practicing techie

tech oriented notes to self and lessons learned

Asynchronous event-driven servers with Apache MINA

A while ago we had to do performance testing for a web application that depends on an external network service that couldn’t be tested in-place with high data volumes. We wanted to include the network protocol communication with the external service in the test (i.e. work on “system integration testing” level) and there was no existing mock server, so I decided to spend a few hours evaluating if we could implement one ourselves. Since the mock server can obviously become a bottleneck I had to make sure it was implemented efficiently (IO, threading, session and memory usage etc.) enough.

Implementing a server that leverages asynchronous IO with Java NIO can be a tedious task mainly because incoming and outgoing protocol messages will get fragmented and you need to handle things like defragmentation and state management. The network protocol handling code can be difficult to get correctly and if you don’t design your abstractions carefully, it will get intertwined with application level logic resulting in unmaintainable code.

There are several prominent asynchronous event-driven network communication frameworks for Java that you can use for implementing protocol servers and clients. Among the better known are Netty, Apache MINA and GlassFish Grizzly. These frameworks allow implementing scalable, high-performance and extensible network applications. The application developer is freed of much of the protocol message handling, state, session and thread management details. All of the frameworks listed above are widely used and mature, but I had to pick one and decided to give Apache MINA 2.0 a try.

Apache MINA defines the concept of a service, which in abstract terms represents a network accessible endpoint that a consumer can communicate with to request it to perform some well-defined task. An IoService class instance acts as an entry point to a service, which is implemented as a connector on the client-side and as an acceptor on the server-side. An acceptor is used when implementing servers and they act as communication endpoints to a service accepting new sessions and mediating network traffic between consumers and the server side components responsible for actual message processing. The application developer picks an appropriate acceptor type (e.g. NioSocketAcceptor for non-blocking TCP/IP) based on his requirements. Acceptors are responsible for network communication, connection and thread management etc. but you they delegate responsibilities to other interfaces that you’re free to customize and configure. As a minimum you’ll need to configure an IoHandler interface implementation that takes care of handling different I/O events, for servers most notably receiving messages, but you can also choose to handle session and exception related events. An acceptor can also have multiple filters that can do I/O event pre and post processing. You’ll typically need to configure at least a protocol message encoder and decoder (ProtocolCodecFilter), that will take care of message serialization and deserialization.

I found that Apache MINA really did fulfill its promise and implementing a high-performance, scalable and extensible network server was easy using it. MINA also helps very cleanly separate network communication and application level message processing logic. Supporting multiple different protocols in in the same server is well supported in MINA. As a downside the documentation for v2.0 is a bit lacking, but fortunately there are quite a few code samples that you can check out.

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