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DSP-API Server Design Overview


Knora's responsibilities include:

  • Receiving, validating, authenticating, and authorising HTTP requests from clients (which may be web browsers or other software) to query or update data in a Knora repository.
  • Querying and updating the repository on behalf of clients.
  • Filtering query results according to the user's permissions.
  • Transforming query results into DSP-API responses.
  • Ensuring that ontologies and data in the triplestore are consistent and conform to the requirements of the knora-base ontology.
  • Managing the versioning of data in the triplestore.
  • Working with Sipi to store files that cannot be stored as RDF data.

Knora is written in Scala, using the Akka framework for message-based concurrency. It is designed to work with any standards-compliant triplestore via the SPARQL 1.1 Protocol, but is currently tested only with Apache Jena Fuseki (with support for other triplestores coming soon).

Knora APIs

Knora supports different versions of its API for working with humanities data:

  • DSP-API v2, a standards-based API currently under development.
  • DSP-API v1, a stable, legacy API that focuses on maintaining compatibility with applications that used Knora's prototype software.

There is also a Knora admin API for administering Knora repositories.

The Knora code base includes some functionality that is shared by these different APIs, as well as separate packages for each API. Internally, Knora APIs v1 and v2 both use functionality in the admin API. DSP-API v1 uses some functionality from API v2, but API v2 does not depend on API v1.

Design Diagram

A high-level diagram of Knora.


HTTP Module

  • org.knora.webapi.routing: Knora's Akka HTTP routes. Each routing class matches URL patterns for requests involving some particular type of data in the repository. Routes are API-specific. For example, ResourcesRouteV2 matches URL paths starting with /v2/resources, which represent requests involving Knora resources.
  • org.knora.webapi.http: a few HTTP-related constants and utilities.

Responders Module

  • org.knora.webapi.responders: Each responder is an actor that is responsible for managing some particular type of data in the repository. A responder receives messages from a route, does some work (e.g. querying the triplestore), and returns a reply message. Responders are API-specific and can communicate with other responders via messages. For example, in API v2, ResourcesResponderV2 handles requests involving resources, and delegates some of its tasks to ValuesResponderV2, which is responsible for requests involving values.

Store Module

  • Contains actors that connect to triplestores. The most important one is HttpTriplestoreConnector, which communicates with triplestores via the SPARQL 1.1 Protocol.

Shared Between Modules

  • org.knora.webapi: Contains core classes such as Main, which starts the Knora server, and SettingsImpl, which represents the application settings that are loaded using the Typesafe Config library.
  • org.knora.webapi.util: Utilities needed by different parts of the application, such as parsing and formatting tools.
  • org.knora.webapi.messages: The Akka messages used by each responder.
  • org.knora.webapi.messages.twirl: Text-generation templates for use with the Twirl template engine. Knora uses Twirl to generate SPARQL requests and other types of text documents.

Actor Supervision and Creation

At system start, the main application supervisor actor is created in LiveCore.scala:

      * The main application supervisor actor which is at the top of the actor
      * hierarchy. All other actors are instantiated as child actors. Further,
      * this actor is responsible for the execution of the startup and shutdown
      * sequences.
    lazy val appActor: ActorRef = system.actorOf(
        Props(new ApplicationActor with LiveManagers)

and through mixin also the store and responder manager actors:

     * The actor that forwards messages to actors that deal with persistent storage.
    lazy val storeManager: ActorRef = context.actorOf(
        Props(new StoreManager(self) with LiveActorMaker)
        name = StoreManagerActorName

     * The actor that forwards messages to responder actors to handle API requests.
    lazy val responderManager: ActorRef = context.actorOf(
        Props(new ResponderManager(self) with LiveActorMaker)

The ApplicationActor is the first actor in the application. All other actors are children of this actor and thus it takes also the role of the supervisor actor. It accepts messages for starting and stopping the Knora-API, holds the current state of the application, and is responsible for coordination of the startup and shutdown sequence. Further, it forwards any messages meant for responders or the store to the respective actor.

In most cases, there is only one instance of each supervised actor; such actors do their work asynchronously in futures, so there would be no advantage in using an actor pool. A few actors do have pools of instances, because they do their work synchronously; this allows concurrency to be controlled by setting the size of each pool. These pools are configured in application.conf under

The ApplicationActor also starts the HTTP service as part of the startup sequence:

     * Starts the Knora-API server.
     * @param ignoreRepository    if `true`, don't read anything from the repository on startup.
     * @param requiresIIIFService if `true`, ensure that the IIIF service is started.
     * @param retryCnt            how many times was this command tried
    def appStart(ignoreRepository: Boolean, requiresIIIFService: Boolean, retryCnt: Int): Unit = {

        val bindingFuture: Future[Http.ServerBinding] = Http()

        bindingFuture onComplete {
            case Success(_) =>

                // Transition to ready state
                self ! AppReady()

                if (knoraSettings.prometheusEndpoint) {
                    // Load Kamon monitoring

                // Kick of startup procedure.
                self ! InitStartUp(ignoreRepository, requiresIIIFService)

            case Failure(ex) =>
                if (retryCnt < 5) {
                        "Failed to bind to {}:{}! - {} - retryCnt: {}",
                    self ! AppStart(ignoreRepository, requiresIIIFService, retryCnt + 1)
                } else {
                        "Failed to bind to {}:{}! - {}",
                    self ! AppStop()

Coordinated Application Startup

To coordinate necessary startup tasks, the application goes through a few states at startup:

  • Stopped: Application starting. Http layer is still not started.
  • StartingUp: Http layer is started. Only '/health' and monitoring routes are working.
  • WaitingForRepository: Repository check is initiated but not yet finished.
  • RepositoryReady: Repository check has finished and repository is available.
  • CreatingCaches: Creating caches is initiated but not yet finished.
  • CachesReady: Caches are created and ready for use.
  • LoadingOntologies: Loading of ontologies is initiated but not yet finished.
  • OntologiesReady: Ontologies are loaded.
  • MaintenanceMode: During backup or other maintenance tasks, so that access to the API is closed
  • Running: Running state. All APIs are open.

During the WaitingForRepository state, if the repository is not configured or available, the system will indefinitely retry to access it. This allows for prolonged startup times of the repository. Also, if checking the repository returns an error, e.g., because the repository data needs to be migrated first, the application will shutdown.


In general, Knora is written in a functional style, avoiding shared mutable state. This makes it easier to reason about concurrency, and eliminates an important potential source of bugs (see Out of the Tar Pit).

The routes and actors in Knora use Akka's ask pattern, rather than the tell pattern, to send messages and receive responses, because this simplifies the code considerably (using tell would require actors to maintain complex mutable state), with no apparent reduction in performance.

To manage asynchronous communication between actors, the DSP-API server uses Scala's Future monad extensively. See Futures with Akka for details.

We use Akka's asynchronous logging interface (see Akka Logging).

What the Responders Do

In Knora, a responder is an actor that receives a request message (a Scala case class) in the ask pattern, does some work (e.g. getting data from the triplestore), and returns a reply message (another case class). These reply messages are are defined in org.knora.webapi.messages. A responder can produce a reply representing a complete API response, or part of a response that will be used by another responder. If it's a complete API response, there is an API-specific mechanism for converting it into the response format that the client expects.

Store Module ( package)

The store module is used for accessing the triplestore and other external storage providers.

All access to the Store module goes through the StoreManager supervisor actor. The StoreManager creates pools of actors, such as HttpTriplestoreActor, that interface with the storage providers.

The contents of the store package are not used directly by other packages, which interact with the store package only by sending messages to StoreManager.

Parsing of SPARQL query results is handled by this module.

See Store Module for a more detailed discussion.

Triplestore Access

SPARQL queries are generated from templates, using the Twirl template engine. For example, if we're querying a resource, the template will contain a placeholder for the resource's IRI. The templates can be found under src/main/twirl/queries/sparql.

To perform a SPARQL SELECT query, a responder sends a SparqlSelectRequest message to the storeManager actor, like this:

        for {
            isEntityUsedSparql <- Future(queries.sparql.v2.txt.isEntityUsed(
                entityIri = entityIri,
                ignoreKnoraConstraints = ignoreKnoraConstraints,
                ignoreRdfSubjectAndObject = ignoreRdfSubjectAndObject

            isEntityUsedResponse: SparqlSelectResponse <- (storeManager ? SparqlSelectRequest(isEntityUsedSparql)).mapTo[SparqlSelectResponse]

The reply message, SparqlSelectResponse, is a data structure containing the rows that were returned as the query result.

To perform a SPARQL CONSTRUCT query, you can use SparqlExtendedConstructRequest, and the response will be a SparqlExtendedConstructResponse.

Error Handling

The error-handling design has these aims:

  1. Simplify the error-handling code in actors as much as possible.
  2. Produce error messages that clearly indicate the context in which the error occurred (i.e. what the application was trying to do).
  3. Ensure that clients receive an appropriate error message when an error occurs.
  4. Ensure that ask requests are properly terminated with an message in the event of an error, without which they will simply time out (see Ask: Send and Receive Future).
  5. When a actor encounters an error that isn't the client's fault (e.g. a triplestore failure), log it, but don't do this with errors caused by bad input.
  6. When logging errors, include the full JVM stack trace.

The design does not yet include, but could easily accommodate, translations of error messages into different languages.

A hierarchy of exception classes is defined in Exceptions.scala, representing different sorts of errors that could occur. The hierarchy has two main branches:

  • RequestRejectedException, an abstract class for errors that are the client's fault. These errors are not logged.
  • InternalServerException, an abstract class for errors that are not the client's fault. These errors are logged.

Exception classes in this hierarchy can be defined to include a wrapped cause exception. When an exception is logged, its stack trace will be logged along with the stack trace of its cause. It is therefore recommended that low-level code should catch low-level exceptions, and wrap them in one of our higher-level exceptions, in order to clarify the context in which the error occurred.

To simplify error-handling in responders, a utility method called future2Message is provided in ActorUtils. It is intended to be used in an actor's receive method to respond to messages in the ask pattern. If the responder's computation is successful, it is sent to the requesting actor as a response to the ask. If the computation fails, the exception representing the failure is wrapped in a Status.Failure, which is sent as a response to the ask. If the error is a subclass of RequestRejectedException, only the sender is notified of the error; otherwise, the error is also logged and rethrown (so that the KnoraExceptionHandler can handle the exception).

In many cases, we transform data from the triplestore into a Map object. To simplify checking for required values in these collections, the class ErrorHandlingMap is provided. You can wrap any Map in an ErrorHandlingMap. You must provide a function that will generate an error message when a required value is missing, and optionally a function that throws a particular exception. Rows of SPARQL query results are already returned in ErrorHandlingMap objects.

If you want to add a new exception class, see the comments in Exceptions.scala for instructions.

Transformation of Exception to Client Responses

The org.knora.webapi.KnoraExceptionHandler is brought implicitly into scope of akka-http, and by doing so registered and used to handle the transformation of all KnoraExceptions into HttpResponses. This handler handles only exceptions thrown inside the route and not the actors. However, the design of reply message passing from actors (by using future2Message), makes sure that any exceptions thrown inside actors, will reach the route, where they will be handled.

See also Fuures with Akka.

API Routing

The API routes in the routing package are defined using the DSL provided by the akka-http library. A routing function has to do the following:

  1. Authenticate the client.
  2. Figure out what the client is asking for.
  3. Construct an appropriate request message and send it to ResponderManagerV1, using the ask pattern.
  4. Return a result to the client.

To simplify the coding of routing functions, they are contained in objects that extend org.knora.webapi.routing.Authenticator. Each routing function performs the following operations:

  1. Authenticator.getUserADM is called to authenticate the user.
  2. The request parameters are interpreted and validated, and a request message is constructed to send to the responder. If the request is invalid, BadRequestException is thrown. If the request message is requesting an update operation, it must include a UUID generated by UUID.randomUUID, so the responder can obtain a write lock on the resource being updated.

The routing function then passes the message to a function in an API-specific routing utility: RouteUtilV1, RouteUtilV2, or RouteUtilADM. This utility function sends the message to ResponderManager (which forwards it to the relevant responder), returns a response to the client in the appropriate format, and handles any errors.


Logging in Knora is configurable through logback.xml, allowing fine grain configuration of what classes / objects should be logged from which level.

The Akka Actors use Akka Logging while logging inside plain Scala Objects and Classes is done through Scala Logging.

Last update: 2022-06-22