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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.