Data Transfer Architectural Overview

Windows Communication Foundation (WCF) can be thought of as a messaging infrastructure. It can receive messages, process them, and dispatch them to user code for further action, or it can construct messages from data given by user code and deliver them to a destination. This topic, which is intended for advanced developers, describes the architecture for handling messages and the contained data. For a simpler, task-oriented view of how to send and receive data, see Specifying Data Transfer in Service Contracts.


This topic discusses WCF implementation details that are not visible by examining the WCF object model. Two words of caution are in order with regard to documented implementation details. First, the descriptions are simplified; actual implementation may be more complex due to optimizations or other reasons. Second, you should never rely on specific implementation details, even documented ones, because these may change without notice from version to version or even in a servicing release.

Basic Architecture

At the core of WCF message-handling capabilities is the Message class, which is described in detail in Using the Message Class. The run-time components of WCF can be divided into two major parts: the channel stack and the service framework, with the Message class being the connection point.

The channel stack is responsible for converting between a valid Message instance and some action that corresponds to the sending or receiving of message data. On the sending side, the channel stack takes a valid Message instance and, after some processing, performs some action that logically corresponds to sending the message. The action may be sending TCP or HTTP packets, queuing the message in Message Queuing, writing the message to a database, saving it to a file share, or any other action, depending on the implementation. The most common action is sending the message over a network protocol. On the receive side, the opposite happens—an action is detected (which may be TCP or HTTP packets arriving or any other action), and, after processing, the channel stack converts this action into a valid Message instance.

You can use WCF by using the Message class and the channel stack directly. However, doing so is difficult and time-consuming. Additionally, the Message object provides no metadata support, so you cannot generate strongly typed WCF clients if you use WCF in this manner.

Therefore, WCF includes a service framework that provides an easy-to-use programming model that you can use to construct and receive Message objects. The service framework maps services to .NET Framework types through the notion of service contracts, and dispatches messages to user operations that are simply .NET Framework methods marked with the OperationContractAttribute attribute (for more details, see Designing Service Contracts). These methods may have parameters and return values. On the service side, the service framework converts incoming Message instances into parameters and converts return values into outgoing Message instances. On the client side, it does the opposite. For example, consider the FindAirfare operation below.

public interface IAirfareFinderService
    int FindAirfare(string FromCity, string ToCity, out bool IsDirectFlight);
<ServiceContract()> _
    Public Interface IAirfareFinderService

    <OperationContract()> _
    Function FindAirfare(ByVal FromCity As String, _
    ByVal ToCity As String, ByRef IsDirectFlight As Boolean) As Integer

End Interface

Suppose FindAirfare is called on the client. The service framework on the client converts the FromCity and ToCity parameters into an outgoing Message instance and passes it to the channel stack to be sent.

On the service side, when a Message instance arrives from the channel stack, the service framework extracts the relevant data from the message to populate the FromCity and ToCity parameters and then calls the service-side FindAirfare method. When the method returns, the service framework takes the returned integer value and the IsDirectFlight output parameter and creates a Message object instance that contains this information. It then passes the Message instance to the channel stack to be sent back to the client.

On the client side, a Message instance that contains the response message emerges from the channel stack. The service framework extracts the return value and the IsDirectFlight value and returns these to the caller of the client.

Message Class

The Message class is intended to be an abstract representation of a message, but its design is strongly tied to the SOAP message. A Message contains three major pieces of information: a message body, message headers, and message properties.

Message Body

The message body is intended to represent the actual data payload of the message. The message body is always represented as an XML Infoset. This does not mean that all messages created or received in WCF must be in XML format. It is up to the channel stack to decide how to interpret the message body. It may emit it as XML, convert it to some other format, or even omit it entirely. Of course, with most of the bindings WCF supplies, the message body is represented as XML content in the body section of a SOAP envelope.

It is important to realize that the Message class does not necessarily contain a buffer with XML data representing the body. Logically, Message contains an XML Infoset, but this Infoset may be dynamically constructed and may never physically exist in memory.

Putting Data into the Message Body

There is no uniform mechanism to put data into a message body. The Message class has an abstract method, OnWriteBodyContents(XmlDictionaryWriter), which takes an XmlDictionaryWriter. Each subclass of the Message class is responsible for overriding this method and writing out its own contents. The message body logically contains the XML Infoset that OnWriteBodyContent produces. For example, consider the following Message subclass.

public class AirfareRequestMessage : Message
    public string fromCity = "Tokyo";
    public string toCity = "London";
    //code omitted…
    protected override void OnWriteBodyContents(XmlDictionaryWriter w)
        w.WriteElementString("from", fromCity);
        w.WriteElementString("to", toCity);

    public override MessageVersion Version
        get { throw new NotImplementedException("The method is not implemented.") ; }

    public override MessageProperties Properties
        get { throw new Exception("The method or operation is not implemented."); }
    public override MessageHeaders Headers
        get { throw new Exception("The method or operation is not implemented."); }

    public override bool IsEmpty
            return base.IsEmpty;

    public override bool IsFault
            return base.IsFault;
Public Class AirfareRequestMessage
    Inherits Message

    Public fromCity As String = "Tokyo"
    Public toCity As String = "London"
    ' Code omitted…
    Protected Overrides Sub OnWriteBodyContents(ByVal w As XmlDictionaryWriter)
        w.WriteElementString("from", fromCity)
        w.WriteElementString("to", toCity)
    End Sub

    Public Overrides ReadOnly Property Version() As MessageVersion
            Throw New NotImplementedException("The method is not implemented.")
        End Get
    End Property

    Public Overrides ReadOnly Property Properties() As MessageProperties
            Throw New Exception("The method or operation is not implemented.")
        End Get
    End Property

    Public Overrides ReadOnly Property Headers() As MessageHeaders
            Throw New Exception("The method or operation is not implemented.")
        End Get
    End Property

    Public Overrides ReadOnly Property IsEmpty() As Boolean
            Return MyBase.IsEmpty
        End Get
    End Property

    Public Overrides ReadOnly Property IsFault() As Boolean
            Return MyBase.IsFault
        End Get
    End Property
End Class

Physically, an AirfareRequestMessage instance contains only two strings ("fromCity" and "toCity"). However, logically the message contains the following XML infoset:


Of course, you would normally not create messages in this manner, because you can use the service framework to create a message like the preceding one from operation contract parameters. Additionally, the Message class has static CreateMessage methods that you can use to create messages with common types of content: an empty message, a message that contains an object serialized to XML with the DataContractSerializer, a message that contains a SOAP fault, a message that contains XML represented by an XmlReader, and so on.

Getting Data from a Message Body

You can extract the data stored in a message body in two main ways:

  • You can get the entire message body at one time by calling the WriteBodyContents(XmlDictionaryWriter) method and passing in an XML writer. The complete message body is written out to this writer. Getting the entire message body at one time is also called writing a message. Writing is done primarily by the channel stack when sending messages—some part of the channel stack will usually get access to the entire message body, encode it, and send it.

  • Another way to get information out of the message body is to call GetReaderAtBodyContents() and get an XML reader. The message body can then be accessed sequentially as needed by calling methods on the reader. Getting the message body piece-by-piece is also called reading a message. Reading the message is primarily used by the service framework when receiving messages. For example, when the DataContractSerializer is in use, the service framework will get an XML reader over the body and pass it to the deserialization engine, which will then start reading the message element-by-element and constructing the corresponding object graph.

A message body can be retrieved only once. This makes it possible to work with forward-only streams. For example, you can write an OnWriteBodyContents(XmlDictionaryWriter) override that reads from a FileStream and returns the results as an XML Infoset. You will never need to "rewind" to the beginning of the file.

The WriteBodyContents and GetReaderAtBodyContents methods simply check that the message body has never been retrieved before, and then call OnWriteBodyContents or OnGetReaderAtBodyContents, respectively.

Message Usage in WCF

Most messages can be classified as either outgoing (those that are created by the service framework to be sent by the channel stack) or incoming (those that arrive from the channel stack and are interpreted by the service framework). Furthermore, the channel stack can operate in either buffered or streaming mode. The service framework may also expose a streamed or nonstreamed programming model. This leads to the cases listed in the following table, along with simplified details of their implementation.

Message type Body data in message Write (OnWriteBodyContents) implementation Read (OnGetReaderAtBodyContents) Implementation
Outgoing, created from nonstreamed programming model The data needed to write the message (for example, an object and the DataContractSerializer instance needed to serialize it)* Custom logic to write out the message based on the stored data (for example, call WriteObject on the DataContractSerializer if that is the serializer in use)* Call OnWriteBodyContents, buffer the results, return an XML reader over the buffer
Outgoing, created from streamed programming model The Stream with the data to be written* Write out data from the stored stream using the IStreamProvider mechanism* Call OnWriteBodyContents, buffer the results, return an XML reader over the buffer
Incoming from streaming channel stack A Stream object that represents the data coming in over the network with an XmlReader over it Write out the contents from the stored XmlReader using WriteNode Returns the stored XmlReader
Incoming from nonstreaming channel stack A buffer that contains body data with an XmlReader over it Writes out the contents from the stored XmlReader using WriteNode Returns the stored lang

* These items are not implemented directly in Message subclasses, but in subclasses of the BodyWriter class. For more information about the BodyWriter, see Using the Message Class.

Message Headers

A message may contain headers. A header logically consists of an XML Infoset that is associated with a name, a namespace, and a few other properties. Message headers are accessed using the Headers property on Message. Each header is represented by a MessageHeader class. Normally, message headers are mapped to SOAP message headers when using a channel stack configured to work with SOAP messages.

Putting information into a message header and extracting information from it is similar to using the message body. The process is somewhat simplified because streaming is not supported. It is possible to access the contents of the same header more than once, and headers can be accessed in arbitrary order, forcing headers to always be buffered. There is no general-purpose mechanism available to get an XML reader over a header, but there is a MessageHeader subclass internal to WCF that represents a readable header with such a capability. This type of MessageHeader is created by the channel stack when a message with custom application headers comes in. This enables the service framework to use a deserialization engine, such as the DataContractSerializer, to interpret these headers.

For more information, see Using the Message Class.

Message Properties

A message may contain properties. A property is any .NET Framework object that is associated with a string name. Properties are accessed through the Properties property on Message.

Unlike the message body and message headers (which normally map to the SOAP body and SOAP headers, respectively), message properties are normally not sent or received along with the messages. Message properties exist primarily as a communication mechanism to pass data about the message between the various channels in the channel stack, and between the channel stack and the service model.

For example, the HTTP transport channel included as part of WCF is capable of producing various HTTP status codes, such as "404 (Not Found)" and "500 (Internal Server Error)," when it sends replies to clients. Before sending a reply message, it checks to see whether the Properties of the Message contain a property called "httpResponse" that contains an object of type HttpResponseMessageProperty. If such a property is found, it will look at the StatusCode property and use that status code. If it is not found, the default "200 (OK)" code is used.

For more information, see Using the Message Class.

The Message as a Whole

So far, we have discussed methods for accessing the various parts of the message in isolation. However, the Message class also provides methods to work with the entire message as a whole. For example, the WriteMessage method writes out the entire message to an XML writer.

For this to be possible, a mapping must be defined between the entire Message instance and an XML Infoset. Such a mapping, in fact, exists: WCF uses the SOAP standard to define this mapping. When a Message instance is written out as an XML Infoset, the resulting Infoset is the valid SOAP envelope that contains the message. Thus, WriteMessage would normally perform the following steps:

  1. Write the SOAP envelope element opening tag.

  2. Write the SOAP header element opening tag, write out all of the headers, and close the header element.

  3. Write the SOAP body element opening tag.

  4. Call WriteBodyContents or an equivalent method to write out the body.

  5. Close the body and envelope elements.

The preceding steps are closely tied to the SOAP standard. This is complicated by the fact that multiple versions of SOAP exist, for example, it is impossible to write out the SOAP envelope element correctly without knowing the SOAP version in use. Also, in some cases, it may be desirable to turn off this complex SOAP-specific mapping completely.

For these purposes, a Version property is provided on Message. It can be set to the SOAP version to use when writing out the message, or it can be set to None to prevent any SOAP-specific mappings. If the Version property is set to None, methods that work with the entire message act as if the message consisted of its body only, for example, WriteMessage would simply call WriteBodyContents instead of performing the multiple steps listed above. It is expected that on incoming messages, Version will be auto-detected and set correctly.

The Channel Stack


As stated before, the channel stack is responsible for converting outgoing Message instances into some action (such as sending packets over the network), or converting some action (such as receiving network packets) into incoming Message instances.

The channel stack is composed of one or more channels ordered in a sequence. An outgoing Message instance is passed to the first channel in the stack (also called the topmost channel), which passes it to the next channel down in stack, and so on. The message terminates in the last channel, which is called the transport channel. Incoming messages originate in the transport channel and are passed from channel to channel up the stack. From the topmost channel, the message is usually passed into the service framework. While this is the usual pattern for application messages, some channels may work slightly differently, for example, they may send their own infrastructure messages without being passed a message from a channel above.

Channels may operate on the message in various ways as it passes through the stack. The most common operation is adding a header to an outgoing message and reading headers on an incoming message. For example, a channel may compute the digital signature of a message and add it as a header. A channel may also inspect this digital signature header on incoming messages and block messages that do not have a valid signature from making their way up the channel stack. Channels also often set or inspect message properties. The message body is usually not modified, although this is allowed, for example, the WCF security channel can encrypt the message body.

Transport Channels and Message Encoders

The bottommost channel in the stack is responsible for actually transforming an outgoing Message, as modified by other channels, into some action. On the receive side, this is the channel that converts some action into a Message that other channels process.

As stated previously, the actions may be varied: sending or receiving network packets over various protocols, reading or writing the message in a database, or queuing or dequeuing the message in a Message Queuing queue, to provide but a few examples. All these actions have one thing in common: they require a transformation between the WCFMessage instance and an actual group of bytes that can be sent, received, read, written, queued, or dequeued. The process of converting a Message into a group of bytes is called encoding, and the reverse process of creating a Message from a group of bytes is called decoding.

Most transport channels use components called message encoders to accomplish the encoding and decoding work. A message encoder is a subclass of the MessageEncoder class. MessageEncoder includes various ReadMessage and WriteMessage method overloads to convert between Message and groups of bytes.

On the sending side, a buffering transport channel passes the Message object that it received from a channel above it to WriteMessage. It gets back an array of bytes, which it then uses to perform its action (such as packaging these bytes as valid TCP packets and sending them to the correct destination). A streaming transport channel first creates a Stream (for example, over the outgoing TCP connection), and then passes both the Stream and the Message it needs to send to the appropriate WriteMessage overload, which writes out the message.

On the receiving side, a buffering transport channel extracts incoming bytes (for example, from incoming TCP packets) into an array and calls ReadMessage to get a Message object that it can pass further up the channel stack. A streaming transport channel creates a Stream object (for example, a network stream over the incoming TCP connection) and passes that to ReadMessage to get back a Message object.

The separation between the transport channels and the message encoder is not mandatory; it is possible to write a transport channel that does not use a message encoder. However, the advantage of this separation is ease of composition. As long as a transport channel uses only the base MessageEncoder, it can work with any WCF or third-party message encoder. Likewise, the same encoder can normally be used in any transport channel.

Message Encoder Operation

To describe the typical operation of an encoder, it is useful to consider the following four cases.

Operation Comment
Encoding, Buffered In buffered mode, the encoder normally creates a variable-size buffer and then creates an XML writer over it. It then calls WriteMessage(XmlWriter) on the message being encoded, which writes out the headers and then the body using WriteBodyContents(XmlDictionaryWriter), as explained in the preceding section about Message in this topic. The contents of the buffer (represented as an array of bytes) are then returned for the transport channel to use.
Encoding, Streamed In streamed mode, the operation is similar to the above, but simpler. There is no need for a buffer. An XML writer is normally created over the stream and WriteMessage(XmlWriter) is called on the Message to write it out to this writer.
Decoding, Buffered When decoding in buffered mode, a special Message subclass that contains the buffered data is normally created. The headers of the message are read, and an XML reader positioned on the message body is created. This is the reader that will be returned with GetReaderAtBodyContents().
Decoding, Streamed When decoding in streamed mode, a special Message subclass is normally created. The stream is advanced just enough to read all the headers and position it on the message body. An XML reader is then created over the stream. This is the reader that will be returned with GetReaderAtBodyContents().

Encoders can perform other functions as well. For example, the encoders can pool XML readers and writers. It is expensive to create a new XML reader or writer every time one is needed. Therefore, encoders normally maintain a pool of readers and a pool of writers of configurable size. In the descriptions of encoder operation described previously, whenever the phrase "create an XML reader/writer" is used, it normally means "take one from the pool, or create one if one is not available." The encoder (and the Message subclasses it creates while decoding) contain logic to return readers and writers to the pools once they are no longer needed (for example, when the Message is closed).

WCF provides three message encoders, although it is possible to create additional custom types. The supplied types are Text, Binary, and Message Transmission Optimization Mechanism (MTOM). These are described in detail in Choosing a Message Encoder.

The IStreamProvider Interface

When writing an outgoing message that contains a streamed body to an XML writer, the Message uses a sequence of calls similar to the following in its OnWriteBodyContents(XmlDictionaryWriter) implementation:

  • Write any necessary information preceding the stream (for example, the opening XML tag).

  • Write the stream.

  • Write any information following the stream (for example, the closing XML tag).

This works well with encodings that are similar to the textual XML encoding. However, some encodings do not place XML Infoset information (for example, tags for starting and ending XML elements) together with the data contained within elements. For example, in the MTOM encoding, the message is split into multiple parts. One part contains the XML Infoset, which may contain references to other parts for actual element contents. The XML Infoset is normally small compared to the streamed contents, so it makes sense to buffer the Infoset, write it out, and then write the contents in a streamed way. This means that by the time the closing element tag is written, the stream should not have been written out yet.

For this purpose, the IStreamProvider interface is used. The interface has a GetStream() method that returns the stream to be written. The correct way to write out a streamed message body in OnWriteBodyContents(XmlDictionaryWriter) is as follows:

  1. Write any necessary information preceding the stream (for example, the opening XML tag).

  2. Call the WriteValue overload on the XmlDictionaryWriter that takes an IStreamProvider, with an IStreamProvider implementation that returns the stream to be written.

  3. Write any information following the stream (for example, the closing XML tag).

With this approach, the XML writer has a choice of when to call GetStream() and write out the streamed data. For example, the textual and binary XML writers will call it immediately and write out the streamed contents in-between the start and end tags. The MTOM writer may decide to call GetStream() later, when it is ready to write the appropriate part of the message.

Representing Data in the Service Framework

As stated in the "Basic Architecture" section of this topic, the service framework is the part of WCF that, among other things, is responsible for converting between a user-friendly programming model for message data and actual Message instances. Normally, a message exchange is represented in the service framework as a .NET Framework method marked with the OperationContractAttribute attribute. The method can take in some parameters and can return a return value or out parameters (or both). On the service side, the input parameters represent the incoming message, and the return value and out parameters represent the outgoing message. On the client side, the reverse is true. The programming model for describing messages using parameters and the return value is described in detail in Specifying Data Transfer in Service Contracts. However, this section will provide a brief overview.

Programming Models

The WCF service framework supports five different programming models for describing messages:

1. The Empty Message

This is the simplest case. To describe an empty incoming message, do not use any input parameters.

int GetCurrentTemperature();
<OperationContract()> Function GetCurrentTemperature() As Integer

To describe an empty outgoing message, use a void return value and do not use any out parameters:

void SetDesiredTemperature(int t);
<OperationContract()> Sub SetDesiredTemperature(ByVal t As Integer)

Note that this is different from a one-way operation contract:

[OperationContract(IsOneWay = true)]
void SetLightbulb(bool isOn);
<OperationContract(IsOneWay:=True)> Sub SetLightbulb(ByVal isOn As Boolean)

In the SetDesiredTemperature example, a two-way message exchange pattern is described. A message is returned from the operation, but it is empty. It is possible to return a fault from the operation. In the "Set Lightbulb" example, the message exchange pattern is one-way, so there is no outgoing message to describe. The service cannot communicate any status back to the client in this case.

2. Using the Message Class Directly

It is possible to use the Message class (or one of its subclasses) directly in an operation contract. In this case, the service framework just passes the Message from the operation to the channel stack and vice versa, with no further processing.

There are two main use cases for using Message directly. You can use this for advanced scenarios, when none of the other programming models gives you enough flexibility to describe your message. For example, you might want to use files on disk to describe a message, with the file’s properties becoming message headers and the file’s contents becoming the message body. You can then create something similar to the following.

public class FileMessage : Message
// Code not shown.
Public Class FileMessage
    Inherits Message
    ' Code not shown.

The second common use for Message in an operation contract is when a service does not care about the particular message contents and acts on the message as on a black box. For example, you might have a service that forwards messages to multiple other recipients. The contract can be written as follows.

public FileMessage GetFile()
    //code omitted…
    FileMessage fm = new FileMessage("myFile.xml");
    return fm;

<OperationContract()> Public Function GetFile() As FileMessage
    'code omitted…
    Dim fm As New FileMessage("myFile.xml")
    Return fm
End Function

The Action="*" line effectively turns off message dispatching and ensures that all messages sent to the IForwardingService contract make their way to the ForwardMessage operation. (Normally, the dispatcher would examine the message’s "Action" header to determine which operation it is intended for. Action="*" means "all possible values of the Action header".) The combination of Action="*" and using Message as a parameter is known as the "universal contract" because it is able to receive all possible messages. To be able to send all possible messages, use Message as the return value and set ReplyAction to "*". This will prevent the service framework from adding its own Action header, enabling you to control this header using the Message object you return.

3. Message Contracts

WCF provides a declarative programming model for describing messages, called message contracts. This model is described in detail in Using Message Contracts. Essentially, the entire message is represented by a single .NET Framework type that uses attributes like the MessageBodyMemberAttribute and MessageHeaderAttribute to describe which parts of the message contract class should map to which part of the message.

Message contracts provide a lot of control over the resulting Message instances (although obviously not as much control as using the Message class directly). For example, message bodies are often composed of multiple pieces of information, each represented by its own XML element. These elements can either occur directly in the body (bare mode) or can be wrapped in an encompassing XML element. Using the message contract programming model enables you to make the bare-versus-wrapped decision and control the name of the wrapper name and namespace.

The following code example of a message contract demonstrates these features.

[MessageContract(IsWrapped = true, WrapperName = "Order")]
public class SubmitOrderMessage
    public string customerID;
    public string item;
    public int quantity;
<MessageContract(IsWrapped:=True, WrapperName:="Order")> _
Public Class SubmitOrderMessage
    <MessageHeader()> Public customerID As String
    <MessageBodyMember()> Public item As String
    <MessageBodyMember()> Public quantity As Integer
End Class

Items marked to be serialized (with the MessageBodyMemberAttribute, MessageHeaderAttribute, or other related attributes) must be serializable to participate in a message contract. For more information, see the "Serialization" section later in this topic.

4. Parameters

Often, a developer who wants to describe an operation that acts on multiple pieces of data does not need the degree of control that message contracts provide. For example, when creating new services, one does not usually want to make the bare-versus-wrapped decision and decide on the wrapper element name. Making these decisions often requires deep knowledge of Web services and SOAP.

The WCF service framework can automatically pick the best and most interoperable SOAP representation for sending or receiving multiple related pieces of information, without forcing these choices on the user. This is accomplished by simply describing these pieces of information as parameters or return values of an operation contract. For example, consider the following operation contract.

void SubmitOrder(string customerID, string item, int quantity);
<OperationContract()> _
Sub SubmitOrder( _
    ByVal customerID As String, _
    ByVal item As String, _
    ByVal quantity As Integer)

The service framework automatically decides to put all three pieces of information (customerID, item, and quantity) into the message body and wrap them in a wrapper element named SubmitOrderRequest.

Describing the information to be sent or received as a simple list of operation contract parameters is the recommended approach, unless special reasons exist to move to the more-complex message contract or Message-based programming models.

5. Stream

Using Stream or one of its subclasses in an operation contract or as a sole message body part in a message contract can be considered a separate programming model from the ones described above. Using Stream in this way is the only way to guarantee that your contract will be usable in a streamed fashion, short of writing your own streaming-compatible Message subclass. For more information, see Large Data and Streaming.

When Stream or one of its subclasses is used in this way, the serializer is not invoked. For outgoing messages, a special streaming Message subclass is created and the stream is written out as described in the section on the IStreamProvider interface. For incoming messages, the service framework creates a Stream subclass over the incoming message and provides it to the operation.

Programming Model Restrictions

The programming models described above cannot be arbitrarily combined. For example, if an operation accepts a message contract type, the message contract must be its only input parameter. Furthermore, the operation must then either return an empty message (return type of void) or another message contract. These programming model restrictions are described in the topics for each specific programming model: Using Message Contracts, Using the Message Class, and Large Data and Streaming.

Message Formatters

The programming models described above are supported by plugging in components called message formatters into the service framework. Message formatters are types that implement the IClientMessageFormatter or IDispatchMessageFormatter interface, or both, for use in clients and service WCF clients, respectively.

Message formatters are normally plugged in by behaviors. For example, the DataContractSerializerOperationBehavior plugs in the data contract message formatter. This is done on the service side by setting Formatter to the correct formatter in the ApplyDispatchBehavior(OperationDescription, DispatchOperation) method, or on the client side by setting Formatter to the correct formatter in the ApplyClientBehavior(OperationDescription, ClientOperation) method.

The following tables lists the methods that a message formatter may implement.

Interface Method Action
IDispatchMessageFormatter DeserializeRequest(Message, Object[]) Converts an incoming Message to operation parameters
IDispatchMessageFormatter SerializeReply(MessageVersion, Object[], Object) Creates an outgoing Message from operation return value/out parameters
IClientMessageFormatter SerializeRequest(MessageVersion, Object[]) Creates an outgoing Message from operation parameters
IClientMessageFormatter DeserializeReply(Message, Object[]) Converts an incoming Message to a return value/out parameters


Whenever you use message contracts or parameters to describe message contents, you must use serialization to convert between .NET Framework types and XML Infoset representation. Serialization is used in other places in WCF, for example, Message has a Generic GetBody method that you can use to read the entire body of the message deserialized into an object.

WCF supports two serialization technologies "out of the box" for serializing and deserializing parameters and message parts: the DataContractSerializer and the XmlSerializer. Additionally, you can write custom serializers. However, other parts of WCF (such as the Generic GetBody method or SOAP fault serialization) may be restricted to use only the XmlObjectSerializer subclasses (DataContractSerializer and NetDataContractSerializer, but not the XmlSerializer), or may even be hard-coded to use only the DataContractSerializer.

The XmlSerializer is the serialization engine used in ASP.NET Web services. The DataContractSerializer is the new serialization engine that understands the new data contract programming model. DataContractSerializer is the default choice, and the choice to use the XmlSerializer can be made on a per-operation basis using the DataContractFormatAttribute attribute.

DataContractSerializerOperationBehavior and XmlSerializerOperationBehavior are the operation behaviors responsible for plugging in the message formatters for the DataContractSerializer and the XmlSerializer, respectively. The DataContractSerializerOperationBehavior behavior can actually operate with any serializer that derives from XmlObjectSerializer, including the NetDataContractSerializer (described in detail in Using Stand-Alone Serialization). The behavior calls one of the CreateSerializer virtual method overloads to obtain the serializer. To plug in a different serializer, create a new DataContractSerializerOperationBehavior subclass and override both CreateSerializer overloads.

See also