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Modern Eventing with CQRS, Redpanda and Zilla

Learn about the event-driven nature of CQRS, common challenges while implementing it, and how ZIlla solves them with Redpanda.
John Fallows
Aklivity Engineering

Modern Eventing with CQRS, Redpanda and Zilla

The world we all live in is event-driven. We respond to stimuli and take action every day. Event-driven architecture lets us model our applications to closely reflect that real-world behavior, using technologies like Zilla and Redpanda to support reliable communication between event-driven microservices. 

The Command Query Responsibility Segregation (CQRS) architectural pattern is still somewhat shrouded in mystery. Redpanda is “simplified Kafka”, and Zilla is simplified API connectivity to Kafka. This pairing makes it super simple to build a CQRS example with the two platforms! A great example among many industries that use Redpanda and Zilla is real-time, person-to-person (p2p) payments.

The Zilla open-source API Gateway extends the reach of Redpanda beyond backend, inter-microservice communication to web and mobile applications, solving for first and last mile security, at the same level of operational simplicity, performance, and scale that users expect from Redpanda.

Zilla acts as an on-ramp to Redpanda, unlocking migration of the architectural backbone to be fully event-driven while maintaining application-specific RESTful endpoints for compatibility. Zilla also supports application-specific streaming endpoints for the CQRS pattern, allowing both microservices and end-users to react to stimuli, just like in everyday life.

In this post, we’ll break down each of these components and then walk you through an example p2p payment application, so you can see CQRS, Zilla, and Redpanda in action.

What are RESTful APIs?

RESTful APIs are a traditional approach for web applications, providing a synchronous request-response interaction pattern between clients and RESTful endpoints.

Application architectures that combine both RESTful APIs and an event streaming platform, such as Redpanda, often keep their RESTful microservices segregated from event streaming patterns. Each RESTful microservice typically logs an event stream of API activity, which can additionally “fan out” to other downstream event-driven microservices, including analytics pipelines.

Extending the reach of event-driven architectures (EDA) beyond the cloud (or on-premise data center) to include the Web client requires a mechanism to notify the client when a relevant event occurs. HTTP polling works, but puts unnecessary load on the system, even when there’s nothing to report. Alternatively, HTML5-friendly techniques, such as Server-Sent Events (SSE) and WebSockets bidirectional streaming are much more efficient.

Using these techniques to evolve beyond REST opens the possibility for more EDA patterns, such as CQRS.

What is CQRS?

CQRS (Command Query Responsibility Segregation) is a complicated name for a simple idea – allow the “read” data model and the “write” data model to differ, so that reads and writes can be optimized independently. Decoupling the reads from the writes allows for independent choice of technology for reads, best suited for the application use-case. Then the reads can be scaled independently and handled closer to the end user for an improved user experience.


Diagram showing a CQRS architecture

To put it simply:

  • Each command is a request to modify the write data model, which can be rejected under certain conditions, such as when command validation fails. 
  • Each query is a request to the read data model, filtering the query results as needed.

Commands map naturally to a request-response interaction from the client. Zilla maps HTTP requests to a Redpanda commands topic, returning correlated responses from a Redpanda replies topic. An event-driven microservice handles inbound command messages by either processing or rejecting the requested mutation.

Queries can be satisfied by a read data model that’s better suited to the structure of query results needed by the client, which often differs from the structure of the write data model. An added bonus is that queries can also be served closer to the edge of the network to further reduce latency.

However, the read data model is derived from the write data model, so changes to the write data model need to be reflected in the read data model, albeit with a potentially different structure and at one or more different edge locations. This is commonly referred to as eventual consistency, where the read data model will reflect the write data model changes, but not in the same transaction, so there will be some delay. You might be thinking, “Eventual? How long will that take?!” Worry not, the delay can actually be imperceivable. Naturally, each application domain will have a different profile of how much latency is appropriate to reach consistency.

Reflecting the write data model changes at a remote read data model requires data distribution, which is where Redpanda comes in. Each event-driven microservice produces change events to a Redpanda topic for remote consumption. Zilla, as a consumer of Redpanda’s Kafka API, immediately consumes these changes from Redpanda, providing a continuously updated cache to satisfy client queries served from one or more edge locations.

Zilla can then use HTTP-based streaming protocols such as Server-Sent Events to deliver these change events to the client.

Now that you’re familiar with the concepts, let’s put them in the context of a practical example so they can really sink in.  

Example: Real-time, p2p payments with StreamPay using Zilla and Redpanda 

StreamPay is a p2p payments application that follows the CQRS pattern. In this section, we’ll explain how it all works under the hood. Then, we’ll get into the demo and you can follow along using the StreamPay demo application in GitHub.

For context, the StreamPay demo allows users to:

  • Send and receive “funny money”
  • Send payment requests to other users 
  • Keep track of their latest balance

StreamPay uses a combination of Redpanda and Zilla with event-driven microservices and a Vue.js frontend. Each microservice interacts directly with Redpanda using Kafka Streams, removing the need for any backend web servers.

Diagram of the StreamPay application using Zilla, Redpanda, and Vue.js



Zilla is configured to provide an HTTP API for requesting and making payments, updating current user profile details, and various different streaming SSE APIs to receive continuous updates about overall user activity, received payment requests, and the latest balance. 

Redpanda is configured with a commands topic and replies topic for correlated request-response handled by the StreamPay streams service, a log-compacted users topic acting as a users table, and various materialized view topics used to answer queries from the client.

The StreamPay streams service receives and processes commands, sending back correlated replies, while also logging activity events to a Redpanda topic. Analytics are also done in this service, though they could easily be extracted into a separate microservice.

The StreamPay simulation service interacts with the Redpanda topics to introduce virtual users to virtual activity, giving a sense of how StreamPay behaves with many concurrent users, even while running the StreamPay demo application locally.

Commands

The StreamPay application sends CQRS commands to the StreamPay streams service by configuring Zilla to map HTTP endpoints to the Redpanda commands topic.

Protocol

Method

Endpoint

Topic

Reply-To

JWT scope

HTTP

POST

/request

commands

replies

write:request

HTTP

POST

/pay

commands

replies

write:pay

When mapping each HTTP POST request to a Kafka message on the Redpanda commands topic, Zilla does the following:

  • Checks for a valid JWT token with specific scope privileges so the client can send each command type. 
  • Injects a zilla:domain-model message header with the value PayCommand or RequestCommand to let the StreamPay streams service apply the appropriate command type validation. 
  • Extracts the trusted identity from the sub claim of the valid JWT token and injects a zilla:identity header with that trusted identity so that the StreamPay streams service can securely recognize which end user is requesting or making payment.
  • Computes a correlation identifier and injects the value as the zilla:correlation-id message header so that the correlated HTTP response can later be sent to the client. 

When the StreamPay streams service receives the command message, it validates the message to ensure correct format, non-negative payment amount, etc. In the future, most of this validation can be first enforced at Zilla, to fail fast at the edge without needing to propagate such invalid messages, in much the same way that Zilla rejects invalid JWT tokens.

After processing the CQRS command, the StreamPay streams service sends back a Kafka message on the Redpanda replies topic, with the same zilla:correlation-id header name and value as the request. This command reply can represent either success or failure.

Zilla then filters messages from the Redpanda replies topic using the zilla:correlation-id message header value from the CQRS command, delivering the correlated HTTP response to the client.

Queries

Zilla lets CQRS queries be served from the edge, defining several query endpoints used by the StreamPay application.

Protocol

Method

Endpoint

Topic

JWT scope

SSE

GET

/activities

activities

read:activities

SSE

GET

/payment-requests

payment-requests

read:payment-requests

SSE

GET

/current-balance

balances

read:balances

SSE

GET

/total-transactions

total-transactions

read:total-transactions

SSE

GET

/average-transactions

average-transactions

read:average-transactions

SSE

GET

/balance-histories

balance-histories

read:balances

Zilla maps each Server-Sent Events stream over HTTP to a Redpanda topic. When the StreamPay user interface opens a new Server-Sent Events query stream, Zilla first checks for a valid JWT token with specific scope privileges to permit the client to access each query stream. Then Zilla delivers all matching messages in the topic to the client, followed by live updates as new messages arrive in Redpanda.

In some cases, such as /current-balance, Zilla extracts the trusted identity from the sub claim of the valid JWT token and applies a header filter to return only current balance changes for the current end user.

Demo walkthrough: request a payment

To get this demo into gear, you’ll use the following components:

  • Redpanda
  • Redpanda Console
  • Event processing service written using Spring Boot
  • Zilla API Gateway hosts the app web interface and APIs
  • StreamPay app UI
  • Node.js
  • Docker

Head over to the StreamPay demo application on GitHub. Start it locally via Docker by following the README, then open https://localhost:9090/ in your browser.

1. Log in

You’ll see a single sign-on login prompt on first access. Log in via Auth0 using Google, LinkedIn, or GitHub. Zilla verifies signed JWT access tokens from Auth0 to establish your trusted identity and confirm your authorized privileges.

2. Request a payment

The StreamPay application homepage shows simulated payment activity happening behind the scenes via virtual users. Here you can request payment from or make payment to another user.

Click "Pay or Request" and choose a virtual user to request payment. The virtual users are prompt at paying their debts, so you’ll see the payment request fulfilled almost immediately—if the virtual user already has sufficient virtual funds in their account!

You might also see a badge count on the Requests item, indicating that another user has randomly requested payment. You can select the request to initiate payment to that user, though the payment amount will be limited by your available virtual funds.

StreamPay homepage showing simulated payments

3. Watch commands being logged in real-time via Redpanda Console 

While interacting with the StreamPay user interface, you can also watch all the commands being sent to the event-driven "streams" microservice using the Redpanda Console to log messages in the commands topic.

Redpanda Console showing real-time commands being sent to the event-driven microservice

As you continue to interact with the StreamPay user interface, Redpanda Console will log more command messages. In fact, you can observe all the activity in the StreamPay application via Redpanda topics in real time using any Kafka client!

Now that you’ve seen how it all works, let’s touch on the challenges you might encounter when following a CQRS pattern. 

The challenges of implementing CQRS

Application architects typically face challenges when ensuring the correct handling of commands in the presence of unreliable networks or concurrent updates. And also when balancing the performance and freshness of query results. 

Here’s a breakdown of the most common challenges.

Idempotency

Commands are client requests to modify the write data model. If the network disconnects before the client receives a response, then it needs to retry the request so it’s not lost. Adding a unique idempotency-key header to the command request allows the command to be safely retried, but only if the service receiving the command can detect the duplicate and prevent a repeated action. This is often referred to as at-least-once delivery, with duplicate detection.

The main challenges for the server include how long to retain the knowledge of idempotency keys for previous commands to date by ct duplicates, and how to replay the original reply upon receiving a duplicate command. 

Zilla and Redpanda combine to help solve both of these challenges. Here’s how it plays out:

  • Zilla generates a correlation identifier based on the command request headers and body, including the client-specific unique idempotency key. 
  • If the command request is retried, Zilla computes the same correlation identifier. 
  • Zilla then retrieves the correlated response message from Redpanda, which may already exist if this is a retried command request. 
  • If so, then Zilla returns the response immediately, not forward the duplicate command request to Redpanda. 
  • A duplicate command can be sent to Redpanda within the time the event-driven microservice takes to process the command request message and produce the correlated reply message. 
  • The retention period of the Redpanda replies topic determines how long the correlated reply message remains available. 
  • After the retention period has elapsed, a new command request message with the same idempotency key is no longer treated as a duplicate and is processed as a new command.

This approach makes duplicate detection simple and efficient for the event-driven microservice, with most of the heavy lifting being done by Zilla and Redpanda. Since Zilla is stateless, the duplicate command request can be detected and handled by any peer Zilla server in an auto-scaling group, such that idempotency remains straightforward even after a scale-out or scale-in of a Zilla server group.

Optimistic locking

When attempting concurrent updates on the same part of the write data model, you need to verify whether the context is still valid to either apply or reject the update. 

Optimistic locking associates the object’s logical version with the command to modify the write data model. If the expected version matches the current version, the update is applied. If not, it’s rejected. It’s “optimistic” because all commands are accepted if there are no concurrent updates.

Zilla supports optimistic locking by generating an etag as part of the event identity for each message delivered on a Server-Sent Events stream. The remainder of each event identity is used for reliable delivery, allowing the client to recover the SSE stream successfully without loss, even after a network interruption.

When sending a command to update the write data model, the client can include an if-match header with the etag value from the SSE event identity, providing version context to the event-driven microservice to detect and reject a concurrent update. If another update arrives first, then the command can be rejected and the SSE stream will automatically receive a new message that reflects the first update.

Redpanda's native support for Kafka consumer groups allows us to shard the commands into different partitions, for example, based on StreamPay trusted end-user identity injected by Zilla. This ensures that each part of the write data model is handled by a single consumer, so all commands for a given StreamPay end user are handled in a predictable order, giving us the necessary precision to correctly enforce optimistic locking for each end user shard in the write data model.

Eventual consistency

In a CQRS-based approach, when a command is processed to update the write data model, there’s a delay while the change is propagated to the read data model(s). The acceptable amount of time for that delay will naturally vary depending on the business domain.

Zilla and Redpanda combine their high-performance streaming capabilities to propagate these read data model changes from the microservice to the client. First via a Redpanda topic and then via a Zilla SSE stream. In the StreamPay application, delivery of the read data model update to the client is instantaneous.

Scaling out

As the number of clients grows, you may need to add more server resources to handle higher network connections and throughput, which can pose challenges. But, since all relevant CQRS state resides in Redpanda topics, there’s no affinity between a client and a specific Zilla server. This allows Zilla to work seamlessly even as servers are added or removed from an auto-scaling group of peer Zilla servers.

Zilla receives and validates all CQRS commands, ensuring that only valid commands are allowed to be processed by the event-driven microservices. This minimizes the overall load in the system to avoid bottlenecks. Zilla also receives all CQRS queries, serving query responses from a live cache that’s automatically synchronized with one or more topics in Redpanda. Similar to Redpanda, fanout is a first-class citizen at Zilla, so each message is delivered from Redpanda to Zilla only once, but can also be served to many different clients in parallel.

As the geographical distribution of clients increases, the combination of Zilla and Redpanda becomes even more powerful. With Zilla deployed at the edge and Redpanda’s Remote Read Replica clusters deployed in each availability zone or region for global data distribution.

Start building event-driven architectures with Zilla and Redpanda

In this post, we highlighted the event-driven nature of the CQRS architectural pattern and showed how CQRS becomes easy and effective with Zilla, Redpanda, and event-driven microservices. With them, you can effortlessly scale and enhance the user experience of your web applications by better representing common events as they happen in the real world—like real-time p2p payments!

To get started, dig into the documentation for Zilla and Redpanda.

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