WPF Redux Sample Application

A while ago, I wrote about how we are using the redux architexture in our C# applications. I have just pushed an example showing ReduxSimple with WPF and our extensions in a .NET 5 application to our github account. The example itself is just a counter with an increment and a decrement button, but it already shows the whole redux cycle.

The store setup in App.xaml.cs shows how the ReducerBuilder can be used to build a State reducer from the Reducer class via reflection.

I also added a small prime-number factorization to show how to use ‘expensive’ functions in the view part of the application using our SelectorGraph. This makes it possible to properly derive view data from the state, only updating them once when one of their inputs changes. In the example, that is the counter. So the number will only be factorized when the counter changes, while all other future state changes do update the selector.

The example does not use the UIDuplexBinder yet. It allows read/write binding of WPF controls to an IObservable and an action-creator, and is hopefully pretty straight-forward to use. Please enjoy!

WPF: Recipe for customizable User Controls with flexible Interactivity

The most striking feature of WPF is its peculiar understanding of flexibility. Which means, that usually you are free to do anything, anywhere, but it instantly hands back to you the responsibility to pay super-close attention of where you actually are.

As projects with grow, their user interfaces usually grow, and over time there usually appears the need to re-use any given component of that user interface.

This not only is the working of the DRY principle at the code level, Consistency is also one of the Nielsen-Norman Usability Heuristics, i.e. a good plan as to not confuse your users with needless irritations. This establishes trust. Good stuff.

Now say that you have a re-usable custom button that should

  1. Look a certain way at a given place,
  2. Show custom interactivity (handling of mouse events)
  3. Be fully integrated in the XAML workflow, especially accepting Bindings from outside, as inside an ItemsControl or other list-type Control.

As usual, this was a multi-layered problem. It took me a while to find my optimum-for-now solution, but I think I managed, so let me try to break it down a bit. Consider the basic structure:

<ItemsControl ItemsSource="{Binding ListOfChildren}">
	<ItemsControl.ItemTemplate>
		<DataTemplate>
			<Button Style="{StaticResource FancyButton}"
				Command="{Binding SomeAwesomeCommand}"
				Content="{Binding Title}"
				/>
		</DataTemplate>
	</ItemsControl.ItemTemplate>
</ItemsControl>
Quick Note about the Style

We see the Styling of FancyButton (defined in some ResourceDictionary, merged together with a lot of stuff in the App.xaml Applications.Resources), and I want to define the styling here in order to modify it in some other places i.e. this could be defined in said ResourceDictionary like

<Style TargetType="{x:Type Button}" x:Key="FancyButton"> ... </Style>

<Style TargetType="{x:Type Button}" BasedOn="{StaticResource FancyButton}" x:Key="SmallFancyButton"> ... </Style>
<Style TargetType="{x:Type Button}" BasedOn="{StaticResource FancyButton}" x:Key="FancyAlertButton"> ... </Style>
... as you wish ...
Quick Note about the Command

We also see SomeAwesomeCommand, defined in the view model of what ListOfChildren actually consists of. So, SomeAwesomeCommand is a Property of a custom ICommand-implementing class, but there’s a catch:

Commands on a Button work on the Click event. There’s no native way to assign that to different events like e.g. DragOver, so this sounds like our new User Control would need quite some Code Behind in order to wire up any Non-Click-Event with that Command. Thankfully, there is a surprisingly simple solution, called Interaction.Triggers. Apply it as

  1. installing System.Windows.Interactivity from NuGet
  2. adding the to your XAML namespaces: xmlns:i="clr-namespace:System.Windows.Interactivity;assembly=System.Windows.Interactivity"
  3. Adding the trigger inside:
<Button ...>
    <i:Interaction.Triggers>
        <i:EventTrigger EventName="DragOver">
            <i:InvokeCommandAction Command="WhateverYouFeelLike"/>
        </i:EventTrigger>
    </i:Interaction.Triggers>
</Button>

But that only as a side note, remember that the point of having our separate User Control is still valid; considering that you would want to have some extra interactivity in your own use cases.

Now: Extracting the functionality to our own User Control

I chose not to derive some class from the Button class itself because it would couple me closer to the internal workings of Button; i.e. an application of Composition over Inheritance. So the first step looks easy: Right click in the VS Solution Explorer -> Add -> User Control (WPF) -> Create under some name (say, MightyButton) -> Move the <Button.../> there -> include the XAML namespace and place the MightyButton in our old code:

// old place
<Window ...
	xmlns:ui="clr-namespace:WhereYourMightyButtonLives
	>
	...
	<ItemsControl ItemsSource="{Binding ListOfChildren}">
		<ItemsControl.ItemTemplate>
			<DataTemplate>
				<ui:MightyButton Command="{Binding SomeAwesomeCommand}"
						 Content="{Binding Title}"
						 />
			</DataTemplate>
		</ItemsControl.ItemTemplate>
	</ItemsControl>
	...
</Window>

// MightyButton.xaml
<UserControl ...>
	<Button Style="{StaticResource FancyButton}"/>
</UserControl>

But now it get’s tricky. This could compile, but still not work because of several Binding mismatches.

I’ve written a lot already, so let me just define the main problems. I want my call to look like

<ui:DropTargetButton Style="{StaticResource FancyButton}"
		     Command="{Binding OnBranchFolderSelect}"
		     ...
		     />

But again, these are two parts. Let me clarify.

Side Quest: I want the Style to be applied from outside.

Remember the idea of having SmallFancyButton, FancyAlertButton or whatsoever? The problem is, that I can’t just pass it to <ui:MightyButton.../> as intended (see last code block), because FancyButton has its definition of TargetType="{x:Type Button}". Not TargetType="{x:Type ui:MightyButton}".

Surely I could change that. But I will regret this when I change my component again; I would always have to adjust the FancyButton definition every time (at several places) even though it always describes a Button.

So let’s keep the Style TargetType to be Button, and just treat the Style as something to be passed to the inner-lying Button.

Main Quest: Passing through Properties from the ListOfChildren members

Remember that any WPF Control inherits a lot of Properties (like Style, Margin, Height, …) from its ancestors like FrameworkElement, and you can always extend that with custom Dependency Properties. Know that Command actually is not one of these inherited Properties – it only exists for several UI Elements like the Button, but not in a general sense, so we can easily extend this.

Go to the Code Behind, and at some suitable place make a new Dependency Property. There is a Visual Studio shorthand of writing “propdp” and pressing Tab twice. Then adjust it to read like

public ICommand Command
        {
            get { return (ICommand)GetValue(CommandProperty); }
            set { SetValue(CommandProperty, value); }
        }

        public static readonly DependencyProperty CommandProperty =
            DependencyProperty.Register("Command", typeof(ICommand), typeof(DropTargetButton), new PropertyMetadata(null));

With Style, we have one of these inherited Properties. Nevertheless, I want my Property to be called Style, which is quite straightforward by just employing the new keyword (i.e. we really want to shadow the inherited property, which is tolerable because we already know our FancyButton Style to its full extent.)

public new Style Style
        {
            get { return (Style)GetValue(StyleProperty); }
            set { SetValue(StyleProperty, value); }
        }

        public static readonly new DependencyProperty StyleProperty =
            DependencyProperty.Register("Style", typeof(Style), typeof(DropTargetButton), new PropertyMetadata(null));

And then we’re nearly there, we just have to make the Button inside know where to take these Properties. In an easy setting, this could be accomplished by making the UserControl constructor set DataContext = this; but STOP!

If you do that, you lose easy access to the outer ItemsControl elements. Sure you could work around – remember the WPF philosophy of allowing you many ways – but more practicable imo is to have an ElementName. Let’s be boring and take “Root”.

<UserControl x:Class="ComplianceManagementTool.UI.DropTargetButton"
	     ...
             xmlns:i="clr-namespace:System.Windows.Interactivity;assembly=System.Windows.Interactivity"
             xmlns:local="clr-namespace:ComplianceManagementTool.UI"
             x:Name="Root"
             >
    <Button Style="{Binding Style, ElementName=Root}"
            AllowDrop="True"
            Command="{Binding Command, ElementName=Root}"
            Content="{Binding Text, ElementName=Root}"
            >
        <i:Interaction.Triggers>
            <i:EventTrigger EventName="DragOver">
                <i:InvokeCommandAction Command="{Binding Command, ElementName=Root}"/>
            </i:EventTrigger>
        </i:Interaction.Triggers>
    </Button>
</UserControl>

As some homework, I’ve left you the Content property to add as a Dependency Property, as well. You could go ahead and add as many DPs to your User Control, and inside that Control (which is quite maiden-like still, if we ignore all that DP boilerplate code) you could have as many complex interactivity as you would require, without losing the flexibility of passing the corresponding Commands from the outside.

Of course, this is just one way of about seventeen plusminus thirtythree, add one or two, which is about the usual number of WPF ways of doing things. Nevertheless, this solution now lives in our blog, and maybe it is of some help to you. Or Future-Me.

Using a C++ service from C# with delegates and PInvoke

Imagine you want to use a C++ service from contained in a .dll file from a C# host application. I was using a C++ service performing some hardware orchestration from a C# WPF application for the UI. This service pushes back events to the UI in undetermined intervals. Let’s write a small C++ service like that real quick:

#include <thread>
#include <string>

using StringAction = void(__stdcall*)(char const*);

void Report(StringAction onMessage)
{
  for (int i = 0; i < 10; ++i)
  {
    onMessage(std::to_string(i).c_str());
    std::this_thread::sleep_for(std::chrono::seconds(1));
  }
}

static std::thread thread;

extern "C"
{
  __declspec(dllexport) void __stdcall Start(StringAction onMessage)
  {
    thread = std::thread([onMessage] {Report(onMessage);});
  }

  __declspec(dllexport) void __stdcall Join()
  {
    thread.join();
  }
}

Compile & link this as a .dll that we’ll call Library.dll for now. Catchy, no?

Now we write a small helper class in C# to access our nice service:

class LibraryLoader
{
  public delegate void StringAction(string message);

  [DllImport("Library.dll", CallingConvention = CallingConvention.StdCall)]
  private static extern void Start(StringAction onMessage);

  [DllImport("Library.dll", CallingConvention = CallingConvention.StdCall)]
  public static extern void Join();

  public static void StartWithAction(Action<string> action)
  {
    Start(x => action(x));
  }
}

Now we can use our service from C#:

LibraryLoader.StartWithAction(x => Console.WriteLine(x));
// Do other things while we wait for the service to do its thing...
LibraryLoader.Join();

If this does not work for you, make sure the C# application can find the C++ Library.dll, as VS does not help you with this. The easiest way to do this, is to copy the dll into the same folder as the C# application files. When you’re starting from VS 2019, that is likely something like bin\Debug\net5.0. You could also adapt the PATH environment variable to include the target directory of your Library.dll.

If you’re getting a BadImageFormatException, make sure the C# application is compiled for the same Platform target as the C++ application. By default, VS builds C++ for “x86”, while it builds C# projects for “Any CPU”. You can change this to x86 in the project settings under Build/Platform target.

Now if this is all you’re doing, the application will probably work fine and report its mysterious number sequence flawlessly. But if you do other things, e.g. something that triggers garbage collection, like this:

LibraryLoader.StartWithAction(x => Console.WriteLine(x));
Thread.Sleep(2000);
GC.Collect();
LibraryLoader.Join();

The application will crash with a very ominous ExecutionEngineException after 2 seconds. In a more realistic environment, e.g. my WPF application, this happened seemingly at random.

Now why is this? The Action<string> we registered to print to the console gets garbage collected, because there is nothing in the managed environment keeping it alive. It exists only as a dependency to the function pointer in C++ land. When C++ wants to message something, it calls into nirvana. Not good. So let’s just store it, to keep it alive:

static StringAction messageDelegate;
public static void StartWithAction(Action<string> action)
{
  messageDelegate = x => action(x);
  Start(messageDelegate);
}

Now the delegate is kept alive in the static variable, thereby matching the lifetime of the C++ equivalent, and the crash is gone. And there you have it, long-lasting callbacks from C++ to C#.

A very strange bug

A week ago, one of our junior programmers encountered a strange bug in his WPF application. This particular application has a main window with pages, i.e. views, that can be switched between, e.g. via the main menu. The first page, however, is the login page. And while on the login page, the main menu should be disabled, so users cannot go where they are not authorized to go.

And this worked fine. A simple boolean in the main window’s view-model was used to disable the menu when in on login page, and enable it otherwise. We have a couple of applications that behave this way, and there were enough examples to get this to work.

Now the programmer introduced a new feature: when the application is started for the first time, there should be a configuration page right after the login page. During the configuration, the main menu should still be disabled. When the user hits the save button on the configuration page, the configuration should be stored and they should get to the dashboard with an enabled main menu.

New Feature, new Bug

Of course, this required changing the condition for when the main menu is disabled: When on either of the two pages, keep it disabled. But now the very strange bug appeared. When going to the dashboard from the configuration page, the main menu was correctly enabled, but all of its menu entries were still disabled. And this only happened when opening the main menu for the first time. When closing and opening it again, all menu entries were correctly enabled.

Now a lot of hands-on debugging ensued. The junior developer used all of the tools at his disposal: web searching, debug output, consulting other senior developers. The leads were plenty, too. Could it be a broken INotifyPropertyChanged implementation? Was ICommand.CanExecute not returning the correct value? Can we attach our own CanExecute handlers to the associated CommandBindings to at least get around the issue? Do we manually have to trigger a refresh of the enabled state?

Nothing worked, and no new information was gained. Even after fiddling around with the problem for a few days, there was no solution, no new insight to be found, not even a workaround. All our code seemed to be working alright.

From good to bad

One of my debugging mantras, that always helped me with the nastiest of bugs, is:

Work from a good, bug-free scenario to the bad, buggy scenario. Use small increments and bisection to find the step that breaks it.

In this situation, we were lucky. We had a good, working scenario in the same application. Starting the application without the “first time configuration” was working nicely. So what was the difference? From the login page the user also hit a button to change to the dashboard page.

The only difference was: the configuration was not stored in between. So we commented that out. Finally! Progress! We could not believe it. Commenting out the “store the configuration” code made our menu items work. Time to dig deeper: The store-the-configuration code was using a helper dialog called TaskDialog that awaits a given Task while showing an “in progress” animation. Our industrious junior developer thought that might be a good idea for storing the configuration data using File.WriteAllTextAsync. Further bisection revealed that it was not actually the “save” Task that was causing the problem, but our TaskDialog: Removing the await from the TaskDialog, our MainWindow‘s main menu was still broken.

This was surprising since the TaskDialog had been in-production, seemingly working alright for quite some time. Yet all our clues hinted at it being the culprit. In its implementation, it runs the given Task directly in its async “Loaded” event handler. Once it is done, it sets the DialogResult to true.

So we hypothesized that it is probably not a good idea to close the dialog while it is currently in the process of opening. The configuration saving task was probably very fast and never yielding, so only that was showing the strange behavior, while all our previous use cases were “slow enough” and yielded at least once.

Hence we tried a small modification: We delayed the execution of our Task and the subsequent DialogResult = true; slightly to the next “event frame” using Application.Current.Dispatcher.InvokeAsync. And that did the trick! The main menu items were finally correctly enabled after leaving the configuration page.

And this is how we solved this very weird bug, where the trigger does not appear to relate to the symptom at all. There is probably still a bug causing this weird behavior somewhere in WPF, but at least we are not longer triggering it with our TaskDialog. Remember, start from the good case, iterate and bisect!

Modern substring search

Nowadays many applications need a good search functionality. They manage large amounts of content in sometimes complex structures so looking for it manually quickly becomes unfeasible and annoying.

ElasticSearch is a powerful tool for implementing a fast and scalable search functionality for your applications. Many useful features like scoring and prefix search are available out-of-the-box.

One often requested feature needs a bit of thought and special implementation: A fulltext search for substrings.

Wildcard search

An easy way is to use an wildcard query. It allows using wildcard characters like * and ? but is not recommended due to low performance, especially if you start you search patterns with wildcards. For the sake of completeness I mention the link to the official documentation here.

Aside from performance it requires using the wildcard characters, either by the user or your code and perhaps needs to be combined with other queries like the match or term queries. Therefore I do not advise usage of wildcard queries.

Using n-grams for indexing

The trick here is to break up the tokens in your texts into even smaller parts – called n-grams – for indexing only. A word like “search” would be split into the following terms using 3-grams: sea, ear, arc, rch.

So if the user searches for “ear” a document/field containing “search” will be matched. You can configure the analyzer to use for individual fields an the minimum and maximum length of the n-grams to work best for your requirements.

The trick here is to use the n-gram analyzer only for indexing and not for searching because that would also break up the search term and lead to many false positives.

See this example configuration using the C# ElasticSearch API NEST:

var client = new ElasticClient(settings);
var response = client.Indices.Create("device-index", creator => creator
  .Settings(s => s
		.Setting("index.max_ngram_diff", 10)
		.Analysis(analysis => analysis
			.Analyzers(analyzers => analyzers
				.Custom("ngram_analyzer", analyzerDescriptor => analyzerDescriptor
					.Tokenizer("ngram_tokenizer")
					.Filters("lowercase")
				)
			)
			.Tokenizers(tokenizers => tokenizers
				.NGram("ngram_tokenizer", ngram => ngram
					.MinGram(3)
					.MaxGram(10)
				)
			)
		)
	)
	.Map<SearchableDevice>(device => device
		.AutoMap()
		.Properties(props => props
			.Text(t => t
				.Name(n => n.SerialNumber)
				.Analyzer("ngram_analyzer")
				.SearchAnalyzer("standard")
			)
			.Text(t => t
				.Name(n => n.InventoryNumber)
				.Analyzer("ngram_analyzer")
				.SearchAnalyzer("standard")
			)
			.Text(t => t
				.Name(n => n.Model)
				.Analyzer("ngram_analyzer")
				.SearchAnalyzer("standard")
			)
		)
	)
));

Using the wildcard field

Starting with ElasticSearch 7.9 there is a new field type called “wildcard”. Usage is in general straight forward: You simply exchange the field type “text” or “keyword” with this new type “wildcard”. ElasticSearch essentially uses n-grams in combination with a so called “binary doc value” to provide seemless performant substring search. See this official blog post for details and guidance when to prefer wildcard over the traditional field types.

Conclusion

Generally, search is hard. In the old days many may have used SQL like queries with wildcards etc. to implement search. With Lucene and ElasticSearch modern, highly scalable and performant indexing and search solutions are available for developers. Unfortunately, this great power comes with a bunch of pitfalls where you have to adapt your solution to fit you use-case.

Redux architecture with WPF/C#

For me, the redux architecture has been a game changer in how I write UI programs. All the common problems surrounding observability, which is so important for good UX, are neatly solved without signal spaghetti or having to trap the user in modal dialogs.

For the past two years, we have been working on writing a whole suite of applications in C# and WPF, and most programs in that suite now use a redux-style architecture. We had to overcome a few problems adapting the architecture and our coding style to the platform, but I think it was well worth it.

We opted to use Odonno’s ReduxSimple to organize our state. It’s a nice little library, but it alone does not enable you to write UI apps just yet.

Unidirectional UI in a stateful world

WPF, like most desktop UI toolkits, is a stateful framework. The preferred way to supply it with data is via two-way data binding and custom view-model objects. In order to make WPF suitable for unidirectional UI, you need something like a “controlled mode” for the WPF controls. In that mode, data coming from the application is just displayed and not modified without a round-trip through the application state. This is directly opposing conventional data-binding, which tries to hide the direction of the data-flow.

In other words: we need WPF to call a function when the user changes a value in an input control, but not when we are updating the value from our application state. Since we have control when we are writing to the components, we added a simple “filter” that intercepts our change event handlers in that case. After some evolution of these concepts, we now have this neatly abstracted in a couple of tool functions like this:

public UIDuplexBinder BindInput(TextBox textBox, IObservable<string> observable, Func<string, object> actionCreator)
{
  // ...
}

This updates the TextBox whenever new values are coming in on the IObservable, and when we are not changing the value via that observable, it calls the given action creator and dispatches the action to the store. We have such helper functions for most of our input controls, and similar functions for passive elements like TextBlocks and to show/hide things.

Since this is relatively straight-forward code, we are skipping MVVM and doing this binding directly in the code behind. When our binder functions are not sufficient, which sometimes do more complex updating in view models.

Immutable data

In a Redux-style architecture, observability comes from lightweight diffing, which in turn comes from immutable data updates in your reducers.

System.Collection.Immutable is great for updating the collections in your reducers in a non-mutable way. But their Equals implementation does not behave value-like, which is needed in this case. So in the types that use collections, we use an extension method called LazyEquals that ||s Object.ReferenceEquals and Linq.Enumerable.SequenceEqual.

For the non-collection data, C#9’s record types and with expressions are great. Before switching to .NET 5 earlier this year, we used a utility function from Converto, a companion library of ReduxSimple, that implements a .With via reflection and anonymous types. However, that function silently no-ops when you get the member name wrong in the anonymous type. So we had to write a lot of stupidly simple unit-tests to make sure that no typos slipped through, and our code would survive “rename” refactorings. The new with expressions offload this responsibility to the compiler, which works even better. Nothing wrong with lots of tests, of course.

Next steps

With all this, writing Redux style WPF programs has become a breeze. But one sore spot remains: We still have to supply custom Equals implementations whenever our State types contain a collection. Even when they do not, the generated Equals for records does not early-out via a ReferenceEquals, which can make a Redux-style architecture slower.

This is error prone and cumbersome, so we are currently debating whether this warrants changing C#’s defaults via something like Undefault.NET so the generated Equals for records all do value-like comparison with ReferenceEquals early-outs. Of course, doing something like that is firmly in danger-zone, but maybe the benefits outweigh the risks in this case? This would sure eliminate lots of custom Equals implementations for the price of a subtle, yet somewhat intuitive behavior change. What do you think?

The function that never ended

One of the unwritten laws in procedural programming is that any function you call will, at one point, end. In the presence of exceptions, this does not mean that the function will return gracefully, but it will end non-the-less.

When this does not happen, something very strange is afoot. For example, C’s exit() function ends a program right here and now. But this was a WPF application in C#, only using official libraries. Surely there was nothing like that there. And all I was doing was trying to dispose of my SignalR connection on on program shutdown.

I had registered a delegate for “Exit” in my App.xaml’s <Application>. The SignalR client only implements IAsyncDisposable, so I made that shutdown function asynchronous using the async keyword. I awaited the client’s DisposeAsync and the program just stopped right there, not getting to any code I wanted to dispose of after that. No exception thrown either. Very weird.

Trying to step into the function with a debugger, I learned that the program exited when the SignalR client’s DisposeAsync was awaiting something itself. Just exited normally with exit code 0.

At that point, it became painfully obvious what was happening. async functions do not behave as predictably as normal function. Whenever they are awaiting something, their “tail” is in fact posted to a dispatcher, which resumes the function at that point when the awaited Task is completed. But since I was already exiting my application, the Dispatcher was no longer executing newcomers like the remainder of my shutdown sequence.

To fix this, I reversed the order: when a user triggers an application exit, I first clean up my client and then trigger application exit.