This post is written by Nicolas Jacob Baer, Senior Cloud Application Architect, Goeksel Sarikaya, Senior Cloud Application Architect, and Shukhrat Khodjaev, Engagement Manager, AWS ProServe.

AWS Step Functions workflows can use the three main integration patterns when calling AWS services. A common integration pattern is to call a service and wait for a response before proceeding to the next step.

While this works well with AWS services, there is no built-in support for third-party, on-premises, or custom-built services running on AWS. When a workflow integrates with such a service in an asynchronous fashion, it requires a primary step to invoke the service. There are additional steps to wait and check the result, and handle possible error scenarios, retries, and fallbacks.

Although this approach may work well for small workflows, it does not scale to multiple interactions in different steps of the workflow and becomes repetitive. This may result in a complex workflow, which makes it difficult to build, test, and modify. In addition, large workflows with many repeated steps are more difficult to troubleshoot and understand.

This post demonstrates how to decompose the custom service integration by nesting Step Functions workflows. One basic workflow is dedicated to handling the asynchronous communication that offers modularity. It can be re-used as a building block. Another workflow is used to handle the main process by invoking the nested workflow for service interaction, where all the repeated steps are now hidden in multiple executions of the nested workflow.

Overview

Consider a custom service that provides an asynchronous interface, where an action is initially triggered by an API call. After a few minutes, the result is available to be polled by the caller. The following diagram shows a basic workflow interacting with this custom service that encapsulates the service communication in a workflow:

Workflow diagram

  1. Call Custom Service API – calls a custom service, in this case through an API. Potentially, this could use a service integration or use AWS Lambda if there is custom code.
  2. Wait – waits for the service to prepare a result. This depends on the service that the workflow is interacting with, and could vary from seconds to days to months.
  3. Poll Result – attempts to poll the result from the custom service.
  4. Choice – repeats the polling in case the result was not available yet, move on to failed or success state if result was retrieved. In addition, a timeout should be in place here in case the result is not available within the expected time range. Otherwise, this might lead to an infinite loop.
  5. Fail – fails the workflow if a timeout or a threshold for the number of retries with error conditions is reached.
  6. Transform Result – transforms the result or adds additional meta information to provide further information to the caller (for example, runtime or retries).
  7. Success – finishes the workflow successfully.

If you build a larger workflow that interacts with this custom service in multiple steps in a workflow, you can reduce the complexity by using the Step Functions integration to call the nested workflow with a Wait state.

An illustration of this can be found in the following diagram, where the nested stack is called three times sequentially. Likewise, you can build a more complex workflow that adds additional logic through more steps or interacts with a custom service in parallel. The polling logic is hidden in the nested workflow.

Nested workflow

Walkthrough

To get started with AWS Step Functions and Amazon API Gateway using the AWS Management Console:

  1. Go to AWS Step Functions in the AWS Management Console.
  2. Choose Run a sample project and choose Start a workflow within a workflow.
    Defining state machine
  3. Scroll down to the sample projects, which are defined using Amazon States Language (ASL).
    Definition
  4. Review the example definition, then choose Next.
  5. Choose Deploy resources. The deployment can take up to 10 minutes. After deploying the resources, you can edit the sample ASL code to define steps in the state machine.
    Deploy resources
  6. The deployment creates two state machines: NestingPatternMainStateMachine and NestingPatternAnotherStateMachine. NestingPatternMainStateMachine orchestrates the other nested state machines sequentially or in parallel.
    Two state machines
  7. Select a state machine, then choose Edit to edit the workflow. In the NestingPatternMainStateMachine, the first state triggers the nested workflow NestingPatternAnotherStateMachine. You can pass necessary parameters to the nested workflow by using Parameters and Input as shown in the example below with Parameter1 and Parameter2. Once the first nested workflow completes successfully, the second nested workflow is triggered. If the result of the first nested workflow is not successful, the NestingPatternMainStateMachine fails with the Fail state.
    Editing state machine
  8. Select nested workflow NestingPatternAnotherStateMachine, and then select Edit to add AWS Lambda functions to start a job and poll the state of the jobs. This can be any asynchronous job that needs to be polled to query its state. Based on expected job duration, the Wait state can be configured for 10-20 seconds. If the workflow is successful, the main workflow returns a successful result.
    Edited next state machine

Use cases and limitations

This approach allows encapsulation of workflows consisting of multiple sequential or parallel services. Therefore, it provides flexibility that can be used for different use cases. Services can be part of distributed applications, part of automated business processes, big data or machine learning pipelines using AWS services.

Each nested workflow is responsible for an individual step in the main workflow, providing flexibility and scalability. Hundreds of nested workflows can run and be monitored in parallel with the main workflow (see AWS Step Functions Service Quotas).

The approach described here is not applicable for custom service interactions faster than 1 second, since it is the minimum configurable value for a wait step.

Nested workflow encapsulation

Similar to the principle of encapsulation in object-oriented programming, you can use a nested workflow for different interactions with a custom service. You can dynamically pass input parameters to the nested workflow during workflow execution and receive return values. This way, you can define a clear interface between the nested workflow and the parent workflow with different actions and integrations. Depending on the use-case, a custom service may offer a variety of different actions that must be integrated into workflows that run in Step Functions, but can all be combined into a single workflow.

Debugging and tracing

Additionally, debugging and tracing can be done through Execution Event History in the State Machine Management Console. In the Resource column, you can find a link to the executed nested step function. It can be debugged in case of any error in the nested Step Functions workflow.

Execution event history

However, debugging can be challenging in case of multiple parallel nested workflows. In such cases, AWS X-Ray can be enabled to visualize the components of a state machine, identify performance bottlenecks, and troubleshoot requests that have led to an error.

To enable AWS X-Ray in AWS Step Functions:

  1. Open the Step Functions console and choose Edit state machine.
  2. Scroll down to Tracing settings, and Choose Enable X-Ray tracing.

Tracing

For detailed information regarding AWS X-Ray and AWS Step Functions please refer to the following documentation: https://docs.aws.amazon.com/step-functions/latest/dg/concepts-xray-tracing.html

Conclusion

This blog post describes how to compose a nested Step Functions workflow, which asynchronously manages a custom service using the polling mechanism.

To learn more about how to use AWS Step Functions workflows for serverless microservices orchestration, visit Serverless Land.