Why excellent vendor support matters.

We have been having some strange problems on production installs. Things like screens clearing when they shouldn’t, applications slowing down when they didn’t before, and people’s computers running slower and slower until they close our application. When I was finally informed of this, I knew it had to be memory leaks.

So I fired up the excellent MemProfiler, I started digging into the issues. Aside from some of the other stupidity I was doing, I found a problem with a vendor’s component. We use Developers Express controls for EVERYTHING and we love them, not just the controls, but the company. When I found this issue with XtraReports not being GC’d after a dispose, I immediately created a small sample for them and submitted a ticket.

Less than 2 days later, they already have it fixed and ready to rock in the latest version. Not only am I impressed, but I am put at ease knowing that if a problem comes up, they are there to not only fix it, but fix it quickly and get it out to people.

This also happened a few months ago when their ASPxThemeDeployer wouldn’t work on my x64 Vista machine. I peeked at their code and saw why. Reported it and the VERY NEXT DAY they had a solution to the problem and pushed out an update.

I don’t have to worry. I know I am taken care of.

Thanks guys!

Linq to SQL in web services

Quite a while ago, I investigated the use of Linq to SQL in our one web service component that feeds a CMS that we package with out software. In my initial investigations, every time I would send an entity through the web service, I would get a circular reference error. This made sense since each relationship is bidirectional. If I have a family entity that has a relationship to a person entity, that person entity also has a reference to the family entity. This goes on infinitely. Those relationships are nice because you can grab one single person and then get data out of the family entity without having to do any joins or write a separate query. So what do you do?

There are a couple of options.

1. Make the data context serialization unidirectional. This will turn off all relationships. You will have to manually do your joins using Linq when the data reaches the other side of the transaction.

2. Change the parent access modifier of the relationship to Friend (VB) or Internal (C#). This leaves the child relationships intact but removes the parent relationships. There would no longer be a family relationship in the person entity.

I prefer option 2 simply because then I don’t have to rejoin my data every time I fetch it. I don’t need those child to parent relationships because I can build around it by making my web service functions return the family instead of just returning a person, even if I just request the person.

The next issue that I ran into was the updating existing records. Since adding new records takes a detached object and just inserts it as new, that isn’t an issue. The problem comes in the concurrency tracking that Linq to SQL uses. You either time stamp your record, or you allow it to check previous fields for concurrency. We don’t use the time stamp method. The way that most things work in the SQL world is that when you save, you either overwrite what is currently in the table, or you get an concurrency error that makes you input everything over again after getting a refresh from the database. This is not the way we like it. We like a merge scenario where I can make a couple changes to the record and someone else can make some other changes and we the save is made, both our changes make it to the database.

So, how do you fix this? It’s easy with Linq to SQL. It already has the merge saving built in, unlike ADO.Net. (The Entity Framework will do this as well if you set it up right.) Even though Linq to SQL already supports the saving, this won’t work in web services. The problem is that during serialization, the entity loses it’s data context. It’s the data context that actually tracks the changes in the record, not the entity itself. So once the data context loses it’s entity (gets detached), it has to be reattached in order to do the save. The problem with this is that the data context no longer knows what has changed in this entity, so it cannot do any concurrency validation. The key is to use the Attach method and fill in two of it’s parameters, one for current entity and one for the original entity. There are a couple ways you can do this, but I choose to add a base class where I could store the serialized entity (complete with children) and ship it back and forth.

No matter how you slice it, you are going to have the overhead of change tracking eating up bandwidth to and from the web service to the calling application. This can either be incredibly apparent by holding your original values in the session state and just passing it back to the web service, or you can serialize it in the entity object and just pull it out later. I use this method for simplicity. I actually just make a business class (actually, I already had one because all my validation is stored there in a generic, fun sort of way that allows it to just interact with IDataError) and in that business class, I just add a object holder and some functions to set the original value.

Here is a small sample of the base business class:

Imports System.Xml.Serialization

Public Class BaseBusiness

  Private original As Object

  Public Sub SetOriginalValue(ByVal _OriginalValue As Object, ByVal originalType As System.Type)
    Dim sb As New StringBuilder()
    Using strw As New System.IO.StringWriter(sb)
      Dim SXO As New XmlSerializer(originalType)
      SXO.Serialize(strw, _OriginalValue)
      original = sb.ToString()
    End Using
  End Sub

  Public Function HasOriginalValue() As Boolean
    Dim bOriginal As Boolean = False
    If original IsNot Nothing Then
      bOriginal = True
    End If
    Return bOriginal
  End Function

  Public Function GetOriginalValue(ByVal originalType As System.Type) As Object
    If HasOriginalValue() Then
      Dim sXml As String = CStr(original)
      Dim fam As Object
      Using strr As New System.IO.StringReader(sXml)
        Dim SXO As New XmlSerializer(originalType)
        fam = SXO.Deserialize(strr)
        Return (fam)
      End Using
      Return (Nothing)
    End If
  End Function
End Class

Notice the use of System.Type, this allows me to pass in any data type and serialize it on the fly without having to have special code in my entity class. This makes it appropriate for any class I need to track changes in, even in the entity framework if I so desire.

Here is the top level entity class where I use it:

Imports System.Xml.Serialization

Partial Class Family
  Inherits BaseBusiness

  Private Sub OnLoaded()
    OriginalValue = Me
  End Sub

  Public Property OriginalValue() As Family
      Return CType((Me.GetOriginalValue(GetType(Family))), Family)
    End Get
    Set(ByVal value As Family)
      Me.SetOriginalValue(value, GetType(Family))
    End Set
  End Property
End Class

That is the only code that will need to be in the entity class in order for it to work. The best part of this is when the data gets shipped back and forth, it’s always accessible as the original entity, not a serialized XML string.

This was just a quick test I did when investigating this stuff today. Eventually, I am going to try to minimize the code in both classes some more and see if I can even strip out the XML Serialization to string and just store it as binary data.

ASP.Net MVC versus Web Forms

We are going to be converting a fairly good sized project over to ASP.Net soon. The process of planning has already started. I have been investigating our options and trying to decide what would work best for us.

I checked out ASP.Net MVC first because that seems to be all the rage right now. I can definitely see why people are excited. I had a fully functioning site up and running in no time. It’s definitely a great framework and introduces a lot of very nice features. I love the testability it introduces into the whole equation, even the view.

What I don’t like, is the fact that it doesn’t support 3rd party controls. With the exception of Telerik and possibly Infragistics, others are SOL right now until the component vendors get their components up to speed. I know Jeff Handley had posted a few articles about extending the base controls, but I’m talking about some serious controls, like Dev Express’s grids and asp editors. I know there are options, but we will never ditch Dev Express. They have been too good to us. When I can e-mail the CTO with an off the wall management question and have him respond within 8 hours, and submit a message to a general e-mail with some questions about their plans and get a phone call from them within 8 hours, that’s not only a company that makes a great product, but a company that cares (shameless plug for you guys Julian and Mehul).

So I started to investigate other options. When searching for some silverlight info, one of my dudes discovered Visual WebGui. Visual WebGui was pretty slick. You drag and drop onto what looks like a Windows Form and where you drop it is where it renders when viewed through IE or Firefox. They also had a small tutorial on how to take a regular Windows forms application and quickly convert it to a full blown ASP.Net web application. This would have been awesome, except we don’t use Windows Forms controls for anything, not even our forms. Everything is from Dev Express, so it doesn’t convert so hotly. I did some more research and you can get those 3rd party controls to work, but it’s not the greatest or easiest to work with. Their quick solution would eventually turn into a code nightmare. So much for that.

Looks like it’s time to dig out the new routing engine in ASP.Net and start wiring up some of my own code. I really wanted to use MVC, but if the UI is going to suck, our users will absolutely hate us.

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