Things I’ve Learnt This Week (19th February)

Week 4 of my series, sharing things I’ve learnt, read, watched and listened to, in the pursuit of expanding my knowledge about software development. A slightly shorter set of links this week, things have been fairly busy so I’ve had less time to keep up with all of the fantastic content.

Things I’ve Learned

That I enjoy technical speaking! This week, I delivered a talk to a room of developers about ASP.NET Core. It’s a popular topic which I think generated the interest and high attendance. I’m quite shy and an introvert by nature, and I generally hate any form of public speaking so presenting a talk is way out of my comfort zone. However, it’s something I’ve been keen to work on; It’s a great way to share information and helps me learn as well. I had the usual nerves leading up to the talk, but I’d practised and refined it over a number of rehearsals, to the point that I was confident in what I was delivering. The talk also included a 30 minute live demo, which thankfully worked perfectly thanks to many practice runs. As soon as I got going I started to feel better and by the end, was on a bit of a natural high. I’ve had some very nice feedback from some of the attendees and I’m encouraged to work on future talks as well as hopefully sharing this one with a wider audience in the future. If I was asked for advice from other developers looking to prepare a technical talk, it would be practice, practice, practice! Having gone through my slides, rehearsing the full talk at least 10 times, I knew what I was going to say and that allowed me to present confidently.

Things I’ve Read

Things I’ve Listened To

Things I’ve Watched

Things I’ve Learnt This Week (12th February)

Week 3 of my series, sharing things I’ve learnt, read, watched and listened to, in the pursuit of expanding my knowledge about software development.

Things I’ve Learned

Dependency Injection in Middleware

An important thing to consider when building custom Middleware in ASP.NET Core – If you are injecting a dependency into the constructor of your Middleware it may have unwanted effects if that dependency is expected to be a scoped/transient resource. The Middleware is constructed once for the app lifetime during Startup and not recreated for every request. If you want a transient/scoped dependency, inject it into the Invoke method’s parameters which is called once per request and therefore will give you the correctly scoped instance of your dependency every time.

Dependency Injection Lifetime Fun

A little long for this weekly post, I wrote up a dedicated post this week about some “fun” I had tracking down a range of errors we were seeing in some code this week. Spoiler alert… scoped lifetime dependencies inside a singleton lifetime registration = not good!

I also published a post this week entitled “Migrating from .NET Framework to .NET Core” which describes the process I followed to move an ASP.NET Core application from the full .NET framework onto .NET Core, enabling cross-platform development.

Things I’ve Read

In no particular order here’s some of the blogs and posts that I’ve read this week.

Things I’ve Listened To

Things I’ve Watched

Tools

  • ChangemakerStudios – Papercut – A useful local SMTP receiver for testing email in your code on localhost. This week I was adding some email functionality to one of our services and I wanted to test the flow locally in development. This tool was really easy to use and worked perfectly for my requirements.

Migrating from .NET Framework to .NET Core The journey of re-targeting an ASP.NET Core application onto .NET Core

What better way to start the new year than with some coding? In my case I’d found a bit of time during the end of my Christmas vacation to tackle an issue on allReady I’d been wanting to work on for a while. Before getting into the issue, if you want to read more about what allReady is you can read my earlier blog post where I cover contributing to it in greater detail.

allReady was first created during the early beta’s of ASP.NET Core (at which point it was known as ASP.NET 5). At that time, due to some dependencies which did not yet support .NET Core, the application was built on top of the full .NET framework 4.6.

The first thing to discuss briefly is why and how we can run ASP.NET Core on the full traditional .NET framework. While it might be reasonable to assume that ASP.NET Core naturally needs to run on the new .NET Core framework, remember that .NET Core ultimately includes a subset of the larger full .NET framework API. Because of this, it is perfectly possible to run ASP.NET Core on the original 4.x version of the .NET framework. This is an advantage to those that want to make use of the new features and optimizations within ASP.NET Core, while also still utilising the libraries they know and love. This is a perfectly reasonable way to run ASP.NET Core but with an important limitation. By targeting the .NET framework you are not able to develop or host the ASP.NET application outside of Windows.

For the allReady project this had started to become a bit of a limitation. We had Mac users who were keen to contribute to the project, but were unable to do so without installing and running a Windows VM on their device. As we were getting to the end of some complex requirements for allReady’s v1 milestone, I took the opportunity to spend some time looking at retargeting the application to run on .NET Core. This turned out to be a bit more involved that I had first anticipated. However, we have succeeded and the code base has been proven to build and run on both Mac and Linux devices.

Updating the Solution

The first part of the process was to update the project.json file inside the web solution. The main update here was changing the framework specification to netcoreapp from net46.

project.json before:

project.json after:

We had decided as a team to continue to track the .NET Core 1.0.x LTS support stream. In short, this is a stable version of the framework, under full Microsoft support. New minor patch releases are appearing to fix major bugs or security issues, but otherwise the changes are expected to be quite limited. Our project was already targeting the latest 1.0.3 SDK and latest 1.0.x libraries for each of the components.

You’ll see above that as well as changing the framework moniker I’ve added an imports section as well. This was required in our case as we have some dependencies on some libraries which don’t yet specify a dotnet Target Moniker or .NET Standard version. It’s essentially there for backwards compatibility until the ecosystem settles down.

Handling Dependencies

Upon making the required changes to project.json, it became apparent that some of the packages we depend on could no longer be restored. The first thing I did was to use Nuget Package Manager to update all of the dependencies to their latest versions to see if any of those had been updated to support .NET Core. This helped in some of the cases but still left me with a few that were not compatible. For the time being I commented those out as well as commenting out any code using those dependencies. In our case this included the following main libraries we had issues with…

  • XZing which was being used in one place to generate a QR code image for use within the allReady phone application. This had its own dependency on System.Drawing which is not part of .NET Core.
  • LinqToTwitter which was being used in one area of the application to query for a user’s information after a sign in via Twitter.
  • GeoCoding.net which was used in a few places in order to take an address and geo code it to latitude and longitude coordinates.

With those taken care of for now (if only commenting out code was considered “fixing”), the last remaining issue for the web project was a dependency on a separate library project in our solution which contains some shared models. This library is used by both our web application and also in some Azure web jobs we have defined. As a result it needed to support both .NET Core and the .NET Framework. The solution here was to convert it to a .NET standard library. In my case I chose the lowest standard version I could find which gave me the API surface I needed, while supporting my dependent projects. This was the .NET Standard 1.3 version. The project.json for this library was changed as follows.

Before:

After:

With this done, I also had to update our test library project.json in a similar way in order to support .NET Core by changing the frameworks section and updating to the latest versions of our dependencies as with the main web project. The changes in this file were very similar to what I’ve already shown, so I won’t repeat the code here.

Wrapping missing dependencies

With the package restore now succeeding for the web project, test project and our .NET standard project my next goal was to find solutions to the libraries we could no longer use.

XZing was an easy decision as currently the phone application project is a bit stale and it was decided that we could simply remove the QRCode endpoint and this dependency as a result.

When I reviewed the use of LinqToTwitter it was only really abstracting one API call to Twitter behind a more fluent Linq syntax. We were using it to request a Twitter user’s profile information. The option I chose here was to write our own small service to wrap the call to the Twitter REST API which using HttpClient. There are some hoops to jump through in order to establish the authentication with Twitter but this ultimately didn’t prove too difficult. I won’t go into the exact details here since this post is intended to cover the general “migration” process.

The final dependent library that wasn’t able to support .NET Core was GeoCoding.net. We were using this library to perform address to coordinate lookups via Google. On review of the usages, it was again clear that we had a whole dependency for what amounted to a single call to a Google endpoint. We were already calling another part of the Google REST API directly from a custom service class, so again, the decision was to wrap up the geocoding functionality in our own code, calling the API directly. Again, the exact details are beyond my scope here, but I may cover this in a future blog post if there’s interest.

Handling API Differences

With the problem packages removed I tried to compile the solution. I was immediately hit by a wall of errors. This was initially a little daunting, but after looking through them I could see that many were quite similar and due to changes to the .NET Core API surface.

Reflection

The first of which was where we’d been using reflection. We have a couple of places in the web app that rely on reflection for wiring up our IoC container and also in some of the test classes. In .NET Core the Object.GetType() method no longer returns full type detail information, instead it returns just the type name. In order to access the full type information there is a new extension method called GetTypeInfo(). It returns TypeInfo which is similar to what Type used to return.

Before:

After:

In this example you can see that the only change is adding in the GetTypeInfo call.

Date Formatting

We also had some code calling ToLongDateString on dates. This is no longer avaiable so I switched to formatting the date using the ToString method instead.

Before:

After:

Exceptions

In a couple of places we were throwing ApplicationException which also seems to have been removed. I switched to a general Exception in this case.

Before:

After:

Final Tweaks

Once all of the compile errors were fixed we were nearly there. In order to enable the site to be run under the non IIS mode of Kestrel I updated the profiles in launchSettings.json

Before:

After:

This new profile basically tell VS to run the project (i.e. via dotnet.exe) – launching it on port 5000. Within Visual Studio you can choose whether to start via IIS Express or directly into the project via the dotnet.exe. New projects targeting .NET core include these two profiles automatically, so updating it in our project felt sensible, to make the developer experience familiar.

Conclusion

With the above steps completed the project was now compiling, tests were running and the site worked as expected. Quite a few hours of work went into the process. The longest time was spent building the new service wrappers around the 3rd party REST APIs so that I could get rid of incompatible dependencies. The actual project and code changes weren’t too painful and it was just a case of working out the API changes so I knew how to modify our code.

It was an interesting experience and once we had it tested on a Mac and Linux during the NDC London code-a-thon it was very exciting to see it working. This has made it much easier for non-Windows developers to contribute to the allReady project and is just one of the great new benefits of working with .NET Core and ASP.NET Core.

A Reminder to Take Care when Registering Dependencies

I looked into a “fun” little problem yesterday where we were seeing occasional errors in some of our ASP.NET Core code which calls down into the ASP.NET Core Identity UserManager. We were getting a range of NullReferenceException and ObjectDisposedExceptions as well as various exceptions from Npgsql.NpgsqlConnection (we use Postgres rather than SQL in this project) stating things such as “Connection already open”.

The issue was presenting itself within some authentication and authorisation code we have which wraps and extends the ASP.NET Core Identity UserManager and SignInManager functionality. We use ASP.NET Identity over a PostGres database for our user store but include some application specific functionality with our own code. We have our own AuthenticationManager and UserManager classes, both of which take dependencies on the underlying Microsoft.AspNetCore.Identity classes.

These originally got registered in in the ConfigureServices method of the Startup.cs class as follows:

services.AddSingleton<IAuthenticationManager, AuthenticationManager>();
services.AddSingleton<IUserManager, UserManager>();

The constructor for our AuthenticationManager looks a bit like this:

public AuthenticationManager(UserManager<ApplicationUser> userManager, SignInManager<ApplicationUser> signInManager)
{
   // setup our authentication manager here
}

Do you see the problem?

The issue here is the singleton registration. While our classes themselves have no state and could be shared between requests, the dependencies on Microsoft.AspNetCore.Identity.UserManager<T> and Microsoft.AspNetCore.Identity.SignInManager<T> have to be considered.

If we take a look at where these are registered within the Microsoft.AspNetCore.Identity source we can see the following:

services.TryAddScoped<UserManager<TUser>, UserManager<TUser>>();
services.TryAddScoped<SignInManager<TUser>, SignInManager<TUser>>();

They are added using the scoped lifetime which means they expect to be created once per request. They themselves depend on an IUserStore which is registered with the scoped lifetime as well.

As a result, the singleton registration of our AuthenticationManager was trying to hang onto dependencies to objects for the entire application lifetime, where those dependencies only expected to live for the request scope. Sometimes they seemed to get a different database context and hence the “Connection already open” errors we saw. Sometimes the dependencies had been disposed of by the time they got called by our code and as such we saw the various exceptions being thrown. In some cases we seemed to still have access to the UserManager but the context underneath was null. I won’t dive into this tool deeply, but it was apparent that we should really make the registration of our classes scoped as well. This way, they are created once per request, the same as their dependencies. We changed the registration code to the following:

services.AddScoped<IAuthenticationManager, AuthenticationManager>();
services.AddScoped<IUserManager, UserManager>();

This resolved the errors we were seeing immediately. It was an annoying oversight although fortunately it was fairly easy to guess at the cause. The various errors all suggested that we having some issues with the lifetime of the  dependencies. This case has been a reminder to carefully consider the lifetimes of service registrations as it can produce some unexpected errors and behaviour.

The Microsoft documentation even includes a large warning about scoped services – “The main danger to be wary of is resolving a Scoped service from a singleton. It’s likely in such a case that the service will have incorrect state when processing subsequent requests.” – Oh how true this is!

Happy dependency injecting!