Naming and Continuations (continued)

4 minutes read

I was a little off when I compared my problem here to a tail call. Gordon Weakliem corrected me with the term "continuation".

The fact that the post got 28 comments shows that this seems to be an interesting problem and, naming aside, it is indeed a tricky thing to implement in a framework when the programming language you use (C# in my case) doesn't support the construct. What's specifically tricky about the concrete case that I have is that I don't know where I am yielding control to at the time when I make the respective call.

I'll recap. Assume there is the following call

CustomerService cs = new CustomerService();
cs.FindCustomer(customerId);

FindCustomer is a call that will not return any result as a return value. Instead, the invoked service comes back into the caller's program at some completely different place such this:

[WebMethod]
public void
FindCustomerReply(Customer[] result)
{
   ...
}

So what we have here is a "duplex" conversation. The result of an operation initiated by an outbound message (call) is received, some time later, through an inbound message (call), but not on the same thread and not on the same "object". You could say that this is a callback, but that's not precisely what it is, because a "callback" usually happens while the initiating call (as above FindCustomer) has not yet returned back to its scope or at least while the initiating object (or an object passed by some sort of reference) is still alive. Here, instead, processing of the FindCustomer call may take a while and the initiating thread and the initiating object may be long gone when the answer is ready.

Now, the additional issue I have is that at the time when the FindCustomer call is made, it is not known what "FindCustomerReply" message handler it going to be processing the result and it is really not know what's happening next. The decision about what happens next and which handler is chosen is dependent on several factors, including the time that it takes to receive the result. If the FindCustomer is called from a web-page and the service providing FindCustomer drops a result at the caller's doorstep within 2-3 seconds [1], the FindCustomerReply handler can go and hijack the initial call's thread (and HTTP context) and render a page showing the result. If the reply takes longer, the web-page (the caller) may lose its patience [2] and choose to continue by rendering a page that says "We are sending the result to your email account." and the message handler with not throw HTML into an HTTP response on an open socket, but rather render it to an email and send it via SMTP and maybe even alert the user through his/her Instant Messenger when/if the result arrives.

[1] HTTP Request => FindCustomer() =?> "FindCustomerReply" => yield to CustomerList.aspx => HTTP Response
[2] HTTP Request => FindCustomer() =?> Timeout!            => yield to YouWillGetMail.aspx => HTTP Response
                               T+n =?> "FindCustomerReply" => SMTP Mail
                                                           => IM Notification

So, in case [1] I need to correlate the reply with the request and continue processing on the original thread. In case [2], the original thread continues on a "default path" without an available reply and the reply is processed on (possibly two) independent threads and using two different notification channels.

A slightly different angle. Consider a workflow application environment in a bank, where users are assigned tasks and simply fetch the next thing from the to-do list (by clicking a link in an HTML-rendered list). The reply that results from "LookupAndDoNextTask" is a message that contains the job that the user is supposed to do.  

[1] HTTP Request => LookupAndDoNextTask() =?> Job: "Call Customer" => yield to CallCustomer.aspx => HTTP Response
[2] HTTP Request => LookupAndDoNextTask() =?> Job: "Review Credit Offer" => yield to ReviewCredit.aspx => HTTP Response
[3] HTTP Request => LookupAndDoNextTask() =?> Job: "Approve Mortgage" => yield to ApproveMortgage.aspx => HTTP Response
[4] HTTP Request => LookupAndDoNextTask() =?> No Job / Timeout => yield to Solitaire.aspx => HTTP Response

In all of these cases, calls to "FindCustomer()" and "LookupAndDoTask()" that are made from the code that deals with the incoming request will (at least in the theoretical model) never return to their caller and the thread will continue to execute in a different context that is "TBD" at the time of the call. By the time the call stack is unwound and the initiating call (like FindCustomer) indeed returns, the request is therefore fully processed and the caller may not perform any further actions. 

So the issue at hand is to make that fact clear in the programming model. In ASP.NET, there is a single construct called "Server.Transfer()" for that sort of continuation, but it's very specific to ASP.NET and requires that the caller knows where you want to yield control to. In the case I have here, the caller knows that it is surrendering the thread to some other handler, but it doesn't know to to whom, because this is dynamically determined by the underlying frameworks. All that's visible and should be visible in the code is a "normal" method call.

cs.FindCustomer(customerId) might therefore not be a good name, because it looks "too normal". And of course I don't have the powers to invent a new statement for the C# language like continue(cs.FindCustomer(customerId)) that would result in a continuation that simply doesn't return to the call location. Since I can't do that, there has to be a different way to flag it. Sure, I could put an attribute on the method, but Intellisense wouldn't show that, would it? So it seems the best way is to have a convention of prefixing the method name.

There were a bunch of ideas in the comments for method-name prefixes. Here is a selection:

  • cs.InitiateFindCustomer(customerId)
  • cs.YieldFindCustomer(customerId)
  • cs.YieldToFindCustomer(customerId)
  • cs.InjectFindCustomer(customerId)
  • cs.PlaceRequestFindCustomer(customerId)
  • cs.PostRequestFindCustomer(customerId)

I've got most of the underlying correlation and dispatch infrastructure sitting here, but finding a good programming model for that sort of behavior is quite difficult.

[Of course, this post won't make it on Microsoft Watch, eWeek or The Register]

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