[Dev tip] CQRS+Event Sourcing Messaging Patterns

This post is partially related to my previous blog post about Rewind and Gorewind.

Designing a decoupled, message based, system based on the CQRS pattern together with event sourcing require some thought. Since I’ve been thinking about it for a while now, I thought I’d share some thoughts so far.


First let’s think about the way information conceptually flows in a CQRS system:

Client issuing a command -> Command -> Command Handler -> Event -> Event Listeners/Projections

For now, we are not dealing with event sourcing and an event store.

Some definitions that will bring this blog post forward:

A data structure instance with a command name in imperative, ex.CreateBlogPost. Most certainly it contains additional parameters such as URL for the blog post and it’s text body.
Command Handler
The architectural instance that receives commands, checks their validitity and converts the command to an event. A command handler is optimized for fast validation/writes. If a command is valid, it is then published to all the event listeners that are interested in the event. It can also publish errors as events. SeeAsynchronicity and feedback loops. A command handler also guarantees that only a single command can modify an aggregate root concurrently.
Most of the times, an event is the result of a command [1] [2] and is named as command, but in past tence. Example: BlogPostCreated. It is be debatable whether a single command can yield at most one event of it’s allowed to yield multiple ones.
Event Listener
An architectural instance that receives events and does something with them. The most common case is to create a projection (for example, of blog posts) that quickly can be queried. In terms messaging event listeners are usually simply subscribers in a pubsub setup.
[1] There are special cases when this is untrue. For example, Sagas might introduce events without a command.
[2] See also Asynchronicity and feedback loops.

Asynchronicity and feedback loops

The information flow above does not show any feedback loop back to Client issuing a command. The CQRS pattern leaves that feedback loop to the implementer. So the question is how should a client know whether a command succeeded or not?There are different paths an implementer can choose:

Case 1: Command feedback by synchronous validation.. The command-issuing client sends its command to a command handler. It then waits for the command handler to return with “Accepted” or “Failed: <Reason>”. This solution is probably the simplest and that CQRS beginners are most comfortable with since it is similar to how validation commonly is done through HTTP API calls. The downside is that it is synchronous, pushing commands might take longer time. More so, there’s the choice of having another dependence or not.

Case 2: Command feedback by forward event. The command-issuing client sends its command to a command handler. It immediately receives a “Command received” response. The command handler later validates the command. If validation passes it generates the expected event(s). If the validation fails, an error event (ex.BlogPostCreationFailed) is published. The client UI can later decide to poll/query for command status, or even have the command state pushed out to it (if possible).

To be able to query whether a command failed or succeeded the client need to have a unique ID for the command. This can be generated either by the client or the command handler. The latter obviously will require some feedback loop back to client on command invocation. A basic UUID will suffice.

Case 3: Command feedback by silence. The command-issuing client sends its command to a command handler. It immediately receives a “Command received” response. In the case of blog post creation, a new blog post will show up when the client queries the system for all blog posts. If blog creation failed, a new blog post will obviously not show up. The downside of this case is that the client has no idea to knowwhat went wrong.

Case 4: Command feedback through a separate workflow. In the case of using event sourcing, events are persisted. If the command-issuing client is one that might trigger a lot of errors, you might not want to generate error events in fear of a client generating massive amounts of validation errors and filling up the event store. To remedy this, one approach would be to create a separate asynchronous pipeline for validation errors. An idea would be to populate a cache with validation errors and invalidate them with a TTL.

There is nothing that says the above cases are mutual exclusive. In fact, they can be combined, but as always there will be an increase in complexity.

Who is “Client issuing command”?

Case 4 above brings up another question; who is “client issuing command”?.

If the client is a customer that creates issues commands through an API, we should probably expect more validation errors. Customers usually don’t have as much domain knowledge as the upstream systems’ owner.

If the client is simply your own web application’s reaction to an HTTP request, basic validation can be done in the web application that catches 99% of all validation errors. The downside of this is that validation logic will partially have to be doubly implemented. If a two tier validation is implemented, simply dropping invalid commands (case 3) might definitely be an option.

A variation of having a web application is to have a GUI that only enables commands that are possible. Maybe the GUI hinders a user to change title of a blog post unless a blog is actually selected. If the GUI prohibits 99% of the validation errors, case 3 might again be a good candidate.

A common CQRS question is also how errors immediately are presented when a command is issued. The common answer is; They don’t. Many CQRS proponents argue that 99% of commands will go through, and a GUI should simply expect that blog post was published. There are multiple ways to later tell the user something went wrong. For web applications, some would argue that the user might as well simply reload the webpage to update the latest blog posts if something goes wrong. There’s a lot to say about asynchronous UI, but I think I’m going leave it at that for now.

Event Sourcing

Adding event sourcing to a CQRS pipeline makes things look something like this:

Client issuing a command -> Command -> Command Handler -> Event -> Event Store -> Event Listeners/Projections

where an event store persists all events to disk and makes them queryable.

Most commonly, an event store also handles groups of events so that they can be grouped based on aggregate root. This makes it possible to quickly get up to speed with a certain aggregate root instead of reading through all events historically.

In Asynchronicity and feedback loops we talked about the feedback loop of command validation. Event sourcing brings another architectural decisions to the table when it comes to feedback loop from the event store:

Failing disk writes

Previously we’ve only dealt with the fact that network could go down. Luckily ZeroMQ makes sure that either a messages delivered once fully, or not at all.

However, introducing an event store yields a new set of issues; writing an event store to the disk can fail because the disk is full, or because it’s broken.

State (in)consistencies and life cycles

Before we talk about about feedback loops we need to talk about state in a CQRS/event-sourced system. Generally state is stored in the following parts:

Event handlers/projections
Receives events and builds state (performing a left fold of the events). This state is used for querying and can be thrown away to be rebuilt. This is the most recyclable state there is.
Event store
Stores all events. Receives events from command handlers.
Command handlers
Stores state that is required to make fast validation.

From what I’ve understood, an event store is supposed to be the primary source of truth for an event sourced system. I’ve been fond of this idea because it allows for event and command handlers to have short lifecycles and come and go by demand, while the central event store can sustain long slow lifecycles.

Interestingly, there is little online documentation on how command handler state is handled in an event sourced CQRS system. So, here are some of the different design choices that I’ve been considering:

Case 1: No dependence. Event handlers persists their state fully separate from the event store. If anything goes wrong with events being persisted, event handler state and event store might become inconsistent. This is an inconsistency that might be hard to correct.

Also, if command handlers in case 1 uses a relational database, we are back to where we started with trying to avoid heavy schema migrations on system upgrade.

Case 2a: Command handler builds state from event stores published events.Under the assumption that an event store only published events that have been persisted, this means that event handler state always will be consistent with the event store. It will also allow command handlers to easily be upgraded, and easily be sharded if needed.

There are two downsides with the solution; Firstly, just like with case 3 no error will be published by the event store in case something failed. Choosing a good timeout will be hard/impossible. Secondly, a command handler will have to incorporate locking strategies to not allow two commands to pass through before the first command’s equivalent event comes back.

Case 2b: Command handler builds state from their generated events. This, too, assures command handler and event store will be consistent, are easily upgraded and sharded if needed. If combined with synchronous write commands to the event store, the event store can respond with “written” or “error”. This makes it possible for the command handler to know whether it should apply the event to its internal state or not.

(Go)Rewind’s implementation

Rinat Abdullin, a big CQRS proponent, hinted that most his code uses async communication as much as possible. Still, I decided to stick to synchronous writes (case 2b) to the event store for simplicity. Asynchronicity could be added to the write client within if needed, I thought.

Heck, rereading this blog post I notice it’s a bit unstructured. I hope you get the point, though! Feel free to make comments below. I’d love to hear you input on this.



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