Consolidating front-end asset processing in ASP.NET projects
With modern web applications involving a considerable number of moving parts, it’s only natural for software teams to often experience pain and friction; bug lists grow out of control, new features get delayed, maintenance becomes a nightmare.
At least for ASP.NET projects, it turns out that a large number of such problems can often be traced back to front-end assets, specifically scripts and stylesheets. Why is this pattern so common and what can we do to address it?
Front-end assets are first-class citizens
The typical approach to developing ASP.NET applications indicates that our number one priority should always be back-end functionality. We tend to put as much logic as possible at the server side, and only involve client side assets whenever we have no other choice.
Unfortunately, we fail to realize that we now live in an evergreen web. Browsers have evolved to powerful programmable platforms, thus shifting chunks of functionality from the server to the client can significantly transform user experience and add immense value to an application.
Even when we choose to involve front-end assets as little as possible, since our delivery mechanism of choice is the Web, we do have to involve them, and they still play a vital role to our application’s correctness. Yet, for some reason we still fail to treat them as what they really are, and that is first-class citizens.
A half-baked Build pipeline
We can easily verify whether a project treats its front-end assets as first-class citizens, by taking a look at its Build pipeline. The Build is supposed to act as a parachute, verifying the project’s correctness and preventing defective code from being shipped.
Yet, the Build pipeline of most ASP.NET projects is solely focused on just processing and testing server side assets, leaving front-end resources completely out of the loop, thus assuming that their state is always correct. Such a half-baked approach cannot be trusted!
This is how the typical approach looks like on a developer’s machine:
and this is how the same approach looks like on a Build server:
Obviously your actual approach may be much different from this one, but the goal here is to emphasize the lack of actions related to front-end resource processing and verification.
Visual Studio plugins don’t cut it
Some teams choose to assign the responsibility of processing front-end resources to a number of Visual Studio plugins, a seemingly practical approach that quickly falls short as a team grows. It requires that every single team member is using the exact same plugins of the exact same version in the exact same way, in order to avoid inconsistencies, and that’s simply unrealistic.
Don’t be mistaken, Visual Studio plugins can be proven extremely useful in a wide number of situations. We just need to avoid relying on plugins for producing deliverables. Also, some popular processing tools simply do not exist in the form of a Visual Studio plugin.
Most importantly, by generating the processed version of your resources that way, you don’t have a choice but to add both the original and the processed files to source control. That’s is an anti-pattern you need to avoid, just like you avoid adding bin and obj folders of your .NET project. Build results stay out of source control!
What we really need is a modular, fully-customizable, self-contained, generic and reusable Build pipeline for compiling, processing, testing and packaging all parts of a web application. We need to be able to put this pipeline into action on new environments, either development machines or Build servers, in a matter of seconds. We also need to keep the pipeline’s configuration in sync between these environments at all times.
On top of that, the pipeline should handle different Build definitions (e.g. Debug/Release) and produce different results, depending on the chosen definition. That what we already do for back-end assets, we just need to extend the pipeline to handle front-end asset processing in a similar fashion.
This is how the initial Build pipeline should look like, after its transformation, on a developer’s machine:
and this is how the same approach should look like on a Build server:
Front-end asset processing types
Let’s have a look at the most common types of front-end asset processing used in web applications today.
The process of running a tool to analyze code for potential errors is called linting. Lint was the original name of a tool used to analyze C code, but nowadays we have linters for many different types of code. In web applications, we use linters for both scripts and stylesheets.
Metalanguages and Transpiling
Of course it’s not mandatory to use a metalanguage, but it’s highly recommended to pick one of each category and use it consistently throughout your project. Also, these tools have come a long way, and the final code they produce is, in most cases, cleaner and faster than what we could write ourselves.
The next question is, how can we debug code written in a metalanguage, on the browser? During the transpilation process, we can additionally produce a set of files called source maps. When the browser detects a source map, hides the transpiled file and lets work as if the metalanguage source was directly used.
Also, instead of putting source map data into separate files, we can instead append it to the end of the transpiled files directly.
Finally, the creation process of source maps should only be triggered in Development mode. Production environments shouldn’t know anything about the original files.
A use case
The processing types above are the most common ones, but there are many others as well.
Let’s suppose our project’s scripts are written in TypeScript, and our stylesheets in SASS. We need to transpile those resources, bundle them, generate source maps, and also verify their correctness through a number of automated tests.
In terms of implementation, a popular choice is a number NodeJS-based tools, acquired and installed through the NPM package manager. We can find at least one tool per processing type within the NPM official repository. What’s great about NPM tooling is that we only need NodeJS installed in the Build environment. By having a package.json file within our project’s directory, listing the required packages for processing our resources, it’s only a matter of executing the
npm install command to have the Build process ready to roll.
To orchestrate these processing types, we can use a build system similar to MSBuild, called Gulp, and Gulp’s equivalent of targets are called tasks. Both Visual Studio 2013 and 2015 support a featured called Task Runner Explorer, which is perfectly compatible with Gulp tasks. We can use that feature to include front-end processing into the Build pipeline. Here is how that pipeline would look like on a development environment:
As for the build server, we can just include a command-line call to Gulp, e.g.
gulp build, as part of our build’s definition. Here’s how the same pipeline would look like on the build server:
ASP.NET Core and onwards will use a very similar approach, and in fact, nowadays the NodeJS runtime gets installed as part of Visual Studio’s installation. Also, at the moment Gulp is the default task runner for front-end resource processing in ASP.NET Core project templates.
The good news is that you don’t have to wait until you upgrade your project’s ASP.NET version to Core in order to start handling your front-end resources properly; You can do it today!
I will get into specifics on how to create Gulp tasks and invoke the required tooling within them in another article. Until then, feel free to post questions and thoughts in the comments section below, or in any of the social media. Take care and happy building!