Long Lived Codebases: A Crime Against Computer Science

All code samples are links to the exact lines of code in GitHub. Every thing I’ve ever done to embed code into blog posts has been a PITA, so I’m just punting this time.

This continues the adaptation of my CodeMash 2015 talk about my experiences developing StructureMap over the past decade and change. This series started last week with The Challenges. This post is about the wretchedly poor original implementation of StructureMap’s “nested container” feature and how I re-architected the StructureMap internals in the 3.0 release to greatly improve the performance of this feature. I ran out of steam while writing this, so I ended up breaking this out into two posts.

A little background on nested containers

Sometime around early 2009 my team and I were building a small quasi-service bus for our system that processed messages sent to a queue. In our simple case, the processing of each message would be treated as a single logical transaction. At the time, we were using NHibernate to do all our persistence, so the ISession interface is your de facto unit of work. What we needed was for every object that would participate in the handling of a single message to use the right ISession for that message handling transaction — even if the object was resolved lazily from the StructureMap container.

What we needed was a new kind of container scoping for a logical operation independent of thread or HttpContext or any of the older mechanisms that the IoC containers typically used at that time. Inspired by a similar feature in Windsor* (I think), I conceived of what is now the Nested Container feature in StructureMap that I quickly rolled into the 2.6 release just so we could use it in our homegrown service bus at work.

From a functionality perspective, the nested container feature has been a complete success. It’s used by my own FubuMVC and FubuTransportation frameworks plus other development frameworks like MassTransit, NServiceBus, and even ASP.Net MVC and Web API through OSS adapters. That being said, the original implementation of nested containers in the 2.6.* versions was a mess that suffered from poor performance and usability bugs that took me years to address — so bad that the 3.0 release was largely wrapped around some very significant architectural changes specifically to improve the nested container feature.

* People sometimes get upset by the number of different IoC containers in .Net, but there is some real value in competition between different technical solutions to push and inspire each other. I’ve always thought that development tools in .Net would be significantly better overall if the wider .Net community would be more willing to adopt tools originating outside of Microsoft so that MS would be forced to compete for adoption. 

The Original Implementation

During my talk at CodeMash, I stated that I believe the original implementation of the nested container feature in StructureMap caused other developers more harm than any other thing I’ve ever done. So what was so bad about the original version?

There was a pretty nasty bug related to object scoping in regards to singleton scoped objects that wasn’t really addressed outside of published workarounds until the 3.0 release 3-4 years later. The biggest issues though were performance and thread contention at runtime.

One of the original requirements for the nested container was to enable users to override service registrations in a nested container without having any impact on the original, parent container.* For context, the acceptance test for this behavior demonstrates what I mean. To pull this requirement off, I made the fateful decision to make a complete copy of the parent’s internal configuration model to pass into the nested container.

To illustrate why this turned out to be such an awful approach, see the code for the method PipelineGraph.ToNestedGraph() in the 2.6 branch that’s used to create the isolated configuration model for a new nested container. In particular, see how that code is making deep, programmatic clones of several structures. See also the code lock(this) that creates an exclusive lock around the parent object as it performs the work inside of the code block (I had to create a lock around the dictionary being cloned so that nothing else could alter that dictionary while I was in the process of iterating through it).** Doing the deep clone of the configuration models is expensive, especially when StructureMap was used in bigger applications. Even worse though, the shared lock that I had to do in order to copy the internal configuration structures meant that only one thread in the entire application could be creating a nested container at one time — which is a pretty big problem when you’re talking about a web application under significant load that wants to create an individual nested container for each unique HTTP request.

* FubuMVC exploits this ability to inject services that represent the current HTTP request into a nested container just before building the handlers for that HTTP request so that you can use constructor injection “all the way down.”

** Yes, I do buy that this is an example of where immutability can be valuable in concurrent code. Do also cut me a little bit of slack because this code was written long before .Net 4.0, the TPL, and the newer concurrent collection classes that came with it.

Re-architecting Nested Containers in 3.0 

It took about three years (and another year before a public release), but I was finally able to permanently fix (knock on wood!) the performance, thread contention, and scoping bugs related to the nested container feature in the 3.0 release. In my testing against one of our biggest codebases at work, I measured a two order of magnitude improvement in the time it took to create a new nested container. I was also able to completely eliminate the thread contention issues.

How was I able to do make those improvements? Heres the new version of PipelineGraph.ToNestedGraph() as it exists in the 3.0 code today — note that all it does is create a few new objects and pass in references to some existing objects. No deep cloning, no crazy data shuffling, and certainly no shared lock.

The nested container now has its own configuration model for its overrides and a reference to its parent’s configuration model. In the new world order, the nested container fulfills requests by using a sort of chain of responsibility pattern internally to locate the right action. If you ask a nested container for a service, it will:

  1. Look in its own configuration to see if it has an explicit override for that service. If one exists, build that configuration.
  2. If the nested container has no explicit override, it looks into its parent for the configuration for that service. Assuming one is found, the nested container builds out that configuration

This is over-simplified of course, but that’s the gist of the new structure and design.

I’ve had to revisit several of my OSS infrastructure projects lately (StructureMap’s nested container and shared locking problems, FubuMVC’s startup time, and now StoryTeller‘s throughput speed) to address performance issues. Depending upon my ambition level, I may write a blog post on those experiences.

How and Why?

So what factors might have led me to blunder so badly with the first implementation? What are the signs that I didn’t pick up on at the time that should have told me to go a different way than the flawed original approach? Why did it take me so long to get to a better state? How did I transform the StructureMap code into a very different internal structure to enable the better nested container performance? Why did I chicken out on a complete rewrite of StructureMap a few years back? In the next post I’ll attempt to answer those questions…

Ok, to be perfectly honest, I just ran out of steam and wanna hit “publish.” Till next time, laters.


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