Related Work in Event-Driven Architecture

Posted on March 15, 2014

Since 2006, large-scale systems designers have created concepts like Event-Driven Service Oriented Architecture to solve fundamental problems in constructing dependable distributed systems. Every section of this space first defines the problem, then presents a solution and shows how it is used to solve the problem. These problems vary from point-to-point distribution to agnostic application design.


Let’s make sure we start with the same vocabulary.

Any user-facing interface such as the web, a phone, a tablet, or a desktop.

Push Notifications

Push notifications are used to send point-to-point ephemeral messages to devices that have already established a contract with the server of a particular communication source. For example, if you were just tagged in a picture on Facebook, they would send your device(s) a push notification to let you know.

Although push notifications have previously been used exclusively in mobile contexts, they are now integrated in nearly all connected systems. For example, Mac OS X now comes with Twitter and Facebook notifications built in on Apple’s Push Notification Service APN.

Mac OS X Notification Center

Mac OS X Notification Center

Push notifications give services the power to notify human users of live events in real time. Due to their ephemeral nature, notifications are somewhat unreliable. They are delivered only once and may be dropped (not delivered). Push notifications are not used to start application processes.

Work Queues

Large systems no longer process all the work in a single request. Unlike simple sites that process a user upload (e.g. an image) during the request, YouTube defers the processing of uploaded videos to a dedicated processing cluster.

With work queues, user-facing services can offload and schedule processing on labeled channels. Workers will take jobs from these channels, execute the jobs, and mark the jobs as completed. If the job fails to be marked as completed within a specified time interval due to server issues or other problems, the job may be re-enqueued again at a later time.

Work queues are not appropriate for soft real-time contexts. On their own, work queues only guarantee delivery, monitor completion, and sometimes re-enqueue if failure is detected. Work queues do not take into account the subscribed service’s loads.

Its interface is generic, but was originally designed for reducing the latency of page views in high-volume web applications by running time-consuming tasks asynchronously.


Publish-Subscribe Service

Publish-Subscribe (“pub-sub”) systems replicate published messages and send a copy to each subscriber. Subscriptions are typically partitioned into channels.

A channel is a logical identifier that publishers and subscribers use to sort message delivery.

For example, a channel created for user_1234 it may have the following setup:

  • The Instant-Messaging service publishes messages whenever user_1234 receives an instant message on the user_1234 channel
  • A twitter-mention service sees that user_1234 is mentioned and informs user_1234 by publishing a message on the user_1234 channel
  • user_1234 is currently on the website
  • user_1234 has push-notifications set up on his phone
  • user_1234 also has registered his own personal analysis service so that he can get a report on what times of day he gets the most notifications

As this example shows, user_1234 may be registered as three types of subscribers. Despite device differences, the messages are all inherently ephemeral. It is up to the subscriber to decide whether to process what they receive or to ignore it. A web page will only show the current messages as long as the user has the web page open. Later views will show newer messages. Messages sent via push notifications to the user’s phone will be received once at most. The personal analysis service is likely a web service awaiting data to collect and process.

Different types of data, such as tweets and instant messages, may be published via channels. Unlike work queues, in which each message should be the same type, publish-subscribe systems typically do not operate under type constraints.

Services such as PubNub and Pusher provide scalable pub-sub tools that can be used on a variety of platforms, such as mobile devices, the web, servers, etc.. However, this functionality is not exclusive to third party services. Libraries such as ZMQ provide socket interfaces, while databases such as Redis offer this functionality out of the box.

Plain pub-sub cannot be used when scheduling work queues since redundant processing is a waste of resources.

Event / Message Middleware

Soft-real time systems use message passing to facilitate concurrent processes. Typically, message passing processes run independently from the product or application via Message-Oriented middleware . The benefits of running an independent system for message passing is scalability, robust delivery, strategic failure handling, and extensibility.

Solutions such as RabbitMQ provide multiple message exchange modes.

  • Publish / Subscribe (Fanout)
  • Work Queue (Direct)
  • Filtered Exchange (Topic)

An exchange specifies the run-time behavior of messages that are processed or replicated as they pass between mediating exchanges. A Publish-Subscribe exchange will send each interested subscriber node a copy of the message, whereas a Work-Queue will send the message to only one subscribed node. However, filtered exchanges selectively publish to other exchanges.

Message Middleware enables developers to abstract away communication concerns and focus on building resilient systems.

Enterprise Service Bus (ESB)

ESBs take messaging middleware to the next level by abstracting the contractual nature of messages between services. That is, components can communicate without needing to speak the same language.

Apache Synapse is a simple and highly effective ESB, Web Services intermediary and SOA framework. …. Once Apache Synapse is mediating your service requests it can perform many functions including routing, load-balancing, transformation and protocol switching. Apache Synapse can be used to build an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) or Service Oriented Architecture (SOA).

Apache Synapse

The most compelling use for an Enterprise Service Bus is the integration of third party components. An Enterprise Service Bus mediates between components, making it easier to integrate third party services that use different protocols. For example, when faced with choosing from 200+ Apache Top Level Projects, an ESB ensures that integration will not be the deciding factor for use of a particular technology.

Synapse and other ESBs such as IBM WebSphere let developer teams immediately focus on their own products and address integration later.


There are many varieties of event-driven system strategies–all with different principles and use-cases. Message-Oriented-Middleware and Enterprise-Service-Buses incorporate the fundamental principles of other styles (i.e. pub-sub, work queues, etc.), allowing them to suffice for most large-scale use-cases needing on-the-fly flexibility. Due to their flexibility and multi-use-case functionality, these combinatory services often require dedicated infrastructure to run well.