Mining the Cloud

Imagine the world's information at your fingertips. Imagine being able to slice and dice it as you choose. Imagine you're a sales exec who, with just a few clicks, can pull up reports on consumer spending and demographics, mapped to your sales areas -- or your competitors' sales areas -- just about anywhere.

And the best part is that you don't have to invest in your own data warehouse, with all the accompanying costs and hassles. You can just pull the data out of the cloud.

This will soon be a reality as Microsoft's Windows Azure platform goes commercial, and vast repositories of public and private data are made available via subscription through Microsoft's Dallas project. These data feeds will consist of everything from AP news headlines to business analysis services to topographic maps to global U.N. statistics on just about anything you can think of.

I've been fascinated with Dallas since it was announced at the recent PDC 09 with much fanfare. I keep thinking of all that information out there and what people will be able to do with it. Maybe the yottabytes of government statistics we've been paying for will actually be put to good use.

If you haven't checked out Dallas, you should. It's still free through the end of the month.

Just to show how easy it is, I signed up, subscribed to some feeds and displayed them in a Windows Forms app. I then went further and fed U.S. crime data into a live ASP.NET site that lets me massage and cull information not readily apparent, such as cities with the highest crime rate in each state. (By the way, I'm using MaximumASP's service to host the site; it offers free beta accounts for developers to play around with ASP.NET 4 and Visual Studio 2010.)

I even analyzed the data with Power Pivot and Excel. BI for the masses is here.

Here's how to get started. First, check out the Dallas Quick Start. From there go to the Dallas Developer Portal to sign in with a Live ID, create an account and request an invitation token.

After you get the token you log in and you're in business. At the home page, you will see tabs for the catalog of available subscriptions, your subscriptions, your account keys and an access report that shows you how many times your subscriptions have been tapped.

Clicking on Catalog brings up dozens of feeds to which you can subscribe. Most of them are still in the "coming soon" stage, but available feeds include infoUSA business stats, U.S crime statistics, AP headlines, NASA Mars images and U.N. data. Here's a sampling of some coming feeds:

Feeds available in Microsoft's cloud
[Click image to view larger version.]

I subscribed to "2006 and 2007 Crime in the United States" from DATA.gov. Clicking on that link from your subscription page brings you to a page where you can preview the data and invoke the service, selecting state, city and year, with your choice of a table display or Atom 1.0 and Raw XML formats. Here is how the crime statistics look for Alabama cities for the year 2007, with the preview function:

Preview of Alabama cities crime statistics 2007
[Click image to view larger version.]

Of special interest to developers are the capability to copy the URL for the service to your clipboard, the request header used to call the service, and downloadable C# "service classes" that you can plug into your Visual Studio projects. You can use the request header to invoke the service with REST APIs in just about any programming environment. For .NET developers, all you need to do is plug your account number and a unique user ID (GUID) into the downloaded proxy class code and it will take care of all the nuts and bolts of accessing the service.

I built an ASP.NET Web page and used the crime stats proxy class to display the feed data in a GridView. It looks much like the preview of the data on the portal, with options provided through ListBoxes to display data by state, city and year:

Alabama crime data in a Gridview, built with ASP.NET
[Click image to view larger version.]

To demonstrate rudimentary data analysis, I added a "Find Most Violent Cities" button to display the cities in a particular state that had the highest crime rate (using a standard formula) and highest number of violent crimes in 2006 or 2007. Here's the result:

Analyzing most violent Alabama cities
[Click image to view larger version.]

As mentioned, I published the project so you can check it out yourself to get an idea of what can be done with minimal effort.

For more serious data analysis and business intelligence, you might want to use Microsoft's Power Pivot. To test it, I downloaded the Office 2010 beta and PowerPivot for Excel 2010 (it's also available for SharePoint 2010).

I'm not a numbers guy, so I was lost from there on, but by clicking on the "Analyze" button on my Dallas crime statistics page, I downloaded the feed's data directly into PowerPivot/Excel:

Downloading the data to a pivot table
[Click image to view larger version.]

I only managed to put some data into a useless, cheesy looking chart, but you get the idea of what could be done.

From here on, the possibilities are endless, especially when all the promised feeds come online. I wish my free trial subscriptions could go on forever, but Microsoft will soon start commercializing Dallas and the other Azure offerings. I haven't found any subscription pricing info.

In the meantime, I would love to see other ways that developers are using Dallas. As Microsoft's Dave Campbell said at PDC 09, Dallas could be the "killer app" for the cloud. There must be some cool experimentation going on out there.

Please share your project via the comments section here or shoot me an e-mail.

Posted by David Ramel on 01/06/2010 at 12:52 PM0 comments


Acing Azure and Dabbling in Dallas

Got Azure? I do!

Here's a ringing endorsement for the simplicity of the Windows Azure platform: I was able to migrate a database into a SQL Azure project and display its data in an ASP.NET Web page. What's more, I actually developed a Windows Forms application that displayed some of the vast store of public data accessible via Microsoft's Dallas project.

And believe me, if I can do it, anybody who knows what a connection string is can do it. It's wicked easy, as they say here in the Boston area.

I've long been fascinated by the cloud. In fact, almost exactly three years ago I commissioned an article on the nascent technology, having identified it as the future of... well, just about everything. For me, a coding dilettante, there's just something cool about the novelty of being in the cloud. For IT pros, it must be exciting having no worries about hardware, the nitty gritty of administration minutiae, and so on.

So if you haven't yet, you should check out the cloud. Microsoft's Windows Azure platform services are free until Feb. 1.

Here's how I did it. I used a laptop running Windows 7, with Visual Studio 2010 Beta 2, SQL Server Management Studio, SQL Server Express, the Windows Azure SDK, the Windows Azure Toolkit for Visual Studio 2010, and the Windows Azure Platform Training Kit.

To start out, I asked our friends in Redmond for a SQL Azure October CTP invitation through Microsoft Connect. This just involved signing in with a Windows Live ID and answering a few questions. The invitation code e-mail arrived in a few days. I went to the SQL Azure management portal, entered my invitation code, provided an administrator user name and password, created an AppFabric, a new Service Namespace and validated the name, created an account and started my first project.


[Click on image for larger view.]

Clicking on the Firewall Settings tab lets you specify a range of IP addresses that can access your project. And there's a checkbox to allow Microsoft services to access the box.

After passing a Database Connectivity Test, I was off to SQL Server Management Studio (SSMO) to start playing around in the cloud. You can create a database schema from the portal, but to populate it I used SSMO. It was easy to create a simple database and run queries against it using Transact-SQL, after I learned you had to provide a clustered index.


[Click on image for larger view.]

The only catch to remember is that when starting up SSMO, you need to close out of the initial Connect to Server box that pops up, for some reason. Then you need to click on New Query and enter your SQL Azure server name in the same exact dialog box. The server name is handily provided via the portal, where you can also get your connection strings by selecting the database you want to work with and clicking on "Connection Strings" and choosing ADO.NET or ODBC. Here's a snapshot of a database list and the accompanying functionality provided by the portal:


[Click on image for larger view.]

After creating a simple database and populating it, I moved on to the more complicated project of migrating an existing database to SQL Azure, which presently doesn't handle some common data types and functions.

Luckily, Microsoft provides a handy SQL Azure Migration Wizard, which I got to work after a few hiccups. You can see all the different conversion options it offers here:


[Click on image for larger view.]

I also created the sample database ("School.mdf") from this tutorial explaining how to migrate databases via Transact-SQL scripts.

Here's what a failed script looks like:


[Click on image for larger view.]

Here's what a successful script looks like:


[Click on image for larger view.]

From there I tackled the task of using Visual Studio to build some apps to access the SQL Azure databases. I created a console app, a Windows Form app, and an ASP.NET page with data displayed via GridView and more. I then secured a Dallas account and started displaying public information like news feeds, crime statistics and more from a vast repository of public information. Being a rank amateur, it took me much longer than I care to admit. I'll give you some of the gory details and maybe a few helpful tips on what not to do later.

In the meantime, if you've dabbled in Dallas and have something cool to share, tell us about it -- and provide a link if possible -- in the comments section below, or drop me a line at dramel@1105media.com. I would love to find out what's going on out there in this new playground in the sky.

Posted by David Ramel on 12/16/2009 at 12:52 PM1 comments


Coding for Booze (& other fun stuff)

Database-related programming has to be right up there on the boring scale. But if you want to improve your coding skills, why not do something interesting while you learn?

Microsoft's Clint Rutkas has the right idea. One of the hits at the recent Professional Developer's Conference was his automated bartender robot, a contraption with tubes, valves and a compressed CO2 tank that serves up cocktails.

"It pours drinks," he told Scott Hanselman during a Channel 9 video feed from the conference. "I basically built a machine to pour mixed drinks."

Who says Microsoft isn't cool?

Rutkas and two friends from the Coding4Fun department were on hand to demonstrate the lighter side of application development at Redmond. "We get to literally figure out cool, crazy items that people want us to build, or we want to build, and we basically blog about it," Rutkas said.

Tim Higgins showed off his Wi-Fi Warthog Nerf weapon, and Brian Peek revealed a video game controlled by brainwaves.

I was more interested in the bartender.

Rutkas said he came up with the idea because "I was always getting yelled at for mixing drinks too strong." So he said "I'm building a robot" to serve drinks and "be the McDonalds of the bar world."

The robot bartender is powered by a touch-screen laptop running Windows 7 and SQL Server. "The front end is WPF; it uses LINQ to SQL to poll data," Rutkas said. "Basically the entire app was my excuse to learn WPF and LINQ to SQL, and improve my knowledge of threads."

He said all the parts were readily available off the shelf and no soldering was required. A relay board, which Rutkas described as "a glorified light switch," opens up the correct valves, and then the pressurized system pours the liquid. He said the relay board mounts as a COM port, or serial port, and "I created a wrapper to talk to it."

"The entire system actually has one moving part," Rutkas said. The relay board is operated by Bluetooth. Rutkas said he had to go wireless because he "blew up a laptop" in his first try and had to enact "a harsh separation of church and state" to keep the liquids away from the electronics.

He said he would be posting all the details of how he built the bartender at the Coding4Fun blog page.

You can see more Coding4Fun videos from PDC on MSDN.

The "Iron Bartender" really got my attention, so I did a quick search and found other fun, database-related tutorials featuring dogs, galaxies, Facebook apps, memory games and more. I'll write about them later. When I do, I would love to include your examples, too.

Tell me about your favorite database-related tutorials that inject some levity into the learning process, or are just more interesting than the average "display Customer data from the Northwind database" variety.

List them in the comments section below or drop me a line at dramel@1105media.com. I'm sure you can come up with some fun stuff-even without alcohol.

Posted by David Ramel on 12/09/2009 at 12:52 PM0 comments


Is Microsoft Feeling the "NoSQL" Heat?

Think the "NoSQL" movement isn't prominent on Microsoft's radar screen?

Think again. Not only is the company tracking it, some people inside Microsoft have actually jumped on the anti-SQL bandwagon. This came to light when Microsoft Technical Fellow Dave Campbell took some pot-shots at the latest threat to the company's bread-and-butter database strategy during the recent Professional Developer's Conference.

"The relational database model has stood the test of time," the database guru said in an interview with Charles Torre on Microsoft's Channel 9 video feed from PDC. "And it's interesting in that there's this anti-SQL movement, if you will," he continued. "You know some people follow that. The challenge is that you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater. "

Some people? How about your people? Here's an exact transcription of his subsequent remarks:

"I've been doing this database stuff for over 20 years and I remember hearing that the object databases were going to wipe out the SQL databases. And then a little less than 10 years ago the XML databases were going to wipe out.... We actually ... you know... people inside Microsoft, [have said] 'let's stop working on SQL Server, let's go build a native XML store because in five years it's all going....'"

Campbell, and others during the show, pointed to the cloud as Microsoft's answer to the future of database technology.

He said, "I think a lot of people in this anti-SQL movement, they're really looking for the cloud benefits, and the thing that we're trying to achieve with SQL Azure is to give you the cloud benefits, but not throw out the model that has worked for so long and people are so familiar with. So [we're] trying to retain the best of both worlds."

The "NoSQLers" weren't his only target. He also took some shots at a certain unnamed company trying to get with the "database service" program.

"Another company made some noise ... tried to make some noise in front of our noise, a week or two ago, by announcing what they're calling a relational database service," Campbell said. "All they did is they took a relational database server and they stuck it in a VM, okay. So you still have to buy the VM. So if you've got a very small database, and you want to run it for a month, you're paying like 11 cents an hour or so. The smallest database you can get up there, is approaching $100 a month, just to have it, because you need to rent the whole infrastructure to go off and do that."

I don't know what that unnamed company is, but I found this announcement interesting: "Introducing Amazon RDS - The Amazon Relational Database Service." This came in an Oct. 26 blog posting on the Amazon Web Services Blog page.

Campbell went on to compare the pricing structure of that unnamed service with Microsoft's database service: "Our cost of SQL Azure in a 1GB database is about one-tenth of what you could do in the other thing that was recently announced ... from some other company."

And truth be told, there were some very cool presentations around the cloud and new ways of using data at PDC. I found the Dallas project particularly interesting.

What about you? What do you think of the whole thing? Comment below or drop me a line at dramel@1105media.com. Let's talk.

Posted by David Ramel on 12/01/2009 at 12:52 PM23 comments


Trying to Become a Programmer

I'm as cynical as the next guy, but this note I just got really made me stop and think about things like the meaning of Thanksgiving, and the fact that there are real people behind that 10.2% unemployment rate statistic.

Here it is, presented raw and unedited -- kinda like life:

dear  mr.ramel

forgive my lack of proper punctuation and caps and spelling.i never took typing and dont know how to use word. I was happy to see someone who taght themselves C languages. I have been doing that for about three years. up until recently i had been working 60 and 70 hours aweek at a hotel dining room bussing tables for about 15 years. most of the guests in this melourne florida hotel work for NASA,Grumman,Harris,Rockwell etc. over time i made friends with some of the IT people who work for these places. i decided to try to improve myself and asked some of them what it is they do and what should i learn to aim myself in their direction. one guy said"if you learn c you can go anywhere". so I started with c++.its been like trying to learn how to fly a martian spacecraft. being computer illiterate five years ago didnt help.stumbling around barnes and noble i have managed to pick up quite a few tiles on the subject of programming.At someone elses urging i have dipped my toe into sql but it seems to be quite a frigid subject.Another of my guests got me interested in cisco so i now have several books on telecommunications and internetworking.VB (or studio whatever) and java are a little in the mix.Ruby  and php too. I'm far along enough now thatthe rules and sytax of these languages are starting to resemble each other.  Now my goal is certification or a degree from whatever accredited institution I can get myself onboard with. I've been unemployed for several months now  so I'm trying to take advantage of offerings the state of florida hasas far as scholarships and grants and whathaveya.Nothing definite yet.Not ruling anything out elseware as far as that is concerned. I can tell you one thing though. It's that I have been bitten by the IT bug and I'm gonna persue it and hopefully make it my career. I'll be happy to get involved with your blog or just contribut in some way as an IT neophyte. I like to just surf around and glean whatever flavor of IT is sittiing out there for free. It's guilty pleasure to register for some free webinar and type ":student" as my proffession just to get in. I'm just looking forward to getting paid for having so much fun.      vty josh

Posted by David Ramel on 11/19/2009 at 12:52 PM8 comments


Controversy at PDC?

You may have read about Microsoft's far-reaching Oslo project -- launched in 2007 with great ambitions -- transitioning to a group of technologies to be incorporated into SQL Server called SQL Server Modeling.

Kathleen Richards at Redmond Developer News explained the change last week in her RDN Express blog.

The move generated a strong reaction from developers. Douglas Purdy's blog post announcing the shift in strategy had garnered more than 25 mostly negative comments -- with terms like "disappointment" and "wrong direction" being thrown around -- when Purdy responded.

Here's one choice tidbit from his comment: "The great irony to all these comments is that all we did was change the name from 'Oslo' to SQL Server Modeling and now we get the #fail tag."

The next day Purdy followed up with a posting titled "On DSLs and a few other things...." Two days after that a second follow-up post came out titled "On M." (That's the new programming language that constitutes one of the three main components of SQL Server Modeling, if you didn't know.)

So I'm looking forward to news coming out of the Professional Developer's Conference taking place right now in Los Angeles. Especially the Thursday presentation: "Oslo Modeling and DSL."

Should be interesting.

Posted by David Ramel on 11/18/2009 at 12:52 PM1 comments


A Good Read, a Good Deed

Speaking of good books, Microsoft blogger Dan Jones last week passed on some info about a brand-new SQL Server book that benefits what looks like a worthy organization, www.WarChild.org, which is described as "a network of independent organisations, working across the world to help children affected by war."

The book, SQL Server MVP Deep Dives, was written by 53 SQL Server MVPs who volunteered their efforts and are donating all royalties to WarChild.org.

Posted by David Ramel on 11/18/2009 at 12:52 PM0 comments


The New Guy

Hi folks. I'm David Ramel, and I'll be posting to Data Driver from here on, taking over for Jeffrey Schwartz, who has moved on to other duties at Redmond magazine and Redmond Channel Partner.

I've been an IT journalist for more than 10 years, and I do love programming. Now, I'm not an accomplished coder by any means. I think that left-brain, right-brain thing gets in the way of any true talent (which is why I'm a writer). But, as a former colleague once wrote, I never get tired of making all the bells and whistles work.

Long ago I taught myself C++. That actually resulted in a real, totally original, working executable, but it almost killed me.

I found Java and Visual J++ (remember that?) more my speed. Lately I've been experimenting with C# and Visual Studio.

Since I was recently named the database guy, I've been fooling around with LINQ and ADO.NET and such in my spare time -- which ain't much.

So it was quite satisfying to figure out Data Connections, DataSets, ConnectionStrings and the like and hook up to the good old Northwind database and run some SQL Server queries to populate a DataGridView.

I'm eager to learn more, even if to get just the slightest inkling of what you readers are dealing with out there.

So hey, readers, drop me a line. That's the key message here.

Suggest some good books or Web sites I could use to further my education. Maybe some good tools or add-ons for VS. Let me know what problems you're having, what topics you'd like to see covered, what complaints you have -- heck, even what music you like to listen to while you code. Anything at all (well, you know, almost anything).

Let's make this space an exchange of information and ideas. Let you be the ones to dictate what we cover and talk about.

See, that way, I won't have to work, and I can finally finish that cool C# BlackJack game I've been working on. JK!

Really, just kidding.

Posted by David Ramel on 11/18/2009 at 12:52 PM4 comments


VS2010 Compatibility and Code Only Extensions Arrive in EF 4 Feature CTP

One of the key pieces missing in Beta 2 of Microsoft's ADO.NET Entity Framework 4 was compatibility with Visual Studio 2010 Beta 2 and the completed Code Only extensions that the company promised (see Entity Framework Gets More Code Only Extensions)

Microsoft released Beta 2 of the Entity Framework 4 October 19th (see EF4 Beta 2 Arrives with New Features) addressing many of the shortcomings of version 1 such as its focus on the data aspect of entities and its failure to support POCO (Plain Old CLR Objects), lazy loading and persistence ignorance.

The first release was a database-design first framework rather than model-first, says Roger Jennings, principal consultant, OakLeaf Systems

Microsoft put the finishing touches on the Entity Framework 4 this week releasing the Feature Community Test Preview, which is now available for download.

"Hooray for compatibility, but more importantly, we can now work with a greatly enhanced version of the Code Only feature and Self-Tracking Entities," writes .NET consultant Julie Lerman in a blog posting. "Code Only is the API that allows you to use EF without a model at all. Self-Tracking Entities provides tracking for entities across WCF Services and their clients."

Lerman is author of the book Programming Entity Framework (O'Reilly and Partners, 2009) and is writing an update covering the new release. Among other things, she told me that Code Only will appeal to those critical of the Entity Framework's focus on XML.

"If you don’t want to deal with the model but you still want to be able to do the querying without having to worry about going back and forth with the database or physically having to create the model, those are the benefits Code Only gives," Lerman explains." Since the Entity Framework absolutely relies on the XML and metadata, what Code Only does at run time and on the fly is it creates that meta data, and gives it to Entity Framework to do what it needs to do."

According to the ADO.NET Team Blog, the Code Only improvements include the following:  

    • Fine Grained Control over model
      • Specify Navigation Property Inverses
      • Specify Property Facets
      • Complex Types
    • Customizable Mappings
      • Change Table Name, Column Names
      • Specify Custom Inheritance Strategy
      • Entity Splitting
      • Join Table Mapping

The CTP also includes the Self-Tracking Entities template, which permits code generation of Entity Framework 4 entities "that facilitate ease of use in WCF/N-Tier scenarios."

Lerman and others I've spoken with over the past two weeks describe the Entity Framework 4 as a vast improvement over version 1 though others say it still lags what's available in NHibernate and other object request mapping tools. A full report will appear in the December issue of Visual Studio Magazine.

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 11/05/2009 at 12:52 PM0 comments


Red Hat Invests in EnterpriseDB

In a move that could boost its fortunes in the open-source database space, EnterpriseDB this week said it received a third round of financing valued at $19 million led by Red Hat.

EnterpriseDB is the key sponsor of the PostgreSQL open source database. The company offers a standard and advanced edition with tools to migrate from Oracle databases and more recently from MySQL. While the companies are not saying how much of a share Red Hat will hold in the company, IBM, NTT and Sony Online Entertainment are also strategic investors in the company.

IBM and Red Hat in particular have a vested interest in the success of EnterpriseDB, whose database platform is suited for Java developers. "Red Hat has a very strong position with Java and corporate developers through their JBoss product suite and we think that's an important market segment for PostgreSQL," said president and CEO Ed Boyajian, in an interview. "In the arena of new application development, PostgreSQL is growing to be the de-facto standard for open-source databases for Java developers.

Because EnterpriseDB's core business is targeted at drawing from Oracle database shops, IBM and Red Hat also stand to benefit from the company's success. Meanwhile since Oracle has announced its $7.4 billion bid to acquire Sun Microsystems, which owns the MySQL database, Boyajian said interest has increased in PostgreSQL as a potential alternative.

"We definitely see a growing interest from MySQL users who are concerned about going to Oracle," Boyajian said, noting that he has seen a steady rise in downloads for its MySQL to PostgreSQL migration tools.

Boyajian was not specific as to how the funds would be used other than the company will look to expand its presence and extend its channel program in the coming year. He declined to say what new technology may arise from the investment.

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 10/28/2009 at 12:52 PM1 comments


EF4 Beta 2 Arrives with New Features

The big news for .NET developers this week is the release of beta 2 of Visual Studio 2010 and the .NET Framework 4, which became generally available today (see VS2010 and .NET 4 Beta 2 Go Live). For developers of data-driven applications, beta 2 included some major improvements to the ADO.NET Entity Framework, Microsoft's new interface for providing access to apps using object-relational modeling (ORM) rather than programming directly against relational schema.

First released with the Visual Studio 2008 and the .NET Framework 3.5 SP1, the Entity Framework has become a polarizing issue among database developers. As covered extensively, the Entity Framework has been a godsend to many programmers who welcome the move to model-driven development.

However it has also been much maligned by those who prefer the tried-and-true ADO.NET data access mechanism or those who feel that there are better object-relational mapping technologies than Microsoft has to offer such as the NHibernate or Spring.NET.

Nonetheless Microsoft's Entity Framework stands out in another unique way: it is part of Visual Studio and the .NET Framework. And like it or not, it's here to stay.

"The Entity Data Model represents such a key strategic direction for Microsoft that spans all of our products," said Elisa Flasko, program manager in Microsoft's data modeling group in an interview. It initially spanned SQL Server, Visual Studio and the .NET Framework, while this week support for SharePoint Server was announced (see Microsoft Gives SharePoint A Facelift).

Flasko said the older data access languages and frameworks remain important. "We want to enable our customers and partners to increase their productivity, and better enable the integration across their applications, across Microsoft applications, and across the many different data sources," she said. "That said ADO.NET is a core part of the .NET Framework, as well, the Entity Framework, which builds on top of the traditional ADO.NET SQL client and provider model APIs in general."

With this week's release of beta 2, Microsoft has added a laundry list of features that appear to be welcome additions. Among them is support for Foreign Key Associations, improvements to POCO support, support for Lazy Loading by default in new models, support for binary keys, improvements to the Object Services API designed to allow n-Tier and self tracking entities, new extensibility APIs and improvements in LINQ to Entities. Flasko provides a much more extensive rundown in her blog posting.

Still to come though is the Feature CTP 2 version, which Flasko said should be released shortly.

Beta 2 also addresses a major complaint of the Entity Framework: it's weak of support for complex stored procedures, which is said to be remedied in this new release. For example, the user interface can now detect columns returned from a stored procedure and create a corresponding complex type, Flasko wrote in a blog posting. "In addition, existing complex types can be updated when a stored procedure definition changes," she noted.

"There is some heavy hitting stuff in this list," said Julie Lerman, an independent .NET consultant, who is writing an update to her book Programming Entity Framework (O'Reilly and Partners) covering the EF 4.  "For example having access to foreign keys and having foreign keys in the model is going to be a game-changer for a lot of people. They think it's so important that they've made it the default, that's a really, really big thing in this new version that we didn't have in beta 1."

The new lazy loading update will be welcome by some, criticized by others, Lerman tells me. "People who are used to using ORMs absolutely expect lazy loading to be there, while for people who are not used to using ORMs, this might be unexpected behavior for them. They can turn it off for sure, easily, but it's one of those issues that has been widely debated. Everyone using LINQ to SQL is used to lazy loading working, so it's not an insignificant change."

Overall, Lerman said, beta 2 is a significant update and she will have more to say once she spends some time testing it. 'These changes are going to have a huge impact on things that we've been looking forward to from moving from Entity Framework 1 to the new version," she said.

But Entity Framework has its critics. I was chatting with Andrew Brust, chief of new technology at the consulting firm twentysix New York, and he is not completely sold on the Entity Framework. "People don’t like the objects that the Entity Framework generates, they're not quite everything they would do if they wrote their own, so they are putting objects around the objects, and now you've got an extra layer of indirection," said Brust, who also writes a column for Visual Studio Magazine. (For his take on the Entity Framework, see The Value of Known Entities)

"Because instead of just writing your own objects around the ADO.NET code that would talk to the database directly, you are writing your objects around an Entity Framework object which then uses ADO.NET to talk to the database," Brust added. "That's the problem."

Flasko said she begs to differ noting the support for T4 templates and improvements to POCO. "You are writing objects that then become the Entity Framework objects, so the T4 [templates] will actually generate the Entity Framework objects but it will generate them customized to your specifications," she said. "It will generate them, shape the way that you actually want them shaped for your business practices or for your applications and then with the POCO objects you are creating very, very simple plain CLR objects that become the Entity Framework objects in that instance as well."

Those partial to other ORM technologies were even more critical in their assessment of the Entity Framework. "Even with EF4, it still hasn't begun to get close to the feature set that NHibernate had 4-plus years ago, not to mention the features in NHibernate 2.1 and Fluent NHibernate," said .NET consultant Chad Myers, in an email. Myers was part of the original team that invented Fluent NHibernate.

"As far as I'm concerned, EF is a marked step backwards in progress in the .NET space and represents the 'wrong' side of the internal struggle within Microsoft to be more open, engaged, and cooperative with the flourishing .NET open source ecosystem that has erupted in spite of Microsoft's efforts," he said.

I will be writing more on this and would like to hear your views. Please drop me a line at jschwartz@1105media.com or comment below.

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 10/21/2009 at 12:52 PM0 comments


Entity Framework Gets More Code Only Extensions

There's good news for those interested in the Code Only extensions Microsoft started adding to the ADO.NET Entity Framework earlier this year. The company this week broadened its support for Code Only POCO (Plain Old CRL Object) entities in the Entity Framework.

In a status-update posted on Microsoft's Entity Framework Design blog, Microsoft outlined some new features coming to the next test build of the Entity Framework, which further its support for Code Only development.

"Code Only is now looking much more complete,"noted Microsoft Entity Framework program manager Alex James in the blog posting announcing the Code Only updates. "It isn’t completely finished yet, we are still working on the rough edges."

The Code Only support in the first CTP was, by Microsoft's own account, limited. The latest enhancements to Code Only support were well-received.  "Code Only is their way of allowing Entity Framework to be a technology for people who do not want to do modeling, which is more typical domain-driven developers," said independent .NET consultant Julie Lerman, who is writing an update to her book Programming Entity Framework (O'Reilly and Partners) covering the EF 4.

Lerman told me that while the potential audience of those preferring the Code Only features might be smaller than those using the model-driven approach, Microsoft's decision to further embrace POCO promises to broaden the reach of the Entity Framework. "Because the Entity Framework now supports those ways of programming, I think more developers like me, who are data centric, are going to start adopting these types of practices," she said.

When testers get to see the next test release, they will see the Entity Framework will support Foreign Keys (FKs), which provide more simplified mapping of data sets, James wrote back in March. "FK Associations need no mapping, simply mapping the Entity(Set) is sufficient," he noted at the time. "This will simplify life for a lot of people who need the foreign keys available to them," Lerman said.

According to James, among the other Code Only enhancements coming are the ability to add fake navigation to address missing navigation properties, support for complex type configurations, associated mapping and the ability to extract EDMX produced by Code Only either from an XMLWriter or as an XDocument.

As indicated by Microsoft earlier, Code Only will not be in .NET 4.0, except possibly DLL features, James noted. "The rest of Code Only will continue to evolve, and we will ship another preview or two, before getting it rolled into .NET as soon as we can after 4.0 ships."

What's your take on the Entity Framework? Please comment below or drop me a line at jschwartz@1105media.com .

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 10/13/2009 at 12:52 PM4 comments