OpenNETCF IoC Project Templates

I’m trying my hand at making using some of our stuff a bit easier.  Today I burned some time trying to understand the project template infrastructure and the result was the creation of a couple VSIX files for installing IoC templates into Visual Studio. 

Right now it only supports desktop projects (IoC supports Windows Phone, Mono for Android, Monotouch and Compact Framework). I’ve also not figured out how to actually deploy the IoC and Extensions binaries with the templates, so when you create your project, the References section will contain IoC references, but they’ll be broken.  Still, as a first cut it greatly simplifies setting up a new IoC UI (SmartClientApplication) or IoC Module project.

You can install the templates in one of three ways:

OpenNETCF IoC now supports Mono for Android (MonoDroid)

In my push to get our fundamental libraries up and working on Mono for Android we’ve added support for OpenNETCF Extensions and OpenNETCF IoC.  What that means is that now you can have a common code for a lot of application infrastructure that works on the Compact Framework, the desktop, Windows Phone, MonoTouch for iOS and Mono for Android.  So you can now create a single, common code base for your applications that includes data access, event aggregation, dependency injection and inversion of control.

Get the latest code over on Codeplex.

Compact Framework and the Visual Studio Designer

Lately it seems that I’m been doing a lot of posts referring to “a customer”.  Often they are different customers, but it really sounds impersonal, so in this one I’m going to name names and point fingers – in a friendly way, of course.

Last week Nicolas emailed me to get some advice on the Visual Studio 2008 Forms designer and the Compact Framework.  Specifically he wanted to know if it’s possible to get a custom TabControl to be designable.  My assumption is that either he’s inheriting from the stock version or they’ve created a fully custom control inheriting from ContainerControl – I didn’t ask because in either case the answer is simple: it’s not going to work in the designer.

I told him that it won’t work, but in retrospect I feel I’ve short-changed him a bit.  As a developer, I like to hear a bit more than an “abandon all hope, ye who sail here for there be sea monsters” kind of response.  Why doesn’t it work?  More importantly, what are my options for a workaround?

In this case it’s interesting to note that even if he could get the designer to work for this control, I’d recommend that he not do it.  And they why to that recommendation is far more interesting.

So, Nicolas, here’s the longer answer to your question.

First, you have to understand that the Studio Designer is very, very brittle.  Any little quirkiness tends to send it into fits, and once broke you often spend large amounts of time unloading things, resetting the toolbox, restarting Studio or even restarting the PC.  This is a huge time drain, so avoiding situations that break the designer is the first order of business.

Getting the designer working for a CF component is even worse.  CF controls often make use of things that the desktop doesn’t even have, which the designer really hates.  You also have to build the Controls for both versions of the CF (for Nicolas this is important since, at least last time I was with his team, they had versions of the application targeting CF 2.0 and CF 3.5).  A control built against CF 3.5 will never show up in the designer of a CF 2.0 project.  There’s also a major bug in the designer that limits CF 3.5 controls that I’ve written about before.

For designer support you also have to maintain an XMTA file and often end up having condition compiler statements which really make the code less readable.  Workarounds for most of these issues exist.  You can create separate set of “designer” assemblies that provide only stuff for the designer and minimal actual control logic.  The problem with this is that you then have to maintain these things, which sucks up developer time that should be spent actually solving your business problem.

You can’t create a desktop assembly and use it for the designer because the designer will then suck in the full .NET framework as a reference and attempt to deploy that to the device when you want to debug.

So if the designer is so brittle and worthless, what’s a developer to do?  Well, my general attitude is to provide “support” only for basic Controls, and by “support” I mean the inherent capability of the designer to show a box with the location and bounds of your control.  No rendering.  No styling.  No collection editing. 

Really the designer’s primary use for me is to aid in basic layout.  I need to put a Control on a Form, set it’s location and Size and that’s it anyway.  Anything else is done via code, and there’s nothing wrong with this.  Embrace it as how you must work and your life becomes much simpler.

That’s all well and good for a simple Control, but what about a container like Nicolas is after?  His team would like to be able to drop on a Tab control and design each individual Tab, right?  So what are they to do?

Well, I think they’re looking at the problem wrong to begin with.  I don’t blame them, people have been looking at this wrong for some time, and the simple existence of the TabControl tend to push people to look at it wrong.  In general, my recommendation is to not use the TabControl in the first place. 

First of all, it’s 2011.  That ass-looking TabControl would have been ok back in 1995 (if the devices had existed then) since it looks just like the ass-looking Windows 95 interface. 

It’s was an ok solution in 2000 when these devices were new and people thought of them as just “mini PCs” so extending the desktop paradigm to the device was what we did.    Yes, we wished we could do a little more to make it pretty by adding icons and custom drawing, but it worked and users really didn’t expect anything more.

But it’s 2011.  Users don’t use a stylus if they can avoid it.  They know an elegant UI when they see one because they’ve been using a smartphone.  Just because they have no choice in the app they use (this is an LOB app, so the user is locked in) is no excuse to not deliver something that is actually nice to use.  The TabControl does not meet that.  It’s tiny, it scrolls weird, and it’s ugly with no options to make it non-ugly.  Plus it’s  Tab motif.  Name the last mobile app you used on a phone that used tabs.  That’s what I thought. Abandon the piece of crap.

So what would I use?  Obviously this will be subjective, as it’s what I would personally do given a blank slate.  Nicolas is trying to put something into an already-existing, very large code base, so his mileage may vary, but I’m betting it won’t be too bad, and implementing this might actually do a lot toward getting other gains they really need like better transition time between views.

I’d start using the OpenNETCF IoC project.  I’d split each of the existing “tabs” into individual SmartParts, which are now fully designable since they’re just UserControls.  So there you are – the designer requirement is solved.  I’d then place on the Form a pair of DeckWorkspaces.  One would display the “selected” view and the other would replace the “tabs” of old with buttons or clickable images that would be used to select the current view.  It would look something like this in the designer for the Form:


And then the SmartPart that goes into the bottom workspace might be something like this in the designer (well it would probably be a bit different, but you get the idea):


See, the designer works.  It meets the business requirement that it provides a “tab-like” capability where the user selects an item across the bottom and the upper view changes.  But now it’s not just usable with a stylus but it’s also likely to be usable with a finger (gasp!) and aesthetically it doesn’t make my want to poke my own eyes out.  It’s a win-win.  Plus now you can lazy-load the views *on demand* rather than loading up every damned control on every tab when the Form is brought up, so the user is going to be pleasantly surprised there too.  Oh, and now it’s easy to change out “tabs” based on user rights or workflow and probably other benefits that I’m not thinking of.

Occasionally we’ve got to break out of the “what we know” and the “what we’ve always done” routine and look out at the horizon.  By doing so we can often make some simple changes and make things easier for both the developer and the user, and that is how we make progress.

Inversion of Control, Dependency Injection and Service Locators oh my!

This post is part of my “Software Development” series. The TOC for the entire series can be found here.

In this post, we’re going to look, at a higher level, at the reasons for and benefits of using a framework for Inversion of Control (IoC), Dependency Injection (DI) and Service Location. I’m not going to spend a large amount of time in this blog series describing the intimate details of what IoC, DI and Service Locators are.  Martin Fowler did a fantastic job of it and there’s no point in me just regurgitating his work.

Instead, I’ll give my vision of what they are and how they are relevant to how I architect and develop solutions.  It’s important to note that I’m starting out this series with high-level thoughts about architecture and design.  I’m not just laying down some code, leaving the decisions about how things will interact to some arbitrary, organic process.  This is how software development gets done. 

You’ve got to think about not just the next step, but visualize the end point several months, or even years out and try to connect the dots back to where you are today.  If I implement something in a certain way today, is it going to screw me 3 months down the road?  Spending an extra day now thinking about architecture is going to turn into saving weeks of the customer breathing down your neck and you pull out your hair and work late night trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole.

So let’s look at IoC, DI and Service Location and how they’re going to help us build better software.  Inversion of Control as a concept is something that’s really broad.  It’s really anything that turns the older procedural way of developing upside down (i.e. inverts program control, hence the name).  Moving from a console app to a windowed, event-driven app is technically inversion of control, so you’ve already been using IoC. 

To talk about IoC as a useful concept that’s actually going to be of use, we’ll be using some smaller units/principals of IoC.  The two we’re going to look at are Dependency Injection, or DI, and Service Location.  Neither one is complex or arcane, and you probably already use them to some degree.

Let’s assume we have two arbitrary classes, A and B, and that A uses an instance of B internally.  There are, essentially, 3 ways that A can get the instance of B. 

First, it can directly create it by calling new B().  While this is simple, it’s the least preferred, and generally worst, way to do it.  By directly creating B, A is now tightly coupled to B’s implementation.  B can’t be easily changed out to something else.  If B is in another assembly, A has to have a reference to it.  It’s also difficult to test A by itself. 

The second way that A can get B is that whoever created the instance of A could pass into it an instance of B.  Maybe through a constructor

var b = new B();
var a = new A(b);

or through a property

var b = new B();
var a = new A();
a.B = b;

This is called Dependency Injection. The former is constructor injection, the latter is property injection – not so complex, eh?  This is useful because, if B is an interface, it’s really easy to swap out the implementation passed to A and the assembly containing A doesn’t necessarily have to have a reference to the assembly holding the implementation of B – it only needs a reference to the interface.  This is really nice when we want to do mocking.

The third way that A can get B is to go get it from some central repository or “factory”.

B B { get; set; }

public A()
this.B = MyClassFactory.GetB();

This is service location.  A doesn’t really know what B is, it lets the service locator (MyClassFactory) resolve that.  This is really helpful for plug-in architectures as well as for lazy loading objects.

Generally speaking, your code should only be doing #2 (DI) and #3 (service location) for objects of any complexity.  This is not to say that you shouldn’t ever call the new operator in your code.  There’s obviously a grey line out there below which it would be pretty stupid to not just use new for.  If you need to use a simple entity class or structure, then creating one makes sense.  If you need access to the DAL and I see you creating a DAL object in your View, you’re fired.

There are plenty of framework out there that provide DI and service location –  Ninject, Unity, CastleWindsor, StructureMap, Autofac – the list goes on and on.  Instead of using one of them, however, I chose to roll my own.  Normally I wouldn’t recommend such a drastic action – after all reinventing the wheel isn’t usually wise – but in my case it was essentially required, so I’ll give you the short back story.

My team and I had been working on a large desktop application.  We had designed it from the start using Microsoft’s SCSF/CAB framework, which provide DI, service location and a load of other stuff.  It turned out that we were using maybe 10% of the framework, and that the framework’s Studio plug-ins were causing fits with some installations of Studio.  Spending time screwing with Studio plug-ins and trying to get things to compile is a terrible waste of manpower, so we were already getting close to jettisoning it when we decided that we wanted the core of our app logic to be Compact Framework compatible.

Well Microsoft’s “port” of the SCSF to the Compact Framework, called the MCSF, turns out to be a bloated, unbelievably slow, steaming pile of dog crap.  Side note: just because something compiles under the Compact Framework does not mean it should be used in the Compact Framework.  Well, I didn’t want to refactor everything we’d done to some other IoC framework, plus I couldn’t find one at the time that actually worked for the Compact Framework, so I decided to create one. 

I took the tack that I’d create it for the CF first, with a high emphasis on small footprint, minimal resource usage and speed and I simply matched the SCSF object model where our code base interfaced with it and where it made sense – in some places I didn’t like how the SCSF had done things, so I “fixed” their mistakes.  The end result was the OpenNETCF.IoC framework, which turns out to stack up quite well against the other frameworks.  It also has the huge benefit of working on the Full Framework, Windows Phone 7 and MonoTouch (probably MonoDroid as well, though I’ve not tested that). We’ll be looking at OpenNETCF.IoC in a lot more depth in this series.

On Software Development

This post is part of my “Software Development” series.  The TOC for the entire series can be found here.

Developing good software is hard.  Really hard.  Sure, anyone can buy a book on writing software or pull up some code samples and get something that compiles and runs, but that’s not’s really developing software.  A lot of code in the wild – I’d bet a vast majority of it – just plain sucks.

It’s hard to point out where the blame lies.  It seems that most developers are environmentally or institutionally destined to write bad code. Schools teach how to write code, but not how to architect it or to follow reasonable design practices.  In the zeal for clarity, publishers churn out books, blogs and samples that show bad practices (when is it ever a good idea to access a data model from your UI event handler?).  Managers and customers alike push hard to get things done now, not necessarily done right – only to find months or years later that doing it right would have saved a boatload of time and money.  And let’s face it – many developers are simply showing up to work to pull a paycheck.  You know who they are.  You’ve no doubt worked with them in the past.  You’re probably working with them now.

I was watching Gordon Ramsay the other day and it occurred to me that he and I are alike in our own peculiar way.  I’m not saying that I see myself as the “Gordon Ramsay of Software Development” – hardly –   but we share a common trait.  Just as Gordon gets angry and starts spewing colorful language when he walks into a crap kitchen, it bothers the hell out of me to see complete idiots in my chosen field out there just making a mess of things.  When I see bad code – not necessarily minor errors, or code that could be refactored and made better – but just outright shit code that should not have occurred to a developer in the first place it pisses me off.  By the nature of my work, often getting called in only when the project is off the rails, I see it all the time. Code that, on review, a peer or mentor should have seen and said “Whoa!  There’s no way that’s going into our code base”.  Code that just makes it harder for the next person to do their job.

In an effort to simplify things for my own code, for my customers’ code as well as anyone who is willing to listen to my ravings, I’ve spent a lot of time building, testing, fixing and extending tools and frameworks that many of which I turn around and give away.  This isn’t out of altruism, no, it’s largely because I’m a lazy developer.  I hate writing the same thing twice.  When I start a project, I don’t want to spend large amounts of time building up the same infrastructure that every project needs. Building up a framework for handling UI navigation isn’t what I’d call interesting, but just about every project needs it.  Handling object dependencies and events is common.  Writing a DAL for serializing and deserializing entities is not just drudgery, I find it’s highly susceptible to errors because you end up doing a lot of copy and paste.

I have these cool tools and frameworks that I use in literally every project I work on now.  That’s great for me, but it doesn’t really help others, right?  Without reasonable documentation or explanation, only a small handful of people are going to go through the effort of getting the tools and trying to understand them – even if they are deceptively simple and could potentially save you weeks of effort. 

So I’ve decided to put together a series of blogs over the coming weeks and months that explain, hopefully in simple terms, what these frameworks do, how to use them, and most importantly, why they are worth using.  There’s nothing groundbreaking here.  I didn’t invent some new way to do things.  I’ve simply appropriated other peoples’ ideas and extended them to work in the environments that I work.

Generally I’ll be covering the following topics and frameworks:

  • Dependency Injection and Inversion of Control (using OpenNETCF IoC)
  • Event Aggregation (using OpenNETCF IoC)
  • Plug-in Architectures and interface-based programming (using OpenNETCF IoC)
  • Software features as services (using OpenNETCF IoC)
  • Data Access through an ORM (using OpenNETCF ORM)
  • Parameter Checking (using OpenNETCF Extensions)
  • Exposing data services over HTTP (using Padarn)
  • Whatever else I think of

If there’s a topic you’d like me to talk about, feel free to send me an email.  I may turn on comments here and let you post ideas, but I find that when I enable comments on my blog, I start getting more comment spam than I really want to deal with, so if comments are turned off just drop me a line.

OpenNETCF.IoC: New Release

We’ve been heavily dogfooding the IoC project (and others) lately and I finally took the time today to back-port the fixes and updates to the public code. This is being used for a solution that runs on both the desktop and the compact framework, so it’s been heavily tested under both of those environments. The new release (1.0.11235) is now available on Codeplex.

Benchmarking OpenNETCF’s IoC Framework

Last night I was browsing around the Net on a back tracking a visit to the OpenNETCF Inversion Of Control (IoC) project.  I came upon a page where someone had done a quick set of benchmarks for many of the popular IoC engines out there [].  This got me wondering.  How would OpenNETCF IoC stack up against these, after all I’ve never done any performance comparisons against any other framework.

Well I downloaded the benchmarking code the original author had put together and added added an IoC version of the test (which was really easy to do).  I then ran the singleton test, which essentially registers a set of dependent classes by interface name (in theRootWorkItem.Services collection) and then uses the IoC engine to extract the from the store 1,000,000 times.  It then reports how long it took to do the extraction.  Simple enough.

Here are the results:

The hard numbers are not really important – the actual number is going to depend on your hardware – what is interesting is how they look relative to one anotehr.  You can see that if you exclude the new operator (which isn’t IoC, it’s just there for reference), then the Dynamo engine (which is the test author’s engine) preforms the best.  Now I know nothing about that engine, so if you’re interested, I’ll let you investigate that further.

What was interesting to me is that IoC is three times faster than the next fastest IoC engine (AutoFac), five times faster than Structure Map, roughly 6 times faster than Castle Windsor or Unity and a whopping 25 times faster than the ever-popular Ninject engine.  Evidently my focus on performance when developign the engine paid off.

How about the time it takes to register all of the types that get created?  Are we paying the piper at creation time in order to save it at resolution?  Here are the time results for setup (instantiation of singletons):

Again, IoC is at near front of the pack.

Binary size isn’t overly relevent any longer, I mean if you’re using managed code then you’ve already made the decision that file sizes aren’t critical, but it’s still interesting to look at.  Here’s a breakdown of the sizes of each of the libraries.  The libraries marked with an asterisk also have configuration files that are *not* included in the resported size (so deployment would actually be larger than what the graph shows).

All in all, I’m pretty pleased with the results.  We dogfood the OpenNETCF IoC framework for all of our projects, both desktop and Compact Framework, so it gets a fair amound of testing and beating and you can be assured that if there are bugs I’ll do my best to resolve them.  If you’ve not taken a look at the project, give it a try.