WCF – Windows Communication Foundation

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Build SOA applications on the Microsoft platform in this hands-on with this book and eBook

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by Mike Liu | July 2009 | Microsoft

WCF is the latest technology from Microsoft for building services. In this article by Mike Liu, we will explain what WCF is, and what it is composed of. We will also explain various .NET runtimes, .NET frameworks, Visual Studio versions, the relationships between them, and what is needed to develop or deploy WCF services. You will see some code snippets in this article that will help you to further understand WCF concepts, although they are not in a completed WCF project.

Let us discuss the following in detail:

  • What WCF is
  • Use of WCF for SOA
  • WCF architecture
  • Basic WCF concepts

What is WCF?

WCF is the acronym for Windows Communication Foundation. It is Microsoft's latest technology that enables applications in a distributed environment to communicate with each other.

WCF is Microsoft's unified programming model for building service-oriented applications. It enables developers to build secure, reliable, transacted solutions that integrate across platforms and interoperate with existing investments. WCF is built on the Microsoft .NET Framework and simplifies the development of connected systems. It unifies a broad array of distributed systems capabilities in a composable, extensible architecture that supports multiple transports, messaging patterns, encodings, network topologies, and hosting models. It is the next version of several existing products—ASP.NET's web methods (ASMX) and Microsoft Web Services Enhancements (WSE) for Microsoft .NET, .NET Remoting, Enterprise Services, and System.Messaging.

The purpose of WCF is to provide a single programming model that can be used to create services on the .NET platform for organizations.

Why is WCF used for SOA?

As we have seen in the previous section, WCF is an umbrella technology that covers ASMX web services, .NET remoting, WSE, Enterprise Service, and System.Messaging. It is designed to offer a manageable approach to distributed computing, broad interoperability, and direct support for service orientation. WCF supports many styles of distributed application development by providing a layered architecture. At its base, the WCF channel architecture provides asynchronous, untyped message-passing primitives. Built on top of this base are protocol facilities for secure, reliable, transacted data exchange and a broad choice of transport and encoding options.

Let us take an example to see why WCF is a good approach for SOA. Suppose a company is designing a service to get loan information. This service could be used by the internal call center application, an Internet web application, and a third-party Java J2EE application such as a banking system. For interactions with the call center client application, performance is important. For communication with the J2EE-based application however, interoperability becomes the highest goal. The security requirements are also quite different between the local Windows-based application, and the J2EE-based application running on another operating system. Even transactional requirements might vary, with only the internal application being allowed to make transactional requests.

With these complex requirements, it is not easy to build the desired service with any single existing technology. For example, the ASMX technology may serve well for the interoperability, but its performance may not be ideal. The .NET remoting will be a good choice from the performance perspective, but it is not good at interoperability. Enterprise Services could be used for managing object lifetimes and defining distributed transactions, but Enterprise Services supports only a limited set of communication options.

Now with WCF, it is much easier to implement this service. As WCF has unified a broad array of distributed systems capabilities, the get loan service can be built with WCF for all of its application-to-application communication. The following shows how WCF addresses each of these requirements:

  • Because WCF can communicate using web service standards, interoperability with other platforms that also support SOAP, such as the leading J2EE-based application servers, is straightforward.
  • You can also configure and extend WCF to communicate with web services using messages not based on SOAP, for example, simple XML formats such as RSS.
  • Performance is of paramount concern for most businesses. WCF was developed with the goal of being one of the fastest distributed application platforms developed by Microsoft.
  • To allow for optimal performance when both parties in a communication are built on WCF, the wire encoding used in this case is an optimized binary version of an XML Information Set. Using this option makes sense for communication with the call center client application, because it is also built on WCF, and performance is an important concern.
  • Managing object lifetimes, defining distributed transactions, and other aspects of Enterprise Services, are now provided by WCF. They are available to any WCF-based application, which means that the get loan service can use them with any of the other applications that it communicates with.
  • Because it supports a large set of the WS-* specifications, WCF helps to provide reliability, security, and transactions when communicating with any platform that supports these specifications.
  • The WCF option for queued messaging, built on Message Queuing, allows applications to use persistent queuing without using another set of application programming interfaces.

The result of this unification is greater functionality, and significantly reduced complexity.

WCF architecture

The following diagram illustrates the major layers of the Windows Communication Foundation (WCF) architecture. This diagram is taken from the Microsoft web site (http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms733128.aspx):

WCF – Windows Communication Foundation

The Contracts layer defines various aspects of the message system. For example, the Data Contract describes every parameter that makes up every message that a service can create or consume.

The Service runtime layer contains the behaviors that occur only during the actual operation of the service, that is, the runtime behaviors of the service.

The Messaging layer is composed of channels. A channel is a component that processes a message in some way, for example, authenticating a message.

In its final form, a service is a program. Like other programs, a service must be run in an executable format. This is known as the hosting application.

In the next section, we will explain these concepts in detail.

Basic WCF concepts—WCF ABCs

There are many terms and concepts around WCF, such as address, binding, contract, endpoint, behavior, hosting, and channels. Understanding these terms is very helpful when using WCF.

Address

The WCF Address is a specific location for a service. It is the specific place to which a message will be sent. All WCF services are deployed at a specific address, listening at that address for incoming requests.

A WCF Address is normally specified as a URI, with the first part specifying the transport mechanism, and the hierarchical part specifying the unique location of the service. For example, http://www.myweb.com/myWCFServices/SampleService can be an address for a WCF service. This WCF service uses HTTP as its transport protocol, and it is located on the server www.myweb.com, with a unique service path of myWCFServices/SampleService. The following diagram illustrates the three parts of a WCF service address.

WCF Multi-tier Services Development with LINQ

Binding

Bindings are used to specify the transport, encoding, and protocol details required for clients and services to communicate with each other. Bindings are what WCF uses to generate the underlying wire representation of the endpoint. So, most of the details of the binding must be agreed upon by the parties that are communicating. The easiest way to achieve this is for clients of a service to use the same binding that the service uses.

A binding is made up of a collection of binding elements. Each element describes some aspect of how the service communicates with clients. A binding must include at least one transport binding element, at least one message encoding binding element (which can be provided by the transport binding element by default), and any number of other protocol binding elements. The process that builds a runtime out of this description allows each binding element to contribute code to that runtime.

WCF provides bindings that contain common selections of binding elements. These can either be used with their default settings, or the default values can be modified according to user requirements. These system-provided bindings have properties that allow direct control over the binding elements and their settings.

The following are some examples of the system-provided bindings: BasicHttpBinding, WSHttpBinding, WSDualHttpBinding, WSFederationHttpBinding, NetTcpBinding, NetNamedPipeBinding, NetMsmqBinding, NetPeerTcpBinding, and MsmqIntegrationBinding. Each one of these built-in bindings has predefined required elements for a common task, and is ready to be used in your project. For instance, the BasicHttpBinding uses HTTP as the transport for sending SOAP 1.1 messages, and it has attributes and elements such as receiveTimeout, sendTimeout, maxMessageSize, and maxBufferSize. You can accept the default settings of its attributes and elements, or overwrite them as needed.

Contract

A WCF contract is a set of specifications that define the interfaces of a WCF service. A WCF service communicates with other applications according to its contracts. There are several types of WCF contracts, such as Service Contract, Operation Contract, Data Contract, Message Contract, and Fault Contract.

Service contract

A service contract is the interface of the WCF service. Basically, it tells others what the service can do. It may include service-level settings, such as the name of the service, the namespace of the service, and the corresponding callback contracts of the service. Inside the interface, it can define a bunch of methods, or service operations for specific tasks. Normally, a WCF service has at least one service contract.

Operation contract

An operation contract is defined within a service contract. It defines the parameters and return type of an operation. An operation can take data of a primitive (native) data type, such as an integer as a parameter, or it can take a message, which should be defined as a message contract type. Just as a service contract is an interface, an operation contract is a definition of an operation. It has to be implemented in order that the service functions as a WCF service. An operation contract also defines operation-level settings, such as the transaction flow of the operation, the directions of the operation (one-way, two-way, or both ways), and fault contract of the operation.

The following is an example of an operation contract:

[WCF::FaultContract(typeof(MyWCF.EasyNorthwind.FaultContracts.
ProductFault))]
MyWCF.EasyNorthwind.MessageContracts.GetProductResponse
GetProduct(MyWCF.EasyNorthwind.MessageContracts.GetProductRequest
request);

In this example, the operation contract's name is GetProduct, and it takes one input parameter, which is of type GetProductRequest (a message contract) and has one return value, which is of type GetProductResponse (another message contract). It may return a fault message, which is of type ProductFault (a fault contract), to the client applications. We will cover message contract and fault contract in the following sections.

Message contract

If an operation contract needs to pass a message as a parameter or return a message, the type of these messages will be defined as message contracts. A message contract defines the elements of the message, as well as any message-related settings, such as the level of message security, and also whether an element should go to the header or to the body.

The following is a message contract example:

namespace MyWCF.EasyNorthwind.MessageContracts
{
/// <summary>
/// Service Contract Class - GetProductResponse
/// </summary>
[WCF::MessageContract(IsWrapped = false)]
public partial class GetProductResponse
{
private MyWCF.EasyNorthwind.DataContracts.Product product;
[WCF::MessageBodyMember(Name = "Product")]
public MyWCF.EasyNorthwind.DataContracts.Product Product
{
get { return product; }
set { product = value; }
}
}
}

In this example, the namespace of the message contract is MyWCF.EasyNorthwind.MessageContracts, and the message contract's name is GetProductResponse. This message contract has one member, which is of type Product.

Data contract

Data contracts are data types of the WCF service. All data types used by the WCF service must be described in metadata to enable other applications to interoperate with the service. A data contract can be used by an operation contract as a parameter or return type, or it can be used by a message contract to define elements. If a WCF service uses only primitive (native) data types, it is not necessary to define any data contract.

The following is an of example data contract:

namespace MyWCF.EasyNorthwind.DataContracts
{
/// <summary>
/// Data Contract Class - Product
/// </summary>
[WcfSerialization::DataContract(Namespace = "http://MyCompany.com/
ProductService/EasyWCF/2008/05", Name = "Product")]
public partial class Product
{
private int productID;
private string productName;
[WcfSerialization::DataMember(Name = "ProductID",
IsRequired = false, Order = 0)]
public int ProductID
{
get { return productID; }
set { productID = value; }
}
[WcfSerialization::DataMember(Name =
"ProductName", IsRequired = false, Order = 1)]
public string ProductName
{
get { return productName; }
set { productName = value; }
}
}
}

In this example, the namespace of the data contract is MyWCF.EasyNorthwind.DataContracts, the name of the data contract is Product, and this data contract has two members (ProductID and ProductName).

 

Fault contract

In any WCF service operation contract, if an error can be returned to the caller, the caller should be warned of that error. These error types are defined as fault contracts. An operation can have zero or more fault contracts associated with it.

The following is a fault contract example:

namespace MyWCF.EasyNorthwind.FaultContracts
{
/// <summary>
/// Data Contract Class - ProductFault
/// </summary>
[WcfSerialization::DataContract(Namespace = "http://MyCompany.com/
ProductService/EasyWCF/2008/05", Name = "ProductFault")]
public partial class ProductFault
{
private string faultMessage;
[WcfSerialization::DataMember(Name =
"FaultMessage", IsRequired = false, Order = 0)]
public string FaultMessage
{
get { return faultMessage; }
set { faultMessage = value; }
}
}
}

In this example, the namespace of the fault contract is MyWCF.EasyNorthwind.FaultContracts, the name of the fault contract is ProductFault, and the fault contract has only one member (FaultMessage).

Endpoint

Messages are sent between endpoints. Endpoints are places where messages are sent or received (or both), and they define all of the information required for the message exchange. A service exposes one or more application endpoints (as well as zero or more infrastructure endpoints). A service can expose this information as the metadata that clients can process to generate appropriate WCF clients and communication stacks. When needed, the client generates an endpoint that is compatible with one of the service's endpoints.

A WCF service endpoint has an address, a binding, and a service contract(WCF ABC).

The endpoint's address is a network address where the endpoint resides. It describes, in a standard-based way, where messages should be sent. Each endpoint normally has one unique address, but sometimes two or more endpoints can share the same address.

The endpoint's binding specifies how the endpoint communicates with the world, including things such as transport protocol (TCP, HTTP), encoding (text, binary), and security requirements (SSL, SOAP message security).

The endpoint's contract specifies what the endpoint communicates, and is essentially a collection of messages organized in the operations that have basic Message Exchange Patterns (MEPs) such as one-way, duplex, or request/reply.

The following diagram shows the components of a WCF service endpoint.

WCF – Windows Communication Foundation

Behavior

A WCF behavior is a type, or settings to extend the functionality of the original type. There are many types of behaviors in WCF, such as service behavior, binding behavior, contract behavior, security behavior and channel behavior. For example, a new service behavior can be defined to specify the transaction timeout of the service, the maximum concurrent instances of the service, and whether the service publishes metadata. Behaviors are configured in the WCF service configuration file.

Hosting

A WCF service is a component that can be called by other applications. It must be hosted in an environment in order to be discovered and used by others. The WCF host is an application that controls the lifetime of the service. With .NET 3.0 and beyond, there are several ways to host the service.

Self hosting

A WCF service can be self-hosted, which means that the service runs as a standalone application and controls its own lifetime. This is the most flexible and easiest way of hosting a WCF service, but its availability and features are limited.

Windows services hosting

A WCF service can also be hosted as a Windows service. A Windows service is a process managed by the operating system and it is automatically started when Windows is started (if it is configured to do so). However, it lacks some critical features (such as versioning) for WCF services.

IIS hosting

A better way of hosting a WCF service is to use IIS. This is the traditional way of hosting a web service. IIS, by nature, has many useful features, such as process recycling, idle shutdown, process health monitoring, message-based activation, high availability, easy manageability, versioning, and deployment scenarios. All of these features are required for enterprise-level WCF services.

Windows Activation Services hosting

The IIS hosting method, however, comes with several limitations in the service-orientation world; the dependency on HTTP is the main culprit. With IIS hosting, many of WCF's flexible options can't be utilized. This is the reason why Microsoft specifically developed a new method, called Windows Activation Services, to host WCF services.

Windows Process Activation Service (WAS) is the new process activation mechanism for Windows Server 2008 that is also available on Windows Vista. It retains the familiar IIS 6.0 process model (application pools and message-based process activation) and hosting features (such as rapid failure protection, health monitoring, and recycling), but it removes the dependency on HTTP from the activation architecture. IIS 7.0 uses WAS to accomplish message-based activation over HTTP. Additional WCF components also plug into WAS to provide message-based activation over the other protocols that WCF supports, such as TCP, MSMQ, and named pipes. This allows applications that use the non-HTTP communication protocols to use the IIS features such as process recycling, rapid fail protection, and the common configuration systems that were only available to HTTP-based applications.

This hosting option requires that WAS be properly configured, but it does not require you to write any hosting code as part of the application. [Microsoft MSN, Hosting Services, retrieved on 3/6/2008 from http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms730158.aspx]

Channels

As we have seen in the previous sections, a WCF service has to be hosted in an application on the server side. On the client side, the client applications have to specify the bindings to connect to the WCF services. The binding elements are interfaces, and they have to be implemented in concrete classes. The concrete implementation of a binding element is called a channel. The binding represents the configuration, and the channel is the implementation associated with that configuration. Therefore, there is a channel associated with each binding element. Channels stack on top of one another to create the concrete implementation of the binding—the channel stack.

The WCF channel stack is a layered communication stack with one or more channels that process messages. At the bottom of the stack is a transport channel that is responsible for adapting the channel stack to the underlying transport (for example, TCP, HTTP, SMTP and other types of transport). Channels provide a low-level programming model for sending and receiving messages. This programming model relies on several interfaces and other types collectively known as the WCF channel model. The following diagram shows a simple channel stack:

WCF – Windows Communication Foundation

Metadata

The metadata of a service describes the characteristics of the service that an external entity needs to understand in order to communicate with the service. Metadata can be consumed by the ServiceModel Metadata Utility Tool (Svcutil.exe) to generate a WCF client and the accompanying configuration that a client application can use to interact with the service.

The metadata exposed by the service includes XML schema documents, which define the data contract of the service, and WSDL documents, which describe the methods of the service.

Though WCF services will always have metadata, it is possible to hide the metadata from outsiders. If you do so, you have to pass the metadata to the client side by other means. This practice is not common, but it gives your services an extra layer of security. When enabled via the configuration settings through metadata behavior, metadata for the service can be retrieved by inspecting the service and its endpoints. The following configuration setting in a WCF service configuration file will enable the metadata publishing for HTTP transport protocol:

<serviceMetadata httpGetEnabled="true" />
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WCF production and development environments

WCF was first introduced in Microsoft's .NET Common Language Runtime (CLR) version 2.0. The corresponding framework is .NET 3.0. To develop and run WCF services, Microsoft .NET framework 3.0 or above is required.

Visual Studio is the preferred IDE for developing WCF service applications. The initial version, Visual Studio 2005, did not support WCF service application development. But with a downloadable package, "Visual Studio 2005 extensions for .NET Framework 3.0 (WCF & WPF)", Visual Studio 2005 could be used to develop WCF services. However, when Visual Studio 2008 SP1 was released, Microsoft stopped this download. So now, Visual Studio 2008 is the only Microsoft IDE available for WCF service application development. Visual Studio 2008 also supports application development for .Net framework 2.0, 3.0 and 3.5 (this is called multi-targeting).

The following table shows all of the different the versions of the .NET runtimes, .NET frameworks, and Visual Studios, along with their relationships:

CLR

.NET Framework

Components

Visual Studio

CLR 2.0

.NET 3.5

LINQ

ASP.NET AJAX

REST

RSS

VS2008

LINQ to SQL

LINQ to XML

LINQ to Objects

.NET 3.0

WCF

WPF

WF

CardSpace

.NET 2.0

Winforms

ASP.NET

ADO.NET

VS2005VS2008

CLR 1.0

.NET 1.1

Winforms

ASP.NET

ADO.NET

VS2003

.NET 1.0

VS2002

 

Summary

In this article, we have learned some basic concepts of WCF. The key points in this article include the following:

  • WCF is a better technology for developing SOA services
  • A WCF service has at least one service endpoint
  • A WCF service endpoint has an address, a binding, and a service contract
  • A WCF service can be self-hosted, or can be hosted in a managed or an unmanaged application
  • A WCF service can publish metadata, and communicates with client applications through channels
  • .NET framework 3.0 or above is required to develop and run WCF service applications
  • Visual Studio 2008 is the preferred IDE for WCF service application development
WCF Multi-tier Services Development with LINQ Build SOA applications on the Microsoft platform in this hands-on with this book and eBook
Published: December 2008
eBook Price: $26.99
Book Price: $44.99
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About the Author :


Mike Liu

Mike Liu studied Mathematics and Software Engineering at Nanjing University and Brandeis University, graduated with a bachelor’s degree and a master's degree respectively. He is a Sun Certified Java Programmer (SCJP), Microsoft Certified Solution Developer for Visual Studio 6.0 and Microsoft Certified Solution Developer for .NET. He has been working as a software Engineer/architect on various platforms (DOS, Unix, and Windows) using C/C++, Java, VB/VB.NET, and C#.

Mike started using C# for production development back in 2001 when C# was still in beta stage and he is now working as a senior software engineer for an investment management firm in Boston, Mass.

Mike had his first book,MITT: Multi-user Integrated Table-processing Tool Under Unix,published in 1993, and a second book,Advanced C# Programming,published in 2003. The previous two versions of this book,WCF Multi-tier Services Development with LINQ and WCF 4.0 Multi-tier Services Development with LINQ to Entities,were published in 2008 and 2010.

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