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Creating DAL Components Using Custom ASP.NET Build Providers And Compiler Techniques

, 24 Oct 2006
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This article describes how to create Data Access Layer Components (DALC) using ASP.NET build providers and a self-defined description language in C#, including an easy scanner, parser, and CodeDOM generator.

Introduction

There are many articles on the internet that are dealing with the creation and usage of a Data Access Layer (DAL) and the comprising components, also known as DALC (DAL Components). There is nothing new in the process of creation of a DAL. You can actually use Typed DataSets, Microsoft's Enterprise Library (DAAB), or you may use one of the many third party tools to implement a comprehensive DAL system.

The main objectives of this composition are to show how to create and use ASP.NET build providers and also to explain how easy you can analyze a small self-defined description language to declare DALCs or anything else. To implement a full-blown DAL killer application which you can use for the rest of your programming life is not the objective of this article. Normally, you would not define your own description language to declare DALCs, you would instead use an XML-based description of the components and analyze them using the feature-rich XML classes that come with the .NET framework.

I just wanted to implement a lexical analyzer (a.k.a. scanner or tokenizer), some parsing techniques, and dynamic code generation using the .NET CodeDOM. There are a lot of situations in daily work where it would be handy to develop some kind of parser (even a very small and simple one) to come up with an acceptable and elegant solution. In fact, for one of my customers, I defined a description language to automate the extension of a web application.

To show an example of the final result of a dynamically generated DAL using the DALComp application, let's assume we have a database table called Articles. For this table, the DAL (see section "DALC Description Language" below), respectively, the build provider will automatically create a class called Article, containing private member fields and public properties that correspond to the table column names. Nullable types are created for value types.

In addition, the system generates static methods (also defined within a .dal file) to select the requested data. The data are returned as a generic list of type Article (in C# List

), and can be used as follows:

Sample 1:

foreach(Article article in Article.SelectAll())
   Console.WriteLine(article.Title);

Sample 2:

ArticlesGridView.DataSource=Article.SelectAll();
ArticlesGridView.DataBind();

Sample 3:

<asp:ObjectDataSource ID="ArticlesDS" 
    TypeName="Parago.DAL.Article" SelectMethod="SelectAll" runat="server" />

So, now let's start!

Build Providers

Build providers are new to ASP.NET and the .NET framework version 2.0. They basically allow you to integrate yourself within the ASP.NET compilation process and build environment. That means you can define a new file type for which you can generate source code based on arbitrary file content. The source code (provided, for instance, as a CodeCompileUnit) will then be built into the final compiled website assemblies. In our case, we will define a new file type .dal, and the file content will be of type Text containing our own little description language to define DALCs.

In fact, the ASP.NET framework is basically doing the exact same thing for file types like .aspx and .ascx as well as for many more. The corresponding build providers are defined in the global web.config configuration file. For instance, the file type .apsx is handled by a framework class called PageBuildProvider. If you are interested in how the ASP.NET-team has implemented this provider, you can either use ILDASM or Lutz Roeder's ".NET Reflector" to disassemble the code.

To use build providers in your web applications, you have to activate new file types within the local web.config. The file type .dal for the DALComp application is defined in the configuration file as follows:

<compilation>
   <buildProviders>
      <add extension=".dal" 
          type="Parago.DALComp.DALCompBuildProvider, 
                DALComp.BuildProvider"/>
   </buildProviders>
</compilation>

The class DALCompBuildProvider handles, from now on, all files with the extension .dal. The class extends the abstract base class BuildProvider and overrides the GenerateCode method. ASP.NET calls this method during the compilation and build process of the website and passes an instance of type AssemblyBuilder to the method. Code can then be added by calling the AddCodeCompileUnit method of the AssemblyBuilder.

CodeCompileUnits represent containers for CodeDOM program graphs. Basically, they are an internal image of the source code. Each .NET language that supports the code provider model can create source code in its own language based on a CodeCompileUnit.

Creating a clean language-independent CodeDOM program graph is an annoying and somewhat cumbersome task. You have to create it if you want to generate source code for different languages. The CodeGen class for DALComp generates DAL source code for C# and VB.NET currently.

The BuildProvider class also provides a method called OpenReader to read the source code (a file with the extension .dal). The next steps are to tokenize, parse, and generate a CodeDOM program graph which we can turn over to the ASP.NET build process:

Tokenizer tokenizer=new Tokenizer(source);
Parser parser=new Parser(tokenizer);
CodeGen codeGen=new CodeGen(parser);

builder.AddCodeCompileUnit(this, codeGen.Generate());

In the next section, we first of all take a look at a sample source code to see what kind of language we want to analyze and generate code for.

DALC Description Language

The description "language" to formally describe DAL components uses a very simple syntax. The following shows a sample DAL definition contained in the file Sample.dal (stored in the special folder App_Code):

Config {
   Namespace = "Parago.DAL",
   DatabaseType = "MSSQL",
   ConnectionString = "Data Source=.\SQLEXPRESS; ... "
}

//
// DAL component for table Articles
//
DALC Article ( = Articles ) {
   Mapping {  // Map just the following fields, leave others
      ArticleID => Id,
      Text1 => Text
   }
   SelectAll()
   SelectByAuthor(string name[CreatedBy])
   SelectByCategory(int category[Category])
}

DALC Category( = "Categories" ) {
   SelectAll()
}

The syntax for the language is defined using the extended Backus-Naur form (EBNF), which is an extension of the basic Backus-Naur form (BNF) metasyntax notation, a formal way to describe languages. The following syntax-rules illustrate the definition of the DALC description language:

digit
   = "0-9"
letter
   = "A-Za-z"
identifier
   = letter { letter | digit }
string
   = '"' string-character { string-character } '"'
string-character
   = ANY-CHARACTER-EXCEPT-QUOTE | '""'
dal
   = config dalc { dalc }
config
   = "Config" "{" config-setting { "," config-setting } "}"
config-setting
   = ( "Namespace" | "DatabaseType" | 
       "Connectionstring" ) "=" string
dalc
   = "DALC" identifier [ dalc-table ] "{" 
        [ dalc-mapping ] dalc-function { dalc-function } "}"
dalc-table
   = "(" "=" ( identifier | string ) ")"
dalc-mapping
   = "Mapping" "{" dalc-mapping-field { "," dalc-mapping-field } "}"
dalc-mapping-field
   = ( identifier | string ) "=>" identifier
dalc-function
   = identifier "(" [ dalc-function-parameter-list ] ")"
dalc-function-parameter-list
   = dalc-function-parameter { "," dalc-function-parameter }
dalc-function-parameter
   = ( "string" | "int" ) identifier "[" identifier | string "]"

The next section explains how to scan and parse the syntax shown above.

Compiler Techniques

The DALComp application uses compiler techniques of a very basic kind. Implementing a real-world compiler can be a very complicated task. It involves techniques like syntax error recovering, variable scoping or bytecode (IL) generation, and many more.

The first step in the implementation is to create a tokenizer. A tokenizer analyzes the input character by character and is tries to split it into so-called tokens. Tokens are categorized blocks of texts. The categories may be language keywords like the C# loop statement "for", comparison operators like "==" or whitespaces. DALComp defines a class named Token to represent a single token, as well as an enumeration called TokenKind to define the categories of tokens:

public enum TokenKind {
   KeywordConfig,
   KeywordDALC,
   KeywordMapping,
   Type,
   Identifier,
   String,
   Assign,             // =>
   Equal,              // =
   Comma,              // ,
   BracketOpen,        // [
   BracketClose,       // ]
   CurlyBracketOpen,   // {
   CurlyBracketClose,  // }
   ParenthesisOpen,    // (
   ParenthesisClose,   // )
   EOT                 // End Of Text
}

public class Token {
   
   public TokenKind Type;
   public string Value;
   
   public Token(TokenKind type) {
      Type=type;
      Value=null;
   }

   public Token(TokenKind type, string value) {
      Type=type;
      Value=value;
   }

}

The class Tokenizer does the tokenizing by analyzing character by character of the input stream. The Tokenizer constructor initializes the object instance with the input text to scan, creates a generic queue of type Token, and calls the method Start to do the work:

public Tokenizer(string text) {

   // To avoid index overflow append new line character to text
   this.text=(text==null?String.Empty:text)+"\n";

   // Create token queue (first-in, first-out)
   tokens=new Queue<Token>();

   // Tokenize the text!
   Start();

}

The constructor will also add an additional character ("\ n") to the input text to avoid an index overflow. The Start method looks similar to the following:

void Start() {

   int i=0;

   // Iterate through input text
   while(i<text.Length) {

      // Analyze next character and may
      // be the following series of characters
      switch(text[i]) {

         // Ignore whitespaces
         case '\n':
         case '\r':
         case '\t':
         case ' ':
         break;

         // Comment (until end of line)
         case '/':
            if(text[i+1]=='/')
               while(text[++i]!='\n') ;
                  continue;

         ...

         case '{':
            tokens.Enqueue(new Token(TokenKind.CurlyBracketOpen));
            break;
         case '}':
            tokens.Enqueue(new Token(TokenKind.CurlyBracketClose));
            break;

         // '=' or '=>'
         case '=':
            if(text[i+1]=='>') {
               i++;
               tokens.Enqueue(new Token(TokenKind.Assign));
            }
            else
               tokens.Enqueue(new Token(TokenKind.Equal));
            break;

         ...

As you can see, it is simple and straightforward to implement a tokenizer. There are two more methods of the Tokenizer class, PeekTokenType to look-ahead for the next token type in the queue, and GetNextToken to actually return the next token from the queue (also removes the token from the queue):

public TokenKind PeekTokenType() {
   // Always return at least TokenKind.EOT
   return (tokens.Count>0)?tokens.Peek().Type:TokenKind.EOT;
}

public Token GetNextToken() {
   // Always return at least Token of type TokenKind.EOT
   return (tokens.Count>0)?tokens.Dequeue():new Token(TokenKind.EOT);
}

Both methods are called from the parser, the next step in compiling the source code. Parsing is the process of analyzing the sequence of tokens in order to determine its grammatical structure with respect to a given formal grammar. An instance of the Tokenizer class will be handed over to the Parser class. The Parser class produces a structure that representes a semantically correct source code, called an abstract syntax tree (AST). The name is used by mistake, since the structure is not a tree of any kind. The AST used in this context is just a generic list of DALC class objects and settings (the Config part).

The Parser class implementation is also simple and straightforward. There is no time for me to explain in detail how parsing and the concepts behind are working. This is a huge area of computing. The source code for the Parser class is self-explanatory and easy to understand.

The parser is basically just implementing the syntax-rules defined above by the extended Backus-Naur form, see also the section "DALC Description Language":

/// <span class="code-SummaryComment"><summary>
</span>
/// dal = config dalc { dalc }
/// <span class="code-SummaryComment"></summary>
</span>
void ParseDAL() {
   ParseConfig();
   do {
      ParseDALC();
   } while(Taste(TokenKind.KeywordDALC));
   Eat(TokenKind.EOT);
}

/// <span class="code-SummaryComment"><summary>
</span>
/// config = "Config" "{" config-setting 
///                    { "," config-setting } "}"
/// <span class="code-SummaryComment"></summary>
</span>
void ParseConfig() {
   Eat(TokenKind.KeywordConfig);
   Eat(TokenKind.CurlyBracketOpen);
   ParseConfigSetting();
   while(true) {
      if(!Taste(TokenKind.Comma))
         break;
      Eat();
      ParseConfigSetting();
   }
   Eat(TokenKind.CurlyBracketClose);
}

...

The parsing methods use helper functions to "eat" the tokens of the queue by calling the mentioned method GetNextToken of the Tokenizer class or simply aborting the parsing process. Here is an example:

/// <span class="code-SummaryComment"><summary>
</span>
/// Looks ahead the token line and returns the next token type.
/// <span class="code-SummaryComment"></summary>
</span>
bool Taste(TokenKind type) {
   return tokenizer.PeekTokenType()==type;
}

/// <span class="code-SummaryComment"><summary>
</span>
/// Returns the next token.
/// <span class="code-SummaryComment"></summary>
</span>
string Eat() {
   token=tokenizer.GetNextToken();
   return token.Value;
}

/// <span class="code-SummaryComment"><summary>
</span>
/// Returns the next token of type, otherwise aborts.
/// <span class="code-SummaryComment"></summary>
</span>
string Eat(TokenKind type) {
   token=tokenizer.GetNextToken();
   if(token.Type!=type)
      Abort();
   return token.Value;
}

/// <span class="code-SummaryComment"><summary>
</span>
/// Returns the next token of any of the
/// passed array of types, otherwise aborts.
/// <span class="code-SummaryComment"></summary>
</span>
string EatAny(TokenKind[] types) {
   token=tokenizer.GetNextToken();
   foreach(TokenKind type in types)
      if(token.Type==type)
         return token.Value;
   Abort();
}

The third phase is using the structure generated by the Parser class and transforming it into a CodeDOM structure that can be used to create C# or VB code. This phase is called the code generation phase. Language compilers targeting the .NET framework usually generate Intermediate Language (IL) code. The DALComp application does not generate any IL code, instead it generates a CodeDOM graph that can be used, e.g., by ASP.NET to compile into web assemblies.

The method Generate of the CodeGen class, first of all, creates a container for the CodeDOM structure, adding a namespace unit to it, and tries to connect to the defined database using the connection string that is specified within the DAL definition file (see Sample.dal):

// Create container for CodeDOM program graph
CodeCompileUnit compileUnit=new CodeCompileUnit();

try {

   // If applicable replace the
   // value '|BaseDirectory|' with the current
   // directory of the running
   // assembly (within the connection string)
   // to allow database access in DALComp.Test.Console
   string connectionString=dal.Settings["CONNECTIONSTRING"].Replace(
         "|BaseDirectory|", Directory.GetCurrentDirectory());

   // Define new namespace (Config:Namespace)
   CodeNamespace namespaceUnit=new 
     CodeNamespace(dal.Settings["NAMESPACE"]);
   compileUnit.Namespaces.Add(namespaceUnit);

   // Define necessary imports
   namespaceUnit.Imports.Add(new CodeNamespaceImport("System"));
   namespaceUnit.Imports.Add(new 
      CodeNamespaceImport("System.Collections.Generic"));
   namespaceUnit.Imports.Add(new CodeNamespaceImport("System.Data"));
   namespaceUnit.Imports.Add(new 
      CodeNamespaceImport("System.Data.SqlClient"));
   
   // Generate private member fields (to save public property values)
   // by analyzing the database table which is defined for the DALC
   SqlConnection connection=new SqlConnection(connectionString);
   connection.Open();

   // Generate a new public accessable class for each DALC definition
   // with all defined methods
   foreach(DALC dalc in dal.DALCs) {

      // Generate new DALC class type and add to own namespace
      CodeTypeDeclaration typeUnit=new CodeTypeDeclaration(dalc.Name);
      namespaceUnit.Types.Add(typeUnit);

      // Generate public empty constructor method
      CodeConstructor constructor=new CodeConstructor();
      constructor.Attributes=MemberAttributes.Public;
      typeUnit.Members.Add(constructor);

      // Get schema table with column defintions for the current DALC table
      DataSet schema=new DataSet();
      new SqlDataAdapter(String.Format("SELECT * FROM {0}", 
                         dalc.Table), connection)
        .FillSchema(schema, SchemaType.Mapped, dalc.Table);

      // Generate for each column a private member field and a public
      // accessable property to use
      foreach(DataColumn column in schema.Tables[0].Columns) {

        // Define names by checking DALC mapping definition
        string name=column.ColumnName;
        string nameMapped=
           dalc.Mapping.ContainsKey(name.ToUpper())?
                dalc.Mapping[name.ToUpper()]:name;

        // Generate private member field with underscore plus name; define
        // member field type by checking if value type and create a
        // nullable of that type accordingly
        CodeMemberField field=new CodeMemberField();
        field.Name=String.Format("_{0}", nameMapped);
        field.Type=GenerateFieldTypeReference(column.DataType);
        typeUnit.Members.Add(field);

        // Generate public accessable property for private member field,
        // to use for instance in conjunction with ObjectDataSource
        CodeMemberProperty property=new CodeMemberProperty();
        property.Name=nameMapped;
        property.Type=GenerateFieldTypeReference(column.DataType);
        property.Attributes=MemberAttributes.Public;
        property.GetStatements.Add(
           new CodeMethodReturnStatement(
              new CodeFieldReferenceExpression(
                new CodeThisReferenceExpression(),
                  field.Name
              )
           )
         );
         
         property.SetStatements.Add(
            new CodeAssignStatement(
               new CodeFieldReferenceExpression(
                  new CodeThisReferenceExpression(),
                  field.Name
               ),
               new CodePropertySetValueReferenceExpression()
            )
         );
         typeUnit.Members.Add(property);

      }

      ...
      
   }
   
}

Based on the DAL specification file, the method reads in each schema table of a DALC table, builds up a new class type, and adds all columns as private member fields and public properties to it. If a column data type is a value type, then it will create a nullable version of that value type as follows:

CodeTypeReference GenerateFieldTypeReference(Type columnType) {

   // If column data type is not a value type return just return it
   if(!columnType.IsValueType)
      return new CodeTypeReference(columnType);

   // Type is a value type, generate a nullable type and return that
   Type nullableType=typeof(Nullable<>);
   return new CodeTypeReference(
      nullableType.MakeGenericType(new Type[] { columnType }));

}

For example, if a column is of type int, this helper function will generate a int? or System.Nullable<int>. Here a sample of auto-generated C# code:

public class Article {

   private System.Nullable<int> _Id;
   private string _Title;
   private string _Text;
   private string _Text2;
   private string _Language;
   private System.Nullable<int> _Category;
   private string _CreatedBy;
   private System.Nullable<System.DateTime> _CreatedOn;
   
   public Article() {
   }

   public virtual System.Nullable<int> Id {
      get {
         return this._Id;
      }
      set {
         this._Id = value;
      }
   }
   
   // Helper method to query data
   public static List<Article> SelectData(string sql) {
      List<Article> result;
      result = new List<Article>();
      System.Data.SqlClient.SqlConnection connection;
      System.Data.SqlClient.SqlCommand command;
      System.Data.SqlClient.SqlDataReader reader;
      connection = new System.Data.SqlClient.SqlConnection("Data Source=...");
      connection.Open();
      command = new System.Data.SqlClient.SqlCommand(sql, connection);
      reader = command.ExecuteReader();
      for (; reader.Read(); ) {
         Article o;
         o = new Article();
         if (Convert.IsDBNull(reader["ArticleID"])) {
            o.Id = null;
         }
         else {
            o.Id = ((System.Nullable<int>)(reader["ArticleID"]));
         }
         result.Add(o);
      }
      reader.Close();
      connection.Close();
      return result;
   }
   
   // DALC function
   public static List<Article> SelectAll() {
      string internalSql;
      internalSql = "SELECT * FROM Articles";
      return SelectData(internalSql);
   }
   
}

For more detailed information, please refer to source code.

Summary

The DAL itself is a basic implementation, and shows the concepts of creating dynamic code. To be accurate, the DALComp compiler is actually more a source-to-source translator than a compiler. The current version only generates methods to select data, no updates or inserts. As you can see, there is plenty of room for extending the DAL by augmenting the description language and generating more dynamic code to make the DAL productive.

For more information regarding building compilers and virtual machines, I recommend Pat Terry's "Compiling with C# and Java" book. Another way to study compiler techniques in practice is to take a look at the sources of the .NET implementation of Python, IronPython. The source code is available as download on the CodePlex website.

For real-world compiler development, there are plenty of utility tools available such as Coco/ R, a scanner and parser generator, or the ANTLR compiler tools (used by the Boo compiler). You can also find a lot of information on the web site of Microsoft Research, e.g., the F# compiler. Another interesting topic is the Phalanger project ("The PHP Language Compiler for the .NET Framework") on CodePlex.com.

License

This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)

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About the Author

Jürgen Bäurle
Software Developer (Senior)
Germany Germany
I’m a software developer based in Germany.
 
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QuestionOne Question PinmemberManish Pansiniya15-Dec-06 23:08 
AnswerRe: One Question PinmemberJuergen Baeurle25-Jan-07 20:03 
GeneralRe: One Question PinmemberManish Pansiniya26-Jan-07 3:47 
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