ASP.NET Case Study: Lost session variables and app domain recycles

13 minute read

Last night I got a question from one of the readers of the blog that went like this:

We are facing a problem that i cannot understand, every now and than i see that my app domain is recycled (i have a log in the application_end), I check the IIS logs and i don’t see a restart of IIS and i know that no one is changing configuration (web.config).

I wanted to know if you know of any way that i can pinpoint the reason for that app domain to die?

The application pool that i am using only have the recycle every 20 minutes of idle time enabled“

..and I thought that since I haven’t written for a while (due to a really nice and long vacation) and this is a pretty common scenario I would write a post on it…

Before we go into the details of how to figure out why it is recycling I want to bring up two things

  1. What happens when an application domain is recycled
  2. What are the reasons an application domain recycles

What happens when an application domain is recycled

In ASP.NET each individual asp.net application resides in its own application domain, so for example if you have the following website structure

├── WebSite root
│   ├── HrWeb
│   ├── EmployeeServices
│   ├── FinanceWeb
│   └── SalesWeb

…where each of the sub webs HrWeb, EmployeeServices etc. are set up as an application in the internet service manager, you will have the following application domains (app domains) in your asp.net process

  • System Domain
  • Shared Domain
  • Default Domain
  • Root
  • HrWeb
  • EmployeeServices
  • FinanceWeb
  • SalesWeb

Apart from the first three domains (in italic) which are a bit special, each of the other ones contain the data pertinent to that application (Note: this is a bit simplified for readability), specifically they contain these things worth noting…

  • All the assemblies specific to that particular application
  • A HttpRuntime object
  • A Cache object

When the application domain is unloaded all of this goes away, which means that on the next request that comes in all assemblies need to be reloaded, the code has to be re-jitted and the cache including any in-proc session variables etc. are empty. This can be a pretty big perf-hit for the application so as you can imagine it is important to not have the application domain recycle too often.

Why does an application domain recycle?

An application domain will unload when any one of the following occurs:

  • Machine.Config, Web.Config or Global.asax are modified
  • The bin directory or its contents is modified
  • The number of re-compilations (aspx, ascx or asax) exceeds the limit specified by the <compilation numRecompilesBeforeAppRestart=/> setting in machine.config or web.config (by default this is set to 15)
  • The physical path of the virtual directory is modified
  • The CAS policy is modified
  • The web service is restarted (2.0 only) Application Sub-Directories are deleted (see Todd’s blog for more info)

There may be some reasons in 2.0 that I have missed but hopefully this should cover most scenarios.

Specific issues

I want to pay a bit more attention to a few of these, which seem to be especially popular

Unexpected config or bin directory changes

You swear on all that is holy that no-one is touching these, but still when we start logging (as I’ll show later) the reason for the app domain recycle is a config change… how the heck can that be?

Elementary, Dr. Watson… something else is touching them… and that something else is usually a virus scanning software or backup software or an indexing service. They don’t actually modify the contents of the files, but many virus scanners etc. will modify attributes of files which is enough for the file changes monitor to jump in and say “aha !, something changed, better recycle the app domain to update the changes”.

If you have a virus scanner that does this, you should probably consider removing the content directories from the real-time scan, of course after carefully making sure that no-one can access and add any virus software to these directories.

Web site updates while the web server is under moderate to heavy load

Picture this scenario: You have an application with 10 assemblies in the bin directory a.dll, b.dll, c.dll etc. (all with the version number 1.00.00). Now you need to update some of the assemblies to your new and improved version 1.00.12, and you do so while the application is still under heavy load because we have this great feature allowing you to update assemblies on the go… well, think again…

Say you update 7 of the 10 assemblies and for simplicity lets say this takes about 7 seconds, and in those 7 seconds you have 3 requests come in… then you may have a situation that looks something like this…

second activity
1 a.dll and b.dll are update to v 1.00.12 - app domain unload started (any pending requests will finish before it is completely unloaded)
2 Request1 comes in and loads a new app domain with 2 out of 7 of the dlls updated
3 c.dll is updated - app domain unload started (any pending requests will finish before it is completely unloaded)
4 d.dll is updated
5 Request2 comes in and loads a new app domain, now with 4 out of 7 dlls updated
6 e.dll and f.dll is updated - app domain unload started (any pending requests will finish before it is completely unloaded)
7 f.dll is updated
8 Request3 comes in and loads a new app domain with all 7 dlls updated

So, many bad things happened here…

First off you had 3 application domain restarts while you probably thought you would only have one, because asp.net has no way of knowing when you are done. Secondly we got a situation where Request1 and Request2 were executing with partially updated dlls, which may generate a whole new set of exceptions if the dlls depend on updates in the other new dlls, I think you get the picture… And thirdly you may get exceptions like “Cannot access file AssemblyName because it is being used by another process” because the dlls are locked during shadow copying.

In other words, don’t batch update during load…

So, is this feature completely worthless? No… if you want to update one dll, none of the problems above occur… and if you update under low or no load you are not likely to run into any of the above issues, so in that case you save yourself an IIS restart… but if you want to update in bulk you should first take the application offline.

There is a way to get around it, if you absolutely, positively need to update under load, and it is outlined in the kb article mentioned above…

In 1.1 we introduced two new config settings called <httpRuntime waitChangeNotification=/> and <httpRuntime maxWaitChangeNotification=/>.

The waitChangeNotification indicates how many seconds we should wait for a new change notification before the next request triggers an app domain restart. I.e. if we have a dll updated at second 1, and then a new one at second 3, and our waitChangeNotification is set to 5… we would wait until second 8 (first 1+5, and then changed to 3+5) before a new request would get a new domain, so a request at second 2 would simply continue using the old domain. (The time is sliding so it is always 5 seconds from the last change)

The maxWaitChangeNotification indicates the maximum number of seconds to wait from the first request. If we set this to 10 in the case where we update at second 1 and 3, we would still get a new domain if a request came in at second 8 since the waitChangeNotification expired. If we set this to 6 however, we would get a new domain already if a request came in at second 7, since the maxWaitChangeNotification had then expired. So this is an absolute expiration rather than a sliding… and we will recycle at the earliest of the maxWaitChangeNotification and waitChangeNotification.

In the scenario at the beginning of this section we could have set the waitChangeNotification to 3 seconds and the maxWaitChangeNotification to 10 seconds for example to avoid the problems.

I know this explanation might have been a bit confusion but I hope you catch the drift

A few things are important if you fiddle with these settings

  • They default to 0 if not set
  • maxWaitChangeNotification should always be >= waitChangeNotification
  • If these settings are higher than 0 you will not see any changes until the changeNotifications expire. i.e. web.config changes and dll changes etc. will appear cached.

Re-compilations

A common scenario here is that you have a set of aspx pages (containing some news items and what not) and you have a content editor that goes in periodically and updates the news with some new articles or other new content. Every time you update an aspx page it has to be recompiled, because again, asp.net has no way of knowing if it was a code update or just update of some static text… all it knows is that someone updated the files.

If you have followed some of my previous posts you know that assemblies can not be unloaded unless the application domain is unloaded, and since each recompile would generate a new assembly there is a limit to how many re-compiles you can do, to avoid generation of too many assemblies (and thus limiting the memory usage for these). By default this limit is 15.

If the contents of the page is constantly updated I would recommend to dynamically get the content from a database or file rather than actually modifying the aspx pages. Or alternatively using frames with HTML pages for this content.

How do you determine that you have application recycles

If you experience cache or session loss, it is probably a good bet, but to make sure you can look at the perfmon counter ASP.NET v…/Application Restarts.

How do you determine what caused an app domain restart

In ASP.NET 2.0 you can use the built in Health Monitoring Events to log application restarts along with the reason for the restart. To do this you change the master web.config file in the C:\WINDOWS\Microsoft.NET\Framework\v2.0.50727\CONFIG directory and add the following to the <healthMonitoring><rules> section

<add name="Application Lifetime Events Default" eventName="Application Lifetime Events" provider="EventLogProvider" profile="Default" minInstances="1" maxLimit="Infinite" minInterval="00:01:00" custom=""/>

For a web.config change this generates an event like so:

Event Type:     Information
Event Source:   ASP.NET 2.0.50727.0
Event Category: Web Event
Event ID:       1305
Date:           2006-08-02
Time:           13:33:19
User:           N/A
Computer:       PRATHER
Description:
Event code: 1002

Event message: Application is shutting down. Reason: Configuration changed.
Event time: 2006-08-02 13:33:19
Event time (UTC): 2006-08-02 11:33:19
Event ID: 6fc2b84de5b74b5ba65b21804d18b7bf
Event sequence: 8
Event occurrence: 1
Event detail code: 50004

Application information:
    Application domain: /LM/w3svc/1/ROOT/DebuggerSamples-9-127989919076505325
    Trust level: Full
    Application Virtual Path: /DebuggerSamples
    Application Path: c:\inetpub\wwwroot\DebuggerSamples\
    Machine name: PRATHER

Process information:
    Process ID: 4876
    Process name: w3wp.exe
    Account name: NT AUTHORITY\NETWORK SERVICE

Custom event details:

For more information, see Help and Support Center at http://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/events.asp.

There is a lot of nice events to capture and you can even write your own providers and events. To get more info about this and other events you can enable, you can check out this article

For ASP.NET 1.1 you can make use of private reflection to get a hold of the shutdown message (this works in 2.0 as well btw, but I wanted to show you both ways).

If you are not interested in the details and just want to cut to the chase and log it, check out ScottGu’s blog on how to do this (super nice with ready-to-go code samples that you just plug in to your app).

If you are like me and need to know every little detail of every little thing… here is how it’s done

As I mentioned before, each domain has a HttpRuntime object…

0:014> !do 0x04f6f324

Name: System.Web.HttpRuntime
MethodTable 0x00e39df4
EEClass 0x0b608028
Size 116(0x74) bytes
GC Generation: 2
mdToken: 0x02000078  (c:\winnt\assembly\gac\system.web\1.0.5000.0__b03f5f7f11d50a3a\system.web.dll)

FieldDesc*: 0x00e3955c
        MT      Field     Offset                 Type       Attr      Value Name

0x00e39df4 0x4000680      0x4                CLASS   instance 0x00000000 _namedPermissionSet
0x00e39df4 0x4000681      0x8                CLASS   instance 0x01031904 _fcm
0x00e39df4 0x4000682      0xc                CLASS   instance 0x01031b64 _cache
0x00e39df4 0x4000683     0x54       System.Boolean   instance 0 _isOnUNCShare
0x00e39df4 0x4000684     0x10                CLASS   instance 0x01033c88 _profiler
0x00e39df4 0x4000685     0x14                CLASS   instance 0x01033ca4 _timeoutManager
0x00e39df4 0x4000686     0x18                CLASS   instance 0x0104ded4 _requestQueue
0x00e39df4 0x4000687     0x55       System.Boolean   instance 0 _apartmentThreading
0x00e39df4 0x4000688     0x56       System.Boolean   instance 0 _beforeFirstRequest
0x00e39df4 0x4000689     0x60            VALUETYPE   instance start at 0x010318c8 _firstRequestStartTime
0x00e39df4 0x400068a     0x57       System.Boolean   instance 1 _firstRequestCompleted
0x00e39df4 0x400068b     0x58       System.Boolean   instance 0 _userForcedShutdown
0x00e39df4 0x400068c     0x59       System.Boolean   instance 1 _configInited
0x00e39df4 0x400068d     0x50         System.Int32   instance 0 _activeRequestCount
0x00e39df4 0x400068e     0x5a       System.Boolean   instance 0 _someBatchCompilationStarted
0x00e39df4 0x400068f     0x5b       System.Boolean   instance 0 _shutdownInProgress
0x00e39df4 0x4000690     0x1c                CLASS   instance 0x00000000 _shutDownStack
0x00e39df4 0x4000691     0x20                CLASS   instance 0x00000000 _shutDownMessage
0x00e39df4 0x4000692     0x68            VALUETYPE   instance start at 0x010318d0 _lastShutdownAttemptTime
0x00e39df4 0x4000693     0x5c       System.Boolean   instance 1 _enableHeaderChecking
0x00e39df4 0x4000694     0x24                CLASS   instance 0x01033e44 _handlerCompletionCallback
0x00e39df4 0x4000695     0x28                CLASS   instance 0x01033e60 _asyncEndOfSendCallback
0x00e39df4 0x4000696     0x2c                CLASS   instance 0x01033e7c _appDomainUnloadallback
0x00e39df4 0x4000697     0x30                CLASS   instance 0x00000000 _initializationError
0x00e39df4 0x4000698     0x34                CLASS   instance 0x00000000 _appDomainShutdownTimer
0x00e39df4 0x4000699     0x38                CLASS   instance 0x0104dc60 _codegenDir
0x00e39df4 0x400069a     0x3c                CLASS   instance 0x00fc3c48 _appDomainAppId
0x00e39df4 0x400069b     0x40                CLASS   instance 0x00fc3ca4 _appDomainAppPath
0x00e39df4 0x400069c     0x44                CLASS   instance 0x00fc3d8c _appDomainAppVPath
0x00e39df4 0x400069d     0x48                CLASS   instance 0x00fc3d04 _appDomainId
0x00e39df4 0x400069e     0x4c                CLASS   instance 0x00000000 _resourceManager
0x00e39df4 0x400069f     0x5d       System.Boolean   instance 0 _debuggingEnabled
0x00e39df4 0x40006a0     0x5e       System.Boolean   instance 0 _vsDebugAttach
0x00e39df4 0x400067b        0                CLASS     shared   static _theRuntime
    >> Domain:Value 0x0014af68:NotInit  0x0017cd60:0x04f6f324 0x002165d0:0x04fcb660 <<
0x00e39df4 0x400067c      0x4                CLASS     shared   static s_autogenKeys
    >> Domain:Value 0x0014af68:NotInit  0x0017cd60:0x04f6ef28 0x002165d0:0x04fcb474 <<
0x00e39df4 0x400067d      0xc       System.Boolean     shared   static s_initialized
    >> Domain:Value 0x0014af68:NotInit  0x0017cd60:1 0x002165d0:1 <<
0x00e39df4 0x400067e      0x8                CLASS     shared   static s_installDirectory
    >> Domain:Value 0x0014af68:NotInit  0x0017cd60:0x04f6f19c 0x002165d0:0x04fcb4d8 <<
0x00e39df4 0x400067f     0x10       System.Boolean     shared   static s_isapiLoaded
    >> Domain:Value 0x0014af68:NotInit  0x0017cd60:1 0x002165d0:1 <<

The HttpRuntime object is a static, and to get to the particular HttpRuntime object for our domain we can dump out any HttpRuntime object and look at the _theRuntime static member… static member variables look a little bit special when you dump with !do… instead of getting the address straight away you get a list like this:

0x00e39df4 0x400067b        0                CLASS     shared   static _theRuntime
    >> Domain:Value 0x0014af68:NotInit  0x0017cd60:0x04f6f324 0x002165d0:0x04fcb660 <<

This means that in domain 0x0014af68 we haven’t initialized this object yet, in domain 0x0017cd60 it is located at address 0x04f6f324, and in domain 0x002165d0 it is located at address 0x04fcb660.

You can get the address of your domain from !dumpdomain, for example this one is for Domain 3, which we can see is HrWeb

Domain 3: 0x2165d0
LowFrequencyHeap: 0x00216634
HighFrequencyHeap: 0x0021668c
StubHeap: 0x002166e4
Name: /LM/W3SVC/1/HrWeb-127976921852307107

Now why am I bothering with this HttpRuntime? Well… there are a lot of goodies found in the HttpRuntime object, things like _debugginEnabled to see if debug=true, and the address of the cache object, but particularly interesting for this case, it also contains two member variables named _shutDownStack and _shutDownMessage which we make use of when logging the event.

So in our Application_End in global.asax we can put code like this to first get the _theRuntime object for our domain,

HttpRuntime runtime = (HttpRuntime) typeof(System.Web.HttpRuntime).InvokeMember("_theRuntime", BindingFlags.NonPublic | BindingFlags.Static | BindingFlags.GetField, null, null, null);

…and then get the contents of the shutDownMessage and shutDownStack like this…

string shutDownMessage = (string) runtime.GetType().InvokeMember("_shutDownMessage", BindingFlags.NonPublic | BindingFlags.Instance | BindingFlags.GetField, null, runtime, null);

string shutDownStack = (string) runtime.GetType().InvokeMember("_shutDownStack", BindingFlags.NonPublic | BindingFlags.Instance | BindingFlags.GetField, null, runtime, null);

And then it is just a matter of logging them to the event log or a log file or similar and wait for the recycle to happen.

Oh, just one more detail before I sign off… if you see config change notifications and you are not sure who is touching your files, I would recommend running filemon to log file access. Great tool for a lot of security and file related issues.

Laters y’all