Category Archives: Architecture
Onion Architecture Presentation Resources

Thanks to everyone who attended my presentation at #SeattleCodeCamp this morning!

The code I demoed this morning is currently on the “develop” branch on github.

Here are some of the resources for further reading I alluded to.

I had some additional thoughts for future revisions of the presentation.

  1. OA is not just about coding to interfaces. It’s also about coding to the right category of interfaces.
  2. My presentation is in C#, but the same principles apply in any programming language. The implementation details in other languages may differ.
  3. Every recommended approach to Onion has a “fat” layer where the important code is. Other layers are basically façades and coordinators.
  4. In the future, I’d like to show my code diagram first, then show the code, then show the other Onion diagrams.
  5. I need to update my image for my code diagram as the font doesn’t show up well on washed out projectors.

I’d also like to find a DDD implementation of OA and at least one written in another language (not Java).

Onion Architecture: An Opinionated Approach Part 2, Anemic Data Models

Anemic Data Model is my term for a domain model indicating entities and their relationships to other entities, but having little or no business behavior. It basically serves as a contract for a data store. It’s purpose is structural, and often to provide ease of queryability.

In ShowPlanner, the domain is about planning and selling tickets to musical events called “shows.” Venues contain one or more Stages, and a Show can consist of one or more Performances on one or more Stages at a Venue. Tickets are sold to a Show.


This data model represents the universe of entities, attributes, and relationships that the ShowPlanner application will interact with at this time. These models have no methods or functions, no behavior of any kind.

The Problem of Behavior

Why no behavior? Putting behavior in domain models raises some difficult design questions. How do the domain objects get their dependencies? Which domain object should the method or methods that control behavior go in?

Let’s take a simple case. Suppose you want to model what happens when a Ticket is purchased by a Customer. When a show is created, a number of tickets are created as well. When a Customer buys a Ticket, the ticket will be marked as sold.


Generally speaking it’s very seldom that we write basic CRUD applications in an enterprise environment. Application behavior tends to live in the relationships and what happens when certain kinds of relationships are created and destroyed. This means that application operations often involve the state of multiple domain objects directly and indirectly involved in the relationship that is changing.

There are several possible ways to model this operation.

    public class Customer
        public int? CustomerId { get; set; }

        public IList<Ticket> Tickets { get; set; }

        public string Name { get; set; }

        public void Purchase(Ticket ticket)
            ticket.SoldTo = this;
            ticket.Sold = true; 



    public class Ticket
        public int? TicketId { get; set; }

        public int? ShowId { get; set; }
        public Show Show { get; set; }

        public int? CustomerId { get; set; }
        public Customer SoldTo { get; set; }

        public bool? Sold { get; set; }

        public decimal Price { get; set; }

        public void SellTo(Customer customer)
            this.Sold = true;
            this.SoldTo = customer;


    public class Show
        public int? ShowId { get; set; }

        public IList<Ticket> Tickets { get; set; }

        public string Title { get; set; }

        public void SellTicket(Customer customer, Ticket ticket)
            ticket.Sold = true;
            ticket.SoldTo = customer;


Which domain object should own the method for selling the ticket? It will depend on who you ask. When a given operation affects multiple entities in the Domain, there is no objective way to decide which entity gets the behavior. The method performing the operation has no natural home.


Let’s assume you secure agreement that Customer should own this operation. You’re happily coding along on something else when a few weeks later your customer tells you that when the ticket is sold a message needs to be sent to a billing system. The messaging system is represented by an interface called IMessageSender. What happens in the domain model now? How does the Customer class get a reference to the MessageSender implementation?

You could do this I guess:

        public void Purchase(Ticket ticket, IMessageSender messageSender)
            ticket.SoldTo = this;
            ticket.Sold = true;

            messageSender.Enqueue(new BillForTicketMessage(this, ticket));

But that’s an ugly road to walk down. You’ll start expanding dependencies when you need to add logging, authorization, validation, and a host of other concerns. Suddenly what started out as a very simple method on domain model full of complexity.

Constructor injection is not viable if I’m expecting to use an ORM to retrieve my Customer instance. Assuming you could make that work, you have to consider that with the addition of each new operation involving Customer, you’ll be adding still more dependencies which will turn Customer into more of a GOD class than will be supportable.

Wouldn’t’ design-by-composition work better?

Designing the Domain Models

I said earlier that “domain models as merely a means of persisting the state of the application.” To my way of thinking, this is their core purpose. To that end, they should effectively act as a contract to the underlying data store used by your application. They should support both queryability and data modification and be well-organized.


To support queryability, data models should be fully connected. This just means that any relationships between entities should be referentially  expressed. Prefer Performance.Show over Performance.ShowId. Some ORM’s such as Entity Framework support using both the Id and the reference. For others, such as NHibernate, having both properties is an issue. When faced with a choice, prefer a reference over an Id.

Data Modification

To support data modification, your data models should contain all the fields used in the database. I was writing an integration test recently and I needed to create some test data in Sql Server. As I tried to insert one of my entities, I discovered that field required by the database was not actually on the model. The original developer had only populated the fields he needed for the specific operation he was writing which resulted in additional work and testing for me. It also exposed a lack of integration test coverage for any operation involving this entity as it was impossible to create new records using existing code.


Data models are the center of the onion. They should be in their own assembly or package both to make them easier to find and modify, and to prevent other developers from violating the Dependency Depth principle by referencing higher layers.

  • Put your data models in their own project or assembly. This makes them easy to find. They are the innermost circle in your application, so this project should have next to no dependencies on anything else.
  • If you’re tools set supports it, maintain a class diagram of the models and their relationships. The diagram above was generated by Visual Studio.
  • Prefer referential relationships over using Id’s to identify related data.  Use both if your ORM supports it.
  • This should go without saying, but use an ORM.
  • In the anal-retentive list of things to consider
    • List the primary key first.
    • List single-entity references second.
    • List collection references third.
    • List the entity’s fields last.
    • List audit data (create date, create user, etc) dead last.
    • Alphabetize fields. Why? Because with larger data models it gets really hard to find the field you’re looking for in an unsorted list. This is an easy thing to habitualize and saves a good bit of headache down the road.
  • In .NET, use System.ComponentModel.DataAnnotations to attribute your models metadata when it is known.
    • Especially use StringLength because it produces a nicer error message than “String or binary data would be truncated” when using SQL Server as the database.
  • Don’t put behavior on the models.
  • Don’t accept dependencies in the models.
  • Don’t put ORM-specific attributes on the models unless you have no other choice.
  • Don’t put anything on the models that isn’t actually in your data store.
    • This is another way of saying “don’t put behavior on the models.” But I’ve seen developers put properties on models that they calculate and set in the course of one operation and that isn’t used in other operations. This breaks down when another operation wants to use the calculated value.
  • Don’t use data models in your UI. In web applications, this means don’t use data models in your pages and controllers. Use View Models and some sort of Request-Response api instead.

This is Part 2 of a series

Disclaimer: This series of articles is intentionally opinionated. From an architectural perspective I am much more interested in clearly defining each layer than I am in the choice of specific implementation pattern. However, an architecture doesn’t exist without the details that make it up, so I must choose some implementation pattern so that the architecture can be revealed. Since I’m the one writing the series, I’ll choose implementation patterns I like. Smile If you have a better idea, take a fork of ShowPlanner and share it!

Onion Architecture: An Opinionated Approach, Part 1

The Purpose of Architecture

I believe that the value of explicitly identifying and conforming to an architectural pattern in your applications is two-fold.

  1. It defines the number of boundaries between layers and how they communicate.
  2. Future maintainers can leverage what they’ve learned about one vertical slice to understand the rest of the application.

In most cases I don’t think developers bother to identify their application architecture, and consequently their application doesn’t have one. Or rather, it has many. Each new operation is put together in a slightly different way from all the others. Nothing learned about one area of the system can be used to understand other areas of the system. Nothing in the existing implementations direct you on how to add or modify new or existing features.

What a mess!

Onion Architecture

Full disclosure: I don’t know many architectural patterns. However, I’ve spent the last 5 years of my career groping toward an architecture that was hazy in my mind. The first explicit description I encountered of this pattern that I encountered was in a lecture I attended by Uncle Bob at SCNA 2011. Later I found some other resources.

In The Onion Architecture Jefferey Palermo describes a method of structuring an application such that the work of the application is separated from the infrastructure and loose coupling provides flexibility.

There are two important rules about this architecture. I personally thinking of them as the Dependency Direction Principle and the Dependency Depth Principle.

Palermo writes:

The fundamental rule is that all code can depend on layers more central, but code cannot depend on layers further out from the core.  In other words, all coupling is toward the center.

This principle is about the direction of dependencies. A given application may have a greater or fewer number of layers in its “onion,” but the outer layers should depend on the layers underneath, and the inner layers should have no dependencies on the outer layers.

In Clean Architecture, Uncle Bob calls this The Dependency Rule

The overriding rule that makes this architecture work is The Dependency Rule. This rule says that source code dependencies can only point inwards. Nothing in an inner circle can know anything at all about something in an outer circle. In particular, the name of something declared in an outer circle must not be mentioned by the code in the an inner circle. That includes, functions, classes. variables, or any other named software entity.

By the same token, data formats used in an outer circle should not be used by an inner circle, especially if those formats are generate by a framework in an outer circle. We don’t want anything in an outer circle to impact the inner circles.

Neither of the above-linked posts calls out what I think is another important rule about dependencies. Here, I’m speaking for myself.

The Dependency Depth Principle: Application layers must depend only on the contracts exposed by the layer immediately beneath them.

By controlling dependency depth, the seams between your application layers become well-defined and easily testable. More importantly, changes to the mechanics or api of one layer do not necessitate changes to the surrounding layers.

An Example

Let’s say I have a domain service that performs searching for musical performances. This service accepts a request like this:

   1:      public class QueryPerformanceRequest
   2:      {
   3:          public int[] PerformanceIds { get; set; }
   4:          public string[] Artists { get; set; }
   5:          public string[] Venues { get; set; }
   6:          public bool? Upcoming { get; set; }
   8:          public int? Page { get; set; }
   9:          public int? PageSize { get; set; }
  10:      }


and returns this:

   1:      public class QueryResponse<T>
   2:      {
   3:          public T[] Results { get; set; }
   5:          public int Page { get; set; }
   7:          public int PageSize { get; set; }
   9:          public int TotalRecords { get; set; }
  10:      }

QueryPerformanceRequest is a parameter object with which the client can indicate which data is being searched for by filling out properties. Some underlying layer is responsible for executing the query against the data store.

My web application application has this controller action:

   1:          public ActionResult Search(string term)
   2:          {
   3:              using (var command = _performanceCommands.Query())
   4:              {
   5:                  var request = _builder
   6:                      .Create<QueryPerformanceRequest>()
   7:                      .From(term)
   8:                      ;
   9:                  var results = command.Execute(request);
  11:                  var model = _builder
  12:                      .Create<PerformanceSearchResultsViewModel>()
  13:                      .From(results);
  15:                  return View(model);
  16:              }       
  17:          }

What’s happening?

Line 3: Constructs the domain service used to perform the search.

Line 5: I like to use a fluent api for object conversion. I’ll speak more about this later. In this case, we’re just converting the incoming string into the QueryPerformanceRequest object. The converter manages the seam between the Application Services layer (MVC Controller) and the Domain Services layer (the command).

Line 9: This is the line that performs the query.

Line 11: Now that we have results from the query, let’s get them ready for presentation by converting them into a ViewModel.

Line 15: Returns the page with the required data.

Things to notice:

The domain services layer provides a contract in the form of a command to execute the query, a parameter object to describe the query, and the query results. It’s probably that somewhere inside the command database connections are being created, domain models are being searched for, and the results are being transformed back into the response. The controller layer does not directly depend on any of that logic.

Further, the controller has it’s own api independent from that of the domain services layer. Pass me a string and I’ll hand you a ViewModel. None of the details of the domain services layer leak into the View.

Each layer depends only on the layers underneath, and only on the layer directly underneath. No abstraction from an underlying layer crosses more than one seam.

If I change my controller api, the query contracts do not have to change. If I add behavior to my query contracts, the controller gets that behavior without modifications to the existing code. If I change the implementation of the query command, the controller does not have to change. Each layer is protected from changes in the other layers by layer-specific contracts and explicit management of the seams between layers.

About this series

I’m going to be writing a series of posts in which I build a simple application from the ground up. I want to express the Onion Architecture as well as my favorite implementation patterns. I think it will be a good exercise for me to explicitly identify the reasons for many of the things I do in my daily work.

I will host the application on github so you’ll be able to review the full source code as I work.

In my next post in this series, I’ll explain the demo project and start describing the innermost layer of the onion: The domain model.