Dynamic Plugin Loading Using MEF

The Managed Extensibility Framework (MEF) is a library that enables software to discover and load libraries at runtime without hard-coded references. Microsoft included MEF in .NET framework version 4.0 and since then it has been commonly used for dependency resolution and inversion of control patterns.

Orbital Bus makes communication possible between different parties by sharing contract and schemas. A receiver has a contract library that has all the information needed for a dispatcher to make proper synchronous and asynchronous calls all the way to an end consumer. The dispatcher downloads a receiver’s contract library and then uses it to construct calls with the right data schemas. It became very clear to us during development that a crucial requirement was that the dispatcher to be able handle any downloaded contract library DLL and process it without code changes. This is where MEF comes into play. It lets us inject libraries, in this case the receiver’s contract libraries, at the start-up stage.

Once we chose to use MEF as our integration tool, we were able to start the Code Generation Project. This project is a convenient CLI tool that efficiently generates the contract libraries and plugins which are loaded by the receiver. These libraries are made available for download to any dispatcher on the mesh network. One challenge we encountered downloading multiple contract libraries for the dispatcher was how to distinguish between these contract libraries. What if two contracts have similar operation names? How can the dispatcher tell what is the right operation to select from its composition container? We were able to solve this challenge by making sure that each contract library generated has a unique ServiceId that would be exported as metadata within the contract library. This setting enables the dispatcher to filter out various operations based on their ServiceId:

    namespace ConsumerContractLibrary
        [ExportMetadata("ServiceId", "ConsumerLibrary")]
        public class AddCustomerOperation : IOperationDescription {}

When the receiver starts up, it will pull the plugins from its Plugins folder and load the plugin.dll and adapters into MEF’s CompositionContainer, a component used to manage the composition of parts. Those dependencies will be injected into the receiver as it loads. In addition to handling messages destined for the consumer, the receiver also serves as file server that waits for the dispatcher to download the contract library when needed.

    public PluginLoader(IConfigurationService config)
        this.config = config;
        var container = this.BuildContainer(); // load the plugin DLLs and create composition container
        var details = this.RegisterPlugins(container);
        this.BootStrapSubscriberDetails(details); //Creates needed dependencies and bootstraps the given details.

After a dispatcher downloads the available contract library specifications into a composition container, it will filter out and return all the exported values in the container corresponding the given ServiceId.

    public static IEnumerable<T> GetExportedValues<T>(this CompositionContainer container,
            Func<IDictionary<string, object>, bool> predicate)
        var exportedValues = new List<T>();

        foreach (var part in container.Catalog.Parts)
            foreach (var ExportDef in part.ExportDefinitions)
                if (ExportDef.ContractName == typeof(T).FullName)
                    if (predicate(ExportDef.Metadata))

        return exportedValues;

Where the predicate clause is actively the filter we need for ServiceId:

    metadata => metadata.ContainsKeyWithValue(METADATAKEY, serviceId)

After filtering the process, the dispatcher has all the contract library operations that are supported by the receiver.

MEF proved invaluable in solving the problem of runtime library integrations and to enable the plugin architecture. This implementation allows Orbital Bus the flexibility for developers to customize or update their contract libraries, service configurations, and translations without affecting other services on the bus. As our work continues, we plan on looking closer at the issue of versioning in the dispatcher to keep its cache in sync with the receiver’s contract libraries, making Orbital Bus an even more agile messaging solution.