AJ's blog

August 29, 2010

CommunicationException: NotFound

Filed under: .NET, .NET Framework, ASP.NET, C#, Silverlight, Software Development, WCF — ajdotnet @ 3:44 pm

CommunicationException: NotFound – that is the one exception that bugs every Silverlight developer sooner or later. Take the image from an earlier post:

app_error

This error essentially tells you that a server call somehow messed up – which is obvious – and nothing beyond, much less anything useful to diagnose the issue.

This not exactly rocket science, but the question comes up regularly at the Silverlight forums, so I’m trying to convey the complete picture once and for all (and only point to it, once the question comes up again – and it will!).

I’m also violating my rule not to write about something that is readily available somewhere else. But I have the feeling that the available information is either limited to certain aspects, not conveying the complete picture, or hard to come by or to understand. Why else would the question come up that regularly?

 

The Root Cause

So, why the “NotFound”, anyway? Any HTTP response contains a numeric code. 200 (OK) if everything went well, others for errors, redirections, caching, etc.; a list can be found at wikipedia. Any error whatsoever results in a different result code, say 401 (Unauthorized), 404 (NotFound), or 503 (Service unavailable).

Any plugin using the browser network stack (as Silverlight does by default) however is also subject to some restrictions the browser imposes in the name of security: The browser will only pass 200 in good cases or 404 without any further information in any other case to the plugin. And the plugin can do exactly NIL about it, as it never gets around to see the original response.

Note: This is not Silverlight specific, but happens to every plugin that makes use of the browser network stack.

Generally speaking there are two different groups of issues that are reported as errors:

  1. Service errors: The services throws some kind of exception.
  2. Infrastructure issues: The service cannot be reached at all.

Since those two groups of issues have very different root causes, it makes sense to be able to at least tell them apart, if nothing else. This is already half of the diagnosis.

 

Handling Service Errors

Any exception thrown by a WCF service is by default returns as service error (i.e. SOAP fault) with HTTP response code 500 (Internal Server Errors). And as we have established above, the Silverlight plugin never get’s to see that error.

The recommended way to handle this situation is to tweak the HTTP response code to 200 (OK) and expect the Silverlight client code to be able to distinguish error from valid result. Actually this is already backed into WCF: A generated client proxy will deliver errors via the AsyncCompletedEventArgs.Error property – if we tweak the response code that is. Fortunately the extensible nature of WCF allows us to do just that using a behavior, which you can find readily available here.

Once we get errors through to Silverlight we can go ahead and make actual use of the error to further distinguish server errors:

  1. Business errors (e.g. server side validations) with additional information (like the property that was invalid).
  2. Generic business errors with no additional information.
  3. Technical errors on the server (database not available, NullReferenceException, …).

It’s the technical errors that will reveal more diagnostic information about the issue at hand, but let’ go through them one by one…

Business errors with additional information are actually part of the service’s contract, more to the point, the additional information constitutes the fault contract:

code_declared_fault1

code_declared_fault2

These faults are also called declared faults for the very reason that they are part of the contract and declared in advance. Declared faults are thrown and handled as FaultException<T> (available as full blown .NET version on the server, and as respective counterpart in Silverlight), with the additional information as generic type parameter:

code_throw_declared

Note: There’s no need to construct the FaultException from another exception. And of course this StandardFault class is rather simplistic, not covering more fine-grained information, e.g. invalid properties – which you may need in order to plug into the client side validation infrastructure. But that’s another post.

On the client side this information is available in a similar way, and can be used to give the user feedback:

code_handle_declared

Generic business errors are not part of the service contract, hence they are called undeclared faults, and they cannot contain additional information beyond what the already got. From a coding perspective they are represented by FaultExceptions (the non-generic version, .NET and Silverlight) and thrown and handled similarly to declared faults:

code_handle_undeclared

However, the documentation states…

“In a service, use the FaultException class to create an untyped fault to return to the client for debugging purposes. […]

In general, it is strongly recommended that you use the FaultContractAttribute to design your services to return strongly typed SOAP faults (and not managed exception objects) for all fault cases in which you decide the client requires fault information. […]”

MSDN

 

That leaves arbitrary exceptions thrown for whatever reason in your service. WCF also translates them to (undeclared) faults, yet it uses the generic version of FaultException, with the predefined type ExceptionDetails. This way, any exception in the service can (or rather could) be picked up on the client:

code_handle_exception

However, while ExceptionDetails contains information about exception type, stack trace, and so on, that fault contains by default only a generic text, stating “The server was unable to process the request due to an internal error.”. This is exactly as it should be in production, where any further information might give the wrong person too much information. During development however it may make sense to get more information, to be able to diagnose these issues more quickly. To do that, the configuration has to be changed:

config_exception_debug

And now the returned information contains various details about the original exception:

app_exception_info

BTW: To complete the error handling on the client, you need to to address the situation were the issue was on the client itself, in which case the exception would not be of some FaultException type:

code_handle_client_error

This covers any exception thrown from the WCF service, provided it could be reached at all.

Alternative routes…

As I said, tweaking the HTTP response code is the recommended way to handle these errors. This is still a compromise on the protocol level to work around the browser network stack limitation. However, there are other workarounds to do that, and for the sake of completeness:

  1. Compromise on the service’s contract: Rather than using the fault contract, one could include the error information in the regular data contract. This is typical for REST style services, e.g. Amazon works that way. For my application services I am generally reluctant to make that compromise. The down side is that is doesn’t cover technical errors, but that can be remedied with a global try/catch in your service method.
  2. Avoid the browser network stack. Silverlight offers its own network stack implementation (client HTTP handling), though it defaults to using the browser stack. Using client HTTP handling, one can handle any HTTP response code, as well as offering more freedom regarding HTTP headers and methods. The downside however is, that we lose some of the features the browser adds to its network stack. Cookie handling and browser cache come to mind.

 

Handling Infrastructure Issues

If some issue prevented the service to be called at all, there is obviously no way for it to tweak the response. And unless we revert to client HTTP handling (which would be a rather drastic means, given the implications), the Silverlight client gets no chance to look at it either. Hence, we cannot do anything about our CommunicationException: NotFound.

However, by tweaking the response code for service exceptions as proposed above, we at least make it immediately obvious (if only by indirect reasoning) that the remaining CommunicationException: NotFound is indeed an infrastructure issue.

The good news is that infrastructure issues usually carry enough information by themselves. Also they appear rarely, but if they do they usually are quite obvious (including obviously linked to some recent change), affect any call (not just some), and are easily reproducibly. Hence using Fiddler one can get information about the issue very easily (even in the localhost scenario).

The fact that the issue is pretty obvious pretty fast, in turn makes it usually quite easy to attribute it to the actual cause – it must have been a change made very recently. Typical candidates are easy to track down:

  • Switching between Cassini and IIS. I have written about that here.
  • Changing some application URLs, e.g. giving the web project a root folder for Cassini, without updating the service references.
  • Generating or updating service proxies, but forgetting to change the generated URLs to relative addresses.
  • Visual Studio sometimes assigns a new port to Cassini if the project settings say “auto-assign port”, and the last used port is somehow blocked. This may happen if another Cassini instance still lingers around from the last debugging session.
  • Any change recently made to the protocol or IIS configuration.

This only get’s dirty if the change was made by some team member and you have no way of knowing what he actually changed. But since this will likely affect the whole team, you will be in good company ;-)

 

Wrap up

There are two main issues with CommunicationException: NotFound:

  1. It doesn’t tell you anything and the slew of possible reasons makes it unnecessarily hard to diagnose the root cause.
  2. It prevents legitimate handling of business errors in a WCF/SOAP conformant way.

Both issues are addressed sufficiently by tweaking the HTTP response code of exceptions thrown within the service, which is simple enough. Hence the respective WCF endpoint behavior should be part of every Silverlight web project. And in case this is not possible for some reason, you can revert to client HTTP handling.

 

Much if not all of this information is available somewhere within the Silverlight documentation. However, each link I found only covered certain aspects or symptoms, and I hope I have provided a more complete picture on how to tackle (for the last time) CommunicationException: NotFound.

That’s all fro now folks,
AJ.NET

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