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Understanding WCF Faults in Silverlight

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Contents

Introduction

Regardless of what platform you are working with, you need some mechanism for dealing with errors.  When it comes to using WCF in Silverlight we are all very fortunate to be able to build out solutions on the back of many tried and true techniques for error management. When working in this context, we are dealing with basic SOAP messages (that is, XML) and WCF's abstraction of those messages, neither of which are new to the world.

If you haven't done so already, you should read the first part of this document entitled Understanding WCF Services in Silverlight (here after "previous document").  You may consider this document an appendix to that one.  That document explains WCF and its integration into the world of Silverlight from a very low level. This document extends that one to explain error management in the world of Silverlight 3. Understanding of the previous document is a prerequisite for understanding this one.

SOAP Review

Before we take a look at error management over SOAP services, we will take a moment to review SOAP messaging. SOAP messaging is based on the concept of sending SOAP messages back and forth between client and service. A SOAP message is the package by which a client and a service communicate. Web services (a.k.a. SOAP services) are not "connected" like a chat channel. Instead, they are "disconnected" like an e-mail system. The client sends the service a message and the service, optionally, sends the client message back (depending on if the client requested a message; one way messaging is very common). Below is a sample message sent from a client to the service:

<s:Envelope xmlns:s="http://schemas.xmlsoap.org/soap/envelope/">
  <s:Body>
    <GetPersonData xmlns="http://www.netfxharmonics.com/service/Contact/2009/07/">
      <personGuid>F488D20B-FC27-4631-9FB9-83AF616AB5A7</personGuid>
    </GetPersonData>
  </s:Body>
</s:Envelope>

Essentially, this message is calling the "GetPersonData" operation on the service, sending "personGuid" as a parameter. This is stored in the message body (which is distinct from, say, a message header, which is not present in this example). The body is then stored in an envelope. When this message is sent via an HTTP POST to, for example, /Person.svc with the SOAP-Action HTTP header set to the name of the SOAP operation, WCF calls the appropriate operation (set by the SOAP-Action HTTP header).  For more information on the mechanics of WCF and how to work with WCF directly see my XmlHttp Service Interop series at http://www.netfxharmonics.com/2007/05/XmlHttp-Service-Interop-Part-3-XML-Serialization).

Here is a message the service could possibly send back to the client:

<s:Envelope xmlns:s="http://schemas.xmlsoap.org/soap/envelope/">
  <s:Body>
    <GetPersonDataResponse xmlns="http://www.netfxharmonics.com/service/Contact/2008/11/">
      <GetPersonDataResult xmlns:i="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema-instance">
        <City>Unknown</City>
        <FaultDetail i:nil="true" xmlns:a="http://schemas.datacontract.org/2004/07/General.Service"/>
        <FirstName>John</FirstName>
        <Guid>89DEA4C5-84A0-45db-A60D-CE49F214EA50</Guid>
        <LastName>Doe</LastName>
        <PostalCode>66062</PostalCode>
        <State>KS</State>
      </GetPersonDataResult>
    </GetPersonDataResponse>
  </s:Body>
</s:Envelope>

Here we have the data for "GetPersonData" in a result object, wrapped in a response container. This is then, once again, wrapped in a standard SOAP body, inside a standard SOAP envelope. Pretty simple stuff. Someone sends a message, the receiver sends something back. The question now becomes... what happens when something goes wrong?

Handling Errors

When doing error management with SOAP-based WCF, you are doing just that: error management. You are NOT doing exception management. Exceptions don't exist over the wire. How can an exception from WCF being handled by a PHP client? How can System.InvalidOperationException be handled by a Java client? These scenarios make no sense. Therefore, in the world of SOAP services, you have no exceptions. Instead, you have a concept called a "fault".  A fault is a SOAP error.  WCF, Java, and PHP can all deal with SOAP (since SOAP is just XML), thus, they each can deal with faults with no problem. Given this, we may adjust our terminology at this point from "error management" to "fault management".

In reality, a fault is nothing more than a piece of XML formatted in a specific way. One side sends it, the other side receives it. It's a really simple setup. (As a side note, please keep in mind that this is not a document on the internal mechanics of SOAP. That's a discussion for a different document. Fortunately, though, the understanding of faults in SOAP doesn't require deep SOAP knowledge.)

When an exception is thrown in a SOAP-based WCF service, typically a fault is sent over the wire. A SOAP-based client (be it WCF, WCF in Silverlight, PHP, or Java), then obtains it, parses it and handles it accordingly. So what's a SOAP fault look like? (you'll see later that this is an example of a very poor practice, but it's a good fault example.)

<s:Envelope xmlns:s="http://schemas.xmlsoap.org/soap/envelope/">
  <s:Body>
    <s:Fault>
      <faultcode>s:Client</faultcode>
      <faultstring xml:lang="en-US">Really descriptive message here.</faultstring>
      <detail>
        <InvalidOperationException xmlns="http://schemas.datacontract.org/2004/07/System" xmlns:i="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema-instance" xmlns:x="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema">
          <ClassName i:type="x:string" xmlns="">System.InvalidOperationException</ClassName>
          <Message i:type="x:string" xmlns="">Really descriptive message here.</Message>
          <Data i:nil="true" xmlns=""/>
          <InnerException i:nil="true" xmlns=""/>
          <HelpURL i:nil="true" xmlns=""/>
          <StackTraceString i:nil="true" xmlns=""/>
          <RemoteStackTraceString i:nil="true" xmlns=""/>
          <RemoteStackIndex i:type="x:int" xmlns="">0</RemoteStackIndex>
          <ExceptionMethod i:nil="true" xmlns=""/>
          <HResult i:type="x:int" xmlns="">-2146233079</HResult>
          <Source i:nil="true" xmlns=""/>
        </InvalidOperationException>
      </detail>
    </s:Fault>
  </s:Body>
</s:Envelope>

Notice that even this fault is a SOAP message: the contents are in a SOAP body, wrapped in a SOAP envelope. So, all we really did is use a concept we already knew and added something to it. By sending a "Fault" XML element in a message body, you are effectively telling the client that some error occurred on the service-side. This is a well-known pattern that all SOAP services follow.

If you look closely at this SOAP message (which, of course, is also a fault), you will notice that the "Fault" element has three children: "faultcode", "faultstring" and "detail". You may recognize some parts of this specific fault.  That is, you see the name "InvalidOperationException" as well as the "Message", "InnerException", and other elements as well-known properties of exceptions. Keep in mind, though, that none of these have anything to do with faults. These are in the "detail" section of the fault, not in any part that actually matters.  Clear as mud?

Faults don't rely on the detail element. The information in this block is simply for the end developer to obtain custom information. Since WCF doesn't rely on this information, neither should you (i.e. it won’t always be there). A fault is defined by the "faultstring" element, not the "detail" element. The "faultstring" element contains is the actually message that you will want to look at when debugging.

Not even the "faultcode" element isn’t directly used by most people. This is a well-defined enumeration with the possible values of "Client", "Server", "VersionMismatch", and "MustUnderstand" (prefixed with the XML namespace). These help you to get some idea of the category of error that occurred, but, in the majority of cases, you won't be working with it directly.  This is all to reinforce the fact that it’s faultstring that contains the actual error, not faultcode or details.

Applying to WCF

In the world of WCF for .NET, all of this is essentially internal mechanics that most mid-level or entry-level developers will only see on a senior-level developer's whiteboard (i.e. they won't use it directly). This is because WCF knows to look for faults and knows how to handle them: it will take the content from faultstring and set that as the Message in a System.ServiceModel.FaultException object. This instance of a FaultException object is developers directly work with.

Now pay attention very closely: you can't just throw an exception in a WCF service and expect it to show up on your client (or to show up over the wire for that matter!) Why is this? Thikn about it... do you really want an exception which contains the entire stack trace and, therefore, a snapshot of the private internal mechanics of your system thrown to a client computer? Obviously not. Since WCF knows is a horrible security violation to send stack traces over the wire, it's not going to allow this.  In fact, that fault SOAP-message shown early is hopefully a picture from fiction, not reality (you kind of figured there were a lot of unneeded xml elements, didn't you?)

What you actually do, is you throw one of two special exceptions: System.ServiceModel.FaultException or System.ServiceModel.FaultException<T> (which inherits from the first one). When you throw an exception which isn't one of these, like System.InvalidOperationException, you will see the following over the wire (i.e. throw new System.InvalidOperationException("This is my error message.")):

<s:Envelope xmlns:s="http://schemas.xmlsoap.org/soap/envelope/">
  <s:Body>
    <s:Fault>
      <faultcode xmlns:a="http://schemas.microsoft.com/net/2005/12/windowscommunicationfoundation/dispatcher">a:InternalServiceFault</faultcode>
      <faultstring xml:lang="en-US">The server was unable to process the request due to an internal error.  For more information about the error, either turn on IncludeExceptionDetailInFaults (either from ServiceBehaviorAttribute or from the &lt;serviceDebug&gt; configuration behavior) on the server in order to send the exception information back to the client, or turn on tracing as per the Microsoft .NET Framework 3.0 SDK documentation and inspect the server trace logs.</faultstring>
    </s:Fault>
  </s:Body>
</s:Envelope>

You may think "not pretty". Trust me, that IS pretty. Ugly would be showing your internal stack trace over the wire. Thank you WCF for protecting us from ourselves.

Now, if you throw System.ServiceModel.FaultException instead of System.InvalidOperationException (i.e. throw new System.ServiceModel.FaultException("This is my error message."), you will see this:

<s:Envelope xmlns:s="http://schemas.xmlsoap.org/soap/envelope/">
  <s:Body>
    <s:Fault>
      <faultcode>s:Client</faultcode>
      <faultstring xml:lang="en-US">This is my error message.</faultstring>
    </s:Fault>
  </s:Body>
</s:Envelope>

Very simple and to the point. You told it "This is my error message." and it sent "This is my error message." Can't get much simpler than that.  In fact, the simplicity stays even when you work with the exception on the client side.  Over there, the client will also have a FaultException.  The “faultstring” from the SOAP message will be places into the Message property of the FaultException object on the client.  An example of this will be shown in a bit.

Let's make this a bit more complex (read: more useful/powerful) by changing things up slightly.

As I've said, there are two fault exception types in WCF: one generic, one not. Use of the generic one allows you to send more information to the client by allowing entire objects to be serialized over the wire as part of the fault "detail" element. To see an example of this, take a look at the following custom type:

namespace Contact.Service
{
    [DataContract]
    public class FaultDetail
    {
        //- @ErrorCode -//
        /// <summary>
        /// Custom business-specific error code.
        /// </summary>
        [DataMember]
        public Int32 ErrorCode { get; set; }
        //- @Type -//
        /// <summary>
        /// Specifies the type of error.
        /// </summary>
        [DataMember]
        public String Type { get; set; }
    }
}

Now, instead of throwing the non-generic fault exception, let's throw the generic one, using the above type as the generic parameter. For example:

//- @GetPersonData -//
public Person GetPersonData(String personGuid)
{
    //+ ...validation here...     
    FaultDetail faultDetail = new FaultDetail
    {
        Type = "Validation",
        ErrorCode = 63873928
    };     //+ throw     
    throw new FaultException<FaultDetail>(faultDetail, "Invalid guid.");
    //+ ...more logic here...
}

Given this, we now have this over the wire:

<s:Envelope xmlns:s="http://schemas.xmlsoap.org/soap/envelope/">
  <s:Body>
    <s:Fault>
      <faultcode>s:Client</faultcode>
      <faultstring xml:lang="en-US">Invalid guid.</faultstring>
      <detail>
        <FaultDetail xmlns="http://schemas.datacontract.org/2004/07/Contact.Service" xmlns:i="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema-instance">
          <ErrorCode>63873928</ErrorCode>
          <Type>Validation</Type>
        </FaultDetail>
      </detail>
    </s:Fault>
  </s:Body>
</s:Envelope>

As you can see, using the generic FaultException type, you can send all kinds of stuff over the wire.

Fault Contracts

While this is great for dynamically typed systems (i.e. PHP and JavaScript), we don't yet have a complete solution for strong-typed ones (i.e. .NET). What’s that? Again, think about it: How does the other end know what type is "FaultDetail". Is that ABCCorp.Web.FaultDetail? ABCCorp.Service.FaultDetail? What's the namespace? In what assembly?

To make this happen in .NET, we have to introduce something called a "fault contract". As you recall from the previous document, WCF has service contracts and operation contracts. Fault contracts are just another contract type in the contact family.

These are setup by applying the System.ServiceModel.FaultContractAttribute attribute to various operations of your service contract.  When you apply this attribute, you must tell it what type you would like to allow to be thrown from that specific operation.  This is simply done by giving the constructor of the fault contract attribute to type object of your fault detail type.  For example, below is our operation contract with the fault contract applied.

//- GetPersonData -//
[OperationContract]
[FaultContract(typeof(FaultDetail))]
Person GetPersonData(String personGuid);

If you're following along and paying close attention you should be thinking "How in the WORLD does that help the client? This is on the server! The same SOAP data is going to come over the wire and the client has no more information." Well, as you recall from the previous document, the contracts must be both on the service-side and on the client-side. In the case of .NET, these are the same types since the contracts are in an assembly shared by both client and service (remember, use of the "Add Service Reference" for .NET-to-.NET communication provides ZERO value and only complicates life).

So, if you are doing .NET-to-.NET, your client contract DOES have this and WCF on the client will automatically know to use that spe