Handling errors in an ASP.NET Core Web API

This post looks at the best ways to handle exceptions, validation and other invalid requests such as 404s in ASP.NET Core Web API projects and how these approaches differ from MVC error handling.

Why do we need a different approach from MVC?

In .Net Core, MVC and Web API have been combined so you now have the same controllers for both MVC actions and API actions. However, despite the similarities, when it comes to error handling, you almost certainly want to use a different approach for API errors.

MVC actions are typically executed as a result of a user action in the browser so returning an error page to the browser is the correct approach. With an API, this is not generally the case.

API calls are most often called by back-end code or javascript code and in both cases, you never want to simply display the response from the API. Instead we check the status code and parse the response to determine if our action was successful, displaying data to the user as necessary. An error page is not helpful in these situations. It bloats the response with HTML and makes client code difficult because JSON (or XML) is expected, not HTML.

While we want to return information in a different format for Web API actions, the techniques for handling errors are not so different from MVC. Much of the time, it is practically the same flow but instead of returning a View, we return JSON. Let's look at a few examples.

The minimal approach

With MVC actions, failure to display a friendly error page is unacceptable in a professional application. With an API, while not ideal, empty response bodies are far more permissible for many invalid request types. Simply returning a 404 status code (with no response body) for an API route that does not exist may provide the client with enough information to fix their code.

With zero configuration, this is what ASP.NET Core gives us out of the box.

Depending on your requirements, this may be acceptable for many common status codes but it will rarely be sufficient for validation failures. If a client passes you invalid data, returning a 400 Bad Request is not going to be helpful enough for the client to diagnose the problem. At a minimum, we need to let them know which fields are incorrect and ideally, we would return an informative message for each failure.

With ASP.NET Web API, this is trivial. Assuming that we are using model binding, we get validation for free by using data annotations and/or IValidatableObject. Returning the validation information to the client as JSON is one easy line of code.

Here is our model:

public class GetProductRequest : IValidatableObject
{
    [Required]
    public string ProductId { get; set; }

    public IEnumerable<ValidationResult> Validate(ValidationContext validationContext)
    {
        if (...)
        {
            yield return new ValidationResult("ProductId is invalid", new[] { "ProductId" });
        }
    }
}

And our controller action:

[HttpGet("product")]
public IActionResult GetProduct(GetProductRequest request)
{
    if (!ModelState.IsValid)
    {
        return BadRequest(ModelState);
    }

    ...
}

A missing ProductId results in a 400 status code plus a JSON response body similar to the following:

{
    "ProductId":["The ProductId field is required."]
}

This provides an absolute minimum for a client to consume our service but it is not difficult to improve upon this baseline and create a much better client experience. In the next few sections we will look at how simple it is to take our service to the next level.

Returning additional information for specific errors

If we decide that a status code only approach is too bare-bones, it is easy to provide additional information. This is highly recommended. There are many situations where a status code by itself is not enough to determine the cause of failure. If we take a 404 status code as an example, in isolation, this could mean:

If we could provide information to distinguish between these cases, it could be very useful for a client. Here is our first attempt at dealing with the last of these:

[HttpGet("product")]
public async Task<IActionResult> GetProduct(GetProductRequest request)
{
    ...

    var model = await _db.Get(...);

    if (model == null)
    {
        return NotFound("Product not found");
    }

    return Ok(model);
}

We are now returning a more useful message but it is far from perfect. The main problem is that by using a string in the NotFound method, the framework will return this string as a plain text response rather than JSON.

As a client, a service returning a different content type for certain errors is much harder to deal with than a consistent JSON service.

This issue can quickly be rectified by changing the code to what is shown below but in the next section, we will talk about a better alternative.

return NotFound(new { message = "Product not found" });

Customising the response structure for consistency

Constructing anonymous objects on the fly is not the approach to take if you want a consistent client experience. Ideally our API should return the same response structure in all cases, even when the request was unsuccessful.

Let's define a base ApiResponse class:

public class ApiResponse
{
    public int StatusCode { get; }

    [JsonProperty(NullValueHandling = NullValueHandling.Ignore)]
    public string Message { get; }

    public ApiResponse(int statusCode, string message = null)
    {
        StatusCode = statusCode;
        Message = message ?? GetDefaultMessageForStatusCode(statusCode);
    }

    private static string GetDefaultMessageForStatusCode(int statusCode)
    {
        switch (statusCode)
        {
            ...
            case 404:
                return "Resource not found";
            case 500:
                return "An unhandled error occurred";
            default:
                return null;
        }
    }
}

We'll also need a derived ApiOkResponse class that allows us to return data:

public class ApiOkResponse : ApiResponse
{
    public object Result { get; }

    public ApiOkResponse(object result)
        :base(200)
    {
        Result = result;
    }
}

Finally, let's declare an ApiBadRequestResponse class to handle validation errors (if we want our responses to be consistent, we will need to replace the built-in functionality used above).

public class ApiBadRequestResponse : ApiResponse
{
    public IEnumerable<string> Errors { get; }

    public ApiBadRequestResponse(ModelStateDictionary modelState)
        : base(400)
    {
        if (modelState.IsValid)
        {
            throw new ArgumentException("ModelState must be invalid", nameof(modelState));
        }

        Errors = modelState.SelectMany(x => x.Value.Errors)
            .Select(x => x.ErrorMessage).ToArray();
    }
}

These classes are very simple but can be customised to your own requirements.

If we change our action to use these ApiResponse based classes, it becomes:

[HttpGet("product")]
public async Task<IActionResult> GetProduct(GetProductRequest request)
{
    if (!ModelState.IsValid)
    {
        return BadRequest(new ApiBadRequestResponse(ModelState));
    }

    var model = await _db.Get(...);

    if (model == null)
    {
        return NotFound(new ApiResponse(404, "Product not found with id {request.ProductId}"));
    }

    return Ok(new ApiOkResponse(model));
}

The code is slightly more complicated now but all three types of response from our action (success, bad request and not found) now use the same general structure.

Centralising Validation Logic

Given that validation is something that you do in practically every action, it makes to refactor this generic code into an action filter. This reduces the size of our actions, removes duplicated code and improves consistency.

public class ApiValidationFilterAttribute : ActionFilterAttribute
{
    public override void OnActionExecuting(ActionExecutingContext context)
    {
        if (!context.ModelState.IsValid)
        {
            context.Result = new BadRequestObjectResult(new ApiBadRequestResponse(ModelState)));
        }

        base.OnActionExecuting(context);
    }
}

Handling global errors

Responding to bad input in our controller actions is the best way to provide specific error information to our client. Sometimes however, we need to respond to more generic issues. Examples of this include:

As with MVC, the easiest way to deal with global errors is by using StatusCodePagesWithReExecute and UseExceptionHandler.

We talked about StatusCodePagesWithReExecute last time but to reiterate, when a non-success status code is returned from inner middleware (such as an API action), the middleware allows you to execute another action to deal with the status code and return a custom response.

UseExceptionHandler works in a similar way, catching and logging unhandled exceptions and allowing you to execute another action to handle the error. In this example, we configure both pieces of middleware to point to the same action.

We add the middleware in startup.cs:

app.UseStatusCodePagesWithReExecute("/error/{0}");
app.UseExceptionHandler("/error/500");
...
//register other middleware that might return a non-success status code

Then we add our error handling action:

[HttpGet("error/{code}")]
public IActionResult Error(int code)
{
    return new ObjectResult(new ApiResponse(code));
}

With this in place, all exceptions and non-success status codes (without a response body) will be handled by our error action where we return our standard ApiResponse.

Custom Middleware

For the ultimate in control, you can replace or complement built-in middleware with your own custom middleware. The example below handles any bodiless response and returns our simple ApiResponse object as JSON. If this is used in conjunction with code in our actions to return ApiResponse objects, we can ensure that both success and failure responses share the same common structure and all requests result in both a status code and a consistent JSON body:

public class ErrorWrappingMiddleware
{
    private readonly RequestDelegate _next;
    private readonly ILogger<ErrorWrappingMiddleware> _logger;
    
    public ErrorWrappingMiddleware(RequestDelegate next, ILogger<ErrorWrappingMiddleware> logger)
    {
        _next = next;
        _logger = logger ?? throw new ArgumentNullException(nameof(logger));
    }

    public async Task Invoke(HttpContext context)
    {
        try
        {
            await _next.Invoke(context);
        }
        catch(Exception ex)
        {
            _logger.LogError(EventIds.GlobalException, ex, ex.Message);

            context.Response.StatusCode = 500;
        }            

        if (!context.Response.HasStarted)
        {
            context.Response.ContentType = "application/json";

            var response = new ApiResponse(context.Response.StatusCode);

            var json = JsonConvert.SerializeObject(response, new JsonSerializerSettings
            {
                ContractResolver = new CamelCasePropertyNamesContractResolver()
            });

            await context.Response.WriteAsync(json);
        }            
    }
}

Conclusion

Handling errors in ASP.NET Core APIs is similar but different from MVC error code. At the action level, we want to return custom objects (serialised as JSON) rather than custom views.

For generic errors, we can still use the StatusCodePagesWithReExecute middleware but need to modify our code to return an ObjectResult instead of a ViewResult.

For full control, it is not difficult to write your own middleware to handle errors exactly as required.

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