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Posted 31 Oct 2015
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Doing Delegates Differently - Part 1

, 8 Nov 2015
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Using delegates to group, conquer cross cutting concerns and create dynamic validators

Introduction

This is an article about using delegates in a way in which you may not have thought of using them before. As I started to write this, it became obvious that this would be a long article, so I am splitting it in two. This first part is an overview of delegates and how to group functionality and cross cutting concerns with them. Part two will delve into using delegates to create a validator which can validate any type of object dynamically.

Background

A delegate is defined as a type safe function which can be passed around just like a reference variable (pointer to a memory space) and can be used to inject functionality into an object.

There are many articles you will find about delegates and multicast delegates on CodeProject or MSDN, if you need more of an introduction on the mechanics of delegates; please search for these.

If you have done Winforms development, you have already used delegates in the form of event handlers.

Assume you have a button called btnExample_Click.

(Region 1 in Code)

In a partial class created by designer, you will find the following and in the CS file, you will find the referenced code.

//in Part1.Designer.cs
this.btnExample.Click += new System.EventHandler(this.btnExample_Click);

//in Part1.cs
private void btnExample_Click(object sender, EventArgs e)
 {

 }

System.EventHandler() is defined to take a predefined delegate called void EventHandler(object sender, EventArgs e) where object is the object which generated the event (in this case, the button) and EventArgs is defined as a class which allows you to pass data specific to the object which generated the event.

If you have used Linq extensions, you have also used delegates in the form of functions passed to do something on behalf of the extension.

(Region 2 in Code)

private void btnExample2_Click(object sender, EventArgs e)
{
    List<string> lst = new List<string>();

    lst.Add("Steve");
    lst.Add("Sam");
    lst.Add("Mark");

    string result = lst.Where( w => { return w == "Steve"; }).FirstOrDefault();
    //result = Steve

    result = lst.Where(SamFunction).FirstOrDefault();
    //result Sam

    result = lst.Where(MarkFunction).FirstOrDefault();
    //result Mark
}

You may have seen a signature that looks like:

Lst.Where(Func<TSource, bool> predicate)

The Where extension is asking for a function which takes an item of the list and returns true or false depending on the object passed in. The parameter can be filled in a number of ways:

As a Lambda Expression:

string result = lst.Where( w => { return w == "Steve"; }).FirstOrDefault(); - //result = Steve

As a function passed in:

result = lst.Where(SamFunction).FirstOrDefault(); - //result Sam

Where Sam function is defined as:

private bool SamFunction(string inval )
{
    return inval == "Sam";
}

As a Lambda expression (or function) assigned to a variable of Func(string,bool):

result = lst.Where(MarkFunction).FirstOrDefault(); - //result Mark

Where MarkFunction is defined as:

Func<string, bool> MarkFunction = (w) => { return w == "Mark"; };

In all cases, the function returns true or false depending on item passed in.

Going Forward

So the question is, can you create your own functions which use other functions inside of them?

There are two special keywords:

Action and Func

Which are delegates that can be used without explicitly declaring a custom delegate.

Action is used to pass void functions (sub routines in VB.NET) and Func allow you to pass functions (function in VB.NET) which return a value.

Each delegate type is overloaded to accept a different number (up to 16) of input parameters and in the case of Func, TResult to return only one parameter.

Example:

Action(T) accepts one parameter of generic T type.
Action(T1, T2) accepts two parameters of generic T type.
Func(T, TResult) accepts one parameter of generic T type and returns a generic TResult.
Func(T1, T2, TResult) accepts two parameters of generic T type and returns a generic TResult.

The last parameter in a Func delegate is the type of return.

(Region 3 in Code)

In the following, I am creating three functions which accept either an Action or Func delegate as a parameter.

        private void MyMethod(Action a)
        {
            //This is what invoke the delegate passed in
            a.Invoke();
        }

        private void MyMethod(Action<string> a, string msg)
        {
            //This is what invoke the delegate passed in
            a.Invoke(msg);
        }

        private string MyMethodString(Func<string> f)
        {
            //This is what invoke the delegate passed in
            return f.Invoke();
        }

//Example use:

 private void btnExample3_Click(object sender, EventArgs e)
        {
            //Action call no parameters
            MyMethod(() => { MessageBox.Show("Show Me"); });   

            //Action call with a string parameter
            string s = "SHOW ME";
            //Notice assignment to a Action(T) delegate
            Action<string> ai = (val) => { MessageBox.Show(val); };
            MyMethod(ai,s);            
            
            //Func call
            string retval = MyMethodString(() => { return "the Money";});
            MessageBox.Show(retval);
        }

(Region 4 in Code)

The question is then, what other things can we do with them?

One idea is to use them to group cross cutting concerns into one place:

How many times have you written functions which look something like the following?

private void WriteHeader()
{
    lg.Log("Start Header", "Program", Logger.LogLevel.Info);
    try
    {
        var fs = new StreamWriter("test.txt", true);
        fs.WriteLine("Header");
        fs.Close();
    }
    catch (Exception ex)
    {
        lg.Log(ex.Message,"Header",Logger.LogLevel.Error);            }
    }

private void WriteBody()
{
    lg.Log("Start Body", "Program", Logger.LogLevel.Info);
    try
    {
        var fs = new StreamWriter("test.txt", true);
        fs.WriteLine("Body");
        fs.Close();
    }
    catch (Exception ex)
    {
        lg.Log(ex.Message,"Body",Logger.LogLevel.Error);
    }
}
private void WriteFooter()
{
    lg.Log("Start Footer", "Program", Logger.LogLevel.Info);
    try
    {
        var fs = new StreamWriter("test.txt", true);
        fs.WriteLine("Footer");
        fs.Close();
    }
    catch (Exception ex)
    {
        lg.Log(ex.Message,"Footer",Logger.LogLevel.Error);
    }
}

Maybe more of these…

Everything is working fine, then your boss says, “Just went through the logs and realized I never told you that you should also log when the function exits. And by the way, you should be wrapping your code in a using statement.”

Now you have to go to X number of functions and add x.log(“end”) to the bottom and wrap in a using statement.

Now the boss says: “I recently went to my re-union and met an old friend who told me all about handling errors and re-throwing friendly messages.”

Over time, each of your functions grow and are progressively harder to maintain. The next developer to support the code doesn’t know which methods need to be modified for the next request. The issues compound.

What if you could execute all these requests in one place and defer execution until you’re ready? That is what we will do using delegates.

(Region 5 in Code and Example Helper Classes)

What I have done is to create a class which I can add the delegates and execute and invoke in one place. The execution is deferred until I call the method to write.

(Region Example Helper Classes)

class WriteDocument
{
    ILogger lg;
    string fname;

    //Pass in reference to logger and filename
    public WriteDocument(ILogger log,string filename)
    {
        lg = log;
        fname = filename;
    }

    //Create a list of action definitions which will be invoked
    private List<ActionDefinition> la = new List<ActionDefinition>();

    //Used to add actions to the list
    internal void AddAction(ActionDefinition a)
    {
        la.Add(a);
    }

    /// <summary>
    /// Write out the data using delegates, in ascending order
    /// </summary>
    internal void Write()
    {
        Write(true);
    }

    /// <summary>
    /// Write out the data using delegates
    /// </summary>
    /// <param name="orderdirectionasc">True = Acending, False Descending</param>
    internal void Write(bool orderdirectionasc)
    {
        lg.Log("WriteDocument Start", "WriteDocument", Logger.LogLevel.Info);
        try
        {
            //notice that now I don't need to keep appending file, doing all my work at one time,
            //so we can overwrite each time.
            using (var fs = new StreamWriter(fname, false))
            {
                //Notice we can change order of processing by specifying.
                List<ActionDefinition> lordered;
                if (orderdirectionasc)
                    lordered = la.OrderBy( o => o.dOrderRun).ToList();
                else
                    lordered = la.OrderByDescending( o => o.dOrderRun).ToList();

                foreach (var action in lordered)
                {
                    //Notice we invoke the dAction set in the class.
                    action.dAction.Invoke(fs);
                    //We can log the name of the method (sure I could have used reflection as well)
                    lg.Log(action.dDescription, "WriteDocument", Logger.LogLevel.Info);
                }
            }
        }
        catch (Exception ex)
        {
            //We can log and change the Exception thrown
            lg.Log(ex.Message, "WriteDocument", Logger.LogLevel.Error);
            throw new Exception("An Error occurred please check your logs");
        }
        finally
        {
            lg.Log("WriteDocument End", "WriteDocument", Logger.LogLevel.Info);
        }

    }

Notice it looks a lot like what we have in each function. In addition, the boss asked if we could print both forward and backword. Something we could not easily do before. :)

It uses a supporting class to hold information about the function being added and invoked:

/// <summary>
/// This class allows us to group more information about the delegate together.
/// You could add more properties like Classification and filter in the WriteDocument routine.
/// </summary>
class ActionDefinition
{
    /// <summary>
    /// The function to pass which accepts a StreamWriter as an argument
    /// </summary>
    public Action<StreamWriter> dAction { get; set; }
    /// <summary>
    ///The description, I use for logging the function invoked
    /// </summary>
    public string dDescription { get; set; }
    /// <summary>
    /// The order number, can be used to re-order the execution.
    /// </summary>
    public int dOrderRun { get; set; }

}

(Region 5 in Code)

Boss Alert! "I want to add a section to print, but ONLY if a test comes back positive."

It is set up in the following way:

private void WriteHeader(StreamWriter fs)
    {
            fs.WriteLine("Header");
    }

    private void WriteBody(StreamWriter fs)
    {
            fs.WriteLine("Body");
    }
    private void WriteFooter(StreamWriter fs)
    {
            fs.WriteLine("Footer");
    }
    private void WriteSugarHigh(StreamWriter fs)
    {
        fs.WriteLine("No more sugar for you!");
    }

    private void btnExample5_Click(object sender, EventArgs e)
    {
        bool sugarhigh = true; //normally this would not be hard coded. Just for example

        WriteDocument wd = new WriteDocument(lg,"textasc.txt");
        wd.AddAction(new ActionDefinition() {dAction = WriteHeader,
            dDescription = "Header", dOrderRun = 1} );
        wd.AddAction(new ActionDefinition() {dAction = WriteBody,
            dDescription = "Body", dOrderRun = 2 });
        wd.AddAction(new ActionDefinition() {dAction = WriteFooter,
            dDescription = "Footer", dOrderRun = 3} );

        wd.Write(); //Write in ascending order

        WriteDocument wddesc = new WriteDocument(lg, "textdesc.txt");
        wddesc.AddAction(new ActionDefinition() { dAction = WriteHeader,
            dDescription = "Header", dOrderRun = 1 });
        wddesc.AddAction(new ActionDefinition() { dAction = WriteBody,
            dDescription = "Body", dOrderRun = 2 });
        //Notice I added a test to see if we needed to add a new section
        if (sugarhigh)
            wddesc.AddAction(new ActionDefinition() { dAction = WriteSugarHigh,
                dDescription = "HighSugar", dOrderRun = 2 });
        wddesc.AddAction(new ActionDefinition() { dAction = WriteFooter,
            dDescription = "Footer", dOrderRun = 3 });

        wddesc.Write(false); //Write in descending order
    }

Three files are created:

Log File, Testasc.txt and testdesc.txt.

Although there is some setup to do, there is a lot of functionality we could not do before.

This example would be very useful when dynamically creating certain sections of a document depending on other types of data, for example, a section is inserted in a document because a blood test came back that your sugar was high. In addition, you can print backwards as well!

//Notice I added a test to see if we needed to add a new section
if (sugarhigh)
   wddesc.AddAction(new ActionDefinition() { dAction = WriteSugarHigh, 
                    dDescription = "HighSugar", dOrderRun = 2 });

In the example, the descending file will have an extra line for sugar high.

Points of Interest

In addition to examples illustrated here, I have also used this technique to execute blocks of code which need to be included in a SQL transaction, committing when all blocks are successful or rolling back when any one fails.

When debugging, it helps to separate the Lambda expression over several lines, so you can set a break point more easily. Another trick is to write as a named function, debug your logic and convert to an anonymous function later.

In Part 2 of this article, I will continue the discussion. Showing how to use delegates and Generics to create a dynamically loaded object validator.

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

DotNetSteve
Software Developer (Senior) Polaris Solutions
United States United States
Steven Contos

Working in varied settings from small entrepreneurial companies to Fortune 500 companies. Skilled in analyzing client needs and developing solutions that are sound and effective.

Strong analytic capabilities with proven accomplishments in developing programs that exceed or meet stated goals, consistently work well, are easily maintained and fully documented. Versed in a number of SDLC technologies including Agile and Scrum, dedicated to deliver high quality software on time and on budget.

Experienced in helping companies and teams change their culture. Providing clear vision, asking tough questions of both developers and business, leading by example and building trust among all concerned.

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Comments and Discussions

 
SuggestionI suggest you rething using exceptions in the way shown. Pin
Member 119662302-Nov-15 2:26
memberMember 119662302-Nov-15 2:26 
GeneralRe: I suggest you rething using exceptions in the way shown. Pin
DotNetSteve2-Nov-15 3:01
memberDotNetSteve2-Nov-15 3:01 
GeneralRe: I suggest you rething using exceptions in the way shown. Pin
Richard MacCutchan8-Nov-15 2:51
protectorRichard MacCutchan8-Nov-15 2:51 
GeneralRe: I suggest you rething using exceptions in the way shown. Pin
DotNetSteve8-Nov-15 5:57
memberDotNetSteve8-Nov-15 5:57 

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