Monday, September 12, 2011

Fundamentals of the Managed Extensibility Framework

I've been building enterprise applications for more than a decade now, and have specialized in Silverlight line of business applications for the past several years. The term "enterprise" seems to inspire images of complex, large, difficult-to-maintain software systems but a well-written system doesn't have to suffer from the extra complexity. One question I receive over and over again is what a good resource is to learn best practices for building Silverlight applications that target line of business. The market is just now starting to come out with books and tutorials that address these topics but for the longest time you had to scour to find most of your information in blog posts or tweets. I decided to take on two projects to fill two very specific gaps and I'm excited to share the details with you in this blog post.

The first project I completed reaches past Silverlight and addresses a framework I believe was game-changing when introduced with .NET 4.0: the Managed Extensibility Framework (MEF). I partnered with Addison-Wesley to produce a LiveLessons video series and ended with over 4 hours covering the fundamentals of MEF.

I learned about the Managed Extensibility Framework (MEF) when it was in early preview. The first project that I used it for that went to production was the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. It helped our team build out reporting modules quickly and easily. It did not take long for me to discover how powerful it was for Silverlight applications. I have since used it in projects ranging from SharePoint WebPart integration to the slate application our company developed for Rooms to Go.

One of the more popular posts on my blog was the 10 reasons to use the Managed Extensibility Framework article I wrote in April of 2010. MEF is also the foundation for the MVVM framework I wrote and released as the open source project Jounce. While I've found it to be a powerful framework that is bundled as part of the runtime (it's not a third-party add-on, but shipped with everything else when you installed .NET and Silverlight) there has been one nagging problem: lack of documentation.

I can't tell you how many times I've been asked where I learned about the framework (through blog posts) or where I found best practices (trial, error, and talking to others who used the framework) and what the best book about MEF is to buy (I don't know). So when Addison-Wesley (Pearson) approached me about a video tutorial as part of their LiveLessons Series to cover fundamentals of the framework, I was ecstatic.

For several months I spent a few hours after work and over the weekends building sample projects, recording screen casts, and putting together a curriculum that I felt would provide developes with everything they need to know to be proficient with using MEF. I wanted to be sure you learned when to use it and when not to use it. My goal was to share all of the problems I've faced building enterprise software that MEF was able to solve, and package the recipes I've used to solve common problems.

The end result is the Fundamentals of the Managed Extensibility Framework. Feel free to click on the link and take a peek at the product, but I also want to be sure you know about the free sample that covers Lesson 7 about Silverlight. It is an excerpt from the full lesson but will give you insights into how the screen casts and lessons work to decide if it's presented in a way suited to your learning style. I am very excited about what I was able to cover. Click here to watch the free sample.

The program starts by guiding you through a reference application that uses most of the features of MEF, including discovery, lifetime management, extensibility, and metadata. I then go into the details of imports and exports, parts, catalogs, and containers. I focus specifically on discovery, extensibility using a plug-in model, and provide samples for understanding how MEF manages the lifetime of objects. I cover collections, recomposition, composition batches, and debugging then focus on both flavors of metadata (weakly and strongly typed). I have a full lesson dedicated to the specific uses of MEF in Silverlight, and conclude with a set of recipes that demonstrate common problems I've solved in real world projects using MEF.

You can also watch the course as part of your Safari books online subscription.

I hope this helps fill a much-needed gap in documentation and tutorials about the Managed Extensibility Framework. For those of you who do invest in the tutorial, I would greatly appreciate you sharing your honest comments and feedback using the comments at the end of this post. That will help me learn how to make it better and more importantly help others decide what value they may gain from the tutorial . Watch the 20-minute sampler here and take a look at the full package here. Access the tutorial through Safari Books online at this link.

Jeremy Likness