Dealing with Circular References in WCF

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Using entity classes in your application and WCF is complaining about the circular references between your classes? Well, I had the exact same problem not long ago, and I found this post on James Kovac’s blog about circular references and how to get around them:

The key things to note from this post is that:

  1. WCF can handle circular references, but is not switched on by default
  2. There is a boolean flag in the constructor for the DataContractSerializer class which enables object references to be preserved
  3. We can tell WCF to switch this on by deriving from the DataContractSerializerOperationBehaviour class (as shown in the blog post above)

By this point you’re probably wondering why circular reference handling is not enabled by default, according to James Kovac, it’s because WCF by default tries to respect interoperability safety:

Now why can’t WCF handle circular references out-of-the-box. The reason is that there is no industry-accepted, interoperable way of expressing anything but parent-child relationships in XML. You can use the ID/IDREF feature of XML or the key/keyref feature of XML Schema, but a lot of serializers don’t respect these attributes or handle them properly. So if you want to serialize circular references, you need to stray out of the realm of safe interoperability.

So here are the classes you need to create to extend DataContractSerializerOperationBehaviour in order to preserve object reference:

public class PreserveReferencesOperationBehavior : DataContractSerializerOperationBehavior
     public PreserveReferencesOperationBehavior(OperationDescription operation) : base(operation)

     public PreserveReferencesOperationBehavior(
          OperationDescription operation, DataContractFormatAttribute dataContractFormatAttribute)
          : base(operation, dataContractFormatAttribute)

     public override XmlObjectSerializer CreateSerializer(
          Type type, XmlDictionaryString name, XmlDictionaryString ns, IList<Type> knownTypes)
          return new DataContractSerializer(type, name, ns, knownTypes,
                                            0x7FFF /*maxItemsInObjectGraph*/,

And the attribute to use on your operation contract:

public class PreserveReferencesAttribute : Attribute, IOperationBehavior
     public void AddBindingParameters(OperationDescription description,
                                      BindingParameterCollection parameters)

     public void ApplyClientBehavior(OperationDescription description, ClientOperation proxy)
          IOperationBehavior innerBehavior = new PreserveReferencesOperationBehavior(description);
          innerBehavior.ApplyClientBehavior(description, proxy);

     public void ApplyDispatchBehavior(OperationDescription description,
                                       DispatchOperation dispatch)
          IOperationBehavior innerBehavior = new PreserveReferencesOperationBehavior(description);
          innerBehavior.ApplyDispatchBehavior(description, dispatch);

     public void Validate(OperationDescription description)

which you apply like this:

MyClass RetrieveMyClass();
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