Rich Newman

August 25, 2007

Book Review: ‘Programming Microsoft Composite UI Application Block and Smart Client Software Factory’ by David S Platt (Microsoft Press)

I was looking forward to this book being published as there really isn’t very much documentation available for either the Composite UI Application Block or the Smart Client Software Factory. Microsoft’s own documentation is quite weak, and to use these technologies you find yourself repeatedly referring to the code itself or community blogs and websites.

However I have to say Platt’s book isn’t the answer to these problems. Firstly it’s very short. It’s true that there are nearly 200 pages, but there’s a lot of white space, big diagrams and padding throughout the book. The CAB/SCSF is now quite a large and complex piece of software and inevitably Platt can only skim the surface of the technology in such a short book.

Secondly Platt makes no real attempt to explain some of the core concepts behind the CAB/SCSF. For example, the CAB uses dependency injection and DI containers heavily, and many Microsoft developers will not have met these concepts before. Platt makes no real attempt to explain what these things are and why we might want to use them in a smart client application. This is also a criticism that can be levelled at the Microsoft documentation. Platt is better on why we might use the CAB to achieve loose coupling between parts (‘modules’) of a smart client application. But in general developers coming to the CAB struggle with the concepts more than the code and Platt has focused heavily on the code.

Thirdly Platt is quite selective on which parts of the framework he covers. For example there is a chapter on the Action Catalog, which is quite an esoteric part of the SCSF technology. However there’s no real discussion of WorkItem State, which is a much more core concept and causes a lot of confusion. The Action Catalog is just one of several new services in the latest SCSF, and Platt doesn’t discuss the others in the same detail (e.g. WorkspaceLocator, EntityTranslator).

On the plus side the book is an easy read, and it does have a strong introduction where in 30-odd pages Platt gives a good initial overview of the subject. On the subjects he does cover Platt is factually accurate and informative. Having read the book I do feel I have a better understanding of how the technology works.

In the absence of any real alternative, and given that it is quite cheap, this book is worth purchasing for a quick read to give you a selective overview of the subject. But it is too short and unfortunately it’s far from being the definitive guide I was hoping for.

http://www.amazon.com/Programming-Microsoft-Composite-Application-Software/dp/0735624143/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/104-6204775-3199132?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1188065033&sr=1-1

A Beginner’s Guide to calling a .NET Library from Access

Filed under: .net, Access, beginners guide, c#, com interop, introduction, Microsoft Access, technology — richnewman @ 1:04 am

Introduction

In an earlier blog article I described how to call a .NET Library from Excel. I have subsequently received several requests for a similar article dealing with calling .NET from Microsoft Access. This article addresses those requests.

In fact the process and issues are almost identical, which means the two articles overlap heavily. Rather than continually referring to the earlier article, however, I have here included sections from that article verbatim. If you’ve worked through the earlier article you really don’t need to work through this one as well. However, if you are interested in Access and not Excel, this is the place to start.

As with Excel, it’s actually very easy to call a .NET library directly from Access, particularly if you are using Visual Studio 2005, and you don’t need Visual Studio Tools for Office. This article explains how to do this.

A Basic Walk Through

We’ll start by walking through a very basic example. We’ll get Access to call a .NET method that takes a string as input (for example “ World”) and returns “Hello” concatenated with that input string (so, for example, “Hello World”).

1. Create a C# Windows class library project in Visual Studio 2005 called ‘DotNetLibrary’. It doesn’t matter which folder this is in for the purposes of this example.

2. To call a method in a class in our library from Access we simply need a class containing any methods we want to call. For this walk through just copy and paste the following code into our default class file:

using System;
using System.Collections.Generic;
using System.Text;
 
namespace DotNetLibrary
{
    public class DotNetClass
    {
        public string DotNetMethod(string input)
        {
            return "Hello " + input;
        }
    }
}

That’s it: if you look at existing articles on the web, or read the MSDN help, you might think you need to use interfaces, or to decorate your class with attributes and GUIDs. However, for a basic interop scenario you don’t need to do this.

3. Access is going to communicate with our library using COM. For Access to use a COM library there need to be appropriate entries in the registry. Visual Studio can generate those entries for us.

To do this bring up the project properties (double-click ‘Properties’ in Solution Explorer). Then:
i) On the ‘Application’ tab click the ‘Assembly Information…’ button. In the resulting dialog check the ‘Make assembly COM-visible’ checkbox. Click ‘OK’.
ii) On the ‘Build’ tab check the ‘Register for COM interop’ checkbox (towards the bottom: you may need to scroll down).

4. Build the library.

5. Start Access and create a new blank Access database. Call it anything you like. Open the VBA code editor. To do this in Access 2007 go to the Database Tools tab on the ribbon, and then click ‘Visual Basic’ at the left end. In earlier versions of Access go to Tools/Macro/Visual Basic Editor.

6. We now need to include a reference to our new library. Select ‘References’ on the Visual Basic Editor’s ‘Tools’ menu. If you scroll down in the resulting dialog you should find that ‘DotNetLibrary’ is in the list. Check the checkbox alongside it and click ‘OK’.

7. Now add a new code module. You can do this with the Insert/Module command on the menu. Paste the VBA code below into the code window for the module:

Private Sub TestDotNetCall()
Dim testClass As New DotNetClass
MsgBox testClass.DotNetMethod(“World”)
End Sub

8. Click anywhere in the code you’ve just pasted in and hit ‘F5’ to run the code. You should get a ‘Hello World’ message box.

Getting Intellisense Working in Access

Whilst the VBA code above compiles and executes, you will discover that intellisense is not working in the code editor. This is because by default our library is built with a late binding (run-time binding) interface only. The code editor therefore doesn’t know about the types in the library at design time.

There are good reasons for only using a late-bound interface by default: with COM versioning libraries can become difficult with early-bound interfaces. In particular, if you change the early-bound interface by adding, for example, a method in between two existing methods you are likely to break existing clients as they are binding based on the order of the methods in the interface.

For similar reasons you are heavily encouraged to code your interface separately as a C# interface and then implement it on your class, rather than using the default public interface of the class as here. You then should not change that interface: you would implement a new one if it needed to change.

For more on this see:

http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/system.runtime.interopservices.classinterfaceattribute(vs.80).aspx
http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/system.runtime.interopservices.classinterfacetype(VS.80).aspx

However, we can build our library to use early bound interfaces, which means intellisense will be available. To do this we need to add an attribute from the System.Runtime.InteropServices namespace as below:

using System;
using System.Collections.Generic;
using System.Text;
using System.Runtime.InteropServices;
 
namespace DotNetLibrary
{
    [ClassInterface(ClassInterfaceType.AutoDual)]
    public class DotNetClass
    {
        public DotNetClass()
        {
        }
        public string DotNetMethod(string input)
        {
            return "Hello " + input;
        }
    }
}

If you change your code as above it will expose an ‘AutoDual’ interface to COM. This means it is still exposing the late-bound interface as before, but now also exposes an early-bound interface. This means intellisense will work.

To get this working:

1. Come out of Microsoft Access. Access will lock the DotNetLibrary dll and prevent Visual Studio from rebuilding it unless you close it. Remember to save your new code module.

2. Go back into Visual Studio, change the DotNetClass as shown above, and rebuild the library.

3. Re-open your Access database. Once again if you are using Access 2007 there is an extra step: you need to explicitly enable macros. A warning bar will appear beneath the ribbon saying ‘Certain content in the database has been disabled’. Click the ‘Options’ button next to this, select ‘Enable this content’, and click OK.

4. Access can get confused about the interface changes unless you re-reference the library. To do this go to Tools/References. The DotNetLibrary reference should be near the top of the list now. Uncheck it and close the window. Now open the window again, find the library in the list, and re-check it (trust me, you need to do this).

5. Now run the code and it should still work (put a breakpoint in the routine and hit F5).

6. Enter a new line in the routine after the ‘MsgBox’ line, and type ‘testClass.’. When you hit the ‘.’ you should get an intellisense dropdown which shows that DotNetMethod is available. See below.

Intellisense in Access

Let me re-iterate that this works and is fine for development, but for release code you are better off using the default late binding interfaces unless you understand the full versioning implications. That is, you should remove the ClassInterface attribute from your code when you do a release.

Deployment

In the example here we are using Visual Studio to register our .NET assembly on the workstation so that Access can find it via COM interop. However, if we try to deploy this application to client machines we’re not going to want to use Visual Studio.

Microsoft have provided a command-line tool, regasm.exe, which can be used to register .NET assemblies for COM interop on client workstations. It can also be used to generate a COM type library (.tlb) separate from the main library (.dll), which is considered good practice in general.

As usual with .NET assemblies you have the choice of strong-naming your assembly and installing it in the GAC, or of not strong-naming it and including it in a local path. If you have strong-named your assembly and installed it in the GAC all you need to do is bring up a Visual Studio 2005 command prompt and run:

regasm DotNetLibrary.dll

If you have not strong-named your assembly you need to tell regasm.exe where it is so that it can find it to register it. To do this you need to run the command below, where c:\AccessDotNet is the path where DotNetLibrary.dll can be found. This works fine, although it will warn you that you should really strong-name your assembly:

regasm /codebase c:\AccessDotNet\DotNetLibrary.dll

Note that you can unregister an assembly with the /u option of regasm.

For more detail on this see http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/tzat5yw6(vs.80).aspx

Debugging into .NET from Access
You may want to debug from Access into your class library. To do this:

1. Using Visual Studio 2005 bring up the Properties window for the class library.

2. Go to the Debug tab and select the ‘Start external program’ option under ‘Start Action’. In the textbox alongside enter the full path including file name to MSAccess.exe for the version of Access you are using (usually in Program Files/Microsoft Office/Office or similar).

3. On the same Debug tab under ‘Command line arguments’ enter the full path including file name to your test database (the .mdb file, or .accdb if you are using Access 2007). Once you’re done it should something like below:

Project Properties for Access

4. Now put a breakpoint in the code (in our example the sensible place is in method DotNetMethod) and hit F5 in the .NET project. The .NET code should compile and Access should start with your database opened. If you now run the VBA code to call the .NET library again, as above, you should find that the code will break at the breakpoint you set in the .NET code.

Conclusion

The original Excel article is currently the most popular article on this blog. If anyone has any feedback on further COM interop topics they would like to see covered please post a comment. Possible topics include marshalling, interface types, or going the other way (calling Excel or Access from .NET).

References:

Index page from MSDN
http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/zsfww439.aspx

More on COM Interop from COM clients into .NET:
http://www.codeproject.com/vb/net/MusaExposingCOM.asp

A COM Class Wizard for C#
http://www.codeproject.com/csharp/cscomtemplate.asp

Guidelines for COM Interoperability from .NET
http://blogs.gotdotnet.com/heaths/archive/2005/03/09/391358.aspx

In Defense of regasm /codebase
http://weblogs.asp.net/savanness/archive/2003/05/29/7749.aspx

Excel/.NET versioning problems
http://krgreenlee.blogspot.com/2006/01/software-running-excel-with-net-11.html

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