Unsuccessful Responses

In normal operation, the majority of requests follow the “successful response” code path. This is generally easy to reason about and receives lots of developer attention. However, many things can and do go wrong in complex systems that are caused by subtle behaviors which can be hard to detect and plan for. Finagle aims to help services gracefully degrade whenever possible.

It is important to understand that there are many ways a service can respond to a request unsuccessfully. Some, but not all of those responses may be due to exceptional cases. In Finagle, each response is represented as a Future which may be satisfied with either a Return or Throw. From a user’s point of view, either case could be considered successful or not, even though considering a Throw result as a successful response is an anti-pattern.

For instance, an unsuccessful HTTP request may be satisfied with a Return(HttpResponse) where the response code is 5XX or some kind of Throw(LostConnection). Another possibility is that a service takes far too long to reply or never replies at all. In this case, Finagle may transform the lack of reply into a timeout exception (if a timeout is configured. There is no timeout by default). This aims to provide some clarity around unsuccessful responses and how Finagle deals with them.

Types of Unsuccessful Responses

Since Finagle is based on Futures which may be satisfied with arbitrary Throwables, the state space of possible unsuccessful responses is very large. They fall into the following categories.

Throwables with FailureFlags
FailureFlags allow for signaling about how to handle the response. Some FailureFlags are propagated across service boundaries over ThriftMux and Http. See Failure Flags below.
Throwables with Sources

Sources contain additional information about what was happening when the exception was encountered. A throwable may have both Sources and FailureFlags.

  • Note: com.twitter.finagle.Failures, which can sometimes be seen in logs, are un-named exceptions which can contain both sources and FailureFlags. Failures lack specificity of named exceptions.
Finagle Exceptions
Internally, Finagle has exceptions for many different occasions. Many of these can be found in Exceptions.scala. Occasionally, these will be defined elsewhere, such as in a relevant module. These exceptions cover common cases that Finagle may encounter when servicing a request, such as ConnectionRefusedException when a connection to a given address is refused, or a RequestTimeoutException when a service fails to respond in a prescribed amount of time.
Protocol Specific Unsuccessful Responses
Some protocols have built-in support for a wide range of unsuccessful responses. For example HTTP provides many response codes such as 2XX: success, 4XX: failed due to client error, or 5XX: failed due to server error. Wikipedia provides a comprehensive list of http response codes.
User-Specified Unsuccessful Responses
Users may also wish to treat certain successful-looking responses as failures. For example, a Thrift struct representing the response to a query may return no results. From the perspective of the service, this is normal, but the client may wish to consider this empty result set situation as an exceptional case. In those cases, Finagle is unable to act appropriately unless a ResponseClassifier or RetryPolicy is configured. See Handling Unsuccessful Responses below for details.

Handling Unsuccessful Responses

Finagle clients [1] make decisions about behavior by examining FailureFlags. For exceptions that originate from within Finagle, these flags are set appropriately. However, for user specified unsuccessful responses, this information does not automatically exist.

Users have two mechanisms available to provide this information: ResponseClassifiers and RetryPolicies. Response classification is used for stats recording and circuit breaking. RetryPolicies are used to control which responses will be retried.

Users should also handle exceptions in application code via Future#handle or Future#rescue. This may also take place in a filter which transforms responses, allowing for additional composition.

import com.twitter.finagle.{SimpleFilter, Service, Protocol}
import com.twitter.finagle.protocol.{Response, Request, NotFoundError}
import com.twitter.finagle.service.StatsReceiver
import com.twitter.util.Future


val rawService: Service[Request, Response] = Protocol.client.newService("service.com")

val defaultValueFilter = new SimpleFilter[Request, Response] {
  def apply(req: Request, service: Service[Request, Response]): Future[Response] = {
    service(req).handle {
      case _: NotFoundError => MyDefaultValueResponse

// Record stats after custom exception handling
val logicalRequestStats = new StatsReceiver(stats.scope("logical"))

val lookupService: Service[Request, Response] = logicalRequestStats

Sending Unsuccessful Responses

A service that wishes to tap into Finagle’s client-side exception handling mechanisms should respond with a Throwable that extends FailureFlags with flags set appropriately. An easy way to create a generic unnamed response like this is by using the convenience methods in Failure.scala

In a situation where a service would normally be able to process a request but is temporarily overloaded, a nack response is appropriate. The client receiving this will automatically retry the request via the Retries module. This is the recommended way of exerting back pressure on clients.


A nack response implies that no work has been done to process the request. This contract should be adhered to when using back pressure.

import com.twitter.finagle.Failure
import com.twitter.util.Future

// Using Failure.rejected - Creates an exception with FailureFlags
// that's flagged Rejected and Retryable. This is a typical Nack response.
Future.exception(Failure.rejected("Too busy to handle the request"))

Sometimes it is useful to explicitly disable retries on a request on the client side. By constructing a response as shown below, the NonRetryable flag will propagate back across service boundaries. This can be used to mitigate retry storms.

import com.twitter.finagle.Failure
import com.twitter.util.Future

// Create a rejected response, and flag it as non-retryable.
val exn = Failure.rejected("Retry limit exceeded to service X").asNonRetryable

If a service wishes to send an application-level exception, Finagle will deliver it to the client without any special processing. As mentioned above, clients can this behavior by setting up ResponseClassifiers and RetryPolicies. For instance, if a client has set ThriftExceptionsAsFailures as its response classifier, those application level Thrift exceptions will be treated as non-retryable failures.

Exception or FailureFlags?

For application-level exceptions, such as those defined in Thrift interfaces, services should use those exceptions. For situations where the response should propagate across multiple server/client boundaries or to use any signaling with FailureFlags, respond with a Throwable that extends FailureFlags as suggested above. A quick way to create such a response (if its name is not important) is to use Failure‘s convenience methods.

If a custom Throwable is used, only its message and FailureFlags (if any) will propagate across multiple service boundaries. Any other information, such as stack traces, will be discarded. Due to Finagle’s asynchronous nature, stack traces are not particularly useful. Instead Finagle provides built-in support for Zipkin, the distributed tracing system.

Failure Flags

FailureFlags can signal what should be done with an unsuccessful response or provide extra information for stats gathering or other measurements. This list of flags is not comprehensive as some flags are stripped out as they leave Finagle clients and are not exposed to users. The following table describes these flags, what they mean, how they’re used internally, and which protocols support passing them through.

Flag Indicates Protocols Used by
Rejected No attempt was made to do any work on this request. ThrifMux, Http NackAdmissionFilter, HttpNackFilter, RequeueFilter
Interrupted Something intentionally stopped this request, so it will not be retried. None RequeueFilter
NonRetryable This request should not be retried ThriftMux, Http HttpNackFilter, RetryFilter, RequeueFilter
[1]“Finagle client” or “Finagle server” here refers to the typical stack client or server that one creates by following methods outlined in the user’s guide.