Tag Archives: visual studio

Microsoft announces Visual Studio 2019, but pleasing developers is a tough challenge

Microsoft’s John Montgomery has announced Visual Studio 2019, in a post which is short on any details of what might be in the product, other than to continue evolving features that we already know about, such as Live Share, AI-powered IntelliCode, more refactorings and so on.

The acquisition of GitHub is bound to impact both Visual Studio and Visual Studio Team Services, but Montgomery does not talk about this.

Note there is already a Visual Studio roadmap which gives some clues about what is coming. A common theme is integration with Azure services such as Azure Key Vault (for app secrets), Azure Functions, and Azure Container Service (Kubernetes).

It is more illuminating to read the comments to Montgomery’s post. Montgomery says that Visual Studio 2017 is “our most popular Visual Studio release ever,” which I presume is a count of how many times it has been downloaded or installed. It is not the most reliable though; one comment says “2017 has been buggier than all of the bugs 2015 and 2013 had combined.” I imagine every Visual Studio developer, myself included, has to exit and reload the IDE from time to time to fix odd behaviour. Other comments include:

– Reporting components have to be added per project rather than being integrated into the toolbox

– SQL Server Data Tools (SSDT) lagged behind the 2017 release and still have issues

– the XAML designer has performance and behaviour issues and the new XAML designer in preview is missing many features

In general, Microsoft struggles to keep Visual Studio up to date with its constantly-changing developer platform while also working well with the older technologies that are still widely used. The transition from .NET Framework to .NET Core is a tricky issue for the team to solve.

User Benjamin Callister says this:

I have been developing professionally with VS for 20 years now. honestly, the experience seems to get worse with each new release. the amount of time wasted in my day working with XAML alone makes me more than frustrated. The feeling is mutual among my peers as well – and it has been for years now. VS Code is such a fresh breath of air because of its speed. VS full has become so bloated, working with UWP/XAML so slow, and build times so slow. Also, imo profiling tools should be turned OFF by default, with a simple button to toggle them back on when needed. As a developer, I don’t want them on all the time – rather, just when I want to profile.

The mention of Visual Studio code is an interesting one. Code is cross-platform and has an increasing number of extensions and will be an increasingly popular choice for developers who can live without the vast range of features in Visual Studio.

Microsoft needs to fix its Android emulator

Microsoft wants Windows 10 to be an ideal developer operating system, with its Linux subsystem, and Visual Studio 2017 is notable for its strong cross-platform development tools.

There is an annoyance though. Google’s Android SDK includes an emulator for debugging mobile applications, but it requires hardware acceleration in the form of Intel’s HAXM (Hardware Accelerated Execution Manager). Otherwise you get an error as below:

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Unfortunately this is incompatible with Hyper-V, the hypervisor built into Windows. You cannot fix this by stopping Hyper-V services; it is set when Windows boots.

Hyper-V is increasingly important for general Windows developers. It is not only useful for running up VMs on which to test stuff, but also for the official Docker tools and testing Windows containers.

The solution should be to use the Visual Studio Emulator for Android. This is based on Hyper-V so no problem.

Unfortunately it does not currently work very well. On one of my PCs it starts, but without internet connectivity, rendering it useless for many apps. On another PC it does not start at all.

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I spent a bit of time trying to get it to work. The networking problem seems to be related to conflicts with other applications using Hyper-V. Specifically, the Visual Studio Emulator for Android uses two Hyper-V virtual network adapters, one connected to the Windows Phone Emulator Internal Switch, and the other connected to an external virtual switch. This second adapter gets its network settings using DHCP (there is no way to change this). The emulator app proxies internet connections from the internal to the external network.

The reference to Windows Phone comes about because this is essentially the Windows Phone emulator adapted to run Android.

In my Hyper-V setup I have another internal switch, called DockerNAT, used by the Docker tools, as well as a third internal switch which I’ve used for other things. In the emulator’s network settings I can actually see four Desktop Adapters (in addition to the primary “Emulator adapter”, of which only one has internet connectivity via my business network. I theorised that the emulator is attempting to proxy via the wrong adapter, and disabled the others in Control Panel – Network Connections. However it still does not connect.

Judging by posts like this and this, there may be some cocktail of settings in Hyper-V and in Control Panel that gets this working. Bear in mind though that I want everything else to work too.

I also note that Windows developer evangelist Scott Hanselman suggests setting up a dual boot arrangement so that you can boot with HAXM enabled when you want to develop on Android, and with Hyper-V otherwise – implying that there is no other easy fix.

This works, though it is a dreadful solution. Rebooting is not only time-consuming, but disruptive to the flow of your work, and having to reboot with special settings just to work on Android is painful.

It strikes me that this could be fixed with a bit of effort. If Microsoft is serious about persuading developers to use Windows 10, Visual Studio and Xamarin for cross-platform mobile apps, that would be a good idea.

How to run Android Studio on Windows without disabling Hyper-V

Update: This post is out of date; you may still be able to get it to work but there are stability issues with the emulator. Microsoft has announced a better solution, if you are on the latest Windows 10 April 2018 Update or later, and you can now use the official Android emulator with Hyper-V. See also my more recent post here.

Original post:

If you run Windows and use the Hyper-V hypervisor, which is used by Visual Studio as well as being handy for testing stuff in virtual machines, then you will encounter an annoyance if you go on to install Android Studio, Google’s official IDE for Android.

The problem is that Google’s Android emulator uses Intel’s HAXM (Hardware Accelerated Execution Manager) which uses the same CPU virtualization extensions as Hyper-V. This means it is incompatible. It is not only that you can’t run Hyper-V and HAXM simultaneously; the PC has to be configured at boot to use one or the other.

The solution (if you do not want to disable Hyper-V) is to use Microsoft’s Android emulator, which is a free download here.

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In order to use this with Android Studio, you need to run the emulator first. Then, in Android Studio, go to Run – Edit Configurations and select Show Device Chooser Dialog under Deployment Target Options.

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Now run your project, and select the VS Emulator, ignoring the invitation to “Turn off Hyper-V”:

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Now you can debug your application in the Visual Studio Emulator – which is pretty good.

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Adapting a native code DLL to be called from a Store or Universal Windows app

I am writing a Bridge game in C# – yes, I have been doing this for some time, it does run now but it is not ready for public unveiling.

It is good fun though and a learning experience, as I am writing it as a Windows 8 Store app. This means it can also be a Universal Windows Platform app but I have kept it compatible with Window 8.1 as I don’t want to lose that large market of Windows 8 users who have not upgraded to 10. Hmm.

Bridge is a card game in which a pack of 52 cards is dealt into 4 hands of 13 cards. Each hand is played as a sequence of 13 4-card “tricks”, and each trick is won one of two opposing pairs of players according to the cards played. Each pair of course tries to win as many tricks as possible, so one of the points of interests is how many tricks can be won if you play perfectly (ie with full knowledge of all four hands). Another point of interest is how each card played affects the potential number of tricks you can win with best play. For example, leading a King might cost you a trick (or more) if your opponents hold both the Ace and the Queen of that suit.

This is called “double dummy” analysis and smart people have written algorithms to calculate the answers. A double dummy analysis is useful in a bridge game for two reasons. One is that users may like to know, after playing a hand, what their best score could have been, or even to analyse the hand and see how if they played this card rather than that card at trick such-and-such the outcome would have varied. The other is that you can use it to assist the software in finding the best play. Of course it is important that the software plays fair by not using knowledge of all four hands beyond what would be known by human players; but it is legitimate to try out various possible hands that match what is currently known and use double dummy analysis on these hands.

One such smart person is Bo Haglund who wrote a C++ Windows library for double dummy analysis, called Double Dummy Solver (DDS) and released it as open source under the Apache 2 license. It works very well and is widely used in the Bridge software community, and has now been ported to Mac and Linux; you can find the latest code on Github.

Modifying a native code DLL to use with a Store app

I wanted to use the library in my own Bridge game but faced a compatibility problem. Windows Store apps can only call into DLLs that meet certain requirements, such as using only a subset of the Windows API, and DDS did not meet those requirements. My choice was either to port the DLL to C#, or to modify the code so that it would work as a Windows Runtime native DLL.

I have no doubt that the code could be ported to C# but it looks like rather a long job that would result in a library with slower performance (please feel free to prove me wrong). I thought it would be more realistic to modify the code, so I created a new Windows 8.1 DLL project in Visual Studio 2013 (I am now using Visual Studio 2015 but it is the same for this) and set about modifying the code so that it would compile.

In no particular order, here are some notes on what I learned.

I was able to get the DLL to compile after disabling the multi-threading support (more on this later), and commenting out some functions that I don’t yet need.

Another issue I hit was that Visual C++ by default performs “Security Development Lifecycle” checks (compile with /sdl). This means that that common functions like strcpy, strcat, sprintf and others will not compile. You have to use “secure” versions of those functions, strcpy_s, strcat_s, sprintf_s and so on. These are specific to Microsoft’s libraries though. Of course you can just not compile with /sdl, or define _CRT_SECURE_NO_WARNINGS, but I chose to fix all of these. Now the library compiled.

But did it work? No. I had introduced a stupid bug which took me a while to fix. Did it then work? Yes, but it took me some time to get it working from C#.

Next, I kept getting DLLNotFound exceptions. OK, so you have to add the DLL as content in your C# project, and make sure it is set to copy to your output. I still got DLLNotFound exceptions. It turns out that you get this exception even when the DLL is present, if there is a dependency in the DLL which is not found. What dependency was not found? I downloaded the Sysinternals Process Monitor utility and set the filter to monitor my C# game. I excluded SUCCESS results. Then I tried to load the DLL. This told me that it was looking for the file msvcr120_app.dll (the Windows Runtime version of the Visual C++ runtime library). My first thought was to add runtime libraries from the appx deployment packages, in:

C:\Program Files (x86)\Microsoft SDKs\Windows\v8.1\ExtensionSDKs\Microsoft.VCLibs\12.0

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Then I discovered that all you need to do is to add a reference to the Visual C++ runtime packages, much easier. That fixed DLLNotFound.

Next, I had some problems calling the 64-bit DLL with Platform Invoke (PInvoke) from C#. I found it easier to compile both my C# app and the DLL itself as 32-bit code. I may go back to the 64-bit option later.

Concurrency issues

Now I had everything working; except that my DDS port was far inferior to the standard one because it was single-threaded. The original used QueueUserWorkItem which is not available in a Windows Runtime DLL. I searched for what to do, and came across this MSDN article which recommends using RunAsync, WorkItemHandler and IAsyncAction. However my DLL was not currently compiled using /ZW for “Consume Windows Runtime Extension”. I could add that of course; but then my DLL would have a dependency on the Windows Runtime and if I wanted to use the code for, say, Windows 7, it would not work. or not without yet more #ifdef blocks. No big deal perhaps; but my preference was to avoid this dependency.

There may be other solutions, but the one that I found was to use the Concurrency Runtime. Previously, QueueUserWorkItem was called in a for loop. I simply modified this to use a parallel_for loop instead, using the example here for guidance. I also added:

#include <ppltasks.h>

using namespace concurrency;

to the top of the code. It works well, speeding performance by about three times on my quad-core desktop. Of course I was greatly helped by the fact that the code was already written with concurrency in mind.

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The effect is spoiled by the time it takes to load the DLL but fortunately you can get DDS to solve multiple boards in one call though I have yet to experiment with this.

Microsoft completes Visual Studio 2015

Microsoft has completed Visual Studio 2015, the latest version of its all-encompassing development tool. You can download it here. Today is also the release day for TypeScript 1.5 (a language which compiles to JavaScript)

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Windows 10 is released in just 9 days, so all eyes will be on this and its new/old app platform – the Universal Windows Platform, based on the Windows Runtime, as found in Windows 8, but considerably revised so that developers can in theory write one app and run it on any Windows 10 device, from PC to tablet to phone to Xbox to HoloLens, and sell or distribute it from a unified Windows Store.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently confirmed that the Windows Store is a key part of the Windows 10 strategy:

Why then make all these changes to the Start Menu with Windows 10? It’s not because I just want to bring back the old. It’s because that’s the best way to improve the liquidity [of] our store. Windows 8 was great except that nobody discovered the store. In Windows 10, the store is right there and done in a tasteful way.

The Store is more visible in Windows 10 than in 8 because in Windows 10 there are no longer two separate environments (Metro and desktop), but only one (desktop). Windows Runtime apps run in desktop windows. This makes the experience a little worse for tablet users, but the advantage is that now desktop users are more likely to interact with the Store, and more likely to use the apps they install, since they run in a familiar environment.

Another key change is “Project Centennial”, which I wrote up for the Register here. This lets developers package desktop apps for delivery from the Store, using app virtualisation (based on an Enterprise product called App-V). If Microsoft gets this right, Project Centennial will be the preferred way to deliver most desktop apps, since it is both easier and safer for the user.

If the Store does take off (and if it does not, Windows 10 will in part have failed), then Visual Studio will be the key tool for created or repackaging apps for Windows.

Windows 10 is important, but so too is Azure, Microsoft’s cloud platform. Visual Studio has a key role here, too. Microsoft has an entire stack, including Windows as both operating system and development environment, Visual Studio for coding and testing, and Azure for hosting cloud applications. Since the early days of Azure, the development experience has improved, so that with a modest understanding of the ASP.NET MVC framework you can go from an idea to a working demo, hosted on Azure, that you can show customers, in a short space of time.

There is also a new Cloud Explorer in Visual Studio which lets you view Azure resources from the IDE.

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Mobile is Microsoft’s weak point, but the the company has made efforts to support Android and iOS both through mobile service back-ends hosted on Azure, and by supporting various approaches to building cross-platform apps. Visual Studio 2015 includes Xamarin project types, though out of the box these just tell you to go and install Xamarin, which lets you build Android and iOS apps with C#, subject to a separate Xamarin subscription.

Another option is to use Microsoft’s new iOS tools to code in Visual Studio while targeting Apple’s mobile platform, though this does require a Mac running a remote agent.

There is also Visual Studio Tools for Apache Cordova, where you code in JavaScript and wrap the results as native apps for both Windows and mobile platforms.

Visual Studio comes with an Android emulator, based on Hyper-V, for debugging either Xamarin or Cordova apps. Xamarin also offers its own emulator and I am not sure how these compare.

In addition to the above, Visual Studio 2015 introduces C# 6.0, Visual Basic 12, the Roslyn compiler platform which enables new IDE features, and .NET Core which is an open source, cross-platform fork of the .NET Framework. Thanks to .NET Core, the latest version of ASP.NET runs on Mac and Linux as well as Windows.

Despite Microsoft’s new cross-platform focus, Visual Studio itself runs only on Windows. In a world of Mac-wielding developers that is a problem, so the company has come up with Visual Studio code, an editor with some IDE features that runs on Window, Mac and Linux. Other options for non-Windows developers are to run Windows in an emulator such as Parallels, or on a virtual machine hosted in the code (Azure has suitable pre-baked images with Visual Studio), or to use third-party tools.

Visual Studio is a critical product then, but is it really done? Although you can download the final product today, many parts are not available (Project Centennial) or still in beta (ASP.NET 5 is beta 5). This is a milestone though, and credit to the team for bringing it out in advance of Windows 10 (I recall some Windows releases where Visual Studio was still in preview on release day).

Compile Android Java, iOS Objective C apps for Windows 10 with Visual Studio: a game changer?

Microsoft has announced the ability to compile Windows 10 apps written in Java or C++ for Android, or in Objective C for iOS, at its Build developer conference here in San Francisco.

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Objective C code in Visual Studio

The Android compatibility had been widely rumoured, but the Objective C support not so much.

This is big news, but oddly the Build attendees were more excited by the HoloLens section of the keynote (3D virtual reality) than by the iOS/Android compatibility. That is partly because this is the wrong crown; these are the Windows faithful who would rather code in C#.

Another factor is that those who want Microsoft’s platform to succeed will have mixed feelings. Is the company now removing any incentive to code dedicated Windows apps that will make the most of the platform?

Details of the new capabilities are scant though we will no doubt get more details as the event progresses. A few observations though.

Microsoft is trying to fix the “app gap”, the fact that both Windows Store and Windows Phone Store (which are merging) have a poor selection of apps compared to iOS or Android. Worse, many simply ignore the platforms as too small to bother with. Lack of apps make the platforms less attractive so the situation does not improve.

The goal then is to make it easier for developers to port their code, and also perhaps to raise the quality of Windows mobile apps by enabling code sharing with the more important platforms.

There are apparently ways to add Windows-specific features if you want your ported app to work properly with the platform.

Will it work? The Amazon Fire and the Blackberry 10 precedents are not encouraging. Both platforms make it easy to port Android apps (Amazon Fire is actually a version of Android), yet the apps available in the respective app stores are still far short of what you can get for Google Android.

The reasons are various, but I would guess part of the problem is that ease of porting code does not make an unimportant platform important. Another factor is that supporting an additional platform never comes for free; there is admin and support to consider.

The strategy could help though, if Microsoft through other means makes the platform an attractive target. The primary way to do this of course is to have lots of users. VP Terry Myerson told us that Microsoft is aiming for 1 billion devices running Windows 10 within 2-3 years. If it gets there, the platform will form a strong app market and that in turn will attract developers, some of whom will be glad to be able to port their existing code.

The announcement though is not transformative on its own. Microsoft still has to drive lots of Windows 10 upgrades and sell more phones.

VLC is coming to Windows Phone

The popular media playback app VLC is coming to Windows Phone as well as Windows tablets, according to an email sent to supporters of its Kickstarter project for VLC for WinRT (Windows Runtime).

A new preview release has been made available on the Windows Store, with the following changes:

  • using libVLC 2.2.0 core,
  • redesign of the interface,
  • huge performance improvements,
  • use of Winsock for networking instead of WinRTsock,
  • use of Windows 8.1 widgets,
  • move the interface code to Universal to prepare Windows Phone 8.1 port.

The app is currently x86 only, and this will have to change before a Windows Phone version is possible, since Windows Phone currently runs only on ARM chipsets. The VLC developers say:

While this release is still x86-only, we’ve made great advances on the ARM port. More news soon.

The progress of apps like VLC will be interesting to watch following the release of Windows 10 next year, which (from the user’s perspective) blurs the distinction between desktop apps (like the old version of VLC) and Store apps (like this new one). Can the Store app be good enough that users will not feel the need to have the desktop version installed? Even if it is, of course, the desktop version will remain the only choice for those on Windows 7 and earlier. In fact, make that Windows 8.0 and earlier, since the new version requires Windows 8.1.

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Book review: Professional ASP.NET MVC 5. Is this the way to learn ASP.NET MVC?

This book caught my eye because while I like ASP.NET MVC, Microsoft’s modern web application framework, it seems to be badly documented. Even the word “badly” is not quite right; there is lots of documentation, some of high quality, but finding your way around it is challenging, thanks to the many different pieces involved. When I completed an ASP.NET MVC project recently, I found it frustrating thanks to over-reliance on sample projects (hey, here is a an application we did that works, see if you can figure out how we did it), many out of date articles relating to old versions; and the opposite, posts and samples which include preview software that does not seem wise to use in production.

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In my experience ASP.NET MVC is both cleaner and faster than ASP.NET Web Forms, the older .NET web framework, but there is more to learn before you can go ahead and write an application.

Professional ASP.NET MVC 5 gives you nearly 600 pages on the subject. It is aimed at a broad readership: the introduction states:

Professional ASP.NET MVC 5 is designed to teach ASP.NET MVC, from a beginner level through advanced topics.

Perhaps that is too broad, though the idea is that the first six chapters (about 150 pages) cover the basics, and that the later chapters are more advanced, so if you are not a beginner you can start at chapter 7.

The main author is Jon Galloway who is a Technical Evangelist at Microsoft. The other authors are Brad Wilson, formerly at Microsoft and now at CenturyLink Cloud; K Scott Allen at OdeToCode, David Matson who is on the ASP.NET MVC team at Microsoft, and Phil Haack formerly at Microsoft and now at GitHub. I get the impression that Haack wrote several chapters in an earlier edition of the book, but did not work directly on this one; Galloway brought his chapters up to date.

Be in no doubt: there are plenty of well-informed ASP.NET MVC people on this team.

The earlier part of the book uses a sample Music Store application, a version of which is publicly available here. You can also download a tutorial, based on the sample, written by Galloway. The public tutorial however dates from 2011 and is based on ASP.NET MVC 3 and Visual Studio 2010. The book uses Visual Studio 2013.

Chapters 1 to 6, the beginner section, do a decent job of talking you through how to build a first application. There are chapters on Controllers, Views, Models, Forms and HTML Helpers, and finally Data Annotations and Validation. It’s a good basic introduction but if you are like me you will come out with many questions, like what is an ActionResult (the type of most Controller methods)? You have to wait until chapter 16 for a full description.

Chapter 7 is on Membership, Authorization and Security. That is too much for one chapter. It is mostly on security, and inadequate on membership. One of my disappointments with this book is that Azure Active Directory hardly gets a mention; yet to my mind integration of web applications with Office 365 (which uses Azure AD) is a huge feature for Microsoft.

On security though, this is a useful chapter, with handy coverage of Cross-Site Request Forgery and other common vulnerabilities.

Next comes a chapter on AJAX with a little bit on JQuery, client-side validation, and Ajax ActionLinks. Here is the dilemma though. Does it make sense to cover JQuery in detail, when this very popular open source library is widely documented elsewhere? On the other hand, does it make sense not to cover JQuery in detail, when it is usually a vital part of your ASP.NET MVC application?

I would add that this title is poor on design aspects of a web application. That said, I was not expecting much on the design side; but what would help would be coverage of how to work with designers: what is safe to hand over to designers, and how does a typical designer/developer workflow play out with ASP.NET MVC?

I would also like to see more coverage of how to work with Bootstrap, the CSS framework which is integrated with ASP.NET MVC 5 in Visual Studio. I found it a challenge, for example, to discover the best way to change the default fonts and colours used, which is rather basic.

Chapter 9 is on routing, dry but essential background. Chapter 10 on NuGet, the Visual Studio package manager, and a good chapter given how important NuGet now is for most Visual Studio work.

Incidentally, many of the samples for the book can be installed via NuGet. It’s not completely obvious how to do this. I found the best way is to go to http://www.nuget.org and search for Wrox.ProMvc5 – here is the link to the search results. This lists all the packages available; note the package names. Then open the Nuget package manager console and type:

install-package [packagename]

to get the sample.

Chapter 11 is a too-brief chapter on the Web API. I would like to see more on this, maybe even walking through a complete application with clients for say, Windows Phone and a web application – though the following chapter does present a client example using AngularJS.

Chapter 13 is a somewhat theoretical look at dependency injection and inversion of control; handy as Microsoft developers talk a lot about this.

Next comes a very brief introduction to unit testing, intended I think only as a starting point.

For me, the the next two chapters are the most valuable. Chapter 15 concerns extending MVC: you learn about extending models with value providers and model binders; validating models; writing HTML helpers and Razor (the view engine in ASP.NET MVC) helpers; authentication filters and authorization filters. Chapter 16 on advanced topics looks in more detail at Razor, routing, templates, ActionResult and a few other things.

Finally, we get a look at how the Nuget.org application was put together, and an appendix covering some miscellaneous details like what is new in ASP.NET MVC 5.1.

Conclusions

I find this one hard to summarise. There is too much missing to give this an unreserved recommendation. I would like more on topics including ASP.NET Identity, Azure AD integration, Entity Framework, Bootstrap, and more. Trying to cover every developer from beginner to advanced is too much; removing some of the introductory material would have left more room for the more interesting sections. The book is also rather weighted towards theory rather than hands-on coding. At some points it felt more like an explanation from the ASP.NET MVC team on “why we did it this way”, than a developer tutorial.

That said, having those insights from the team is valuable in itself. As someone who has only recently engaged with ASP.NET MVC in a real application, I did find the book useful and will come back to some of those explanations in future.

Looking at what else is available, it seems to me that there is a shortage of books on this subject and that a “what you need to know” title aimed at professional developers would be widely welcomed. It would pay Microsoft to sponsor it, since my sense is that some developers stick with ASP.NET Web Forms not because it is better, but because it is more approachable.

 

Bing Developer Assistant adds code samples to Visual Studio IntelliSense, with mixed results

Microsoft has updated its Bing Developer Assistant Beta, a Visual Studio 2013 add-in which hooks into IntelliSense so that you get code samples as well as brief documentation. For example, in an Entity Framework project, if you select dbContext.SaveChanges, you get a code sample which uses that method.

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There is no guarantee of course that the sample is relevant to what you are trying to accomplish. You can hit Search More though and get a selection of code snippets and sample projects, drawn from sites including MSDN, StackOverflow and Codeproject.

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Developer beware though. Looking at the code samples, the top one is from a 2011 blog post relating to CTP (Community Tech Preview) 5 of Entity Framework 4.1. If you hit the link, you get this:

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“The information in this post is out of date”, it says, followed by a link to what is in fairness a rather helpful article on using SaveChanges.

Hmm, maybe Bing Developer Assistant should try filtering the search to eliminate samples on preview or obsolete APIs? A snag here though is that on occasion the blogs and samples on preview frameworks are all you can get, because by the time the thing is actually released, the developer evangelists have move on to blog about the next up and coming cool thing.

If you choose an object member for which Bing finds no code sample, you are prompted to add one of your own:

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This takes to to the Developer Network sample upload page:

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This form is quite a lot of work, but lets you add a code snippet or sample project together with title and comments explaining what it does.

The Bing Developer Assistant also searches for sample projects:

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Again it is a case of picking and choosing what is really relevant; but developers are experts and expected to use common sense.

A drawback with Bing Developer Assistant is that only one add-on can extend IntelliSense, so if you use Resharper or another tool which also does this, you have to choose which one to allow.

In the end, this is all about integrating web search into the IDE. Is that a good idea, or is it better simply to have your web browser open, perhaps on another display, and type “dbContext SaveChanges EF6” or some such into your favourite search engine?

There is some merit in a search engine that automatically filters to show only code samples – hey, that is what Google’s popular Code Search did, until it was mysteriously shut down – though I’m not sure how much I like the idea of possibly obsolete and deprecated samples showing up in Visual Studio as you are coding.

Still, the truth is that web search is critical to software development today and it is good to see that recognised.

Developing an app on Microsoft Azure: a few quick reflections

I have recently completed (if applications are ever completed) an application which runs on Microsoft’s Azure platform. I used lots of Microsoft technology:

  • Visual Studio 2013
  • Visual Studio Online with Team Foundation version control
  • ASP.NET MVC 4.0
  • Entity Framework 4.0
  • Azure SQL
  • Azure Active Directory
  • Azure Web Sites
  • Azure Blob Storage
  • Microsoft .NET 4.5 with C#

The good news: the app works well and performance is good. The application handles the upload and download of large files by authorised users, and replaces a previous solution using a public file sending service. We were pleased to find that the new application is a little faster for upload and download, as well as offering better control over user access and a more professional appearance.

There were some complications though. The requirement was for internal users to log in with their Office 365 (Azure Active Directory) credentials, but for external users (the company’s customers) to log in with credentials stored in a SQL Server database – in other words, hybrid authentication. It turns out you can do this reasonably seamlessly by implementing IPrincipal in a custom class to support the database login. This is largely uncharted territory though in terms of official documentation and took some effort.

Second, Microsoft’s Azure Active Directory support for custom applications is half-baked. You can create an application that supports Azure AD login in a few moments with Visual Studio, but it does not give you any access to metadata like to which security groups the user belongs. I have posted about this in more detail here. There is an API of course, but it is currently a moving target: be prepared for some hassle if you try this.

Third, while Azure Blob Storage itself seems to work well, most of the resources for developers seem to have little idea of what a large file is. Since a primary use case for cloud storage is to cover scenarios where email attachments are not good enough, it seems to me that handling large files (by which I mean multiple GB) should be considered normal rather than exceptional. By way of mitigation, the API itself has been written with large files in mind, so it all works fine once you figure it out. More on this here.

What about Visual Studio? The experience has been good overall. Once you have configured the project correctly, you can update the site on Azure simply by hitting Publish and clicking Next a few times. There is some awkwardness over configuration for local debugging versus deployment. You probably want to connect to a local SQL Server and the Azure storage emulator when debugging, and the Azure hosted versions after publishing. Visual Studio has a Web.Debug.Config and a Web.Release.Config which lets you apply a transformation to your main Web.Config when publishing – though note that these do not have any effect when you simply run your project in Release mode. The correct usage is to set Web.Config to what you want for debugging, and apply the deployment configuration in Web.Release.Config; then it all works.

The piece that caused me most grief was a setting for <wsFederation>. When a user logs in with Azure AD, they get redirected to a Microsoft site to log in, and then back to the application. Applications have to be registered in Azure AD for this to work. There is some uncertainty though about whether the reply attribute, which specifies the redirection back to the app, needs to be set explicitly or not. In practice I found that it does need to be explicit, otherwise you get redirected to the deployed site even when debugging locally – not good.

I have mixed feelings about Team Foundation version control. It works, and I like having a web-based repository for my code. On the other hand, it is slow, and Visual Studio sulks from time to time and requires you to re-enter credentials (Microsoft seems to love making you do that). If you have a less than stellar internet connection (or even a good one), Visual Studio freezes from time to time since the source control stuff is not good at working in the background. It usually unfreezes eventually.

As an experiment, I set the project to require a successful build before check-in. The idea is that you cannot check in a broken build. However, this build has to take place on the server, not locally. So you try to check in, Visual Studio says a build is required, and prompts you to initiate it. You do so, and a build is queued. Some time later (5-10 minutes) the build completes and a dialog appears behind the IDE saying that you need to reconcile changes – even if there are none. Confusing.

What about Entity Framework? I have mixed feelings here too, and have posted separately on the subject. I used code-first: just create your classes and add them to your DbContext and all the data access code is handled for you, kind-of. It makes sense to use EF in an ASP.NET MVC project since the framework expects it, though it is not compulsory. I do miss the control you get from writing your own SQL though; and found myself using the SqlQuery method on occasion to recover some of that control.

Finally, a few notes on ASP.NET MVC. I mostly like it; the separation between Razor views (essentially HTML templates into which you pour your data at runtime) and the code which implements your business logic and data access is excellent. The code can get convoluted though. Have a look at this useful piece on the ASP.NET MVC WebGrid and this remark:

grid.Column("Name",
  format: @<text>@Html.ActionLink((string)item.Name,
  "Details", "Product", new { id = item.ProductId }, null)</text>),

The format parameter is actually a Func, but the Razor view engine hides that from us. But you’re free to pass a Func—for example, you could use a lambda expression.

The code works fine but is it natural and intuitive? Why, for example, do you have to cast the first argument to ActionLink to a string for it to work (I can confirm that it is necessary), and would you have worked this out without help?

I also hit a problem restyling the pages generated by Visual Studio, which use the twitter Bootstrap framework. The problem is that bootstrap.css is a generated file and it does not make sense to edit it directly. Rather, you should edit some variables and use them as input to regenerate it. I came up with a solution which I posted on stackoverflow but no comments yet – perhaps this post will stimulate some, as I am not sure if I found the best approach.

My sense is that what ASP.NET MVC is largely a thing of beauty, it has left behind more casual developers who want a quick and easy way to write business applications. Put another way, the framework is somewhat challenging for newcomers and that in turn affects the breadth of its adoption.

Developing on Azure and using Azure AD makes perfect sense for businesses which are using the Microsoft platform, especially if they use Office 365, and the level of integration on offer, together with the convenience of cloud hosting and anywhere access, is outstanding. There remain some issues with the maturity of the frameworks, ever-changing libraries, and poor or confusing documentation.

Since this area is strategic for Microsoft, I suggest that it would benefit the company to work hard on pulling it all together more effectively.