Programming Without a Call Stack – Event

Programming Without a Call Stack – Event
Programming Without a Call Stack –
Event-driven Architectures
Gregor Hohpe
Most computer systems are built on a command-and-control scheme: one method calls
another method and instructs it to perform some action or to retrieve some required
information. But often the real world works differently. A company receives a new order;
a web server receives a request for a Web page, the right front wheel of my car locks up.
In neither case did the system (order processing, web server, anti-lock brake control)
schedule or request the action. Instead the event occurred based on external action or
activity, caused either by the physical world or another, connected computer system.
Could we change the architecture of our system to relinquish control and instead respond
to events as they arrive? What would such a system look like?
Events Everywhere
The real world is full of events. The alarm goes off; the phone rings; the “gas low”
warning light in the car comes on. Many computer systems, especially embedded systems,
are designed to respond to events. The engine control computer in your car receives an
event every time the crankshaft is at the zero position and starts the timer for another
round of ignitions. As of now, many of the systems that function based on external events
live in a rather small universe, most of
Inventory Allocated
them even invisible to the user. However,
as computer systems become more and
more interconnected they start to publish
and receive an increasing number of events.
An order management system may receive
Payment Processed
orders from a Web site or an order entry
application and notify other systems of the
new order. Systems interested in new orders might be the financial system, which will see
whether the order is backed with a credit line or a valid credit card to charge, and the
warehouse, which verifies that inventory to fulfill the order is present. Each of these
systems might then publish another event to any interested party. The shipping system in
turn might wait for both an Inventory Allocated and Payment Processed message and in
response prepare the goods for shipment. This event-based style of interaction is notably
different from the traditional command-and-control style that would have the warehouse
ask for the inventory status, wait for an answer, and then ask the financial system to
process the payment. Next, the order management system would wait for a positive
answer and lastly instruct the shipping system to send the goods.
© 2006 Gregor Hohpe. All rights reserved
Programming Without a Call Stack - Event-driven Architectures
But the event story does not end here. The warehouse
might detect that inventory is low and let other
systems, for example the procurement system, know.
When the customer’s credit card is about to expire we
might to be alerted so we can send an e-mail to the
customer requesting a new card number. The list of
interesting events goes on and on. David Luckham
[POE] coined the term “Event Cloud” to describe the
interchange of many events between multiple systems.
New Order
Credit Card
Event-driven Architectures
So what defines the step from simply exchanging information through events to a fullfledged event-driven architecture (EDA)? EDAs exhibit the following set of key
Broadcast Communications. Participating systems broadcast events to any interested
party. More than one party can listen to the event and process it.
Timeliness. Systems publish events as they occur instead of storing them locally and
waiting for the processing cycle, such as a nightly
batch cycle.
Asynchrony. The publishing system does not wait
for the receiving system(s) to process the event(s).
Fine Grained Events. Applications tend to
publish individual events as opposed to a single
aggregated event. (The further apart the
communicating parties are, the more may
physical limitations limit how fine grained the
events can afford to be)
EDA Key Characteristics
Broadcast communications
Fine Grained
Complex Event Processing
Ontology. The overall system defines a nomenclature to classify events, typically in
some form of hierarchy. Receiving systems can often express interest in individual
events or categories of events.
Complex Events Processing: The system understands and monitors the relationships
between events, for example event aggregation (a pattern of events implies a higherlevel event) or causality (one event is caused by another).
Event-driven architectures (EDA) tend to exhibit an aura of simple elegance. Because
these systems are modeled after real world events the resulting system model is usually
very expressive. These desirable benefits have already motivated some EAI (Enterprise
Application Integration) vendors to proclaim that EDAs are the next step in the evolution
beyond Service-oriented Architectures (SOAs).
Good Bye, Call Stack
However, the simple elegance of EDAs can be deceiving. Designing such a system
correctly can actually be more challenging than it may initially appear. As we saw above,
© 2006 Gregor Hohpe. All rights reserved
Programming Without a Call Stack - Event-driven Architectures
one of the key properties of event-based systems is the simplified interaction between
components that is restricted to the exchange of events. Therefore, in order to understand
the design implications of an EDA we should not look at what an EDA introduces, but
should begin by examining what an EDA is taking away. An event-based architecture
takes away what must be one of the most pervasive and underappreciated constructs in
programming – the call stack.
Call stack based interaction allows one method to invoke another, wait for the results, and
then continue with the next instruction. This behavior can be summarized as three main
features: coordination, continuation and context. Coordination provides for synchronized
execution, i.e. the calling method waits for the results of the called method before it
continues. The continuation aspect ensures that after the called method completes the
execution continues with the statement following the method call. Lastly, the call stack
holds local variables as part of the execution context: once the method invocation
completes the caller’s entire context is restored.
The interaction between components in an EDA does not provide any of these functions –
the interaction is limited to one component
publishing an event that can be received (usually with
a delay) by one or more other components. There is
no inherent coordination, continuation or context
preservation. Why would one want to eliminate these
tremendously useful features that every developer has
come to appreciate? The answer lies in the fact that
the convenience of the call stack comes at the price
of assumptions. While assumptions per se are not
necessarily a bad thing, it is important to make them
explicit so one can evaluate whether the desired
execution environment matches the assumptions or
not. So let’s have a quick look at the key assumptions
that accompany the ever-present call stack.
First, a call stack is primarily useful in environments where one thing happens after
another. The fact that a single return address is pushed onto the stack implies a single
path of execution where the caller’s execution does not continue until the called method
completes. The distinct advantage is that the called
method does not have to have worry about
Call Stack Assumptions
synchronization or concurrency issues. Because the
• One thing happens at a time
call stack prefers a single line of execution it
• We know what should
implicitly assumes that method invocations and
happen in what order
executions are fast compared to the execution of the
• We know who can provide a
primary code. This makes it practical for the caller to
needed function
wait for the callee’s results before it continues
processing. If invocations are slow or carry a large
• Execution happens in a
single virtual machine
overhead this assumption could become a liability.
For example, this is the very reason Web servicesbased architectures are moving away from an RPC-based to a message-based
communication style.
© 2006 Gregor Hohpe. All rights reserved
Programming Without a Call Stack - Event-driven Architectures
More subtle but equally important is the assumption that the systems knows what should
happen in what order. Because one method calls another method directly the calling
method has to have a pretty clear idea of what it wants to happen next.
Not only is the caller assumed to know what is supposed to happen next but the caller
also has to be aware which method can provide the desired functionality. It might seem
odd at first to separate knowing what to do from knowing what method to invoke. After
all, methods are (or at least should be) named after the function they accomplish. Still,
having one method call another method directly means tying the execution of a specific
piece of functionality to the invocation of a specific method. Often, this direct linkage has
to be established at compile time and is not easily changed afterwards. In many cases this
linkage is not a problem. It seems perfectly acceptable for me to call customer.setName()
to set a customer’s name. If need be, polymorphism can provide for a level of indirection
between caller and executor so that a subclass of customer can sneak in a different
implementation of setName.
Last but not least, the call stack flourishes in an environment where caller and callee
share the same memory space. This allows compiler and linker to insert direct references
to methods and keep method call overhead small. Also, a single memory, single
processor environment is inherently geared towards sequential execution, which is again
matches nicely with the call stack mentality.
Focus on Interaction
A call stack defines a specific interaction style between components, one that is equally
popular and well understood. Because a call stack is assumed to be the standard mode of
interaction most object-oriented design tends to focus on the structural aspects of the
solution over the aspects related to interaction. This is generally appropriate for most
object-oriented systems that exist in a single memory space and are under the control of a
single development team, i.e. systems that fulfill the basic assumptions required by a call
Traditional object-oriented design does not ignore interaction altogether. Some of the
classic design patterns presented in [GOF] concern themselves with the way objects
interact. For example, the Mediator “encapsulates how a set of objects interact” while the
Observer “notifies all dependent objects of a state change”. Both patterns elevate the
interaction between objects from their shadow life to become first class players in the
object model. These patterns give us a hint that looking at the way components interact
can be more interesting than might at first appear.
In distributed systems the cost of interaction goes up significantly and the significance of
interaction suddenly increases dramatically. At the same time structural aspects can move
into the background as distributed systems often do not provide for rich structural
mechanisms such as inheritance, polymorphism and the like. For example, this shift of
attention from structure to interaction is at the heart of many of the debates on serviceoriented computing. Service-oriented architectures have rather simple composition rules
but pay close attention to loosely coupled interaction between systems.
© 2006 Gregor Hohpe. All rights reserved
Programming Without a Call Stack - Event-driven Architectures
To Couple or Not to Couple
Service-oriented architectures have brought the notion of coupling into the forefront of
our minds. Coupling is a measure of the dependency between two communicating entities.
The more assumptions the entities make about one another the more tightly coupled they
are. For example, if the communicating entities use a technology specific communication
format they are more tightly coupled than entities that communicate over a technologyneutral format. Loose coupling is desired in situations that require independent variability,
for example because the communicating entities are under control of different
organizations. Looser coupling and therefore fewer assumptions leave more room for
The way components interact also impact coupling between entities. The more rules and
assumptions the interaction protocol prescribes, the more coupling between the
components is introduced. Simpler interaction rules imply less coupling because fewer
constraints are imposed on the participating entities.
Two primary strategies can help reduce the coupling that results from the interaction
between components:
1) Insert a level of indirection
2) Simplify the rules of interaction
It has been postulated that in the field of computer science any problem can be solved
simply by adding an additional more level of indirection. Of course, the problem of
coupling is not immune to this approach. If we want to avoid one component to interact
with another component without being
directly linked to that component we can
insert a component in the middle to isolate
the two. In the object-oriented world this is
exactly what the Mediator pattern [GOF]
does: one object calls the mediator, who in turn figures out which other object to call.
This approach improves reuse between objects because the interaction between them is
extracted into a separate element, which can be configured or changed without having to
touch the original components. The same approach lays the foundation of messageoriented architectures [EIP]. Instead of communicating directly, components send
messages across event channels.
The second aspect of coupling focuses on the rules of the interaction. A call-stack
oriented interaction has fairly strict rules: one method calls the other and waits for the
results of the invocation. Subsequently, execution always continues where it left off. One
way to reduce coupling between the interacting parties is to simplify the rules of the
interaction. If we remove the continuation and coordination aspects of the interaction, all
that is left is the fact that one component sends data to another component. We would be
hard pressed to define a form of communication that is even simpler while still being
worthy of the name interaction.
© 2006 Gregor Hohpe. All rights reserved
Programming Without a Call Stack - Event-driven Architectures
What is in a Name?
The channel-based interaction introduces two new elements, a channel and a message.
Despite their simplicity these new elements open up options and force new decisions. A
deceivingly simple question is “how should the channel be named?” When one method
called another directly there was no intermediate element and therefore no decision to
A very simple approach assigns each component its own channel. For example, a
component that deals with credit card validations could be called the CreditService and
react to messages sent on a channel named CreditService. If any component needs
something related to credit it could send a message to that channel. While the channel
gives us a level of indirection at the
implementation level (we could replace one
credit service implementation with another
without anyone noticing) the semantics of the
interaction are not much decoupled. The caller
still has to know which component provides the
functionality it requires, much like it did in the
call stack scenario.
To reduce the dependency on a specific service
we could name the channel analogous to a
method name. For example, if the service
provided an operation that can verify a credit
card supplied by a customer we might simply name the channel VerifyCreditCard. This
does increase the level of abstraction somewhat because the caller no longer has to know
which component is able to service this type of request. Service-oriented computing
generally follows this approach.
Despite the introduction of the channel the semantics of the interaction still smell like a
call stack. One component sends a request (“check this credit card”) and expects a
response (“card good” or “card bad”). But we have not yet exhausted the creative
possibilities of the channel semantics. The above examples assume that the component
knows that a credit card has to be verified. Can we lift this burden from the “caller”
altogether so that the components are truly decoupled? We can take the decoupling one
step further by changing the channel name (and the associated semantics) to
OrderReceived. This simple change in name signifies a significant shift in responsibility.
The message on the channel no longer represents an instruction but an event, a
notification that something happened. We also no longer assume that there is a single
recipient for the event. Again, the assumptions between the communicating parties have
been reduced. As a result, EDA is often considered to be more loosely coupled than SOA.
Shifting Responsibilities
Communicating through events as opposed to commands indicates a subtle but important
shift of responsibility. It allows components to be decoupled to the extent that the “caller”
is no longer aware of what function is executed next nor which component is executing it.
© 2006 Gregor Hohpe. All rights reserved
Programming Without a Call Stack - Event-driven Architectures
Another equally important shift of responsibility between caller and callee is that of
keeping state.
In a system that is based on queries and commands state is usually kept in one application
that is considered the “master” for the data. When another application needs to reference
that data it sends a query to the owning application and waits for the response before it
continues processing. For example, when the order management system needs to fulfill
an order it queries the customer management systems for the customer’s address so it can
tell the shipping application to send the shipment to that address.
Event-driven systems work differently, almost to the inverse. Systems so not query
systems for information but instead keep their own copy of the required data and listen to
updates as they occur. In our example this
would mean that the shipping system keeps
its own copy of the customer’s address so
when an order arrives it can use that address
to label the shipment without having to query
the customer management system. While
replicating data this way might seem
dangerous it also has advantages. The
customer management system simply
broadcasts changes to the data without having
to know who all keeps a copy. Because the
customer management is never queried for
address data it never becomes a bottleneck
even as the system grows and the demands
for addresses multiply.
The principle behind the shift in responsibility is once again tied to the concept of
coupling. In a loosely coupled interaction a source of data should not be required to keep
state at the convenience of its communication partners. By shifting the burden of keeping
state to the consumer the component is can be completely oblivious to the needs of the
data consumers – the key ingredient into loose coupling. The shift away from the queryresponse pattern of interaction means that many components have to act as event
Aggregators [EIP]: they listen to events from multiple sources, keep the relevant state and
combine information from multiple events into new events. For example, the shipping
system effectively combines address change events and order events into request for
shipment to a specific address.
Complex Events
An EDA can offer more benefits than loose coupling and independent variability. A
system where components interact only through events makes it easy to track the all
interaction and analyze them. A whole new discipline has emerged around the analysis of
event sequences and the understanding of event hierarchies. For example, a rapid series
of similar request events to a Web server might mean that the server is under a distributed
denial of service attack. The fact that this sequence of request events occurred is in itself
a meaningful event that should be published into the event cloud. This type of event
hierarchy is the subject of Complex Event Processing or CEP [POE].
© 2006 Gregor Hohpe. All rights reserved
Programming Without a Call Stack - Event-driven Architectures
Instant Replay
Event-based systems can exhibit another enormous benefit. If all interaction in a system
occurs through events one can recreate the system state from scratch simply by replaying
all events. Financial systems typically fall into this category. An account not only keeps
its current state (i.e. the balance) but also maintains the history of all events that affected
the account (i.e. deposits, withdrawals). Martin Fowler calls this approach Event
Sourcing [EAA].
Event sourcing application exhibit two valuable properties. First, the system state can be
recreated even if the state of an individual component was lost. By replaying all events to
the components each component can sequentially recover the state it was in without
resorting to other persistence mechanisms. More interesting even is the ability to replay
the events but with changes. In a sense, we can rewrite history by inserting changes into a
past stream of events and then replay the revised event stream. This feature can be
invaluable in real-life scenarios. For example, a customer who orders a certain amount of
goods over the year may qualify for a year-end rebate. If a customer’s orders just exceed
the limit but the customer returns an item in the new year he should not get the rebate.
Traditional systems implement specific logic that checks whether a return moves the
customer below the threshold and debits the customer with the rebate they originally
received. An event sourced system can solve this situation more elegantly. A returned
item voids the original “purchase” event. Subsequently we can replay the revised series
of purchase events, skipping the voided event. The associated business logic will
compute the customer’s final account balance, not including the rebate. We can then
compare the revised scenario with the original and compute the adjustment without
having to understand the original business logic (i.e., when a rebate is paid). One can
easily see that for complex business rules event replay can be an invaluable feature.
So where is the catch? EDAs apparently exhibit a series of desirable properties. But the
flexibility that the loose coupling affords usually comes at a price. This price amounts to
less build-time validation and the fact that a highly composable system allows us to
compose it in many ways that do not make a lot of sense or do not do what we had in
mind. For example, an event source and a listener might accidentally be configured for a
different type of event or channel, potentially the result of a trivial typo in the name. As a
result the event sink will not receive any events at all. However, we do not find out until
we start the system and even then it can be difficult to determine the actual source of the
problem. Is the listener listening to the wrong event? Is the sender sending the wrong
event? Is the event source publishing any events at all? Is the event channel interrupted?
The configurability can suddenly turn into a debugging liability. This is exactly what
Martin Fowler warns us of when he describes “the architect’s dream, the developer’s
With variability comes uncertainty. If the system architecture allows the individual
components to evolve, tomorrow’s system may look different than yesterday’s system. It
is therefore imperative to create tools that help with configuration and analysis. The
composition of individual components into a coherent, event-driven application should be
viewed as an additional layer of the overall system architecture. This layer should be
© 2006 Gregor Hohpe. All rights reserved
Programming Without a Call Stack - Event-driven Architectures
taken as seriously as the core code layers. All too often is this type of composition
information (e.g. the names of published or subscribed event channels) hidden away in
cryptic configuration files that are scattered across machines. Instead, one should define a
domain language specifically for the composition layer. This language could include
validation rules that flag valid configurations. For example, a configuration which
prescribes an event subscription that does not match any publication may be considered
invalid. Likewise, circular references in the event graph may be undesirable and should
be detected at design time.
In a highly distributed and loosely coupled system, determining the actual system state
alone can be challenging because they continue to evolve continuously. To make matters
worse, critical information is
often spread across many
Running System
machines. In these situations it
Channel X
can be invaluable to generate
system model from the
running system. This can be
accomplished by
instrumenting the running
system with sensors, which
track the sending and
Nodes: A, B
receiving of messages. The
sensors forward the harvested
information to a central
location that maps it onto an
abstracted system model, for
example a directed graph.
Such a graph can then be run through a graph rendering algorithm such as AT&T
GraphViz [VIZ]. The result is a human-readable, accurate model of the systems structure.
Such a model and diagram can be invaluable for debugging and analysis.
Event-based systems can offer an interesting alternative to traditional command-andcontrol system design. EDAs enable loosely coupled, highly composable systems that
often provide a close mapping to real-life events. Using events consistently as the
interaction mechanism between components enables techniques such as event replay,
which can be very difficult to accomplish in traditional designs. However, all these
benefits come at a price. Systems that pass up the well-known tenets of a call stack in
favor of loosely structured interaction are inherently more difficult to design and debug.
Therefore, one should employ management and visualizations tools to create a system
that is dynamic but not chaotic.
© 2006 Gregor Hohpe. All rights reserved
Programming Without a Call Stack - Event-driven Architectures
[CSP] Communicating Sequential Processes, C.A.R. Hoare, 1985, Prentice Hall, on-line
[EAA] Further Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture, Martin Fowler,
[GOF] Design Patterns, Gamma et al., 1995, Addison-Wesley
[EIP] Enterprise Integration Patterns, Hohpe, Woolf, 2003, Addison-Wesley,
[POE] The Power of Events, Luckham, 2002, Addison-Wesley,
[VIZ] GraphViz Graph Visualization Software,
About the Author
Gregor Hohpe is a software architect with Google, Inc. Gregor is a widely recognized
thought leader on asynchronous messaging and service-oriented architectures. He coauthored the seminal book "Enterprise Integration Patterns" and has been working
extensively with the Microsoft Patterns & Practices group. Gregor is a MVP Solution
Architect and speaks regularly at technical conferences around the world. Find out more
about his work at
© 2006 Gregor Hohpe. All rights reserved
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