once the back end service (Echo) starts returning data, an IO thread is grabbed from the IO thread pool and used to read the data coming back. Since your back end is streamed and has many pauses in there to return the data, it takes a long time to get the whole thing. Thus, an IO thread is blocked.

If you were to use the synchronous pattern with WCF, you would notice that the IO thread is blocked for the entire time that the worker thread is blocked. But it ends up not making much of a difference because of the fact that an IO thread is going to be blocked for a long period of time anyway in either the sync or async case.

When using the async pattern, the worker thread pool will become a bottleneck. If you simply increase the minWorkerThreads on the processModel, all the ASP.NET requests will go through (on worker threads) before the WCF async requests, which is what I assume you’re trying to do with your test code.

Now, let’s say you switch to .Net 4.0. Now you don’t have the same problem of using two threads per request. Here’s a profile using .Net 4.0 just on the middle tier: 

image015.jpg

Notice how 7 of the ASP.NET requests are all happening at the same time (shown as 1 second sleeps with blue color). There are three 1 second sleeps that happen just a bit later and this is because there was not enough worker threads available. You’ll also notice the IO threads by the distinctive purple color, which is indicating waiting for IO. Because the Echo service on the back end is streaming and has pauses in it, the WCF requests have to block a thread while receiving the data. I’m running with default settings and only 2 cores so the default min IO thread count is 2 (and one of those is taken by the timer thread). The rest of the service calls have to wait for new IO threads to be created. Again, this is showing the WCF async case. If you were to switch to the sync case, it wouldn’t be much different because it would block an IO thread, but just for less time.

I hope this helps explain what you’re seeing in your test.

Thanks

Dustin 

But what puzzled me is if WCF 3.5 has support for async service, and the ASync http modules are installed, why do we have the same scalability problem? What makes WCF 4.0 perform so much better than WCF 3.5?

So, I tried various combinations of minWorkerThreads, maxWorkerThreads, minIOThreads, maxIOThreads, minLocalRequestFreeThreads settings to see whether the Async http module that is available in WCF 3.5 SP1 really makes any difference or not. Here’s my finding:

Threads

maxWorkerThreads

maxIOThreads

minWorkerThreads

minIOThreads

minFreeThreads

minLocalRequestFreeThreads

ASP.NET Better

Service Better

100

200

200

40

30

20

20

-1.49%

66%

100

100

100

40

30

352

304

0%

66%

100

auto

auto

auto

auto

auto

auto

0%

66%

100

100

100

50

50

352

304

-7%

66%

300

auto

auto

auto

auto

auto

auto

1.26%

37%

300

200

200

40

30

20

20

0%

38%

300

200

200

40

30

352

304

0%

39%

300

100

100

40

30

352

304

0%

39%

300

100

100

40

30

20

20

It makes no difference.

So back to Dustin:

Hi Omar,

So I went through your example more thoroughly and I believe I’ve figured out what was causing you problems. Here is an example output from a test run I did of your sample with some modifications:

Regular service slow responses: 0 
Async service slow responses: 0
Regular service average response time:
11.6486576
Async service average response time: 2.7771104
Async service is 76.1593953967709% faster.
Regular ASP.NET average response time: 1.018747336
Async ASP.NET average response time: 1.016686512
Async ASP.NET is 0.202290001374735% faster.
Async 95%ile Service Response Time: 2.55532172
Async 95%ile ASP.NET Response Time: 1.03106226
Regular 95%ile Service Response Time: 11.41521426
Regular 95%ile ASP.NET Response Time: 1.03451364
95%ile ASP.NET Response time is better for Async by 0.333623440673065%
95%ile Service Response time is better for Async by 77.6147721646006%

This was a run using 100 threads. The full log is attached. There were a number of things that I took note of that were preventing you from seeing a difference between async and sync:

  • The most important one was the backend service Echo.ashx. Even if ASP.NET was letting all the requests through, because this was doing a number of Thread.Sleep()s, it was blocking worker threads. The worker threads ramp up at 2 per second so if you throw 50 requests at it all at once, you’re going to have to wait. Whether you used async or not in the middle tier was not going to make a difference.
  • You have a 10 second sleep between async and sync. This actually skews the results in sync’s favor. The threads that were created to handle the async work will not die due to inactivity for at least 15 seconds. I increased this sleep to 30 seconds to make things fair.
  • Your Echo.ashx begins returning data after 1 second and then takes another 1.5 seconds to finish returning data. This blocks an IO thread in the middle tier, which leads to two problems: 
    1. If the minIoThread count is not high enough, then you’ll still be waiting for the 2 per second gate to allow you to have more threads to process the simultaneous work. 
    2. Because of the bug mentioned here, the minIoThread setting may not have an effect over time. 

In order to get your test working properly I made a number of changes:

  • Increased the minWorkerThreads on the backend Echo.ashx service so that it could handle all the traffic simultaneously.
  • Increased the minWorkerThreads on the middle tier service so that it could handle all the ASP.NET requests simultaneously.
  • Used the workaround from the blog post above to use SynchronizationContext to move the work coming in on the AsyncService in the middle tier from the IO thread pool to the worker thread pool. If everything goes according to plan, all the ASP.NET requests should finish before the Echo.ashx starts returning data, so there should be plenty of worker threads available. 

I did not make changes to minFreeThreads or minLocalRequestFreeThreads.

Please let me know if there is anything that is unclear.

Thanks

Dustin

So, we have an undocumented behavior in WCF's IO Threadpool management. The problem is that when threads are launched, there’s a slow startup time for threads. Threads are gradually added even if you suddenly queue 100 works in the threadpool. You can see this from performance counters. If you add the threads on w3wp process, you see there’s a slow rampup:

image016.gif

WCF uses the .Net CLR I/O Completion Port thread pool for executing your WCF service code. The problem is encountered when the .Net CLR IO Completion Port thread pool enters a state where it cannot create threads quickly enough to immediately handle a burst of requests. The response time increases unexpectedly as new threads are created at a rate of 1 per 500ms.

The most obvious thing to do then would be to increase the minimum number of IO threads. You can do this in two ways: use ThreadPool.SetMinThreads or use the <processModel> tag in the machine.config. Here is how to do the latter:

<system.web> 
  <!--<processModel
autoConfig="true"/>-->
  <processModel 
    autoConfig="false" 
    minIoThreads="101" 
    minWorkerThreads="2" 
    maxIoThreads="200" 
    maxWorkerThreads="40" 
    />

Be sure to turn off the autoConfig setting or the other options will be ignored. If we run this test again, we get a much better result. Compare the previous snapshot of permon with this one:

image017.gif

But if you keep the load test running for a while, you will see it goes back to the old behaviour:

image018.gif

So, there’s really no way to fix this problem tweaking configuration settings. It corroborates the research I have done earlier with various combinations of thread pool settings and seeing no difference being made.

So, Dustin recommended the custom SynchronizationContext implementation by Juval Lowy. Using that you can move requests from WCF IO thread pool to CLR Worker thread pool. CLR worker threadpool does not have the problem. The solution to make WCF execute requests using the CLR Worker thread pool is documented here: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/2538826

Conclusion 

WCF itself supports async pattern everywhere and it can be used to build faster and more scalable web services than ASMX. It’s the default installation of WCF which is not configured to support async pattern properly. So, you need to tweak IIS configuration by running the tool and use the IO ThreadPool bug fix to enjoy the benefits of WCF at its best.

Plea for Charity 

License

This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)

Share

About the Author


Comments and Discussions

 
GeneralMy vote of 5 PinmemberNick Karnik6-Nov-12 13:17 

General General    News News    Suggestion Suggestion    Question Question    Bug Bug    Answer Answer    Joke Joke    Rant Rant    Admin Admin   

Use Ctrl+Left/Right to switch messages, Ctrl+Up/Down to switch threads, Ctrl+Shift+Left/Right to switch pages.

| Advertise | Privacy | Mobile
Web03 | 2.8.140821.2 | Last Updated 31 Jul 2011
Article Copyright 2011 by Omar Al Zabir
Everything else Copyright © CodeProject, 1999-2014
Terms of Service
Layout: fixed | fluid