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course: Designing Events and Event Streams

Dimension 4: Modeling As Discrete vs. Continuous Event Flows

9 min

Adam Bellemare

Staff Technologist, Office of the CTO (Presenter)

The final major dimension of event design pertains to the relationships between events, and how they’re used and interpreted by the consumer.

A Discrete Event Flow


A discrete event flow drives state changes within the consumer application’s state machine, and results in either the completion, or the abandonment, of the consumer’s workflow. For example, an order is eventually shipped, a trade is eventually booked, and a taxi-cab rider eventually makes it their destination. Discrete event flows are composed not only of the input event streams, but also the state machine logic of the consumer that processes and completes the workflow.

A Continuous Event Flow


In contrast, a continuous event flow is most commonly represented as a series of independent events, such as measurements taken at a point in time, e.g. compute resource metrics, sensor measurements, and periodic reporting from internet of things devices. Continuous event flows are often simpler than discrete event flows, as they do not necessarily drive any complex state changes in the consumer application. Instead, they’re often (but not exclusively) used for generating analytics, measuring operational performance, and creating aggregates and summaries for other applications to use.

Let’s take a closer look at both of these with some examples.

Discrete Event Consumer Workflow


In this example, an ecommerce flow progresses through several states.

  • The work starts when an order is received, and remains in the ORDERED state
  • Upon receiving a payment for that order, the state machine can then move to the PAID state
  • And lastly, a shipping event will transition the state machine for that entity to the final state of SHIPPED

This discrete event flow requires three distinct events, to be received and processed in a specific sequence, to get an order paid for and shipped out to the customer. The state machine of this event flow is tightly coupled to not only the structure of the events, but also the temporal order that they’re received and processed.


A discrete event flow may also contain multiple start or end states. The event flow designers may decide that it’s reasonable for the intermediate stages to time out after a period of inactivity - for example, an order that is not paid for within 30 days is simply cancelled, terminating the state machine for that specific order.

The termination of a state machine is also often the cause of its own new discrete event flow - issuing either an Order_Shipped event or an Order_Cancelled event is itself the conclusion of one event flow, but could be the start of a new event flow for notifying the customer of their incoming order, or sending them an apology email for the cancellation.

Discrete workflows have well-specified steps that lead to a final state of completion. Parallelization is important, as the consumer workflow often processes multiple independent entities simultaneously. They must make sure that they’re correctly resolving the progression of each entity through the workflow. After all, we wouldn’t want someone’s order payment going to someone else’s order. Businesses are full of discrete workflows. Some remain within a single application’s boundary, while some may span multiple applications and multiple event streams.

But what about continuous event flows? How do these work in practice?

Operational Metrics


Continuous workflows can be exemplified by streams of metric events. For example, CPU and disk metric usage are simply quick snapshots of resource usage at a point in time. In the case of metrics generated by sensors, it’s possible that a damaged or malfunctioning sensor may miss publishing some event data. Most continuous use cases are not significantly impacted by missing or duplicate events—metrics and other measurements may be slightly inaccurate, but as long as the bulk of the data is obtained computations based on the metrics will be fairly accurate. In contrast, discrete event flows may arrive at a very different termination point if even just a single event goes missing.

Alerting on Operational Metrics


Now, one of the neat things about metric-style event streams is that you can also use them to power discrete use cases. Consider how metric tracking systems are commonly paired with alerting capabilities. You can create little consumer state machines in the form of alerts that process the metric events and compute the present state. Changes in the state machine represent discrete occurrences, though they are derived entirely from a continuous stream of granular facts. In this example, there is an alert that notifies the disk_alert_mailing_list whenever server disk usage exceeds 80%. Depending on the configuration, the alert may simply trigger once and then remain silent until it drops back below 80%, or it may continually trigger every few minutes. However you do it, the result of this specific continuous event flow is that of a discrete event: a very distinct point-in-time notification that a certain state machine requirement is met, which can then go on to be input for other applications.

Continuous and discrete event flow use cases depend on both the event stream inputs and the business logic of the consumer. The very same event stream may be used by different consumers for both discrete and continuous purposes.

Let’s take a look at one more example, this time focusing on the consumer’s point of view, to see this dichotomy in action.

Sales Events


Let’s go back to the order of facts that we were looking at before. In this example, the accounts receivable consumer is reading order events and payment events to compute the amount of money that we’re still waiting to receive. This service needs to handle user account data, orders, and payments, and apply its own discrete state machine logic to ensure that it correctly computes account status. Additionally, the accounts receivable state machine needs to emit new facts when the account is 30 days, 60 days, and 90 days past due—discrete steps that are based on wall-clock time expiry.


The same order facts can be consumed by another team for a continuous use case—in this case, consuming the order events, composing them into Parquet files, and writing them to cloud storage for batch processing jobs.


And finally, an email notification service consumes order events and sends out a confirmation email, letting the customer know that their order has been received and will be processed shortly. Each email notification is completely independent of the other order facts, and any missed event processing, though inconvenient for the customer, will not get the email service into an incorrect state. Each of these three use cases reads from the very same orders fact stream, but treats the data as either continuous or discrete depending on the consumer’s unique business use case.

Discrete Event Flow Properties


Let's review some of the discrete event flow properties. Usually a discrete event flow will have multiple input event types and consumers will use a state machine to transition between multiple states. Discrete event flows typically cannot tolerate loss, missing even just a single event can get you into a bad state. Similarly, duplicate events can also cause problems. With discrete event flows, there's a significant relationship between the events, the event streams, and the consumer processing logic.

Continuous Event Flow Properties


And now let's look at the continuous event flow properties. Continuous event flows typically use just a single input event type. The consumer may or may not use a state machine, depending on the requirements, and consumers can usually tolerate lost or duplicate events, but it does depend on your use case.

Module Summary

Event streams cover a wide range of possibilities for both discrete and continuous use cases. The order shipping workflow use case illustrated the use of order, payment, and shipment events to compute the progress of each user's order through the system. Discrete changes in the consumer state machine map directly to the associated input event.

Alternatively, metric events, recording point in time measurements can be used for continuous use cases such as a visualization dashboard. However, they can also be used to power discrete state changes, such as when using threshold alerts.

When designing event streams, think about how your consumers may use the events to build either discrete or continuous workflows. Talk to your consumers to find out what their main use cases are so that you can ensure that their needs are met.

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