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New Web Connection Server Startup Features in 6.15

Saturday, July 1, 2017, 8:35:13 PM

Inspired by a recent discussion with Brett Carraway on the message board I've made a bunch of changes in the way Web Connection's startup code works.

Startup code debugging - especially in production and in COM Mode - has been notoriously difficult to debug because of the way Web Connection fires server initialization code that happens as part of the server's Init() constructor. Due to this implementation getting error information about startup failures - especially under COM - can be difficult to track down, because there's no instance on an error, there's also no error information available to pass back to the COM host.

Because startup code fires in the constructor you often just end up with nondescript COM errors like Unable to retrieve Server Instance or COM Server Execution Error.

A quick Refresher on Web Connection Server Loading

Web Connection exposes both an OnInit() and OnLoad() event hook that you can hook user code to. Both methods fire once on server startup. OnInit() is meant for low level server configuration - basically where to find the configuration file. You rarely change this method from what the default template generates. OnLoad() is meant for letting you configure your application's environment, which means setting paths with SET PATH, loading classes and procedure files, opening global connections, mapping drives etc. - all the stuff your application needs. Currently, if there's an error in your user code, the server will never load, and you will get a nondescript error message.

New Feature: Separating OnInit() and OnLoad()

The new features coming in Web Connection 6.15 separate the initial server instantiation code in OnInit(), and the more application specific application configuration in OnLoad() into separate operations. OnLoad() now fires as part of the request pipeline, when the first request comes in, rather than as part of the constructor. Since most of the processing that can fail during startup is likely to be application specific code this will make it much easier to trap and report on errors that occur during the OnLoad() phase. OnInit() will still fail as before since they are still running inside of the constructor.

Don't worrry - these changes won't affect application level code. If you have existing OnInit() or OnLoad() code, that code will continue to run as is - no changes required. The changes only affect the underlying Web Connection Server plumbing and not your code.

Before I look at the new features and what they do in more detail, let's discuss the issues related to startup code debugging.

Startup Code Issues in Web Connection

Runtime startup code debugging is one of the trickiest things with Web Connection. Why? Because of the way Web Connection works, the entire server bootstrap and load process occurs in the Init() constructor code of the FoxPro server. This means if anything goes wrong at all, the server will not load, and more importantly, the server has no way to report error information back to the Web Connection Module and ultimately the IIS page that gets generated. When errors occur during initialization you typically just get nondescript COM errors and 500 error page from IIS. Not so helpful that.

All of this happens because Web Connection currently fires OnInit() and OnLoad() in the FoxPro Init() constructor function. Any code failure in Init() in FoxPro fails to produce an instance, and when running the server in COM mode produces a COM Error that doesn't forward any information about what went wrong. While Web Connection can and does capture exceptions in the load sequence, it has no way to report that error back to the Web Connection module because no instance has been created yet. Even COMRETURNERROR doesn't work, because it needs to have an instance in order to work first.

So in current versions the only way to get error information is via logs. Startup errors are logged in wcTracelog.txt in the server EXE's folder (assuming permissions are available) as well as in the wwRequestLog. Today you can also use Server::Trace() to write Debug statements to the wcTracelog.txt file for debug type log output that can often help trace where code is reaching and what current values are. It works but is tedious if you're flying blind.

  • Development Mode - Code stops on error
    While in development that's usually not a problem. If something goes wrong you see the error and FoxPro stops which is perfect. You can see what happens and you can step through the code as necessary. This works fine and was never really a problem.

  • Production File Mode Startup - Error Dialogs
    Running in File Based mode will still produce an exception that can often shows up as a WAIT WINDOW on the interactive desktop instance of the Web Connection server. While that's not super helpful, it's better than nothing and often can give you a clue as to what's happening.

  • Production COM Server Startup - No Error Info
    COM Servers are even worse. Because the code that runs OnInit() and OnLoad() behaviors in the FoxPro Server's Init() constructor, an error anywhere in that code simply causes the server loading to fail with what amounts to an unknown COM error. Even though Web Connection captures and tracks the error that occurred, it can't report the error in any way because there's no instance to read the error information off of.

In either COM or file based modes if you're running in production you often don't have easy access to the server, so even if there some sort of error message displayed, you may not see it. With COM, typically there's no interactive UI so there's nothing to see.

That leaves the log files which again you have to look at on the server to debug.

Current Version Workarounds for Startup Errors - Tracing

In Web Connection 6.0 I introduced server tracing via the Server::Trace() method. There are two modes for this:

  • Automatic Server Error Logging in wcTracelog.txt
  • Trace Logging for your own code

Automatic Trace Error Log

Web Connection automatically writes to the log file if a server load error occurs. As long as your server has rights to write in the server's startup folder wcTracelog.txt is filled with the error info and usually that will give you a good clue what's going wrong. But this file lives on the server and you have to access it and when you fire up your server at first you still end up with a nasty and unhelpful COM error.

Error tracelog output looks something like this:

07/01/2017 06:54:09 PM - Processing Error - Server Startup

     Error: 1925
   Message: Unknown member OSQL.
   Details: OSQL
            Code inside of Server OnLoad() failed
      Code: this.oSql.Execute("select * from users")
   Program: onload
   Line No: 167

Handled by: Wcdemoserver.OnError()<br>

Explicit Trace Logging by your Code

If you know you have a problem in your startup code and you need to debug it in a production application - because 'it works on my machine', but not on the server of course - you can use the Server.Trace() method to write out state messages that let you see how far your code gets and lets you echo out messages.

Tracelog output can be written like this (in Server code in OnLoad() or OnInit):

this.Trace("Entering OnInit()")

and output looks something like this:

07/01/2017 06:54:09 PM - Entering OnInit()
07/01/2017 06:54:09 PM - Completed OnInit()
07/01/2017 06:54:09 PM - Completed OnLoad()
07/01/2017 06:54:09 PM - Initialized Sql

Using tracing it's possible to debug server code, but it's not optimal of course. In order to make any changes to the log output you have to change your code and you have to recompile and redeploy your server, which can be a pain.

Web Connection 6.15 Improvements

In Web Connection 6.15 the way Web Connection fires the OnLoad() event changes. No longer will the event be fired as part of the server's constructor/Init() code. Rather Web Connection now fires the OnLoad() as part of the first request that is directed against the server. There's now a flag in the server class that does essentially this:

*** Now do server load Configuration
IF (this.lInStartup)

The lIsInStartup flag is .t. initially and set to .f. as part of LoadInternal(). LoadInternal() is a wrapper around your OnLoad() hook method, which traps errors and if an error occurs handles that error by logging it and setting a lStartupError flag.

This flag is checked just before the request would normally be processed:

IF (this.lStartupError)   
    lcHtml = this.ErrorMsg(;
    		"Fatal Server Startup Error",;
    		"<p>The server failed to load on startup. Please fix the following error in the server's startup code.</p>" + ;
   	        "<p>An error occurred during OnLoad(): "+ this.cErrorMsg) + "</p>"
   IF THIS.lDebugMode OR this.lUseErrorMethodErrorHandling 
      *** IN theory no errors should occur here
      *** because wwProcess handles its own errors
      CATCH TO loException

If an error occurs you then see an error page like this:

This error page is permanent - any subsequent requests will display this error until the startup error is fixed.

Under the old behavior the server would have never loaded - now the server has loaded but the error information is now available and can be displayed on this error page and you know what to fix at this point. Request data is still logged.

Faster COM Server Loading

Because COM servers no longer have to hit your OnLoad() code before returning an instance to COM, COM Servers can load more quickly. Instances pop up much quicker and are ready to process requests before all servers have fired their OnLoad() code. This is especially true if you have time consuming startup or initialization code in OnLoad() which is now delayed until the first hit goes against the server. This can also get around timeout issues with slow load code (which previously was capped at 10 seconds for all servers as a group).

Parallel COM Server Loading

In addition the new version now loads COM servers in parallel so servers load much quicker as code no longer has to wait for each of the servers to load in sequence.

Combined with the reduced startup overhead of not having to run the OnLoad() code, server initialization is significantly faster than before especially for servers that have slow loading initialization code for setting up things like first SQL connections or remote share file access.

Related Improvement: Dynamic Instance Configuration on Module Admin Page

Since I've been dealing with instance performance improvements another small enhancement comes in the form a new Web Connection Module Administration configuration option on the .NET Module admin page: You can now dynamically configure the instance count right on the Admin page:

This option updates the ServerCount configuration and immediately updates the pool count.

.NET Module Only

This feature works only with the .NET Module. The ISAPI DLL does not support this functionality.

Locked and Loaded

These improvements have come up in discussions on a few occasions in the past and I hope they will make life easier for you. Debugging startup errors is one of a few common issues I frequently get support calls for, so hopefully this will cut down on that end of things.

These features will be provided in Web Connection 6.15 which is scheduled for later this month.

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Posted in: Web Connection


© Rick Strahl, West Wind Technologies, 2003 - 2017