Akka.Persistence is one of the plugins, that introduce an eventsourced persistence mechanics into Akka.NET. However, I've often seen people having problems, since neither actors nor eventsourcing are part of mainstream .NET development. A lot of these are often a general problems of eventsourced systems, therefore I've decided to write some more about them and present potential solutions from the perspective of Akka.Persistence user.

This post describes current state of things. They may change in the future, as Akka.NET team want to address some of them.

Control your own data

There are two ways, how Akka.NET event journals may store your data:

  1. Some of them may define totally custom serialization mechanics, i.e:
    • MongoDB persistence uses BSON serializer which requires you to define bindings to all serialized message types.
    • PostgreSQL plugin has configuration switch which will use JSON.NET to store your data as JSON/JSONB column (which is well understood by this database). In future, the rest of SQL databases will get that support as well.
  2. At the moment most of them however will use default akka serialization mechanics: the same that are used to pass messages between cluster nodes.

One of the first mistakes, everyone do, is giving up your data in the hands of the default serializer. First of all, you're giving up ability to encode/decode your data into 3rd party dependency (sic!). And what's most important, default serializer is build for remote message exchange, it may NOT be a good way to store immutable, everlasting data structures.

Even Newtonsoft.Json serializer (which was initially choosen as Akka.NET default serializer) is not a good option. If you were thinking "it's just a JSON, what could go wrong", the story is a little more complicated. Default configuration of it encodes a full type name as a part of the payload in order to support polymorphic deserialization. This means that once you'll change your event qualified type description (namespace, type name or assembly) - something you shouldn't do anyway - your old data is lost, as it'll try to deserialize it to type that can no longer be found.

So what to choose?

  1. Some people are using schema-less formats, as they allow for a certain degree of version tolerance without much work. This includes JSON, just not on the settings, that are used by Akka.NET remote serializer.
  2. Others (including me) are more enthusiasts of schema-based serializers i.e. Google Protocol Buffers or Microsoft Bond, as they keep event schema/contract explicit and well defined.

Why I've linked Google.Protobuf and not protobuf-net? I think that keeping schema in .proto files makes things more explicit and prevents accidental schema changes.

Configuring a custom serializer

Writing a custom serializer is rather easy. All you need is to write down a custom class inheriting from Serializer base class. But how to bind it to a specific event type?

Akka.NET serialization bindings are based on types. This means, that you need to specify an event-typeserializer pair. Type provided here doesn't have to be actually a concrete class - Akka will investigate inheritance chain and all implementations in order to resolve a binding. This means that usually we create an empty marker interface and implement it in all events, that we want to serialize with target serializer.

An example HOCON config may look like that:

akka.actor {  
  serializers.my-custom = "MyNamespace.MySerializer, MyAssembly"
  serialization-bindings {
    "MyNamespace.IDomainEvent, MyAssembly" = my-custom
  }
}

Have an event versioning strategy

As events are immutable by definition, we need to prepare some approach, how to behave if we want to be able to change them as we develop our system. This is what we call event versioning.

If you want to have a wider perspective on that problem, you probably should read Versioning in an Eventsourced System by Greg Young.

Most of the people see and understand a rationale behind having a migration strategy for their database. However, a lot less of them have an idea on how to approach a schema evolution in eventsourced systems.

Event adapters

One of the features of Akka.Persistence are event adapters. They are a middleware components that you can plug into a pipeline between event journal and a persistent actor, allowing you to modify deserialized events, before they reach the destination.

To create a custom event adapter, you need a class that implements either a IReadEventAdapter (to interpect events received from the journal), IWriteEventAdapter (to intercept events send to the journal) or just IEventAdapter which combines both.

Event adapters can be used to upgrade old event versions to newer ones or event to deconstruct single event into multiple ones. When is that useful? Example: if you made a mistake in the past, and defined an event that actually had more than a single responsibility (i.e. OrderedAndConfirmed instead of separate Ordered/Confirmed kind of events).

But how to bind an adapter to be used for some event in scope of the journal?

# we will use SqlServer journal for this example
akka.persistence.journal.sql-server {  
  event-adapters {
    custom-adapter = "MyNamespace.MyEventAdapter, MyAssembly"
  }
  event-adapter-bindings {
    "MyNamespace.V1.IDomainEvent, MyAssembly" = custom-adapter
  }
}

Don't use snapshots without events

This is a popular problem for the people starting their journey with Akka.Persistence. Quite often they see persistence snapshots and think: hey, I don't need eventsourcing, let me just use one of these. However a sole role of Akka.Persistence snapshots is to optimize streams of events.

If you're into snapshot-based persistence, Akka.Persistence is definitely not for you. Persistent actors are build to support different needs, just like journals and even snapshots themselves - as they have fields used to correlate their position in a stream of events. They also don't map well into multi-table/multi-document database hierarchies.

Another thing: when you're persisting events with PersistentActor a next command won't be handled until the event has been persisted successfully and its callback has been called. This is not the case in SaveSnapshot, which doesn't block actor from picking a next message before confirming, that snapshot has been saved.

This is not the problem in eventsourced systems - if system will die before saving the snapshot, we replay from the last successfully stored snapshot and an events, that came afterward - but without events you may process tens of messages without any confirmation and lost that data upon actor system shutdown.