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Introducing CQRS

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This chapter from Microsoft .NET - Architecting Applications for the Enterprise, 2nd Edition introduces CQRS, which propounds the separation between domain layers and the use of distinct models for reading and writing.
  • Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.
  • —George Bernard Shaw

As discussed in Chapter 5, “Discovering the domain architecture,” there are two distinct but interoperating parts in Domain-Driven Design (DDD). The analytical part is about discovering the top-level architecture, using the ubiquitous language to dig out bounded contexts and their relationships. The strategic part is about giving each bounded context the most appropriate architecture. A decade ago, the standard architecture for a bounded context was a layered architecture, with a domain layer made of an object-oriented, all-encompassing model and domain services. The effort of developers was then to crunch knowledge about the domain and render it through a web of interconnected objects with state and behavior. The model was unique and intended to fully describe the entire business domain.

It didn’t look, in the beginning, like a thing that’s far easier to say than do.

Some projects that embraced DDD eventually worked; other projects failed. Success stories can be told too, but many people still believe that DDD is hard to do even though it can possibly deliver significant benefits. The point is that, for many people, the perception that DDD holds benefits is much less concrete than the perception of the damage that might result from using DDD and failing.

Is there anything wrong with DDD?

The analytical part of DDD has little to do with code and software design. It’s all about figuring out the top-level architecture while using ad hoc tools like the ubiquitous language. This is an excellent approach to take for just about any project. In complex scenarios, it helps to understand the big picture and lay out modules and services. In simple scenarios, it boils down to having just one context and a single module to build.

The critical part of the original vision of DDD is the suggested architecture for a bounded context. First and foremost, the layered architecture with an object-oriented model and services is just one option, and simpler solutions—for example, Content Management System (CMS), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), coupled CRUD, and two-layer systems—certainly are not banned as long as they fit the needs. Second, even when the layered architecture with a domain layer appears to be the ideal solution for a bounded context, the model doesn’t have to be object-oriented, nor does it have to be an all-encompassing model for the entire context.

In this chapter, we introduce a pattern that splits the domain model in two, actually achieving much more than just separation of concerns.

Separating commands from queries

Most of the difficulties that early adopters of DDD faced were in designing a single model to take care of all aspects of the domain. Generally speaking, any actions performed on a software system belong to one of the following two categories: query or command. In this context, a query is an operation that doesn’t alter in any way the state of the system and just returns data. The command, on the other hand, does alter the state of the system and doesn’t return data, except perhaps for a status code or an acknowledgment.

The logical separation that exists between queries and commands doesn’t show up clearly if the two groups of actions are forced to use the same domain model. For this reason, a new supporting architecture emerged in the past few years called CQRS, which is short for Command/Query Responsibility Segregation.

Generalities of the CQRS pattern

Since the days of ancient Rome, Divide et Impera has been an extremely successful approach to actually getting things done. Roman ruler Julius Caesar won a number of battles fighting against the entire enemy army, but when things got more complicated, he implemented a strategy of leading his enemy into dividing forces across the battlefields so that he could fight against a smaller army.

Similarly, the CQRS pattern is based on a simple, almost commonplace, idea: queries and commands (sometimes also referred to as reads and writes) are very different things and should be treated separately. Yet, for a long time, developers—like short-sighted commanders—insisted on having the same conceptual model for both queries and commands in their systems.

Especially in complex business scenarios, a single model soon becomes unmanageable. It doesn’t just grow exponentially large and complex (and subsequently absorb time and budget), it also never ends up working the way it should.

From domain model to CQRS

In a way, CQRS is a form of lateral thinking resulting from the difficulty of finding a well-conceived model for complex domains. If the Domain Model turns out to be expensive and objectively complex, are we sure we’re approaching it right? That was probably the question that led to investigating and formalizing a different pattern.

At the end of the day, CQRS uses two distinct domain layers rather than just one. The separation is obtained by grouping operations that are queries in one layer and operations that are commands in another. Each layer, then, has its own architecture and its own set of services dedicated to only queries and commands, respectively. Figure 10-1 captures the difference.


FIGURE 10-1 Visual comparison between Domain Model and CQRS.

In CQRS, it is not a far-fetched idea to have the query stack based exclusively on SQL queries and completely devoid of models, an application layer, and a domain layer. Having a full domain-model implementation in the query stack is not common. In general, the query stack should be simplified to the extreme. In addition, typically a CQRS approach has a different database for each side.

Structure of the query and command domain layers

As surprising as it might sound, the simple recognition that commands and queries are two different things has a deep impact on the overall architecture of the system. In Figure 10-1, we split the domain layer into two blocks.

Are they just two smaller and simpler versions of a domain layer like we discussed in the past two chapters?

The interesting thing is that with the architecture of the system organized as two parallel branches as shown in Figure 10-1, the requirement of having a full-fledged domain model is much less strict. For one thing, you might not need a domain model at all to serve queries. Queries are now just data to be rendered in some way through the user interface. There’s no command to be arranged on queried data; as such, many of the relationships that make discovering aggregates so important in a classic domain model are unnecessary. The model for the domain layer of the query side of a CQRS system can be simply a collection of made-to-measure data-transfer objects (DTOs). Following this consideration, the domain services might become just classes that implement pieces of business logic on top of an anemic model.

Similar things can be said for the domain layer of the command side of the system. Depending on the commands you actually implement, a classic domain model might or might not be necessary. In general, there’s a greater chance you might need a domain model for the command side because here you express business logic and implement business rules. At any rate, the domain model you might have on the command side of a CQRS system is likely far simpler because it is tailor-made for the commands.

In summary, recognizing that queries and commands are different things triggers a chain reaction that sets the foundation for domain modeling, as discussed in the past two chapters. We justified domain models as the ideal way to tackle complexity in the heart of software. Along the way, we ended up facing a good deal of complexity and thought it was, for the most part, complexity that is inherent to the business domain. Instead, most of that complexity results from the Cartesian product of queries and commands. Separating commands from queries can reduce complexity by an order of magnitude.

CQRS is not a top-level architecture

Unlike DDD, CQRS is not a comprehensive approach to the design of an enterprise-class system. CQRS is simply a pattern that guides you in architecting a specific bounded context of a possibly larger system. Performing a DDD analysis based on a ubiquitous language and aimed at identifying bounded contexts remains a recommended preliminary step.

Next, CQRS becomes a valid alternative to Domain Model, CRUD, and other supporting architectures for the implementation of a particular bounded context.

Benefits of CQRS

The list of benefits brought about by using CQRS to implement a bounded context is not particularly long. Overall, we think that there are essentially two benefits. Their impact on the solution, though, is dramatic.

Simplification of the design

As our interactions with the Domain Model taught us, most of the complexity you face in a software system is usually related to operations that change the state of the system. Commands should validate the current state and determine whether they can run. Next, commands should take care of leaving the system in a consistent state.

Finally, in a scenario in which reading and writing operations share the same representation of data, it sometimes becomes hard to prevent unwanted operations from becoming available in reading or writing. We already raised this point in the last chapter when we pointed out that it’s nearly impossible to give, say, a list of order items a single representation that fits in both the query and command scenarios. Anyway, we’ll return to this aspect in a moment with a detailed example.

We stated in an earlier note that the complexity of the Domain Model results from the Cartesian product of queries and commands. If we take the analysis one step further, we can even measure by a rule of thumb the amount of reduced complexity. Let’s call N the complexity of queries and commands. In a single domain model, where requirements and constraints of queries affect commands and vice versa, like in a Cartesian product, you have a resulting complexity of NxN. By separating queries from commands and treating them independently, all you have is N+N.

Potential for enhanced scalability

Scalability has many faces and factors; the recipe for scalability tends to be unique for each system you consider. In general, scalability defines the system’s ability to maintain the same level of performance as the number of users grows. A system with more users performs certain operations more frequently. Scalability, therefore, depends on the margins that architects have to fine-tune the system to make it perform more operations in the same unit of time.

The way to achieve scalability depends on the type of operations most commonly performed. If reads are the predominant operation, you can introduce levels of caching to drastically reduce the number of accesses to the database. If writes are enough to slow down the system at peak hours, you might want to consider switching from a classic synchronous writing model to async writes or even queues of commands.

Separating queries from commands gives you the chance to work on the scalability aspects of both parts in total isolation.

Pleasant side effects of CQRS

A couple of other pleasant side effects of CQRS are worth noting here. First, CQRS leads you to a deep understanding of what your application reads and what it processes. The neat separation of modules also makes it safe to make changes to each without incurring some form of regression on one or the other.

Second, thinking about queries and commands leads to reasoning in terms of tasks and a task-based user interface, which is very good for end users.

Fitting CQRS in the business layer

Honestly, we don’t think there are significant downsides to CQRS. It all depends in the end on what you mean exactly by using CQRS. So far we just defined it as a pattern that suggests you have two distinct layers: one filled with the model and services necessary for reading, and one with the model and services for commands. What a model is—whether it is an object model, a library of functions, or a collection of data-transfer objects—ultimately is an implementation detail.

With this definition in place, nearly any system can benefit from CQRS and coding it doesn’t require doing things in a different way. Neither does it mean learning new and scary things.

Noncollaborative vs. collaborative systems

The point, however, is that CQRS also induces some deeper architectural changes that maximize the return in terms of scalability and reduced complexity but that require some investment in learning and performing a preliminary analysis.

In the end, CQRS was discovered by looking for more effective ways to tackle complex systems in which multiple actors—both end users and software clients—operate on the data concurrently and sophisticated and ever-changing business rules apply. The major proponents of CQRS—Udi Dahan and Greg Young—called these systems collaborative systems.

Let’s try to formalize the landmarks of a collaborative system a bit better.

In a collaborative system, the underlying data can change at any time from the effect of the current user, concurrent users connected through various front ends, and even back-end software. In a collaborative system, users compete for the same resources, and this means that whatever data you get can be stale in the same moment that it is read or even long before it is displayed. One of the reasons for this continuous change is that the business logic is particularly complex and involves multiple modules that sometimes need to be loaded dynamically. The architect has two main options:

  • Lock the entire aggregate for the time required to complete any operation.
  • Keep the aggregate open to change at the cost of possibly showing out-of-sync data that eventually becomes consistent. (This is often referred to as eventual consistency.)

The first option is highly impractical for a collaborative system—the back end would be locked while serving a single request at nearly any time, and the throughput would be very low. The second option might be acceptable but, if the system is not properly fine-tuned, it can end up giving inaccurate results and taking too long a time to respond.

This is the scenario that led to formalizing CQRS.

CQRS to the rescue

CQRS is not simply about using different domain layers for queries and commands. It’s more about using distinct stacks for queries and commands architected by following a new set of guidelines. (See Figure 10-2.)


FIGURE 10-2 The big picture of the CQRS implementation of a collaborative system.

In the command pipeline, any requests from the presentation layer become a command appended to the queue of a processor. Each command carries information and has its own handler that knows about the logic. In this way, each command is a logical unit that can thoroughly validate the state of the involved objects and intelligently decide which updates to perform and which to decline. The command handler processes the command just once. Processing the command might generate events handled by other registered components. In this way, other software can perform additional tasks. One of the common tasks is performing periodical updates of a database cache that exists for the sole purpose of the query pipeline.

When the business logic is extremely sophisticated, you can’t afford to handle commands synchronously. You can’t do that for two reasons:

  • It slows down the system.
  • The domain services involved become way too complex, perhaps convoluted and subject to regression, especially when rules change frequently.

With a CQRS architecture, the logic can be expressed through single commands that result in distinct, individual components that are much easier to evolve, replace, and fix. In addition, these commands can be queued if necessary.

The query pipeline is quite simple, on the other hand. All it has is a collection of repositories that query content from ad hoc caches of denormalized data. The structure of such database cache tables (most of the time, plain Microsoft SQL Server tables) closely reflects the data required by the user interface. So, for example, if a page requires the customer name while displaying the order details, you can arrange to have the ID and name readymade in a cache without having to JOIN every time. Furthermore, because the query pipeline is separated, it can offload to a dedicated server at any time.

CQRS always pays the architecture bill

Many seem to think that outside the realm of collaborative systems, the power of CQRS diminishes significantly. On the contrary, the power of CQRS really shines in collaborative systems because it lets you address complexity and competing resources in a much smoother and overall simpler way. There’s more to it than meets the eye, we think.

In our opinion, CQRS can sufficiently pay your architecture bills even in simpler scenarios, where the plain separation between query and command stacks leads to simplified design and dramatically reduces the risk of design errors. You don’t need to have super-skilled teams of developers to do CQRS. Quite the opposite: using CQRS enables nearly any team to do a good job in terms of scalability and cleanliness of the design.

Transaction script in the command stack

CQRS is a natural fit in a system dependent on collaboration. However, the benefits of command/query separation can apply to nearly all systems.

Most systems out there can be summarized as “CRUD with some business logic around.” In these cases, you can just use the Transaction Script (TS) pattern (as discussed in Chapter 7, “The mythical business layer”) in the implementation of the command stack. TS is an approach that has you partition the back end of the system—overall, business logic—in a collection of methods out of a few container classes. Each method essentially takes care of a command and provides a full implementation for it. The method, therefore, takes care of processing input data, invoking local components or services in another bounded context, and writing to the database. All these steps take place in a single “logical” transaction.

As Fowler said, the glory of TS is in its simplicity. TS is a natural fit for applications with a small amount of logic. The major benefit of TS is there’s only minor overhead for development teams in terms of learning and performance.

EDMX for the read model

What’s the easiest way to build a data access layer that serves the purposes of the presentation layer with no extra whistles and bells? Once you know the connection string to the database to access, all you do is create an Entity Framework wrapper in the form of an EDMX designer file in Microsoft Visual Studio.

Running the Entity Framework designer on the specified connection string infers an object model out of the database tables and relationships. Because it comes from Entity Framework, the object model is essentially anemic. However, the C# mechanism of partial classes enables you to add behavior to classes, thus adding a taste of object orientation and domain modeling to the results.

Arranging queries—possibly just LINQ queries—on top of this object model is easy for most developers, and it’s effective and reliable. Expert developers can work very quickly with this approach, and junior developers can learn from it just as quickly.

The pragmatic architect’s perspective

Taking the point of view of an architect, you might wonder what the added value of CQRS is in relatively simple systems with only a limited amount of business logic.

You set the architecture to define the boundaries of command and query stacks. You pass each developer an amount of work that is commensurate to that developer’s actual skills. You still have distinct stacks to be optimized independently or even rewritten from scratch if necessary.

In a word, an expert architect has a far better chance to take on the project comfortably, even with only junior developers on the team.