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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Helping Silverlight and ASP.NET MVC Work Together

If you’ve worked with Silverlight you’ve probably used the WebForms control that comes with the Silverlight SDK.  Technically, you can still continue to use this control with ASP.NET MVC, you’ll just need to add the ScriptManager with EnablePartialRendering=”false” like so:

    <form id="form" runat="server">
<asp:ScriptManager runat="server" EnablePartialRendering="false" />
<asp:Silverlight ID="MySLApp" runat="server"
Width="415" Height="280" />

Sure, this technically still works, but it's not very MVC-like, is it? The new ASP.NET MVC parlance is filled with code snippets and Extension Methods, not Server Controls! We'll instead want something that looks like this:

<%= Html.Silverlight("~/ClientBin/MySLApp.xap", new Size(415, 280),
new {
}) %>

Personally, I think the Extension Method way looks a lot cleaner and feels a lot more natural in MVC Land. However, if you don't really see a difference between those two, or see the difference and don't really care one way or another, feel free to continue using the WebForms example and don't bother reading any further. Just be sure to include that ScriptManager, make sure you set EnablePartialRendering="false" and you'll be ready to go.

Creating the Extension Methods

I'm assuming if you're still reading that you not only dig the Html.Silverlight Extension Method above, but you're more interested to see how it works! Well, it's pretty simple, really...

Before I show you the code, let's take a step back and reevaluate what I'm really looking to do here. Sure, I said before that I wanted to replace the Silverlight WebForms control, but what I really want to do is duplicate the HTML it renders (since that's what it's all about, right?). So, here's the markup I'm shooting for:

    <object data="data:application/x-silverlight-2," type="application/x-silverlight-2" height="280px" width="415px">
<param name='minRuntimeVersion' value='2.0.31005.0' />
<param name='autoUpgrade' value='true' />
<param name='source' value='/ClientBin/LogUploader.xap' />
<param name='OnPluginLoaded' value='pluginLoaded' />
<param name='InitParameters' value='customParam=true' />
<!-- [ Silverlight not installed message here ] -->

Pretty straighforward, right? Basically, you've got the <object> tag with some pretty standard attributes, then a bunch of <param> tags inside, filled with name/value pairs. Should be pretty simple to reproduce - let's a shot at it. The way I went about it was actually just copying and pasting the above snippet into my C# class and replacing each line with the appropriate C# calls to generate it. Here's what it looks like:

    public static string Silverlight(this HtmlHelper html, string relativeControlPath, 
Size size, object parameters)
var controlPath = VirtualPathUtility.ToAbsolute(relativeControlPath);

var objectTag = new TagBuilder("object")
Attributes = {
{"data", "data:application/x-silverlight-2,"},
{"type", "application/x-silverlight-2"},
{"width", size.Width.ToString()},
{"height", size.Height.ToString()},

var innerHtml = new StringBuilder();
innerHtml.AppendFormat(ParamHtmlFormatString, "minRuntimeVersion", "2.0.31005.0");
innerHtml.AppendFormat(ParamHtmlFormatString, "autoUpgrade", "true");
innerHtml.AppendFormat(ParamHtmlFormatString, "source", controlPath);

foreach (var param in new RouteValueDictionary(parameters))
innerHtml.AppendFormat(ParamHtmlFormatString, param.Key, param.Value);

innerHtml.AppendLine("\n<!-- [ Silverlight not installed message here ] --/>");

objectTag.InnerHtml = innerHtml.ToString();

return objectTag.ToString();

There are a couple interesting things going on in this snippet. First off, I start by resolving the absolute path to the Silverlight XAP; this needs to be resolved because this URL will be sent down to the client, and an application-relative path (starting with "~/") does us no good in a browser. Next, I use the new System.Web.Mvc.TagBuilder class which (as Reflector shows us) is what the framework uses to construct HTML in its Extension Methods (such as Html.ActionLink, Html.Form, etc.). I also supply it with a few standard attributes.

Note that I've hard-coded the Silverlight 2 version info and MIME type... I'm not recommending that you actually do this - it will most certainly attract rabid hamsters to come and eat your code - but for simplicity's sake in doing it in this example anyway.

By this point, you've probably got a pretty good idea about what's going on, but I want to point out one last thing - the usage of System.Web.Routing.RouteValueDictionary. Again taking a cue from the MVC framework itself, I’m using this incredibly helpful (albeit poorly named) class from the new System.Web.Routing namespace to convert anonymous types into a set of key-value pairs that we can then use in our Silverlight method to dynamically add parameters (which are, conveniently enough, simply name/value pairs!).

After it's all done setting everything up, the Silverlight method asks the TagBuilder to render out the markup for our new object tag and its children, and with that, we're pretty much done!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Windows 7 Training and Informational Resources

Microsoft Learning has just launched three free eLearning Clinics that you or your friends and co-workers may be interested in checking out. These Clinics are geared towards three different audiences, and focus on introducing new features and functionality to those interested in simply learning more about the OS or those that are already considering deploying in the near future.

Also, in case you are interested in more Windows 7 training and skills development information, the new Windows 7 Learning Portal is now live as well! This site is currently showcasing great readiness content, including 7 Silverlight Learning Snacks, free sample chapters from upcoming MS Press Books, Learning Plans, links to clinics/HOLs and more. If you care to check it out, click on any of those links or visit the homepage:

Enjoy, and let me know if you find anything helpful to you!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Real Software Artisans Ship

In one of his amazing screenplays, Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet sends in a rock star salesman (played by Alec Baldwin) to antagonize an office of poorly performing salesmen.  He reminds them of a core tenet of sales: “A-B-C: Always Be Closing”.  Otherwise, First prize is a Cadillac El Dorado; Second Prize is a set of steak knives; Third prize is you’re fired.

Glengarry Glen Ross (warning: NSFW - language)

Steve Jobs says, “real artists ship.”  Now, I’m no artist, but code undoubtedly contains structure and style. When we developers care enough about our craft to consider this structure and style during the course of development, I don’t think it’d be too far off to consider ourselves an artist of sorts.  Or, if you want to sound more original (or pretentious) you might call us “Artisans”.

Of course, Steve Jobs built a booming hardware and software empire on the motto of “real artists ship,” so I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to embrace and extend—er, I mean paraphrase Steve’s great line into, “real software artisans ship.”  Agile methodologies preach similarly: “A-B-S:  Always Be Shipping.”  If you’re practicing Agile properly, you are constantly shipping; you are shipping something at the end of every iteration.  Even if your customers/clients aren’t actually getting their hands on it and using it, you should still be “shipping” it.  You should strive to constantly and consistently have something that works. Test-Driven Development helps a great deal with this because, as Uncle Bob says, if you’re practicing it zealously you never go more than a few minutes without everything working.

Ok, so what about the real world?  I know, I know – there are plenty of Agile shops and TDD zealots working in the “real world”, but even the Agilists will (regretfully) admit that a majority of the software development industry is simply not following these practices (and some aren’t following any practices at all!).  But, does not being an active Agile practitioner preclude you from constantly and consistently shipping? 

There is obviously a vast difference between the quick iterations preached by Agile methodologies and a Death March, I’d like to think that even if you or your team are following a Waterfall or SCRUM-fall or even a Free-fall approach that there is still some room for “constantly shipping”.  Sure, you might have to loosen the definition of “constantly” to fit your reality… but it’s doable!  Following – or better yet, adapting – even some of the Agile methodologies is a great first step (for more on that, check out my follow-up post Some Tips on How to Ship Better Code).  More importantly, just keeping the goal of a shipping product instead of that next big feature in mind will probably help more than anything.

What do you think?  Have you been able to effectively employ any techniques in a Waterfall-ish environment to help improve your ability to ship regularly? Is this entire post just full of hot air?

Note:  This post was heavily influenced by Giles Bowkett’s incredibly awesome presentation at RubyFringe.  You must, must, must watch it!!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Some Tips on How to Ship Better Code

In my last post, I pontificated about the notion that Real Software Artists Ship.  But, I’ve got to take a step back and admit something – in that last post, I was full of crap.  I don’t really consider myself an “Agilist”, nor do I come anywhere close to zealousness when it comes to TDD, but I have studied (and I use the term loosely!) these movements for some time now and have been able to adopt many of them into my daily grind with varying degrees of success. 

Here are a few that I have found to be the most helpful in shipping better code as fast as possible:

  1. Use Source Control:  I originally didn’t have this listed until I just had to come back and put it as #1.  I’m sure you’re already doing this, but I just had to say it anyway.  If you’re not using source control, rabid hamsters will eat your code and there is nothing you will be able to do about it.
  2. Unit Testing:  What always seems to put everyone off about TDD is the seemingly massive amount of additional work it adds and the recommended zealousness with which you should adhere to it. To those complaints I say: obviously it’s more work; nobody’s debating that.  But, the ROI of having a suite of regression tests alone is so incredibly high it’s foolish not to do it. And, if you’re not keen on religiously adhering to a rigid development process of not writing a line of production code that’s not backed by a test, then don’t do it… but do seriously consider writing a least a few tests to cover the core functionality of your code at the very least.  Writing tests after the fact still offers significant value, even if you aren’t enjoying the full suite of benefits that true TDD has to offer.
  3. Continuous Integration (CI) Builds:  At my last job, a co-worker of mine had a sticker affixed to his monitor proudly proclaiming, “It works on my machine.”  Even if you are a one-developer shop, the benefits of ensuring that you’ve successfully checked in everything needed to build your application are pretty spectacular.  This is so very relevant because the fact is – one-developer shop or not – your production environment is not your machine (or if it is, well, I don’t know what to say… stop doing that? Pretty please?).  Also, if you’ve already got unit tests from the previous recommendation, you’ll find that they go very well with CI Builds.  They go beyond a simple compile to actually running your full suite of unit tests to exercise your code every time, which is a huge win! works-on-my-machine-starburst
    Your company doesn't have a CI server? Start one on your machine!
    This may sound contrary to avoiding the "Works on my machine" syndrome, but having a continuous integration server - even on your own machine - is better than nothing at all. You may not be testing your code on another machine, but you are at least testing it outside of your working codebase and are still being forced to run your unit tests at regular intervals, which are pretty big wins regardless of which machine they're occurring on.
  4. Use a Refactoring Tool (Liberally):  There are some bugs that just never should have happened.  I’m talking about things like existing code that worked until you wanted to move it into its own method – now it’s throwing null reference exceptions because you forgot to initialize that one variable.  Now, I’m not saying that these tools will eliminate this scenario, but they will make it much more difficult to achieve.  Interestingly enough, for those tools like ReSharper that provide suggestions on improving your code, I found that I was actually learning some things while using these tools!  At the very least, those suggestions really help encourage you to clean up your code by acting like a nagging parent - “are you really going to leave this like this? This is embarrassing!”  Course, unlike the nagging parent, if you disagree with the suggestion, you can just turn it off!

Those are my main tips.  What are some of yours?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Leverage ASP.NET Control Adapters for a (slightly) Better UX

If you’re anything like me, you’ve heard of ASP.NET Control Adapters, but had just dismissed them as a tool that CSS enthusiasts and control freaks could use to make the Web Forms controls render out exactly the way they wanted.  Wanted a <div> instead of a <table> layout? Use a Control Adapter!  Want to… oh, I can’t even come up with a second one.  Point is, until recently I’d basically been dismissing Control Adapters as one of those extension points that the ASP.NET Framework offers, but nobody really has to use to get their usual work done.  Actually, I still pretty much feel that way, but I did recently come with what I think is a pretty good application for a Control Adapter.  I’ll explain it below you let me know what you think!

Pet Peeve:  Drop-Downs with a Single Selection

Select or Drop-down lists (or “combo boxes” as everyone else calls them) are a pretty useful UI element, so it makes sense that they’re used pretty liberally across the web.  But, have you ever gotten halfway through filling out that form and come across this?


Yeah, me too. And it's pretty annoying, especially since they're not usually as evident as this one is and you actually waste time expanding it just to find out that you never had an option to begin with.  The first approach most developers take is to just disable the control, graying it out so it is "clear" to the user that they have no other options to select.  I'm talking about something like this:


Meh. It certainly doesn't suck as much as the first example, but it's far from an ideal interaction. Users are still left wondering, "Well, what other options do I have that they won't let me see?" (and - depending upon their level of self-esteem - maybe something like, "What, am I not good enough for those other options? Man, this always happens to me - people are always leaving me out and [...]"). While there's not a whole lot you can do to raise your users' self-esteem (or if there is, that's a whole separate blog post altogether), you can eliminate this whole situation altogether in a very simple and straight-forward way: just tell them what the value will be. Just do this:


Looks simple enough, right? I'll bet for the developers in the crowd, your wheels are already churning, trying to figure out the best way to do this. Just like me, your knee-jerk reaction is probably going to involve extending or wrapping DropDownList, but the problem with that is that you now have this new control and in order to use it you have scour your entire site and replace any instances of DropDownList with MySuperAwesomeDropDownList. But, since that really wasn't an option for me, my response was to create a Control Adapter.

Implementing a Custom Control Adapter

ASP.NET Control Adapters are a neat way of controlling exactly how controls get rendered down to your clients… even the ASP.NET framework controls!  To take advantage of them, there are two steps: first, create your adapter; then, register it in your .browsers file so that the framework will pick it up.

To achieve the behavior I showed earlier, what we’re going to want to do is override the way our DropDownList controls get rendered out and insert some logic.  Namely, if we’ve got any more than one item, let the control do its thing… but, if we’ve got only one item, take over and instead just render the text of the item out instead of the combo box.  Here’s the code:

public class SmartListControlAdapter
: System.Web.UI.Adapters.ControlAdapter
protected ListControl WrappedControl
get { return this.Control as ListControl; }

protected bool ShouldDisplaySmartText
return WrappedControl.Items.Count < 2
&& WrappedControl.SelectedItem != null;

protected override void Render(System.Web.UI.HtmlTextWriter writer)
if (ShouldDisplaySmartText)

private string smartText()
return string.Format("<span class='smartListValue'>{0}</span>",

You’ll see I added the WrappedControl property to cast the base Control property to a ListControl so I don’t have to do that every time I access it.  Wait – why a ListControl when I said earlier that we were targeting a DropDownList control instead?  Well, after I was done writing all the code you see above, ReSharper let me know that based on the way I was using my reference, I was only using those properties and methods defined in the ListControl base class.  Even though I probably won’t ever use this for anything other than the DropDownList, I figured why limit myself? :)

You’ll also notice that – outside of the casting to a ListControl – that nowhere in this adapter code does it say which control it’s targeting.  In order to actually apply this adapter to the controls on my pages, I’ll need to tell the framework in a separate location which controls I’d like to apply it to.  This is where the .browsers file(s) come in.  If your project doesn’t have an App_Browsers folder, you can right-click on your project and click Add > Add ASP.NET Folder > App_Browsers.  Once this is complete, you can again right-click on this new folder and add a new item using the Browser File template (the name, other than .browser, doesn’t matter).  You can then paste the following inside this file:

<browser refID="Default">

Simple enough, right?  Here in the ControlAdapters section for the Default (every) browser, we’re telling the framework to wrap all of our DropDownList instances with our new SmartDropDownListAdapter.  It really doesn’t get much simpler than that!

Now we can create a quick test page:

Regular Drop-Down:
<asp:DropDownList ID="RegularDropDown" runat="server" AutoPostBack="true">
<asp:ListItem Text="First" Value="1" />
<asp:ListItem Text="Second" Value="2" />
<asp:ListItem Text="Third" Value="3" Selected="True" />
<asp:ListItem Text="Fourth" Value="4" />
<br />
<em>Selected Value: <%= RegularDropDown.SelectedValue%></em>

Smart Drop-Down:
<asp:DropDownList ID="SmartDropDown" runat="server">
<asp:ListItem Text="One Value" Value="1" />
<br />
<em>Selected Value: <%= SmartDropDown.SelectedValue%></em>

You can see I added a few test lines that write out the SelectedValue after each of the controls to prove that the underlying DropDownList control is not modified, just displayed differently.  This means that the SelectedValue (along with everything else) can still be used as normal.

Finally, the moment we’ve all been waiting for; the results of the previous snippet:


Not incredibly styled, but beautiful nonetheless!

Your Thoughts

So, what do you think about this approach?  Has this problem bothered you before?  What ways have you solved it?  I’d love to hear about them!