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ApprovaFlow: Create A Plugin System And Reduce Deployment Headaches June 29, 2011

Posted by ActiveEngine Sensei in .Net, ActiveEngine, Approvaflow, ASP.Net, Problem Solving, Workflow.
Tags: , , , ,

This is the fourth in a series of posts for ApprovaFlow, an alternative to Windows Workflow written in C# and JSON.Net.  Source code for this post is here.

Last Time on ApprovaFlow

In the previous post we discussed how the Pipe and Filter pattern facilitated a robust mechanism for executing tasks prior and after a transition is completed by the workflow state machine.  This accomplished our third goal and to date we have completed:

Model a workflow in a clear format that is readable by both developer and business user. One set of verbiage for all parties.  Discussed in Simple Workflows With ApprovaFlow and Stateless.

•  Allow the state of a workflow to be peristed as an integer, string, etc.  Quickly fetch state of a workflow.  Discussed in Simple Workflows With ApprovaFlow and Stateless.

•  Create pre and post processing methods that can enforce enforce rules or carry out actions when completing a workflow task.  Discussed in ApprovaFlow:  Using the Pipe and Filter Pattern to Build a Workflow Processor

These goals remain:

• Introduce new functionality while isolating the impact of the new changes. New components should not break old ones

• Communicate to the client with a standard set of objects. In other words, your solution domain will not change how the user interface will gather data from the user.

• Use one. aspx page to processes user input for any type of workflow.

• Provide ability to roll your own customizations to the front end or backend of your application.

It’s the Small Changes After You Go Live That Upset You

The goal we’ll focus on next is Introduce new functionality while isolating the impact of the new changes. New components should not break old ones, as it’s the small upsetters that lurk around the corner that your users will think up that will keep you in the constant redeployment cycle. If we implement a plug-in system, then we can prevent the new features from breaking the current production system. Implementing these changes in isolation will lead to faster testing, validation and happier users.

We lucked out as our implementation of the Pipe And Filter pattern forced us to create objects with finite functionality.  If you recall each step in our workflow chain was implemented as a filter derived from FilterBase and this lends itself nicely to creating plug-ins.  The Pipe and Filter pattern forces us to have a filter for each unique action we wish to carry out.  To save data we have a SaveData filter, to validate that a user can supply a Trigger we have the ValidateUserTrigger, and so on.

“Great, Sensei, but aren’t we still constrained by the fact that we have to recompile and deploy any time we add new filters?  And, if I have to do that, why bother with the pattern in the first place?”

Well, we can easily reduce the need for re-deploying the application through the use of a plugin system where we read assemblies from a share and interrogate them by searching for a particular object type on application start up.  Each new feature will be a new filter.  This means you will be working with a small project that references ApprovaFlow to create new filters without disturbing the existing architecture.   We’ll also create a manifest of approved plug-ins so that we can control what is used and institute a little security since we wouldn’t want any plugin to be introduced surreptitiously.

Plug-in Implementation

The class FilterRegistry will perform the process of reading a share, fetching the object with type FilterBase, and register these components just like we do with our system components.  There are a few additions since the last version, as we now need to read and store the manifest for later comparison with the plug-ins.  The new method ReadManifest takes care of this new task:

private void ReadManifest()
  string manifestSource = ConfigurationManager.AppSettings["ManifestSource"].ToString();

  Enforce.That(string.IsNullOrEmpty(manifestSource) == false,
          "FilterRegistry.ReadManifest - ManifestSource can not be null");

  var fileInfo = new FileInfo(manifestSource);

  if (fileInfo.Exists == false)
    throw new ApplicationException("RequestPromotion.Configure - File not found");

  StreamReader sr = fileInfo.OpenText();
  string json = sr.ReadToEnd();

  this.approvedFilters = JsonConvert.DeserializeObject>>(json);

The manifest is merely a serialized list of FilterDefinitions. This is de-serialized into a list of approved filters.With the approved list the method LoadPlugin performs the action of reading the share and matching the FullName of the object type between the manifest entries and the methods in the assembly file:

public void LoadPlugIn(string source)
  Enforce.That(string.IsNullOrEmpty(source) == false,
             "PlugInLoader.Load - source can not be null");

  AppDomain appDomain = AppDomain.CurrentDomain;
  var assembly = Assembly.LoadFrom(source);

  var types = assembly.GetTypes().ToList();

  types.ForEach(type =>
    var registerFilterDef = new FilterDefinition();

    //  Is type from assembly registered?
    registerFilterDef = this.approvedFilters.Where(app => app.TypeFullName == type.FullName)

    if (registerFilterDef != null)
      object obj = Activator.CreateInstance(type);
      var filterDef = new FilterDefinition();
      filterDef.Name = obj.ToString();
      filterDef.FilterCategory = registerFilterDef.FilterCategory;
      filterDef.FilterType = type;
      filterDef.TypeFullName = type.FullName;
      filterDef.Filter = AddCreateFilter(filterDef);


That’s it. We can now control what assemblies are included in our plug-in system.  Later we’ll create a tool that will help us create the manifest so we do not have to managed it by hand.

What We Can Do with this New Functionality

Let’s turn to our sample workflow to see what possibilities we can develop.  The test CanPromoteRedShirtOffLandingParty from the class WorkflowScenarios displays the capability of our workflow.  First lets review our workflow scenario.  We have created a workflow for the Starship Enterprise to allow members of a landing party to request to be left out of the mission.  Basically there is only one way to get out of landing party duty and that is if Kirk says it’s okay.  Here are the workflow’s State, Trigger and Target State combinations:

State Trigger Target State
RequestPromotionForm Complete FirstOfficerReview
FirstOfficerReview RequestInfo RequestPromotionForm
FirstOfficerReview Deny PromotionDenied
FirstOfficerReview Approve CaptainApproval
CaptainApproval OfficerJustify FirstOfficerReview
CaptainApproval Deny PromotionDenied
CaptainApproval Approve PromotedOffLandingParty

Recalling the plots from Star Trek, there were times that the medical officer could declare the commanding officer unfit for duty. Since the Enterprise was originally equipped with our workflow, we want to make just a small addition – not a modification – and give McCoy the ability to allow a red shirt to opt out of the landing party duty.

Here’s where our plugin system comes in handy.  Instead of adding more states and or branches to our workflow we’ll check for certain conditions when Kirk makes his decisions, and execute actions.  In order to help out McCoy the following filter is created in a separate project:

public class CaptainUnfitForCommandFilter : FilterBase
  protected override Step Process(Step input)
    if(input.CanProcess & input.State == "CaptainApproval")
      bool kirkInfected = (bool)input.Parameters["KirkInfected"];

      if(kirkInfected & input.Answer == "Deny")
        input.Parameters.Add("MedicalOverride", true);
        input.Parameters.Add("StarfleetEmail", true);
        input.ErrorList.Add("Medical Override of Command");
        input.CanProcess = false;

    return input;

This plug-in is simple: check that the state is CaptainApproval and when the answer was “Deny” and Kirk has been infected, set the MedicalOverride flag and send Starfleet an email.

The class WorkflowScenarioTest.cs has the method CanAllowMcCoyToIssueUnfitForDuty() that demonstrates how the workflow will execute. We simply add the name of the plug-in to our list of post transition filters:

string postFilterNames = "MorePlugins.TransporterRepairFilter;Plugins.CaptainUnfitForCommandFilter;SaveDataFilter;";

This portion of code uses the plug-in:

//  Captain Kirt denies request, but McCoy issues unfit for command
parameters.Add("KirkInfected", true);

step.Answer = "Deny";
step.AnsweredBy = "Kirk";
step.Participants = "Kirk";
step.State = newState;

processor = new WorkflowProcessor(step, filterRegistry, workflow);
newState = processor.ConfigurePipeline(preFilterNames, postFilterNames)

//  Medical override issued and email to Starfleet generated
bool medicalOverride = (bool)parameters["MedicalOverride"];
bool emailSent = (bool)parameters["StarfleetEmail"];


Now you don’t have to hesitate with paranoia each time you need introduce a variation into your workflows. No more small upsetters lurking around the corner. Plus you can deliver these changes faster to your biggest fan, your customer. Source code is here.   Run through the tests and experiment for your self.


1. barakhyahu - June 29, 2011

Why not use MEF for the plug-in functionality?

ActiveEngine Sensei - June 29, 2011

I honestly wrestled with choosing MEF or rolling my own. For one it was more fun figuring things out for myself and gives a greater appreciation for what MEF can do 🙂

Another reason was driven by the way I work. I get on a roll and don’t like disrupt the momentum in order to learn something new. I know that sounds like I have blinders on and don’t like change but my goal is crank out ApprovaFlow and that takes most of my focus. Sometimes when I incorporate a new tool I lose the plot for the show ands don’t meet my deasdlines.

What has your experience been with MEF? Is it a oight framework or pretty involved?

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