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PortletMVC4Spring & Async REST Client

Application Integration - Part I

With this first blog, I'd like to start a series about application integration. Quite often, I encounter projects where Liferay must integrate with some backend services. There are lots of integration patterns.

  • Integration may happen at browser or server side.
  • There are many development frameworks available (React, Vue, MVC Portlet, Liferay Faces, Spring MVC Portlet...)
  • Communication with backend service may be happen through many communication protocols likes REST, GraphQL, SOAP, RabbitMQ, Kafka...

The idea behind this series is to build some sample projects for illustrative use cases in order to focus on specific issues you may encounter and to provide some ideas about how to deal with them.

The application server's pool of threads

As soon as you depend on some third party system in your project, you may find out that they have some performance issues.

Let's take the example of a REST backend service (https://petstore.swagger.io) and imagine it could have performance issues.  Not only is bad backend performance going to impact response time, but you also have to beware that most of the time, backend integrations are written in a synchronous fashion.

What it means is that the JVM Thread which has issued the HTTP Request is going to wait for the Response to be received (or the response timeout). The application server has a max number of threads (Tomcat's default is usually 200). As a consequence, if at some point you have several users who have triggered a lot of calls to backend services, they may end up clogging up the Thread pool.

Connection and response timeouts can usually be configured in most java HTTP client libraries and you should take some time defining the proper values for them. Otherwise, any backend service accepting connections but not answering in a reasonable amount of time may stuck your application server.

Async Servlet context

The default ServletContext is synchronous. It means that for each servlet request the servlet container is going to manage, the context is assigned to one available Thread from the Thread Pool. This is something you can easily monitor from within your application logs where the ID of the threads appears between brackets, just after the timestamp and the log level.

Note: There are a few places in the Liferay source code where Liferay relies on this to write and read data inside of a ThreadLocal (ie. a variable local to the thread) so as to avoid propagating lots of info from the servlet context.

The Servlet 3.0 API has introduced the concept of the AsyncContext. The idea behind this concept is to detach a request/response context and answer to it later. For example, you may receive a servlet request, issue an HTTP request to a backend service, release the initial worker thread and wait for a callback to have another thread write the response.

Having an async context managed through the specification has a strong advantage. The framework helps you making sure you do not end up with loose Threads. The AsyncContext provides constructs to help you bind your worker threads with a context so that you can easily terminate them all together if, for example, the client aborts the servlet request.

The synchronous Render Phase

If you have looked at Liferay Portal properties, you may have seen this:

    layout.parallel.render.enable=false

This is a feature that used to be available until Liferay 6.x. It used to allow parallel rendering of portlets on the layout. Its mention remains until the 7.2 documentation as a remainder that it was removed.

This is something important to have in mind: if you have several portlets on a page, they are rendered one after another. I was not around when this change happened. However, this capability was not standard in the portlet specification and my feeling is that it was somehow replaced with Senna.js' ability to perform partial page refreshing.

Asynchronism and the Portlet specification

Now, let's imagine you have written a portlet and its Render Phase depends on a series of backend services calls.

One common pattern is to move those expensive service calls to a Resource Phase and take advantage of iframes or AJAX calls to build the view iteratively. Besides, you can also have every backend service call be encapsulated within its own resource request.

While this is going to help solve the response time issue, this solution may accelerate the starvation of the Thread Pool.

Wheras the Render Phase is synchronous territory, the Portlet 3.0 specification has embraced the Servlet 3.0 AsyncContext novelty and allows you to use a PortletAsyncContext from inside of a Resource Request.

Let's look at this Resource Controller (see Git repo):

@ResourceMapping("pets")
public void getPets(ResourceRequest resourceRequest) {
        
    // Start an async context
    PortletAsyncContext portletAsyncContext = resourceRequest.startPortletAsync();

    // Request completable futures for 3 API calls
    CompletableFuture<List<Pet>> availablePetsfuture = this._petService.getPets("available");
    CompletableFuture<List<Pet>> pendingPetsfuture = this._petService.getPets("pending");
    CompletableFuture<List<Pet>> soldPetsfuture = this._petService.getPets("sold");

    // Create a runnable responsible for the management of the async process
    // It implements Runnable
    PetsResourceRequestRunnable task = new PetsResourceRequestRunnable(portletAsyncContext, availablePetsfuture, pendingPetsfuture, soldPetsfuture);

    // Setting timeout to the async context
    portletAsyncContext.setTimeout(Constants.ASYNC_TIMEOUT);
        
    // This listener handles events related to that async context (timeout, completion...)
    portletAsyncContext.addListener(new PetsResourcePortletAsyncListener(task));
        
    // The initial ServletRequest thread will be released and the response will be managed by another thread as the context completes
    portletAsyncContext.start(task);
        
}

When dealing with such resource request, the controller first starts a PortletAsyncContext, then requests a CompletableFuture for 3 web service calls and assigns their handling to an async task that will be managed through a callback handler.

About PortletMVC4Spring

Spring 4 has recently reached end of life. However, I often see projects that still use Spring 4 MVC Portlets.

Spring 5 was quite an impactful upgrade from our point of view because the project decided to get rid of a lot of niche features. Among them, Spring MVC Portlets. This is the reason why the PortletMVC4Spring project was born. See more details in Neil's blog post.

I decided to build this sample project using PortletMVC4Spring because Spring MVC Portlet has often been the framework of choice for building Liferay apps that integrate with large backend systems. As a consequence, this is one place where you're likely to find that kind of integration with slow backend services facading stuff like old AS/400 apps or Mainframes.

Moving from synchronous calls to callbacks / promises

We will now showcase how you can turn synchronous calls to those CompletableFutures. Java's CompletableFuture is close to Javascript's Promise. I won't go into details because that could be a blog post on its own but this is a variable that somehow allows you to hold a pointer to a future value.

In order to benefit from this construct, you need a java HTTP client library able to deal with asynchronous communication. Spring REST Template (which is a quite popular choice among Java developpers) is unable to do it. Among the other libraries available, my preference goes to OkHttp (an all purpose Http Client) + Retrofit (a library that turns a Swagger / OpenAPI definition into a Java interface, using OkHttp under the hood).

Example of code generation for Retrofit using Swagger Codegen (See Git repo):

<plugin>
    <groupId>io.swagger</groupId>
    <artifactId>swagger-codegen-maven-plugin</artifactId>
    <version>2.4.19</version>
    <executions>
        <execution>
            <goals>
                <goal>generate</goal>
            </goals>
            <configuration>
                <inputSpec>${project.basedir}/src/main/resources/swagger.json</inputSpec>
                <language>java</language>
                <library>retrofit2</library>
                <configOptions>
                   <sourceFolder>src/gen/java/main</sourceFolder>
                </configOptions>
            </configuration>
        </execution>
    </executions>
</plugin>

Using that generator code, this is how you're going to issue an Call from within you Service module (see Git repo):

// I create a client so that I can attach a logger
OkHttpClient client = new OkHttpClient.Builder()
    .addInterceptor(new OkHttpLoggingInterceptor())
    .callTimeout(Constants.OKHTTP_TIMEOUT, TimeUnit.MILLISECONDS)
    .build();
        
Retrofit.Builder builder = new Retrofit.Builder()
    .baseUrl(BASE_URL)
    .addConverterFactory(GsonConverterFactory.create()).client(client);
        
Retrofit retrofit = builder.build();

PetApi petApi = retrofit.create(PetApi.class);
        
List<String> statusList = new ArrayList<String>();
statusList.add(status);
        
// This is my Retrofit call
Call<List<Pet>> asyncCall = petApi.findPetsByStatus(statusList);

At this point, you may treat this Call in a sync or async fashion. In the next instructions, I'm going to treat it asynchronously, turning the callback into a CompletableFuture (see Git repo):

// I'm making an async call and manage the completable future's outcome in Retrofit's callback
asyncCall.enqueue(new Callback<List<Pet>>() {

    @Override
    public void onFailure(Call<List<Pet>> call, Throwable t) {
                
        LOG.debug("Request failed");
        future.completeExceptionally(new PetServiceException("Request failed"));

    }

    @Override
    public void onResponse(Call<List<Pet>> call, Response<List<Pet>> response) {

        if(response.isSuccessful()) {

            LOG.debug("Request succeeded");
            future.complete(response.body());
        
        } else {

            LOG.debug("Request failed with code " + response.code());
            future.completeExceptionally(new PetServiceException("Response got code " + response.code()));
        
        }
    }

});

Supporting async on your PortletMVC4Spring

In order for this to work, you have to configure your portlet to support asynchronism.

First, you have to mark it in the portlet.xml descriptor (see Git repo):

<?xml version="1.0"?>
<portlet-app xmlns="http://xmlns.jcp.org/xml/ns/portlet" xmlns:xsi="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema-instance" xsi:schemaLocation="http://xmlns.jcp.org/xml/ns/portlet http://xmlns.jcp.org/xml/ns/portlet/portlet-app_3_0.xsd" version="3.0">
    <portlet>
        <portlet-name>spring-mvc-petstore-portlet</portlet-name>
        <display-name>spring-mvc-petstore-portlet</display-name>
        <portlet-class>com.liferay.portletmvc4spring.DispatcherPortlet</portlet-class>
        (...)
        <async-supported>true</async-supported>
    </portlet>
    (...)
</portlet-app>

And you also need to activate it at the Spring MVC Portlet context level (see Git repo):

<?xml version="1.0"?>
<beans
    xmlns="http://www.springframework.org/schema/beans"
    xmlns:context="http://www.springframework.org/schema/context"
    xmlns:xsi="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema-instance"
    xmlns:mvc="http://www.springframework.org/schema/mvc"
    xsi:schemaLocation="
        http://www.springframework.org/schema/beans http://www.springframework.org/schema/beans/spring-beans.xsd
        http://www.springframework.org/schema/context http://www.springframework.org/schema/context/spring-context.xsd
        http://www.springframework.org/schema/mvc http://www.springframework.org/schema/mvc/spring-mvc.xsd">
    <context:component-scan base-package="com.liferay.samples.fbo.spring.petstore.**"/>
    <mvc:annotation-driven>
        <mvc:async-support default-timeout="10000"></mvc:async-support>
    </mvc:annotation-driven>

    <bean id="portletMultipartResolver" class="com.liferay.portletmvc4spring.multipart.StandardPortletMultipartResolver" />
</beans>

And finally at the Servlet Context level (see Git repo):

<?xml version="1.0"?>
<web-app version="3.0" xmlns="http://java.sun.com/xml/ns/javaee" xmlns:xsi="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema-instance" xsi:schemaLocation="http://java.sun.com/xml/ns/javaee http://java.sun.com/xml/ns/javaee/web-app_3_0.xsd">

    <context-param>
        <param-name>contextConfigLocation</param-name>
        <param-value>/WEB-INF/spring-context/portlet-application-context.xml</param-value>
    </context-param>
    <servlet>
        <servlet-name>ViewRendererServlet</servlet-name>
        <servlet-class>com.liferay.portletmvc4spring.ViewRendererServlet</servlet-class>
        <load-on-startup>1</load-on-startup>
        <async-supported>true</async-supported>
    </servlet>
    <servlet-mapping>
        <servlet-name>ViewRendererServlet</servlet-name>
        <url-pattern>/WEB-INF/servlet/view</url-pattern>
    </servlet-mapping>
    <filter>
        <filter-name>delegatingFilterProxy</filter-name>
        <filter-class>org.springframework.web.filter.DelegatingFilterProxy</filter-class>
        <async-supported>true</async-supported>
    </filter>
    <filter-mapping>
        <filter-name>delegatingFilterProxy</filter-name>
        <url-pattern>/WEB-INF/servlet/view</url-pattern>
        <dispatcher>FORWARD</dispatcher>
        <dispatcher>INCLUDE</dispatcher>
        <dispatcher>ASYNC</dispatcher>
    </filter-mapping>
    <listener>
        <listener-class>org.springframework.web.context.ContextLoaderListener</listener-class>
    </listener>

</web-app>

Handling the responses

Now that we have all the fragment in place to spawn a Handler dealing with all the response promises, let's have a look at how we could manage it (see Git repo):

@Override
public void run() {

    // We're going to run all 3 requests in parallel
    getPetsFromApi(this._availablePetsFuture, new MarkAvailablePets(), "available");
    getPetsFromApi(this._pendingPetsFuture, new MarkPendingPets(), "pending");
    getPetsFromApi(this._soldPetsFuture, new MarkSoldPets(), "sold");
    
}

In this program, I'm going to receive the responses for my 3 API calls in any order. The code is going to use the ResourceResponse's PrintWriter to write the corresponding output as we receive it and check whether all 3 requests have been completed. In which case, it will ask the PortletAsyncContext to complete:

public void getPetsFromApi(CompletableFuture<List<Pet>> future, MarkPets callback, String status) {

    // Look closely at the logs, you'll see the order in which they display depends on execution
    LOG.debug("Running petstore " + status + " request");

    future.exceptionally(exception -> {
            
        // In case of an error, I make the future return an empty list instead of the response
        LOG.error("Failed to get " + status + " Pet", exception);
        return new ArrayList<>();
        
    }).thenAcceptAsync(list -> {

        if(_isTerminated) {

            LOG.debug("Don't write anything, the task was terminated");
                
        } else {

            // The task is still running, I'm printing stuff to the output
            writePets(status, list);

        }
            
    }).whenComplete((i, t) -> {
            
        if(_isTerminated) {

            LOG.debug("Don't do anything else, the task was terminated");
                
        } else {

            // This subtask is complete
            callback.done();
                
            // If all 3 tasks are complete, we complete the asyncContext which is going to close the output's writer
            if(allDone()) {
                _portletAsyncContext.complete();
            }

        }

    });

}

Managing corner cases

We have configured some response timeouts both at the ResourceResponse level and also for each of the backend service calls.

1/ If one individual web service call times out, the CompletableFuture will Complete Exceptionnally (with an exception) and won't write any output. In my example, this will not impact the other calls which are going to try to finish on time and write their output.

We could also have decided that one timeout should cancel all the other requests leading to the same outcome as 2/.

2/ If the ResourceResponse times out, then there is no need to wait for the backend service calls to finish, we can cancel them (see Git repo).

// This is executed on async context timeout 
@Override
public void onTimeout(PortletAsyncEvent evt) throws IOException {
    LOG.debug("Async timeout");
    // We ask the Runnable task to terminate what was still running 
    _task.terminate();
    // We write a message to the output 
    Writer writer = evt.getPortletAsyncContext().getResourceResponse().getWriter();
    writer.append("<h1 style='color: red'>Timeout error</h1>");
    evt.getPortletAsyncContext().complete();        
}

Asking all the CompletableFutures to be cancelled (see Git repo):

public void terminate() {
        
    LOG.debug("Request to terminate");
    
    this._isTerminated = true;

    // Completable Futures can be canceled!
    _availablePetsFuture.cancel(true);
    _pendingPetsFuture.cancel(true);
    _soldPetsFuture.cancel(true);

    // If the Completable Future has already completed, cancel does nothing 
        
}

This is possible because OkHttp supports the interruption of HTTP calls (see Git repo):

// This is how I manage cancellation
final CompletableFuture<List<Pet>> future = new CompletableFuture<List<Pet>>() {
    @Override public boolean cancel(boolean mayInterruptIfRunning) {
        if (mayInterruptIfRunning) {
            asyncCall.cancel();
        }
        return super.cancel(mayInterruptIfRunning);
    }
};

Conclusion and next steps

The architecture of this project can be summarized with the following diagram:


 

See the complete source code of the sample project in this git repository.

Using PortletAsyncContext in Liferay has been introduced alongside Portlet 3.0 but this feature has not been promoted a lot yet. I hope that this blog post will give you some ideas and help you find new solution paths to the issues you encounter in your projects. Because this practice is new, I expect there are going to be some iterations before we establish true best practices. Please comment the blog post or reach out to me fabian.bouche@liferay.com if you'd like to share your thoughts.

The next blog post will deal with a similar use case:

  • Instead of PortletMVC4Spring, we'll use plain old MVCPortlet and use the PortletRequestDispatcher to write the response using JSPs instead of the PrintWriter.
  • Instead of targetting a REST API, we will target a SOAP web service
    • We will use cxf-codegen-plugin to generate the SOAP client from the WSDL file
    • We will use some specific parameters to generate some alternative async methods
    • We will make sure it works well with JDK 11 (JDK 9 has removed some JDK-internal JAXWS and JAXB packages which have caused some problems to Liferay developers migrating from JDK8 to JDK11: I think I've got some solutions to share)

UPDATE

The second part is available here: https://liferay.dev/blogs/-/blogs/-async-soap-clients-with-jdk-11