Wanted: Effectively-Once Processing in Azure

This experimental post is a question. The question is too broad for StackOverflow, so I’m posting it here. Please engage in the comments section, or forward the link to subject experts.

TL;DR: Are there any known patterns / tools / frameworks to provide scalable, stateful, effectively-once, end-to-end processing of messages, to be hosted in Azure, preferably on PaaS-level of service?

Motivational Example

Let’s say we are making a TODO app. There is a constant flow of requests to create a TODO in the system. Each request contains just two fields: a title and a project ID which TODO should belong to. Here is the definition:

type TodoRequest = {
  ProjectId: int
  Title: string

Now, we want to process the request and assign each TODO an identifier, which should be an auto-incremented integer. Numeration is unique per project, so each TODO must have its own combination of ProjectId and Id:

type Todo = {
  ProjectId: int
  Id: int
  Title: string

Now, instead of relying on some database sequences, I want to describe this transformation as a function. The function has the type (TodoRequest, int) -> (Todo, int), i.e. it transforms a tuple of a request and current per-project state (last generated ID) to a tuple of a TODO and post-processing state:

let create (request: TodoRequest, state: int) =
  let nextId = state + 1
  let todo = {
    ProjectId = request.ProjectId
    Id = nextId
    Title = request.Title
  todo, nextId

This is an extremely simple function, and I can use it to great success to process local, non-durable data.

But if I need to make a reliable distributed application out of it, I need to take care of lots of things:

  1. No request should be lost. I need to persist all the requests into a durable storage in case of processor crash.

  2. Similarly, I need to persist TODO’s too. Presumably, some downstream logic will use the persisted data later on in TODO’s lifecycle.

  3. The state (the counter) must be durable too. In case of crash of processing function, I want to be able to restart processing after recovery.

  4. Processing of the requests should be sequential per project ID. Otherwise I might get a clash of ID’s in case two requests belonging to the same project are processed concurrently.

  5. I still want requests to different projects to be processed in parallel, to make sure the system scales up with the growth of project count.

  6. There must be no holes or duplicates in TODO numbering per project, even in face of system failures. In worst case, I agree to tolerate a duplicated entry in the output log, but it must be exactly the same entry (i.e. two entries with same project id, id and title).

  7. The system should tolerate a permanent failure of any single hardware dependency and automatically fail-over within reasonable time.

It’s not feasible to meet all of those requirements without relying on some battle-tested distributed services or frameworks.

Which options do I know of?


Traditionally, this kind of requirements were solved by using transactions in something like SQL Server. If I store requests, TODO’s and current ID per project in the same relational database, I can make each processing step a single atomic transaction.

This addresses all the concerns, as long as we can stay inside the single database. That’s probably a viable option for the TODO app, but less of so if I convert my toy example to some real applications like IoT data processing.

Can we do the same for distributed systems at scale?

Azure Event Hubs

Since I touched IoT space, the logical choice would be to store our entries in Azure Event Hubs. That works for many criteria, but I don’t see any available approach to make such processing consistent in the face of failures.

When processing is done, we need to store 3 pieces: generated TODO event, current processing offset and current ID. Event goes to another event hub, processing offset is stored in Blob Storage and ID can be saved to something like Table Storage.

But there’s no way to store those 3 pieces atomically. Whichever order we choose, we are bound to get anomalies in some specific failure modes.

Azure Functions

Azure Functions don’t solve those problems. But I want to mention this Function-as-a-Service offering because they provide an ideal programming model for my use case.

I need to take just one step from my domain function to Azure Function: to define bindings for e.g. Event Hubs and Table Storage.

However, reliability guarantees will stay poor. I won’t get neither sequential processing per Event Hub partition key, nor atomic state commit.

Azure Service Fabric

Service Fabric sounds like a good candidate service for reliable processing. Unfortunately, I don’t have much experience with it to judge.

Please leave a comment if you do.

JVM World

There are products in JVM world which claim to solve my problem perfectly.

Apache Kafka was the inspiration for Event Hubs log-based messaging. The recent Kafka release provides effectively-once processing semantics as long as data stay inside Kafka. Kafka does that with atomic publishing to multiple topics, and state storage based on compacted topics.

Apache Flink has similar guarantees for its stream processing APIs.

Great, but how do I get such awesomeness in .NET code, and without installing expensive ZooKeeper-managed clusters?

Call for Feedback

Do you know a solution, product or service?

Have you developed effectively-once processing on .NET / Azure stack?

Are you in touch with somebody who works on such framework?

Please leave a comment, or ping me on Twitter.

Cloud developer and researcher.
Software engineer at Pulumi. Microsoft Azure MVP.

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