Visual Studio 2017 is Released Reflecting on the loss of project.json and looking ahead to the new VS 2017 experience

Visual Studio 2017 is released today and I thought it was a good time to reflect on my thoughts about one of the main changes it brings for ASP.NET Core developers. This won’t be a detailed features post, as I’ve only tried the RC a few limited times. Due to some bugs and issues I experienced, I ended up removing the release candidate from my PC and only recently installed the latest more stable version. I plan to begin working with Visual Studio 2017 as soon as possible so I can start to explore the benefits it offers. A few of the new features and tooling enhancements have caught my eye and I’m keen to experience them first hand.

The big change for anyone who has worked on ASP.NET Core projects to date, is the the loss of the project.json format and the move back to a revised and improved csproj format. It’s a decision which caused a lot of reaction when it was first announced and since then has been a common topic of conversation for ASP.NET developers. I’m a fan of project.json format. I found it easy to use, simple to work with and a nice step forward. Personally I would prefer we weren’t loosing it entirely and that the tooling had been developed in a way that could support both formats. Pragmatically I can understand some of the reasons behind the change. Large customers, with heavy reliance on and experience of MsBuild for example, I’m sure would have avoided any use of ASP.NET Core without this compromise being made. Ultimately I am accepting of anything which can allow ASP.NET Core to gain more traction and become the framework of choice for C# based web developers. I do however, find myself a little concerned with the way the news of the change has impacted the first impressions of some people about ASP.NET Core. In a introduction to ASP.NET Core talk I’ve recently presented, it was odd having to avoid too much detail on project.json because I knew it would soon be a thing of the past. Explaining to people that they need to know this now, but don’t get too invested in it as it’s soon obsolete was hard. It was especially confusing for people to be shown the newest version of ASP.NET that already due quite a radical change.

In part due to it’s open development and partly due to this latest change, some people I’ve talked to are left a bit afraid of taking on ASP.NET Core right now. They have the impression it’s not finished, hard work, changing too frequently and ultimately not a safe choice for new projects at the moment. I don’t share these views myself; but I think that it’s partly because that I’ve worked with ASP.NET Core from around the beta 8 time frame. I’ve used it a lot during that time and even have a production system nearly ready for launch which is based around ASP.NET Core API microservices. I’ve seen firsthand the ease of use and enhancements it offers, so I am able to see how those benefits outweigh the bumps along the way. But if new developers are left apprehensive by the strong opinions being shared and the breaking changes, that does worry me a little. I truly hope this is the last of the big forced changes we should expect to the fundamentals of the technology and we can move forward, embracing the future of ASP.NET Core. I certainly wouldn’t and haven’t for the last few weeks promoted starting a new ASP.NET Core project in VS 2015 but at least with today’s launch, we finally have the RTM tooling to be able to move forward with ASP.NET Core and csproj. For any concerned developers reading this post, I think with VS 2017 we should be in the right place to really start making ASP.NET Core the first choice for new projects.

An important fact to state here is that the tooling for ASP.NET Core has always remained in preview. Despite .NET Core and ASP.NET Core being released back in June last year, under full support, we’ve been told that tooling would RTM at a later date. Many of the early adopters to ASP.NET Core would have experienced some pain and glitches with the earlier versions of the preview tooling, although in the latest versions, I’ve had a much more stable experience. My assumption, and I think that of many other developers was that by investing in ASP.NET Core on Visual Studio 2015 early on, we would eventually get some form of RTM tooling in that IDE. However, at the end end of January I picked up on a comment from Damian Edwards during the ASP.NET Community Standup. What I thought I’d heard was that we would never get final supported tooling for Visual Studio 2015.

Puzzled and unsure of my interpretation of his statement, I reached out to Damian on Twitter. Here is the start of the Twitter thread. In summary, I learned that the decision being made was apparently clear. VS 2015 tooling and project.json would never formally RTM and be supported. Anyone with a project.json project would need to upgrade to Visual Studio 2017 at release or use VS code in order to access the supported RTM tooling for ASP.NET Core running on csproj. As Damian explained it, the csproj changes required core IDE changes in Visual Studio 2017 to be possible. These changes would not / could not be brought back into VS 2015. This is where I start to feel a little left out in the cold by Microsoft. Fair enough, the tooling was preview, but we’ve backed the new and supported ASP.NET Core early, with the direct assumption we had a path forwards on the existing IDE version. Would I have started so early with a production system using ASP.NET Core if we had known our team will need to plan and handle a move to VS 2017 to gain tooling support? Perhaps not. I’m still a huge supporter of the new framework and we’re able to run our services inside Docker, on Linux, which has some great advantages for us. The deployment possibilities this has opened up to us is a key advantage of ASP.NET Core and one I hope to explore on this blog soon. Perhaps it’s just me that missed the point until quite late that the csproj change essentially made ASP.NET Core a VS 2017 product only.

A good demonstration of how the change effects early adopters is with open source projects such as the Humanitarian Toolbox allReady project, to which I contribute regularly. Here we have a real-world ASP.NET Core application which started it’s development way back in the early days of ASP.NET Core. allReady has moved through the various beta, release candidate and finally RTM versions of ASP.NET Core. A journey which has been complicated and painful at times due to some breaking changes. It was an accepted journey, given we were working with software still under development, and while I don’t think anyone expected quite so many twists and turns, the team ducked and weaved through them. The issue of the demise of project.json along with the Visual Studio 2017 release, does pose some logistical issues for the project team though. We’re actively discussing in an issue how and when we want to make the switch by migrating to csproj. We’re slightly stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, we’re on unsupported tooling and also run the risk of new contributors opening the solution in VS 2017 and being migrated too early – leaving them unable to commit back to the project. On the other hand, if we migrate now, do we risk loosing contributors who aren’t in a position to, or willing to, upgrade to Visual Studio 2017 at this time? Agreed, they can still use VS Code or a community edition of Visual Studio 2017 if the concern is around licensing, but this still puts constraints on the ease of entry which we very much try to avoid. With allReady we’ll have to migrate fairly soon to avoid contributors who move to VS 2017 and don’t keep VS 2015 installed side-by-side from finding themselves unable to contribute any further. 

I feel slightly aggrieved that despite using the LTS supported version, we’re forced into a full IDE version upgrade in order to continue using that version. It slightly blurs the lines of how I feel a supported product should work. Microsoft have chosen the safer and arguably easier road for themselves which is to avoid putting even a basic and time limited project.json tooling experience into the wild under some form of support. This would have provided greater time for teams to embrace and migrate to csproj at their own speed. The project.json format is a really key part of the structure of ASP.NET Core projects built to date. Simply pulling that piece out from under the earlier adopters doesn’t sit quite right with me. I’m sure many discussions were had, compromises agreed, management decisions made that led to the final agreement to in effect, force the rapid death of project.json. Putting my Microsoft hat on, I can see why this makes things a lot easier for them in the long run. I’ve been fairly accepting of the churn we saw during the final phases leading up to RTM for ASP.NET Core, appreciating that in the end it was to give us a more suitable final product. This has been the one issue that I find myself less able to accept without a little annoyance clouding my thoughts. It’ll be nice to just get it behind us now and move forward without having to consider an impending change around the corner.

One key thing I’m conscious of loosing with the new csproj format is the simplicity of debugging into the ASP.NET source code. Currently a simple addition to the global.json file allows us to include the source into a solution, instead of using the Nuget supplied package. This has been something I’ve taken advantage of many times to learn more about the internal workings of MVC for example or to understand why my application is behaving in a certain way. I believe some level of support is being looked at to keep this functionality and an open and current discussion is ongoing on GitHub to continue to enable a source debugging experience. Initially this doesn’t sound quite a simple and painless as the solution I’ve been able to use to date. I hope we can get to a point where debugging the source is similar to the experience that the current json based format supports.

So, there you have it, my thoughts around project.json laid bare for (probably) a final time as the much loved project.json file moves closer to being a short lived part of .NET history. Visual Studio 2017 is pretty much the final and definitive nail in its coffin. While I have a slightly bitter taste in my mouth, don’t get me wrong, I’m still massively excited by ASP.NET Core in general and thankful that Microsoft are putting great effort into building an open platform for the future. I’m already excited about version 2.0 and I’m also keen to start working with Visual Studio 2017 both at home and at work. I expect to start doing so over the coming weeks and something I’ll be experiencing is how a real-world migration to csproj works.

Looking to end on a more positive note – besides the csproj issue – I am looking forward to VS 2017. Here are just a couple of initial features that I like the look of in Visual Studio 2017 from the information I’ve seen so far.

  1. The new, more rapid installation process does sound nice. Granted, once installed I don’t find myself doing installs too often, but it does seem to simplify the removal footprint as well.
  2. Various other performance related improvements and new configuration options promise to make working with solutions faster and easier than ever before. It’ll be interesting to see if those are noticeable or not.
  3. The new Git integrations within VS 2017 look nice. Any time I can save by not having to switch out of Visual Studio is very welcome.
  4. Live unit testing is a feature which I would like to take advantage of. Limited to the Enterprise license though, this may not be seen by everyone. It offers the continuous running of unit tests in the background, giving instant feedback on breaking changes as code is written. This sounds like it will improve productivity and generally make working on complex projects an easier experience.
  5. Finally I like the concept of the Code Style feature, which looks to allow a project level specification of coding standards that should be applied. Any deviance from the standards will result in compiler warnings to help developers quickly remain consistent. This feels like a nice enhancement to keep teams using a common structure in their code which can only help readability between team members. It’ll be interesting if this can assist with open-source projects like allReady as well.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be trying out the features that are available to me, and hopefully reaping the benefits they bring. After reading this post you could be forgiven for thinking I’m against VS 2017 or raining on it’s parade, but that’s not the case. I am always excited about new versions of products like this, and Visual Studio 2017 is no different. It promises to bring some great new features to developers everywhere. For me, my excitement is only slightly reduced by the gripes I have with the ASP.NET Core tooling but I’m hoping this is the final large piece of pain developers can expect on the early ASP.NET Core adoption path. I guess to end this post I’ll simply say – thank you project.json, you’ve been great!

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