Thursday, April 2, 2009

Four Pillars of Asp.Net

Not that long ago, there was just ASP.NET. But ASP.NET has expanded to include different approaches to development. Recently, I was chatting with Microsoft’s Scott Hunter and Steve Walther over drinks at DevConnections Orlando and Steve mentioned “the four pillars of ASP.NET.” The four pillars are the four ways you can build web sites with ASP.NET, both today and in the future. The four pillars are:

1. ASP.NET Web Forms. Until recently, this was the only pillar of ASP.NET. Everything was done using the familiar rich server-side controls that many have grown to love (and some have learned to despise which is the seed for the other three pillars).

So what’s wrong with Web Forms? Well, many developers believe that ASP.NET Web Forms are too much of a black box with a healthy-dose of black magic. There’s a price you pay for the Web Form event model and lifecycle and that price is control over the exchange of data between server and browser. Some say the Web Form model with its incessant ViewState is a pig. The Web Form model also makes it difficult to create testable applications and practice test-driven development (TDD). On the other hand, ASP.NET AJAX and ASP.NET MVC (pillars 2 and 3, respectively) come with a steep learning curve, and for many developers will take longer to develop the equivalent application. Pillar 4 (Dynamic Data), on the other hand, has limited applicability, IMO.

My opinion is that with the possible exception of Dynamic Data for the creation of simpler intranet applications, nothing in my mind beats ASP.NET Web Forms (especially when paired with the ASP.NET AJAX UpdatePanel control) for creating good, solid, and responsive applications that, while not the leanest and meanest of applications nor very testable, are easy to grok and master for the novice through advanced developer. Web forms are also the best match for the developer looking to make the move to ASP.NET from Microsoft desktop (Win Forms or WPF) development. And with each new version, Microsoft is making it easier to tame the pig (ViewState) and reduce its size: ASP.NET 2.0 introduced ControlState and ASP.NET 4.0 changes the inheritance model of ViewState so it will be easier to turn off ViewState by default and only turn it on when needed.

2. ASP.NET AJAX. This pillar came to life with the ASP.NET AJAX Extensions for ASP.NET 2.0 / Visual Studio 2005. ASP.NET AJAX is now integrated into ASP.NET and Visual Studio 2008 and consists of both a set of server-side controls as well as the AJAX client-side libraries. In regards to its existence as a “pillar,” I would argue that Microsoft is really only talking about the client-side of ASP.NET AJAX. The reason I say this is that the Upgrade Panel and other server-side AJAX controls merely extend the Web Form pillar, giving Web Form controls the ability to do asynchronous postbacks.

There are many in the hard-core ASP.NET AJAX community that believe that a true AJAX application needs to be built from the ground up without the use of Web Forms and the server-side controls. Using this approach, ASP.NET merely becomes a way to emit HTML with embedded JavaScript (and references to the Microsoft ASP.NET AJAX and JQuery libraries) that calls back to ASP.NET (or WCF) web services. When the HTML and JavaScript hit the browser, that’s when the action begins.

The promise of this approach is a much snappier user interface and a much more scalable web site. On the downside, this requires programming in a looselytyped language with a weird inheritance model, spotty support for IntelliSense, and, while improved, lousy debugger support. Another downside, the lack of smart client-side controls is likely to be remedied in the ASP.NET 4.0 timeframe. Microsoft is busy improving the client-side story, complete with client-side controls, for ASP.NET 4.0 (if you are curious, check out and click on the “ASP.NET AJAX Preview on CodePlex” link for a peek at what’s coming). Regardless, I believe this will pillar will always be for a subset of ASP.NET developers who don’t shun the client-side.

3. ASP.NET MVC. This pillar is the newest to emerge from Microsoft. In fact, as of this writing, it’s only a week old, having been released at Mix09. Some ASP.NET curmudgeons would call this a throwback to the days of ASP “classic” spaghetti code, but for many others--especially the crowd and transplants from Ruby and Java--this represents the cat’s pajamas on the Microsoft web stack. (Of course, it’s amazing how quickly developers find problems in the latest programmer’s paradise--usually before its release--and I’m sure the MVC aficionados are already looking to the next release.)

The basic idea behind ASP.NET MVC is to separate out the three concerns of the MVC pattern: the model, view, and controller. The model represents the data model, the view is the user interface that presents the data and interacts with the user, and the controller is the command center that takes inputs from the view, pushes and pulls data into/from the model, and decides what to do next. By separating out these concerns (as purely as possible), you improve the ability to create unit tests for your applications and, at least on some level, improve application maintainability. If you are into test driven development, then this is the pillar to hook your horse to.

4. Dynamic Data. IMO, Dynamic Data is a misnomer. From its name, one would tend to think this is yet another data access technology from Microsoft. It is not. I would have preferred Microsoft to use the name Dynamic Application or Dynamic Application Builder. MSDN Help says, “ASP.NET Dynamic Data is a framework that lets you create data-driven ASP.NET Web applications easily.

You start with Dynamic Data by creating a database and then using either LINQ to SQL or the Entity Framework to create a model over your data. Next, create a new project or web site in Visual Studio 2008 (with SP1) using one of the Dynamic Data Web Application templates, make a fairly simple change to the web site’s Global.asax, and Visual Studio builds a dynamic ASP.NET application over your data model. The resulting site support the creation, retrieval, updating, and deletion (commonly referred to as the CRUD operations) of rows in the underlying database.

Dynamic Data uses what is termed dynamic scaffolding to construct your application. This means if you change your data model, the application will be instantly updated: there’s no code that needs to be re-generated.

Dynamic Data is customizable. Thus, if you don’t like how Dynamic Data presents a datatype or a particular field, or want to change how it performs validation of a field, you can change the templates behind these. You can also change the master page used as well as a number of other details.

Kudos to Microsoft for Dynamic Data--even though I hate the name. Just realize that this pillar, unlike the other three, is only applicable to a subset of ASP.NET applications that fit in well with the Dynamic Data approach to applications: applications, which are primarily data-centric, intranet-based applications. That said I could see many places where I might use Dynamic Data, though I am still trying to work through the security implications of opening up the database for pretty much unrestricted reading and writing of database tables.

(For those who would like to see an MVC version of Dynamic Data: I’d expect to see such a beast come down the pike at some point from Microsoft.)

So what does this mean to the developer? I have both good and bad news.

The good news is that you now have a choice in how you develop your ASP.NET applications. If you love the responsiveness and coolness of AJAX or you need to scale your applications big-time, then you’ll love ASP.NET AJAX. If, OTOH, you are into unit tests or TDD, you will love ASP.NET MVC. Finally, if you were looking for an easier way to build you basic CRUD web application, you’ll want to take a look at Dynamic Data. Don’t need any of the above? There’s no need to despair--ASP.NET Web Forms are here for the long haul!

The bad news is that you now have a choice in how you develop your ASP.NET applications. (Wait a second, wasn’t that also the good news?)This means you have more things to learn. It also means that in trying to support all four pillars, Microsoft may be taking some of its focus off Web Forms. After all, there’s only so many PMs and devs at Microsoft on the ASP.NET team. Furthermore, this means that if you are a manager like me worried about maintainability of applications and hiring developers, your job just got more difficult because one person’s idea of ASP.NET development is not necessarily someone else’s. Still, I think the good news here, outweighs the bad.

Microsoft used to present ASP.NET Web Forms vs. MVC as a choice between a car and a motorcycle. Both will get you to your job , but some (the majority of the population, I might add) prefer driving a car, while a sizable minority love their motorcycles which give you better gas mileage and independence, but don’t protect you in the rain. To stretch this analogy to its breaking point, let me suggest that ASP.NET AJAX is like riding a bicycle to work (lean and mean, best gas mileage, but it requires you to exercise for your commute and exposes you to the elements like the motorcycle) while Dynamic Data is like taking the bus to work (let metro do the driving for you.)

What about Silverlight?
Silverlight is really just the next generation of a one-click desktop application, that is hosted in the browser and runs on a multi-platform .NET virtual machine. Not to take anything away from Silverlight, but it’s not ASP.NET.

Does this mean that ASP.NET Web Forms is going away?
Although some people “in the know” have stated in the past couple of years that either ASP.NET AJAX or ASP.NET MVC was the future of ASP.NET, this is not the official position of Microsoft. Think about it, since 98%--yes, this is a total educated guess--of ASP.NET development is still done using ASP.NET Web Forms, and this percentage is unlikely to change significantly over the next several years, Microsoft would be stupid to kill off Web Forms. It doesn’t make any economic sense, and since Microsoft is a for-profit entity, I think Web Forms will be a major thrust of ASP.NET for many years to come.

In my opinion, Microsoft has added the three new pillars for the following reasons:

· Microsoft is always trying to follow innovation and buzz in the industry. Three years ago, that buzz was in AJAX. Today, MVC, separation of concerns, and TDD is all the rage so Microsoft has countered with ASP.NET MVC.

· Microsoft is always trying to broaden the appeal of ASP.NET. Microsoft has been trying to woo the open source community for years (after initially discounting it). And in order to do this, it needs to embrace many of the ideals of this community, which tends to live on the bleeding edge and is into AJAX, testability, and TDD, amongst other things.

· Microsoft truly wants to improve the productivity of its customers. After all, if you improve the ability of your customers, in our case corporate and independent developers, to get their jobs done, you’ve gone a long way to attracting and retaining customers. In Microsoft’s eyes (and many of its customers), this is a win, win situation.

I, for one, would like to thank Microsoft for the four pillars of ASP.NET. In producing the four pillars, Microsoft has given ASP.NET developers the choices they both want and need.

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