Tag Archives: WCF

Push (Comet) or pull ?

What is it ?
Most of the modern web applications display recently updated data, and to do that they need to get he latest data very frequently. Some of them even include some real-time chat (Gmail Chat, Facebook chat).

How ?
That’s the interesting part.

  • Pull is pretty dumb. You do a request very frequently and you see if anything new appeared. This consumes some bandwidth, some resources (because server has to check if data has actually changed).
  • Push is going back to the source : Once you’ve made the request on the server, it doesn’t reply instantly. It will wait for something before sending anything. So push over HTTP is in fact a pull with a sleeping response. Using push over HTTP is called Comet.

So pushing data isn’t very complex, it just requires a special server to transmit some data (text, html, xml, or image) over an already opened HTTP connection.

Why do we need some special servers ? Because our current servers aren’t build to make people wait. Some geeks made some example of PHP code being able to make some Comet response but they all use looping usleep. If you used it, you would end up totally killing your server with the growing number of clients.
This is the very interesting part of Comet : It doesn’t consumes more resources, it just requires additional server software.

Two types of push
They are two types of push :

  • The multiple limited time push requests or long poll mode : You make a request and each time you get the response the connection is closed and you have to make an other pull. It’s easier to implement but you could end up doing a lot of http requests, which means generating quite some data.
  • The streaming push mode : You open the connection once, and then data comes asynchronously, and the connection is never closed. If it “accidentally” closes, the client reopens it.

How do do some push enabled web applications
You rethink your software so that it uses the push server.

On PHP, you can use The Ajax Push Engine.
On pure .Net environnement, you can use WCF WsDualHttpBinding to serve data.
The CometD is a stable opensource comet server project. JQuery and Dojo can consume it.
You have LightStreamer, a commercial product with a free license. It can be connected with nearly anything (the only unsupported type of server seems to be PHP) or StreamHub which has a very restrictive free license.

Why some people still use Flex ou SilverLight ?
Http push / Comet requires a complex parallel server infrastructure and it only solves the push (server to client realtime data transmission) problem. When data is received, you still have to treat and display it. Managing this is a lot harder with javascript than it is in Flex ou SilverLight.

By the way, on flex, silverlight, flash, java applets you can use your own sockets to transmit data. This is a very good solution, there a good chance it will consume less bandwidth. But you have to remember that not using the HTTP protocol can create some problems as some companies block every other protocols on their internet gateways.

W3C is on it !
W3C is thinking about adding a WebSocket specification. This could be a very good thing as it would standardize this non-standardized part of the web.

Push outside the web
Push isn’t a web specific concept. Any instant messaging service (like MSN, Jabber, Yahoo or ICQ) does support push.

Any system supporting sockets enables you to make push enabled applications. If you consider the mobile OSes, they all support socket, so they all support push. Androïd supports push by socket, J2ME supports push by sockets, iPhone supports push by Apple push system or sockets and it seems BlackBerry supports it by the BlackBerry push service or sockets.

.Net, Flex and WebORB.Net

I’ve been working on a project where we had to use Flex on a .Net environment and it had to be realtime. I was a little worried at first that it could be tricky to set up. But with WebORB.Net it’s pretty easy. We used the integrated RTMP (Real Time Messaging Protocol) messaging server. It’s almost like using WCF. The most important differences are that, by default, objects are transmitted as Hashtable and calls can’t be synchronous. We can bind the object to right .Net object within the WebOrb management console but we decided to do it ourself using reflection (because we don’t like to depend too much on the management console).

RTMP
The result is pretty impressive as it makes a really powerful real-time management system. And it’s freaking fast. Like WCF, it can handle concurrent calls. It’s in fact easier because everything is asynchronous but still, it does manage that. These calls are received on parallel threads.

The only problem with WebORB.Net is that you don’t have too much examples in the documentation. Our biggest problem was that we didn’t even knew how to detect what was the current calling connection on a method. This is pretty easy but you can’t exactly guess it. This is a dummy sample to show you how it’s done :

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public class FlexConnectionsServer:ApplicationAdapter {
	private int _connectionIdCounter = 0;
	private Dictionary<IConnection,int> _connectionsToId = new Dictionary<IConnection,int>();
 
	// Returns the CURRENT connection (must be used from a method called by the flex client)
	private IConnection CurrentConnection { get { return ConnectionHub.getConnectionLocal(); } }
	private int CurrentID { get { return _connectionsToId[ CurrentConnection ]; } }
 
	// When the RTMP service is loaded, we start the time dispatcher thread
	public override bool appStart( IScope app ) {
		new Thread( Thread_TimeDispatcher ).Start();
	}
 
	// This method is called when a client connects
	public override bool appConnect( IConnection conn, object[] parms ) {
		lock ( _connectionsToId ) {
			_connectionsToId.Add( conn, _connectionIdCounter++ );
		}
 
		return true;
	}
 
	// This method is called when a client disconnects
	public override void appDisconnect( IConnection conn ) {
		lock ( _connectionsToId ) {
			_connectionsToId.Remove( conn );
		}
	}
 
	// This is a sample method call
	public String GetMyName() {
		return String.Format( "Client{0}", CurrentId );
	}
 
	// This thread dispatches the current time to every client
	private void Thread_TimeDispatcher() {
		while( true ) {
			var t = DateTime.UtcNow;
			SendCommand( "CurrentTime", new Object[] { t } );
			Thread.Sleep( 1000 );
		}
	}
 
	// Call a remote method on each client connection
	private void SendCommand( String command, Object[] params ) {
		lock ( _connectionsToId ) {
			foreach( var kvp in _connectionsToId )
				( kvp.Key as IServiceCapableConnection ).Invoke( command, params );
		}
	}
}

It’s a little bit like using WCF in Single instance mode.

IIS 7.0 Setup
There was something really weird that happened with my IIS 7.0 on my Windows 7 x64. Using the RTMP connection, I frequently had null return values on .Net method calls. We firstly find a quick way to solve it : Recall each time we get a null value. It’s really dirty, but It worked as a very temporary solution.
Then, when debugging on the IIS process, I noticed a lot of NullReferenceException exceptions displayed on the debugger console. They were about the WebORB “LicenseManager” class, and I had as much exceptions as I had null values on the Flex client. I tried a lot of things that didn’t do anything. And then, I changed the “Managemd pipeline mode” of the Application Pool from “Integrated” to “Classic”, and the problem was solved. The really weird stuff here is that WebORB recommends to use the “Integrated” mode.

MidnightCoders support
We asked MidnightCoders to send us a community edition license, and they instantly answered. We got our license within the 48 hours after our first mail (I was the one slowing it down).

Quick note on the project
To give you a better view of the project I’m talking about :
GPRS Equipment <--(M2MP protocol)–> [Generic M2M Server] <--(WCF)--> [Business logic software] <--(WCF)--> [Flex connections server] <--(RTMP)--> Flex
We’ve got a little equipment (TC65 based as you can guess) that connects to a generic server using our own (real-time and bandwidth optimized) protocol. A business logic software connects to this server using a WCF service. And then we have the WebORB.Net / IIS that connects to this business logic software.

WCF helps make very interesting .Net applications because it simplifies all the communication but can also create deadlocks you might not have seen. Take this example : You have a lock on the WCF Server on the clients list object, you make a call to the WCF client and this client makes a call to the WCF Server that also requires a lock. If you were doing all this client/server calls on the same process this wouldn’t be a problem. But as you use WCF client-to-server and server-to-client calls are made on differents threads. You create a deadlock (unless you set the OperationContract attribute to IsOneWay and/or you fix the deadlock source).

If you’re doing real-time applications, I would recommend to define all the frequently used methods with the “IsOneWay=true” option.

06/11/2009 Update : I added a sample server-to-client code because some people were interested by it.