Tuesday 15 June 2010

Extending ASP.NET MVC with custom binders and results

Recently, I was putting together a brief sample for someone who wanted to use protobuf-net with ASP.NET as part of a basic HTTP transport; fairly simple stuff – just using protobuf as the binary body of the HTTP request/response.

It was a simple enough demo, but it got me wondering: what would be required to do this (more cleanly) in ASP.NET MVC? In many ways we just want something pretty similar to how many people currently use JSON: forget the formal API – just tell me the routes and let me know what data I need.

It turns out that this is astonishingly easy…

The controller

A good way of understanding the big picture is to look at the controller. So let’s take a peek:


One very basic controller, with one action. Things to note:

  • We want to read the request parameter (“req”) from the request body
  • To do that, we’re using a custom binder, via [ProtoPost] which we’ll see shortly
  • We could have exposed different input arguments separately – it would have added complexity, and isn’t very compatible with the way that requests are written in the .proto language, so I’ve restricted myself to binding a single (composite) parameter
  • We run some logic, same as normal
  • We return an action-result that will write the response back as protobuf

The nice thing about this is that (no matter which option you use to control your routes) it is very simple to add actions (as different urls).

That might be all you need to know!

I’ll include more explanation for completeness, but if you want a simple way of throwing objects over http efficiently and in an interoperable way, that might be enough.

The binder

The binder’s job is it understand the incoming request, and map that into things the controller can understand, such as method variables. There are two parts to a binder: writing the code to handle the input, and telling the system to use it. Writing a binder, it turns out, can be pretty simple (well – if you already have the serialization engine available); here’s all there is:


This simply checks that the caller is doing a POST, and if they are it passes the input stream to protobuf-net, based on the parameter type (which is available from the binding-context).

The other part is to tell ASP.NET MVC to use it; in my case I’m using a new [ProtoPost] attribute which simply creates the binder:


The result

Just as a controller doesn’t need to know how to parse input, it also doesn’t know how to format output – that is the job of an action-result; we’ll write our own, that we can re-use to write objects to the response stream. Which is actually less work than writing the last sentence!


Again – some very basic code that simply takes an object and writes it to the output stream via protobuf-net.

Anything else?

OK, I’ve taken some shortcuts there. To do it properly you might want to check for an expected content-type, etc – and things like security is left open for your own implementation (just like it would be for any other similar object-passing API). I’m just showing the core object <===> stream code here. But it works, and is painless.

The example code (include the ASP.NET / IHttpHandler equivalent, and an example client) is all available in the protobuf-net trunk, here.

Sunday 6 June 2010

protobuf-net; a status update

I keep promising “v2” is just around the corner, and (quite reasonably) I get a steady stream of “when” e-mails / tweets etc, so it is time for a status update…

…but first I must apologise for the delay; the short version is that in the last few weeks I’ve changed jobs, and it has taken a bit of time to get my daily pattern (work time, family time, geek time, etc) sorted. Since I no longer spend 4 hours a day commuting, in theory I have more time available. In reality I’m spending lots more time with my family, which I don’t regret. But I’m getting back into the “crazy geek” thing ;p

So where is protobuf-net?

The first thing to note that “v2” is not a minor change; it completely changes the crazy-complex generics pipeline (which killed CF, and was generally a bad design choice for lots of reasons), opting instead for a non-generic pipeline coupled with an IL emitter to get the maximum performance. It also introduces a whole new metadata abstraction layer, and static dll usage (so it works on iPhone (but don’t ask me how the SDK rules affect this; IANAL), Phone 7, and so that CF doesn’t have to use reflection).

The numbers

  • Tests for new new features (metadata abstraction, IL generation, etc): 100%
  • Compatibility tests:79% (228 / 287, plus some skipped that won’t be in the first alpha release)

I should note: my unit tests for this tend, right or wrong, to each cover a number of features; it is very hard to make the regression tests overly granular, but to be honest I think we can all agree that the main objective is not to have the world’s most beautiful tests, but rather: to check that the system works robustly.

The gaps

  • Mapped enums; it’ll handle enums, but it currently only treats them as pass-thrus to the underlying primitive value. It doesn’t currently process [ProtoEnum]. Not hard, just time.
  • Member inference (which was the best “v1” could do to allow serialization of types outside your control); this doesn’t involve IL, so not too tricky – and not used by the majority.
  • Roundtrip for unexpected fields (currently dropped; this also impacts the memcached transcoder)
  • Parse/ToString fallback for unknown types (another “v1” feature)
  • Packed arrays (an optional, alternative wire-format for lists/arrays; this won’t affect you if you haven’t heard of it, since it is opt-in)
  • *WithLengthPrefix – for reading/writing multiple objects to/from a single stream
  • GetProto (this is deferred from the alpha release, as it isn’t “core” functionality, and is significant work to do properly)

No show-stoppers; just work to do. Not long now. I’m reluctant to promise a “when” since I’ve delayed already…