Using BlogEngine.net as a General Purpose Content Management System – Part I

February 28, 2008

So I keep running into the same problem – I am building a small website for somebody (in this case, my Mom) and I need to provide them with a way to update the content of their site so I don’t have to. Basically, I need a lightweight and flexible content management system that is easy to use.

In this series of posts, I will show how I converted a small website from just standard .aspx pages into a site where all pages are editable by Windows Live Writer and via an online interface. In Part I of this series I will just set some background on how I am approaching the creation of this lightweight CMS.

If The Shoe Fits…

cmsWhen I first thought of a lightweight CMS, I thought of graffiti. It sounds like exactly what I need. So I downloaded the express edition and started evaluating it. It seemed like a nice product and all is not free for commercial use ($399 is the cheapest commercial licence) and I can’t afford that price tag when building small websites.

Enter BlogEngine.net. My favorite blogging platform. There, I said it. I host my blog on wordpress but I like BlogEngine.net better. In fact, I will probably be migrating to BlogEngine.net in the near future. How do I know I like it so much? Well, I use it to run my wife’s blog and I am constantly tinkering around with her site all of the time because I enjoy using BlogEngine.net so much.

I thought that BlogEngine.net has all of the key pieces I needed for my lightweight CMS:

  1. A WYSIWYG Editor
  2. A Metaweblog interface
  3. Tons of extensibility

Basic Idea

I decided to base my CMS implementation on the concept of pages. Most blog engines have two distinct types of content: pages and posts. Posts are the typical type of content that becomes part of your blogs feed whereas pages are usually static content which can be anything outside of a blog post (for example an ‘About Me’ page). BlogEngine.net already has everything I need to get the content of page created and persisted in a data store (it supports xml and sql server out of the box). I decided to write a web control which I can place on any webpage and include the contents of a given page from the data store.

I made a control called PageViewer which you can place on the page like this:

<blog:PageViewer ID="view" runat="server" DisplayTitle="false"
    PageId="167eb7f3-135b-4f90-9756-be25ec10f14c" />

This control basically just looks up the page using the given id (this functionality is all provided by the existing BlogEngine.Core library) and displays its content. Here is the rendering logic

BlogEngine.Core.Page page = null;
if (PageId != Guid.Empty)
    page = BlogEngine.Core.Page.GetPage(PageId);

if (page != null)
{
    ServingEventArgs arg = new ServingEventArgs(page.Content, ServingLocation.SinglePage);
    BlogEngine.Core.Page.OnServing(page, arg);

    if (arg.Cancel)
        Page.Response.Redirect("error404.aspx", true);

    if (DisplayTitle)
    {
        writer.Write("<h1>");
        writer.Write(page.Title);
        writer.Write("</h1>");
    }

    writer.Write("<div>");
    writer.Write(arg.Body);
    writer.Write("</div>");
}

This code is pretty straight forward – all it does is get an instance of the page and then display its title in <h1> a tag and its body in <div> tag. This logic is actually straight from the existing page retrieval code that already exists in BlogEngine.net. This web control is pretty much the only new code I had to write. The rest of the project mostly involves moving files around and removing parts of the BlogEngine.net framework that I don’t need.

Armed with this control, we are ready to start converting the static pages from the old version of the website to be BlogEngine.net pages which can be stored and retrieved using the BlogEngine.Core classes.

In part II of this series, I will cover what changes I made to the website project used for BlogEngine.net blogs to make it function like a straight up website, not a blog. Any feedback is welcome.

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Google Charts for Asp.Net now on Codeplex

February 10, 2008

image I have received very positive feedback on my Asp.Net control for Google charts so I decided to place it up on Codeplex to allow people to participate and add code to the project.

I am currently working on a project roadmap so please let me know if you are interested in participating. One feature I have already begun work on is giving the control support for data binding.

Here is some example data binding code I have got working:

protected void Page_Load(object sender, EventArgs e)
{
    chart.DataSource = GetDataSource();
    chart.DataBind();
}

private DataTable GetDataSource()
{
    DataTable table = new DataTable();
    
    table.Columns.Add("Type", typeof(string));
    table.Columns.Add("Jan", typeof(float));
    table.Columns.Add("Feb", typeof(float));
    table.Columns.Add("Mar", typeof(float));

    table.Rows.Add("Men", 68, 78, 88);
    table.Rows.Add("Women", 68, 58, 78);
    table.Rows.Add("Both", 88, 48, 98);
    return table;
}

I am just binding to a simple DataTable which has one column containing the labels for the chart and multiple other columns which contain the data for the chart. The code above produces the following chart:

image

I look forward to seeing this project improve.

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C# Language Improvements: Know What You Are Getting Into

February 6, 2008

The C# language has changed a lot since its initial release in 2000. C# 2.0 brought us:

imageC# 3.0 brought us:

And that is just the new language features in the last 3 years! This does not include all of the new classes added to the BCL over the same time period.

Know the Cost

I am as excited about these new changes as the next guy. I have used various combinations of these improvements in my projects with great success. But is there a cost to new features?

Recently I read a couple of articles that reminded me that you not only have to understand how a feature is used, you also have to understand the cost of using it. Sometimes that cost is performance, other times it could be something like readability or portability. I’ll take one example from the 2.0 framework and then one from the 3.5 framework to show that you need to understand the implications of using new features.

Yield Return

First, there is Fritz Onion’s recent post on the amount of code generated by the yield return syntax introduced in C# 2.0:

The array allocation function generated a total of 20 lines of IL, but the yield return function, if you included all of the IL instructions for the IEnumerable class generation as well was over 100! That’s a 5x penalty in code generation to save 18 characters of typing

So is the 5x penalty ever worth it? Yes, of course it is. There are things you can do with yield that you couldn’t do previously. In most cases, the use of yield improves readability dramatically. It also makes the task of creating a custom enumerator much easier.

In his article The power of yield return, Joshua Flanagan points to an example where using the yield return improved performance dramatically:

With the improved implementation that took advantage of the yield keyword, the program was able to finish its job in less than half the time! It also used much less memory, as it never had to store all 9 strings in a collection. Now imagine the potential impact if GetCombinations returned a collection with thousands of entries!

The point here is that you have to know the costs and how they fit in with the requirements of the project you are working on. If you are building something that must support thousands of concurrent users and must be very performant, you will most likely choose to use the yield return despite the extra code generated by the compiler.

LINQ is Dead, Long Live LINQ

Most of the time when I show somebody the new language enhancements in C# 3.0, the thing that interests them the most (and rightly so) is LINQ. It is just so different to see query syntax built right into the language. The next question they usually ask is how the performance of something written using LINQ would compare the same procedure written using just C# 2.0 control structures.

Steve Hebert recently wrote a post about LINQ performance where he concludes:

Despite my best efforts I just couldn’t make my hand-written code perform as poorly as Linq

What? Seriously? Wow. Then I guess we should stay away from LINQ then right? Well, if you look closer at his post, you will notice that he has optimized his non LINQ version of the code a little bit for the underlying data structure where LINQ has to be able to operate regardless of the underlying data structure. I am not so much interested in the particulars so much as I am the idea that you should understand these things before you start replacing all of your for loops with LINQ queries.

Shifting Sands

One more recent post that fits in here. Rob Conery wrote about his recent experience where his 5 year old code has come back to haunt him:

I spose the moral of the story is to always view the concept of maintenance with an eye towards shifting toolsets and platforms. In 4 years you will need to support the ASP.NET 2.0 site you’re on now, using Visual Studio 2012 and it’s Silverlight-generated Scaffolds :).

This is a great reminder of how tough it can be to deal with changes in technology. I mean, come on, he couldn’t find a machine to compile his 5 year old code?!? I know we can all relate. With the technology learning curve growing at a semi exponential way, just imagine where that same code will be in another 5 years.

Back to Machine Code

Obviously I am not advocating that we just give up on new features because they might not be as fast or resource efficient as our hand coded machine code. In fact, I think we need to embrace abstractions wherever possible. They make our jobs as software developers much easier. Just be smart about it. Have some idea what is going on behind the covers. It is important to realize that yield return eventually becomes a bunch of compiler generated code and that LINQ queries are general case and they may not always be as great as manually doing the coding yourself.

Maybe the documentation on these new language features could do a better job at explaining what sorts of considerations we need to take into account when using them in our applications.

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C# Enum Craziness: Sometimes What You Expect Isn’t The Case

January 28, 2008

I learned something new today about enums that I find really weird. Lets start with the following test enum:

public enum Action
{
    Run = 2,
    Walk = 4,
    Crawl = 8
}

and then some code to do something with that enum:

static void Main(string[] args)
{
    Console.WriteLine((Action)2);
    Console.WriteLine((Action)4);
    Console.WriteLine((Action)8);
    Console.WriteLine((Action)10);
}

What do you think will happen here? Will it even compile?

When I saw this code snippet I said to myself, “the first three lines look ok but the last line won’t work because 10 isn’t a valid value for this enum. Well, I was wrong. This program actually outputs:

Run
Walk
Crawl
10

Huh?!? How could this be? 10 isn’t a valid value according to my enum definition!

This Should Never Happen…Right?

Ok, lets try something different. How about a method?

public static void Execute(Action action)
{
    switch (action)
    {
        case Action.Run:
            Console.WriteLine("Running");
            break;
        case Action.Walk:
            Console.WriteLine("Walking");
            break;
        case Action.Crawl:
            Console.WriteLine("Crawling");
            break;
        default:
            Console.WriteLine("This will never happen! {0}", action);
            break;
    }
}

Surely you can’t pass anything into this method other than one of the 3 values defined in my enum. So lets run some code:

static void Main(string[] args)
{
    Execute(Action.Run);
    Execute(Action.Walk);
    Execute((Action)55);
}

What do you think this does? Well, it outputs:

Running
Walking
This will never happen! 55

Just about this time you must be thinking: “This has to be a bug!”. Well, it is not. It is by design. here is the excerpt from the C# design spec:

14.5 Enum values and operations

Each enum type defines a distinct type; an explicit enumeration conversion (Section 6.2.2) is required to convert between an enum type and an integral type, or between two enum types. The set of values that an enum type can take on is not limited by its enum members. In particular, any value of the underlying type of an enum can be cast to the enum type, and is a distinct valid value of that enum type.

Wow, that is not at all what I expected when it comes to limiting the possible values of enums. So what are enums good for then? Are they just for code readability? Between this little revelation and my previous hack to associate string values to enums, I am loosing faith in enums.

Can You Handle it?

So what is the best way to check for this in your methods? Should you throw an exception if you receive an enum value you were not expecting? Should you just ignore it? Well, lets see what the .Net base class libraries do.

First, lets start with the System.IO.File class. What happens if I run the following code?

File.Open(@"C:\temp\test.txt", (FileMode)500);

Well, it throws a System.ArgumentOutOfRangeException with the message “Enum value was out of legal range.”. Ok, makes sense – I did pass in something out of range.

Lets try reflection. What does the following code snippet output?

PropertyInfo[] info = typeof(StringBuilder)
.GetProperties((BindingFlags)303); Console.WriteLine(info.Length);

Well, it just outputs ‘0’ which means in this case it is just being ignored and an empty array is returned.

What about System.String? Lets try this code snippet:

"TestString".Equals("TESTSTRING", (StringComparison)245);

Well, it turns out this throws an exception but instead of being a System.ArgumentOutOfRangeException like System.IO did, it throws a System.ArgumentException with the message “The string comparison type passed in is currently not supported.” Ok, so this is kind of the same but still a little inconsistent if you ask me.

Is Anything Safe These Days?

So what is a developer to do? Obviously you need to be aware of this when you are receiving enum types from publicly facing code. It seems there is no clear guidance on this that I can find. The C# design spec explains the behavior but doesn’t really give any guidance on why or how this should be handled. So the only other place to turn for guidance is one of my favorite .Net books Framework Design Guidelines by Brad Abrams and Krzysztof Cwalina. On their section on enums, I can’t find any guidance on how to handle out of range enum values. I do, however, find guidance that we should be using enums:

DO use an enum to strongly type parameters, properties, and return values that represent sets of values

They also suggest that enums should be favored over static constants:

DO favor using an enum over static constants

And Jeffrey Richter (and while I am pointing out my favorite .Net books, I have to add Mr. Richter’s book CLR via C# which contains priceless information on the CLR that you can’t find anywhere else) adds the following commentary:

An enum is a structure with a set of static constants. The reason to follow this guideline is because you will get some additional compiler and reflection support if you define an enum versus manually defining a structure with static constants.

So I guess we do continue to use enums and just know that we can’t always trust their values to be valid. Do you think the C# design spec should be amended to include a recommended behavior for out of range enum values? Perhaps Brad and Krzysztof can include something in their second edition of Framework Design Guidelines.

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Associating Strings with enums in C#

January 17, 2008

I have seen other great articles out lining the benefits of some pretty clever and useful helper classes for enums. Many of these methods almost exactly mirror methods I had written in my own EnumHelper class. (Isn’t it crazy when you imagine how much code duplication there must be like this out there!)

One thing that I don’t see emphasized much is trying to associated string values with enums. For example, what if you want to have a Drop Down list that you can choose from a list of values (which are backed by an enum)? Lets start with a test enum:

public enum States
{
    California,
    NewMexico,
    NewYork,
    SouthCarolina,
    Tennessee,
    Washington
}

So if you made a drop down list out of this enum, using the ToString() method, you would get a drop down that looks like this:

image

While most people will understand this, it should really be displayed like this:

image

“But enums can’t have spaces in C#!” you say. Well, I like to use the System.ComponentModel.DescriptionAttribute to add a more friendly description to the enum values. The example enum can be rewritten like this:

public enum States
{
    California,
    [Description("New Mexico")]
    NewMexico,
    [Description("New York")]
    NewYork,
    [Description("South Carolina")]
    SouthCarolina,
    Tennessee,
    Washington
}

Notice that I do not put descriptions on items where the ToString() version of that item displays just fine.

How Do We Get To the Description?

Good question! Well, using reflection of course! Here is what the code looks like:

public static string GetEnumDescription(Enum value)
{
    FieldInfo fi = value.GetType().GetField(value.ToString());

    DescriptionAttribute[] attributes =
        (DescriptionAttribute[])fi.GetCustomAttributes(
        typeof(DescriptionAttribute),
        false);

    if (attributes != null &&
        attributes.Length > 0)
        return attributes[0].Description;
    else
        return value.ToString();
}

This method first looks for the presence of a DescriptionAttribute and if it doesn’t find one, it just returns the ToString() of the value passed in. So

GetEnumDescription(States.NewMexico);

returns the string “New Mexico”.

A Free Bonus: How to Enumerate Enums

Ok, so now we know how to get the string value of an enum. But as a free bonus, I also have a helper method that allows you to enumerate all the values of a given enum. This will allow you to easily create a drop down list based on an enum. Here is the code for that method:

public static IEnumerable<T> EnumToList<T>()
{
    Type enumType = typeof(T);

    // Can't use generic type constraints on value types,
    // so have to do check like this
    if (enumType.BaseType != typeof(Enum))
        throw new ArgumentException("T must be of type System.Enum");

    Array enumValArray = Enum.GetValues(enumType);
    List<T> enumValList = new List<T>(enumValArray.Length);

    foreach (int val in enumValArray)
    {
        enumValList.Add((T)Enum.Parse(enumType, val.ToString()));
    }

    return enumValList;
}

As you can see, the code for either of these methods isn’t too complicated. But used in conjunction, they can be really useful. Here is an example of how we would create the drop down list pictured above based on our enum:

DropDownList stateDropDown = new DropDownList();
foreach (States state in EnumToList<States>())
{
    stateDropDown.Items.Add(GetEnumDescription(state));
}

Pretty simple huh? I hope you find this as useful as I do.

One More Example

There is one more scenario that I often find myself needing to associate string values with enums – when dealing with legacy constant string based system. Lets say you have a library that has the following method:

public void ExecuteAction(int value, string actionType)
{
    if (actionType == "DELETE")
        Delete();
    else if (actionType == "UPDATE")
        Update();
}

(I tried to make this look as legacy as I could for a contrived example). What happens if somebody passes in “MyEvilAction” as a value for actionType? Well, whenever I see hard coded strings, that is a code smell that could possibly point to the use of enums instead. But sometimes you don’t have control over legacy code and you have to deal with it. So you could make an enum which looks like this:

public enum ActionType
{
    [Description("DELETE")]
    Delete,
    [Description("UPDATE")]
    Update
}

(I know, I know, this is a very contrived example) Then you could call the ExecuteAction Method like this:

ExecuteAction(5, GetEnumDescription(ActionType.Delete));

This at least makes the code more readable and may also make it more consistent and secure.

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Useful Code Snippet: Web Property

January 15, 2008

Write WebControls much? Well, I do and I have a code snippet that I pretty much can’t live without. It is used for creating ViewState backed properties. Here is the basic pattern I use when creating properties for my web controls:

public string Name
{
    get
    {
        object o = ViewState["Name"];
        return o == null ? String.Empty : (string)o;
    }
    set { ViewState["Name"] = value; }
}

Basically, you just want a property (in this case a string named “Name”) and you want to store it in ViewState. And when the value is being retrieved, if it is not in ViewState, you want to retrieve some default value. This is a pattern that I repeat over and over in my controls. So I made a code snippet to make it easier.

I use the shortcut ‘webprop’

image

and it expands like this:

image

To install, you just need to place the .snippet file (link to download below) in your ‘My Snippets’ folder which in windows vista is located at:

C:\Users\<UserName>\Documents\Visual Studio 2005\Code Snippets\Visual C#\My Code Snippets

or if you use Visual Studio 2008:

C:\Users\<UserName>\Documents\Visual Studio 2008\Code Snippets\Visual C#\My Code Snippets

I hope this is helpful. It saves me a bunch of time.

You can download the .snipped file here

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You Know You Are An Influential Blogger When…

December 13, 2007

Sometimes it is hard to see threads of discussions in blog land because you may only be reading a subset of the blogs involved in the discussion. In this case, I just happened to be subscribed to many of the blogs in this thread. First let me lay out the timeline of posts:

Jeff Atwood published his post Sorting for Humans : Natural Sort Order

Ian Griffiths responds with post entitled Natural Sorting in C#

Charles Petzold responds with Sorting Without Spaces

Dare Obasanjo responds with his post Natural Sort in IronPython vs. C# 2.0

Now these are some pretty big names to have both reading your blog and responding on their own blog. And according to technorati, there are 9 blog reactions to Jeff’s post. That is pretty impressive. That makes Jeff Atwood a very influential blogger in my book.

If this were my timeline, it would look more like this:

Luke published his post on Asp.Net Control For Google Charts

Luke’s Mom emails him and says, "I read your new blog post and I didn’t understand a word you said but great job!"

Luke’s Wife calls him and says, "Your Mom really likes your new blog post."

Trackback spam responds to Luke’s post: "Want to buy some ViAGra?"