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How to emulate Azure Service Bus Topic Subscription Filtering in RabbitMQ

When creating a subscription to an Azure Service Bus Topic you can add a filter which will determine which messages to send to the subscription based upon the properties of the message.


This is done by passing a SqlFilter to the Create Subscription method


if (!_NamespaceManager.SubscriptionExists(topic, subscription))
    if (!String.IsNullOrEmpty(filter))
        SqlFilter strFilter = new SqlFilter(filter);
        await _NamespaceManager.CreateSubscriptionAsync(topic, subscription, strFilter);
        bSuccess = true;
        await _NamespaceManager.CreateSubscriptionAsync(topic, subscription);
        bSuccess = true;

Where strFilter is a string representing the properties that you want to filter on e.g.

// Create a "LowMessages" filtered subscription.

SqlFilter lowMessagesFilter = new SqlFilter("MessageNumber <= 3");


Applying properties to messages makes it easier to configure multiple subscribers to sets of messages rather than having multiple subscribers that receive all the messages, providing you with a flexible approach to building your messaging applications.

Subscriptions are effectively individual queues that each subscriber uses to hold the messages that a relevant to the subscriptions

When a message is pushed onto a Topic the Service Bus will look at all the subscriptions for the Topic and determine which messages are relevant to the subscription. If it is relevant then the subscription will receive the message into its queue. If there are no subscriptions capable of receiving the message then the message will be lost unless the topic is configured to throw an exception when there are no subscriptions to receive the message.

This approach is useful if most of the message data is stored in the properties (which are subject to a size limit of 64KB) and the body content is serialised to the same object (or the body object types are known).

Receiving messages on a Service Bus Subscription is as follows:

MessagingFactory messageFactory = MessagingFactory.CreateFromConnectionString(_ConnectionString);
SubscriptionClient client = messageFactory.CreateSubscriptionClient(topic, subscription);
message = await client.ReceiveAsync(new TimeSpan(0, 5, 0));
if (message != null)
    properties = message.Properties;
    body = message.GetBody<MyCustomBodyData>();
    if (processMessage != null)
        // do some work

Over the past few months I have been looking at RabbitMQ and trying to apply my Service Bus knowledge, as well as looking at the differences. Routing messages based upon the message properties rather than a routing key defined in the message is still applicable in the RabbitMQ world and RabbitMQ is configurable enough to work in this way. RabbitMQ requires more configuration than Service Bus but there is a mechanism called Header Exchange which can be used to route messages based upon the properties of the message.

The first thing to do is to create the exchange, then assign a queue to it based upon a set of filter criteria. I’ve been creating my exchanges with an alternate exchange to allow me to receive message that are not handled in a default queue. The code to create the exchange and queue that subscribes to messages where the ClientId property is “Client1” and the FileType property is “transaction”.

// Create Header Exchange with alternate-exchange

IDictionary<String, Object> args4 = new Dictionary<String, Object>();

args4.Add("alternate-exchange", alternateExchangeNameForHeaderExchange);

channel.ExchangeDeclare(HeaderExchangeName, "headers", true, false, args4);

channel.ExchangeDeclare(alternateExchangeNameForHeaderExchange, "fanout");

//Queue for Header Exchange Client1 & transaction

Dictionary<string, object> bindingArgs = new Dictionary<string, object>();

bindingArgs.Add("x-match", "all"); //any or all

bindingArgs.Add("ClientId", "Client1");

bindingArgs.Add("FileType", "transaction");

channel.QueueDeclare(HeaderQueueName, true, false, false, args5);

channel.QueueBind(HeaderQueueName, HeaderExchangeName, "", bindingArgs);

//queue for Header Exchange alternate exchange (all other)

channel.QueueDeclare(unroutedMessagesQueueNameForHeaderExchange, true, false, false, null);

channel.QueueBind(unroutedMessagesQueueNameForHeaderExchange, alternateExchangeNameForHeaderExchange, "");

This will setup the exchange and queue in RabbitMQ and now you can send a message to the exchange with the correct properties as follows:

IBasicProperties properties = channel.CreateBasicProperties();
properties.Headers = new Dictionary<string, object>();
properties.Headers.Add("ClientId", "Client1");
properties.Headers.Add("FileType", "transaction");

string routingkey = "header.key";
var message = "Hello World";
var body = Encoding.UTF8.GetBytes(message);

channel.BasicPublish(exchange: TopicName,
                                routingKey: routingkey,
                                basicProperties: properties,
                                body: body);

Receiving messages from the queue is as follows:

var consumer = new EventingBasicConsumer(channel);
consumer.Received += (model, ea) =>
    var body = ea.Body;
    var message = Encoding.UTF8.GetString(body);
    var routingKey = ea.RoutingKey;
    Byte[] FileTypeBytes = (Byte[])ea.BasicProperties.Headers["FileType"];
    Byte[] ClientIDBytes = (Byte[])ea.BasicProperties.Headers["ClientId"];
    string FileType = System.Text.Encoding.ASCII.GetString(FileTypeBytes);
    string ClientID = System.Text.Encoding.ASCII.GetString(ClientIDBytes);
    Console.WriteLine(" [x] Received '{0}':'{1}' [{2}] [{3}]",
    EventingBasicConsumer c = model as EventingBasicConsumer;
    if (c != null)
        c.Model.BasicAck(ea.DeliveryTag, false);
        Console.WriteLine(" [x] Received {0} rk {1} ex {2} ct {3}", message, ea.RoutingKey, ea.Exchange, ea.ConsumerTag);
channel.BasicConsume(queue: queueProcessorBaseName + textBox1.Text,
                        noAck: false,
                        consumer: consumer);

Again an out of the box feature for Service Bus can also be implemented in RabbitMQ but it is much simpler to use in Service Bus. The use of properties to route messages offers a much more flexible approach but does require that the body of the messages are either not used or are understood by each consumer. Service Bus offers more flexibility as the query string can contain a variety of operators whereas RabbitMQ matches all or some of the header values and not a range.

Dead Letters with Azure Service Bus and RabbitMQ

Firstly, what are dead letters?

When a  message is received in a messaging system, something tries to process it. The message is normally understood by the system and can be processed, sometimes however the messages are not understood and can cause the receiving process to fail. The failure could be caught by the systems and dealt with but in extreme situations the message could cause the receiving process to crash. Messages that cannot be delivered or that fail when processed need to be removed from the queue and stored somewhere for later analysis. A message that fails in this way is called a dead letter and the location where these dead letters reside is called a dead letter queue. Queuing systems such as Azure Service Bus, Rabbit MQ and others have mechanisms to handle this type of failure. Some systems handle them automatically and others require configuration.

Dead letter queues are the same as any other queue except that they contain dead letters. As they are queues they can be processed in the same way as the normal queues except that they have a different address to the normal queue. I’ve already discussed Service Bus Dead Letter Queue addressing in a previous post and this is still relevant today.

On RabbitMQ a Dead Letter queue is just another queue and is addressed in the same way as any other queue. The difference is in the way the Dead Letter queue is setup. Firstly you create a dead letter queue and then you add it to the queue you want to use it with.

To set up the dead letter queue, declare a “direct” exchange and bind a queue to it:

channel.ExchangeDeclare(DeadLetterExchangeName, "direct");
channel.QueueDeclare(DeadLetterQueueName, true, false, false, null);
channel.QueueBind(DeadLetterQueueName, DeadLetterExchangeName, DeadLetterRoutingKey, null);

I’ve used a dead letter routing key that is related to the queue I want to use it from with an additional “dl”. The routing key needs to be unique so that only messages you want to go to this specific dead letter queue will be delivered. e.g. Payments.Received.DL

Now we need to attach the dead letter queue to the correct queue, so when I created my new queue I needed to add the dead letter queue to it

IDictionary<String, Object> args3 = new Dictionary<String, Object>();
args3.Add("x-dead-letter-exchange", DeadLetterExchangeName);
args3.Add("x-dead-letter-routing-key", DeadLetterRoutingKey);
channel.QueueDeclare(queueName, true, false, false, args3);
channel.QueueBind(queueName, TopicName, paymentsReceivedRoutingKey)

Whilst there is a lot of flexibility with RabbitMQ, Dead Letter queues come out of the box with Azure Service Bus. Each topic and queue has  one and is enabled by default. RabbitMQ however allows each topic subscription to have their own dead letter queue which allows you to have a finer grained control over what to do with each type of failed message.

Now we have these dead letter queues and we know how to access them, how do we get messages into them.

In Azure Service Bus, there is a mechanism that will automatically put the message in the dead letter queue if the message fails to be delivered 10 times (default). However, you may wish to handle bad messages yourself in code without relying upon the system to do this for you. If a message is delivered 10 times before failure, you are utilising system resources when the message is being processed and these resources could be used to process valid messages. When the message is receive and validation of the message has failed or there is an error whilst processing that you have caught, then you can explicitly send the message to the dead letter queue by calling the dead letter method on the message object.

BrokeredMessage receivedMessage = subscriptionClient.EndReceive(result);

if (receivedMessage != null)
    Random rdm = new Random();
    int num = rdm.Next(100);
    Console.WriteLine("Random={0}", num);
    if (num < 10)
        receivedMessage.DeadLetter("Randomly picked for deadletter", "error 123");

My test code, above, randomly sends 10% of my message to the dead letter queue.

In Rabbit MQ will be published to the dead letter queue if one of the following occurs:

  1. The message is rejected by calling BasicNack or BasicReject
  2. The TTL (Time to Live) expires
  3. The queue length limit is exceeded

I’ve written a similar piece of test code for RabbitMQ

var consumer = new EventingBasicConsumer(channel);
consumer.Received += (model, ea) =>
    var body = ea.Body;
    var message = Encoding.UTF8.GetString(body);
    Random random = new Random((int)DateTime.Now.Ticks);
    int randomNumber = random.Next(0, 100);
    if (randomNumber > 30)
        channel.BasicAck(ea.DeliveryTag, false);
        Console.WriteLine(" [x] Received {0} rk {1} ex {2} ct {3}", message, ea.RoutingKey, ea.Exchange, ea.ConsumerTag);
        if (randomNumber > 10)
            channel.BasicNack(ea.DeliveryTag,false, true);
            Console.WriteLine(" [xxxxx] NAK {0} rk {1} ex {2} ct {3}", message, ea.RoutingKey, ea.Exchange, ea.ConsumerTag);
            Console.WriteLine(" [xxxxx] DeadLetter {0} rk {1} ex {2} ct {3}", message, ea.RoutingKey, ea.Exchange, ea.ConsumerTag);
            channel.BasicNack(ea.DeliveryTag, false, false);
channel.BasicConsume(queue: "hello",
                        noAck: false,
                        consumer: consumer);

If you look at the code you will see that there are two places where BasicNack is called and only one of them sends them to the dead letter queue. BasicNack takes 3 parameters and the last one is “requeue”. Setting requeue to true will put the message back on the originating queue whereas setting requeue to false will publish the message on the dead letter queue.

Both RabbitMQ and Service Bus have the dead letter queue concept and can be used in a similar way. Service Bus has one configured by default and has both an automatic and manual mechanism for publishing message to the dead letter queue. RabbitMQ requires more configuration and does not have the same automation for dead lettering but it can be configured with more flexibility.

Unhandled Messages with Azure Service Bus and RabbitMQ

One of the requirements for our messaging system is to be able to build a system to process messages and either

  1. Have a default handler and then add custom handlers as and when they are required without needing to recode the main system.
  2. Be notified if a message is put onto a topic and there isn’t a process to handle the message.

In RabbitMQ this is relatively straight forward and requires creating an alternate-exchange, adding it as a property to your main exchange and then creating a queue to service the alternate-exchange


IDictionary<String, Object> args2 = new Dictionary<String, Object>();

args2.Add("alternate-exchange", alternateExchangeName);

channel.ExchangeDeclare(mainExchangeName, "direct", false, false, args2);

channel.ExchangeDeclare(alternateExchangeName, "fanout");

// Adds a queue bound to the unhandled messages exchange

channel.QueueDeclare(unroutedMessagesQueueName, true, false, false, null);

channel.QueueBind(unroutedMessagesQueueName, alternateExchangeName, "");

Now when a message is published on the main exchange and there is no subscription to handle the message, then the message will automatically appear on the unrouted message queue. This solution will solve both the scenarios we were looking for.

I was interested however understanding how to do this in the Azure Service Bus and whilst it is possible isn’t not as straight forward and will require some code to setup. Topics can be configured to throw an exception if there is no subscription available to process the message when the message is sent. So When the topic is created it needs to be configured to enable this exception to be thrown.

NamespaceManager namespaceManager =


TopicDescription td = new TopicDescription(topic)


          EnableFilteringMessagesBeforePublishing = true


await namespaceManager.CreateTopicAsync(td);


Now when a message is sent we need to handle the exception and do something with the message. This is the difference between RabbitMQ and Service Bus. In RabbitMQ the message will automatically end up in the unhandled message queue. In service bus we will need to actually add it to the unhandled message queue when the message is sent. This means that at each message producer, the code will need to handle the exception:





catch(NoMatchingSubscriptionException ex)


     // Do something here to process the unhandled message

     // Probably put it on an unhandled message queue


Note, however, that if you had a subscription that was a catch all (for example logging all the messages) then unhandled messages would not appear as they are already being handled by the catch all subscription.