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Type converters, your friendly helpers!

, 28 Apr 2005
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Any time you developed a web form or Windows form using the Visual Studio .NET designer or used the view state architecture of ASP.NET you have relied on the help of a type converter. As the name already states, type converters are used to convert from one type to another.

Introduction

You may not have written yet your own type converter. But any time you developed a web form or Windows form using the Visual Studio .NET designer or used the view state architecture of ASP.NET you have relied on the help of a type converter. As the name already states, type converters are used to convert from one type to another, for example an integer to a string. The .NET framework comes with a number of type converters which perform all that work for you for the most common .NET types. But when you create your own complex types then you need to create your own type converters. This article will explain how you can write your own type converter and then assign that to your own type.

Where are type converters used?

Type converters are mostly used to convert your type to a string or a string back to your type. Web controls and web forms have properties which you can view and edit through the property browser of the Visual Studio .NET designer. The property browser finds the type of the property and then the type converter associated with that type to convert the type to a string. Any changes the user makes to the property in the property browser is written back to the property, which again uses the type converter to convert from a string back to the type.

You can also design web forms through the Visual Studio .NET designer. This allows you to place new controls onto the web form and modify their properties. The designer creates the necessary form tags and properties. You can also switch to the source mode and then edit the tags itself. You can add new properties to a control or modify existing ones. This is called declarative persistence. The designer itself uses type converters to convert a property from your type to a string and again from a string back to your type.

The state view framework provided by web controls and web forms also relies on type converters. Type converters provide a better performance than reflection. So whenever possible avoid binary serialization which uses reflection. Provide your own type converter. You can not store complex types in state view unless it is marked serializable or has its own type converter associated.

How do type converters work?

Type converters allow you to convert from your type to another type and also form another type back to your type. All type converters are inherited from the TypeConverter base class provided by .NET. You need to override four methods. The methods CanConvertTo and ConvertTo are used when converting from your type to another type, for example to a string. The methods CanConvertFrom and ConvertFrom are used when converting from another type back to your type, for example from a string.

  • CanConvertTo - Passes along the required destination type, for example, type of string. The method returns true if it can convert to that type otherwise false.
  • ConvertTo - Gets passed along the type to convert, the destination type and the culture info to use during the type conversion. This method then returns the converted type.
  • CanConvertFrom - Passes along the source type, for example, the type of string. The method returns true if it can convert from that type back to your type. Otherwise it returns false.
  • ConvertFrom - Gets passed along the type to convert from and the culture info to use during the type conversion. This method returns then the converted type.

Walk through a sample type converter

The attached sample application defines three complex types - GPSLocation, Latitude and Longitude. As the names already indicate these types are used to describe a GPS position. Each type has its own type converter associated with. We will walk now through the LatitudeTypeConverter.

The following code snippet shows the implementation of CanConvertFrom. This type converter will be able to convert from a string back to a Latitude type. So if the source type is of the type string then we return true, otherwise we call the method of the base class - the TypeConverter class.

public override bool CanConvertFrom(ITypeDescriptorContext context, 
                                                   Type sourceType)
{
    if (sourceType == typeof(string))
        return true;
    else
        return base.CanConvertFrom(context, sourceType);
}

The next code snippet shows the implementation of the ConvertFrom method. First we check if the value (type) passed along is null. In that case we create a new instance of the Latitude class and return it. This means no value is provided so we create an empty instance of our type. Next we check if the value passed along is of the type string. In that case we will process the request otherwise we again call the method of the base class. So we perform a conversion from a string but any other conversion we delegate to the base class.

If the value is a string then we check the length. If the length is zero or less then we return again a new instance of the Latitude class. This means that no value is provided so we create an empty instance of our type. Now we can start with the actual conversion. The Latitude type consists of a degree, latitude direction (North or South) and the minutes and seconds, for example, 48N15b0b for Vienna (Austria). First we search for the North direction and if not found then we search for the South direction. Finally we search for the minute character and second character. Next we check whether we have found a latitude direction, minute character and second character. We also check that we have a degree value by making sure that the latitude direction starts at a position greater then zero. If any of them is missing then we throw an appropriate exception informing the caller that the format is not correct. Next we get an instance of the integer type converter by calling TypeDescriptor.GetConverter(typeof(int)). This returns the type converter which can be used to convert to or from an integer. Finally we cut the value string apart to obtain the degrees, minutes and seconds and use the integer converter to convert each from a string to an integer. Last thing we again create a new instance of the Latitude class and pass along the four values - latitude direction, degrees, minutes and seconds. This is the converted type we return.

public override object ConvertFrom(ITypeDescriptorContext context,
                   System.Globalization.CultureInfo culture, object value)
{
    // if no value passed along then return a new Latitute instance
    if (value == null)
        return new Latitude();
    
    // if the source is a string then convert to our type
    if (value is string)
    {
        // get strongly typed value
        string StringValue = value as string;
        
        // if empty string then return again a new instance of Latitude
        if (StringValue.Length <= 0)
            return new Latitude();
        
        // search of the North latitude key
        int DirPos = 
         StringValue.IndexOf(LatitudeDiretcion.North.ToString().Substring(0,1));
        LatitudeDiretcion Direction = LatitudeDiretcion.North;
        
        // if not found search for the South latitude key
        if (DirPos == -1)
        {
          DirPos = 
           StringValue.IndexOf(LatitudeDiretcion.South.ToString().Substring(0, 1));
          Direction = LatitudeDiretcion.South;
        }
        
        // get the position of the seconds and minutes unit character
        int MinutesPos = StringValue.IndexOf(MinutesUnit);
        int SecondsPos = StringValue.IndexOf(SecondsUnit);
        
        // the minutes are missing
        if (MinutesPos == -1)
            throw new Exception(NoMinutes);
        
        // the seconds are missing
        if (SecondsPos == -1)
            throw new Exception(NoSeconds);
        
        // the Latitude direction is missing
        if (DirPos == -1)
            throw new Exception(NoDirection);
        
        // the degrees are missing
        if (DirPos == 0)
            throw new Exception(NoDegrees);
        
        // get the type converters we need
        TypeConverter IntConverter = 
             TypeDescriptor.GetConverter(typeof(int));
        
        // get the degrees, minutes and seconds value
        int Degrees = (int)IntConverter.ConvertFromString(context, culture,
                    StringValue.Substring(0, DirPos));
        
        int Minutes = (int)IntConverter.ConvertFromString(context, culture,
               StringValue.Substring(DirPos + 1, MinutesPos - DirPos - 1));
        
        int Seconds = (int)IntConverter.ConvertFromString(context, culture,
          StringValue.Substring(MinutesPos + 1, SecondsPos - MinutesPos - 1));
        
        // create a new Latitude instance with these values and return it
        return new Latitude(Degrees, Minutes, Seconds, Direction);
    }
    
    // otherwise call the base converter
    else
        return base.ConvertFrom(context, culture, value);
}

This is all we need to convert from a string back to our type. The next code snippet shows the implementation of CanConvertTo. This type converter will be able to convert to a string and an instance descriptor. The instance descriptor is needed when the framework needs to create a new instance of your type. It tells the framework the constructor to use, the argument types and the actual arguments to pass along. You only need to implement the instance descriptor when the framework needs to be able to create a new instance of your type. If for example your control exposes a read-only property of your type, then there is never a need for the framework to create an instance of your type. Therefore no instance descriptor is needed. Quite naturally if your control exposes complex types then this is the recommendation. Make the property read only and in your property implementation make sure there is always an instance present. For all other requested destination types we call again the method of the base class.

public override bool CanConvertTo(ITypeDescriptorContext context, 
                                             Type destinationType)
{
    if ((destinationType == typeof(string)) |
        (destinationType == typeof(InstanceDescriptor)))
        return true;
    else
        return base.CanConvertTo(context, destinationType);
}

The final code snippet shows the implementation of the ConvertTo method. First we check if the source value passed along is of the type Latitude or null, otherwise we throw an exception telling the caller that an unsupported type has been passed along. Next we check if the destination type is string, which we process. If the source value is null then we return an empty string. Next we get the type converters for integer and enumerators by calling again TypeDescriptor.GetConverter and passing along the type we want to have a type converter for. We then use the type converters to convert the degrees, latitude direction, minutes and seconds to strings. For the latitude direction we just use the first character - N for North and S for South. We also append the minutes and seconds character. The end result is a string like 48N15b0b for Vienna (Austria). This string is then returned.

If the destination type is an instance descriptor then we perform the following processing. If the value is null we return null, which means no instance descriptor is returned. First we declare a MemberInfo variable which we use to store a reference to the constructor for the Latitude type and an array of objects which we use to create the array of arguments to pass along to the constructor. We then call GetConstructor() on the type of Latitude, which returns a reference to the constructor. A type can have multiple constructors, so we pass along an array of types, which tells GetConstructor to look for the constructor with this signature. In our case we look for the constructor which takes three integers followed with the LatitudeDirection enumerator. Then we create an array of objects, which will be the arguments passed along when the constructor gets called. The array mirrors the constructor signature. So it contains the degrees, minutes and seconds of the latitude value we process as well as the latitude direction. If we were able to get a reference to the constructor then we create an InstanceDescriptor type, pass along the constructor and arguments reference and return the instance of the InstanceDescriptor. This instance descriptor is then used by the framework if it needs to create a new instance of our type. It tells the framework the constructor to call and the arguments to pass along. All this relies on the .NET reflection API. If we were unable to obtain a reference to the constructor then we return null, which means no instance descriptor returned.

public override object ConvertTo(ITypeDescriptorContext context, 
            CultureInfo culture, object value, Type destinationType)
{
    // check that the value passed along is of our type
    if (value != null)
        if (!(value is Latitude))
            throw new Exception(WrongType);
    
    // convert to a string
    if (destinationType == typeof(string))
    {
        // no Latitude instance so we return an empty string
        if (value == null)
            return String.Empty;
        
        // get strongly type value
        Latitude LValue = value as Latitude;
        
        // get the type converters we need
        TypeConverter IntConverter = 
            TypeDescriptor.GetConverter(typeof(Int32));
        TypeConverter EnumConverter = 
            TypeDescriptor.GetConverter(typeof(LatitudeDiretcion));
        
        // return string representation of Latitude
        return IntConverter.ConvertToString(context, culture, LValue.Degrees) +
            EnumConverter.ConvertToString(context,culture, 
                                             LValue.Direction).Substring(0,1) +
            IntConverter.ConvertToString(context, culture, 
                                             LValue.Minutes) + MinutesUnit +
            IntConverter.ConvertToString(context, culture, 
                                             LValue.Seconds) + SecondsUnit;
    }
    
    // convert to a instance descriptor
    if (destinationType == typeof(InstanceDescriptor))
    {
        // no Latitude instance
        if (value == null)
            return null;
        
        // get strongly type value
        Latitude LatitudeValue = value as Latitude;
        
        // used to describe the constructor
        MemberInfo Member = null;
        object[] Arguments = null;
        
        // get the constructor of our Latitude type
        Member = 
          typeof(Latitude).GetConstructor(new Type[] { typeof(int),
          typeof(int), typeof(int), typeof(LatitudeDiretcion) });
        
        // the arguments to pass along to the Latitude constructor
        Arguments = new object[] { 
                       LatitudeValue.Degrees, LatitudeValue.Minutes,
                       LatitudeValue.Seconds, LatitudeValue.Direction };
        
        // return instance descriptor or null if we could not 
        // find a constructor
        if (Member != null)
            return new InstanceDescriptor(Member, Arguments);
        else
            return null;
    }
    
    // call base converter to convert
    return base.ConvertTo(context, culture, value, destinationType);
}

That is all you need to do for your custom type converter. You can assign your type converter to your type by applying the TypeConverter attribute to the custom type. You pass along the type of the type converter to assign. Here is the code snippet for our Latitude type:

[TypeConverter(typeof(LatitudeTypeConverter))]
public class Latitude
{
    public override string ToString()
    {
        return ToString(CultureInfo.InvariantCulture);
    }
    
    public string ToString(CultureInfo Culture)
    {
        return TypeDescriptor.GetConverter(GetType()).ConvertToString(null, 
                                                            Culture, this);
    }
}

We also implement the ToString() method on our custom type so it becomes easy for callers to convert our type to a string. We expose one implementation with no arguments, which just calls ToString() with the invariant culture, meaning it performs a string conversion which is culture independent. The second ToString() implementation allows to pass along the culture info to use during the string conversion. This implementation calls again GetConverter() on our custom type, which returns the type converter associated with that type. It then calls ConvertToString() to perform the string conversion. Whenever you want to convert the custom type to a string it is a simple call of the ToString() method provided on the custom type.

Please see the attached sample application which shows the implementation of the Latitude, Longitude and GPSLocation type converter. The example shows how you then use the property browser to set these values and how you display it on the web form itself. Notice that in the Render() method of the SimpleLocationControl control we simply call ToString() on our custom type and output that.

The standard .NET type converters

As mentioned the .NET framework comes with a number of standard type converters you can leverage (MSDN help topic ). You for example find a BooleanConverter, EnumConverter, FontConverter, ColorConverter, DateTimeConverter and many more. The BaseNumberConverter has a number of derived classes which provide all the number converters, for example the Int32Converter, ByteConverter, etc.. All these types have the TypeConverter attribute applied which tells the framework which type converter to use for these types. This is the reason why you are able to use these types in the Visual Studio .NET designer and property browser without any additional coding effort.

You can also use classes with properties in the designer and property browser by simply applying the ExpandableObjectConverter type converter. This type converter is able to read all the properties of a class and display each separately in the property browser as well as persist each property separately to the web form in the designer. This of course requires that the types used by the properties have again available type converters. The GPSLocation is a good example. It has two properties, the GPSLatitude which is of the type Latitude and the GPSLongitude which is of the type Longitude. The Latitude and Longitude types have their own type converters. The GPSLocation type has the GPSLocationTypeConverter which we implemented. That type converter is inherited from the ExpandableObjectConverter and by default inherits all its logic and therefore allows to expand that type in the property browser and view and edit each property separately. For this to work properly, you need to apply the NotifyParent attribute to each property in the class. This attribute notifies the parent when the property changes. This way when you edit a property it calls the type converter of that property as well of the parent class. Here is a code snippet for this:

[TypeConverter(typeof(GPSLocationTypeConverter))]
public class GPSLocation
{
    [Browsable(true)]
    [NotifyParentProperty(true)]
    public Longitude GPSLongitude
    {
        get 
        {
            return _Longitude;
        }
        set 
        {
            _Longitude = value;
        }
    }
}

The GPSLocationTypeConverter converts the type to and from a string. It itself uses the longitude type converter and latitude type converter. When the property is collapsed in the property browser the ExpandableObjectConverter normally just shows the type name. By implementing our own to string type conversion we are able to show the GPS location value which is nothing other than a combination of the latitude and longitude value. When you create a control using complex types you can also apply attributes to tell the designer how to persist it. The two attributes to use are DesignerSerialization and PersistenceMode. The DesignerSerialization should be set to Content which tells the designer to also persist each property of the type. The PersistenceMode attribute tells how to persist it. The default value is Attribute which means it will add all the properties as attributes using the property name hyphen sub-property name syntax. Here is an example:

<ui:LocationControl ID="LocationControl1" runat="server" 
        Location-GPSLatitude="12N1'2"" Location-GPSLongitude="24W3'4"">
</ui:LocationControl>

By using the InnerProperty value you tell it to make it a sub-tag when persisting it. Here is an example of that syntax:

<ui:LocationControl ID="LocationControl1" runat="server">
   <Location GPSLatitude="12N1'3"" GPSLongitude="24W3'4"" />
</ui:LocationControl>

There are many more control attributes you can apply. But that goes beyond this article. Here is the code snippet for the DesignerSerialization and PersistenceMode attributes:

[DefaultProperty("GPSLocation")]
[ParseChildren(true)]
[ToolboxData("<{0}:LocationControl runat="server">")]
public class LocationControl : WebControl
{
    [Bindable(true)]
    [Category("Appearance")]
    [DefaultValue(typeof(GPSLocation), "")]
    [DesignerSerializationVisibility(DesignerSerializationVisibility.Content)]
    [PersistenceMode(PersistenceMode.InnerProperty)]
    public GPSLocation Location
    {
        get
        {
            // if no instance created yet do so
            if (_Location == null)
                _Location = new GPSLocation();
            
            return _Location;
        }
    }
}

Please see the attached sample for a complete working control. It allows you to set the value of the GPS location property in the property browser and then outputs it when rendering the control.

Summary

Type converters are an important part of the Visual Studio .NET designer and property browser as well as the view state management. As long as you use standard types there is no need to write your own type converter. But when you create your own complex types you need to implement your own type converters. This article explains how to implement your own type converters and how to associate those type converters with your complex types. The .NET framework makes it very easy to implement your own type converters by inheriting from the TypeConverter class and implementing the CanConvertTo, ConvertTo, CanConvertFrom and ConvertFrom methods. If you have comments on this article or this topic, please contact me @ klaus_salchner@hotmail.com. I want to hear if you have learned something new. Contact me if you have questions about this topic or article.

License

This article has no explicit license attached to it but may contain usage terms in the article text or the download files themselves. If in doubt please contact the author via the discussion board below.

A list of licenses authors might use can be found here

About the Author

klaus_salchner@hotmail.com
Web Developer
Canada Canada
I have worked for 14 years in the industry, nine years in Europe and another five years in North America. As a Senior Enterprise Architect with solid experience in enterprise software development, Klaus spends considerable time on performance, scalability, availability, maintainability, globalization/localization and security. The projects he has been involved in are used by more than a million users in 50 countries on three continents.
 
Klaus calls Vancouver, British Columbia his home at the moment. His next big goal is doing the New York marathon in 2006. Klaus is interested in guest speaking opportunities or as an author for .NET magazines or Web sites. He can be contacted at klaus_salchner@hotmail.com or http://www.enterprise-minds.com.
 
Enterprise application architecture and design consulting services are available. If you want to hear more about it contact me! Involve me in your projects and I will make a difference for you. Contact me if you have an idea for an article or research project. Also contact me if you want to co-author an article or join future research projects!

Comments and Discussions

 
QuestionMy vote of 5 PinmemberThorsten Bruning1-Sep-11 9:26 
Generalhelp me with the code to create web page Pinmembermadhavi.k17-Feb-08 18:28 
QuestionClarification regarding TypeConverter Pinmembermilanboi31-Jul-07 23:44 
GeneralHelp me with the code Pinmemberjuliesamy27-Feb-07 20:13 
GeneralNice job! PinmemberDavid Veeneman18-Apr-06 12:43 
GeneralConvert double to int directly Pinsussguide48011-Oct-05 12:44 
GeneralExcellent Article PinmemberNeilMartin_8-Oct-05 7:34 
GeneralComments and question PinmemberMike Ellison29-Apr-05 6:43 
GeneralNice work PinmemberWillemM28-Apr-05 23:40 
GeneralGood article PinmemberDoubin28-Apr-05 23:22 

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