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Posts from October 2011

"You are now up to date." [IfModifiedSinceWebClient makes it easy to keep a local file in sync with online content - and do so asynchronously]

Recently, I was working with a program that needs to cache the content of a network file on the local disk for faster, easier access. The network file is expected to change periodically according to an unpredictable schedule; the objective is to keep the local file in "close" sync with the online copy without a lot of cost or complex protocols.

The network content is static (when it's not changing!), so hosting it on a web server and accessing it via HTTP seems like a reasonable start. Implementation-wise, it turns out the file is needed immediately when accessed, so downloading it on-demand is not an option due to the possibility of lengthy network delays or connectivity issues. Fortunately, it's okay to use an out-of-date version as long as there's a good chance the next access will use the latest one. So a reasonable approach seems to be to wait for the local file to be needed, use it immediately in its current state, then update it to the latest version by asynchronously downloading the network file and replacing the local copy in the background.

IfModifiedSinceWebClientDemo sample

That approach satisfies the requirements of the scenario, but it's a little wasteful because the local file is likely to be used much more frequently than the online version gets updated - which means most of the downloads will end up being the same version that's already cached locally! Fortunately, we can improve things easily: the HTTP specification defines the If-Modified-Since header for exactly this purpose! By including that header with the HTTP request, the server "knows" whether the local file is out of date. If so, it returns the data for the network file as usual - but if the network file has not changed more recently, the web server returns a 304 Not Modified result and no content. This "short circuiting" of the HTTP response eliminates the need to send redundant data and reduces the network traffic to a single, short HTTP request/response pair.


When implementing a solution like this with the .NET Framework, two approaches spring to mind. The first is to use the low-level HttpWebRequest/HttpWebResponse classes and manage the entire operation directly. HttpWebRequest has an IfModifiedSince property that can be used to set the relevant HTTP header (and format it correctly), so this approach is straightforward and quite flexibile. However, it also requires the caller to manage the transfer of bits from the source to the destination (including reading, writing, buffering, etc.), and that's not really code we want to write. The second approach is to use something like the higher-level WebClient class's DownloadFileAsync method to do the entire download and call us back when everything has been taken care of. That seems preferable, so lets go ahead and set the WebClient.IfModifiedSince property and... umm... wait... WebClient doesn't have an IfModifiedSince property! And not only doesn't the property exist, you're not allowed to set it manually via the Headers property: "In addition, some other headers are also restricted when using a WebClient object. These restricted headers include, but are not limited to the following: ... If-Modified-Since ...".

Darn, I really wanted to use WebClient and avoid having to encode the If-Modified-Since header myself. If only it were possible to tweak the way WebClient initializes its underlying HttpWebRequest, we'd be set... Hey, what about the WebClient.GetWebRequest method? Isn't this exactly what it's for? Yes, it is! :)


To make this all work, I created IfModifiedSinceWebClient which is a WebClient subclass that adds an IfModifiedSince property and overrides GetWebRequest to set that DateTime value onto the underlying HttpWebRequest. Unfortunately, there are two issues: the destination file gets deleted before the download starts (so it ends up being 0 bytes when HTTP 304 is returned) and HTTP 304 is defined as a failure code, so WebClient thinks a successful (NOOP) download has failed. To address both issues and offer a seamless experience, IfModifiedSinceWebClient exposes a custom UpdateFileIfNewer method that's asynchronous (i.e., "fire and forget") and simple. Just pass it the path to a local file to create/update and a URI for the remote file. (You can optionally pass a "completed" method to be called with the result of the asynchronous update.) UpdateFileIfNewer sets the If-Modified-Since header and initiates a call to DownloadFileAsync, providing a temporary file path. If the remote file is not newer than the local one, no transfer occurs and the UpToDate result is passed to the completion method. If the remote file is newer (or the server doesn't support If-Modified-Since), the local file will be replaced with the just-downloaded copy and the Updated result will be returned. And if something goes wrong, the local file is left alone and the Error result is used.


Here's what a typical call looks like:

private void MyMethod()
    // ...

    var localFile = "LocalFile.txt";
    var uri = new Uri("");
    IfModifiedSinceWebClient.UpdateFileIfNewer(localFile, uri, UpdateFileIfNewerCompleted);
    // Note: Download occurs asynchronously

    // ...

private void UpdateFileIfNewerCompleted(IfModifiedSinceWebClient.UpdateFileIfNewerResult result)
    switch (result)
        case IfModifiedSinceWebClient.UpdateFileIfNewerResult.Updated:
            // ...
        case IfModifiedSinceWebClient.UpdateFileIfNewerResult.UpToDate:
            // ...
        case IfModifiedSinceWebClient.UpdateFileIfNewerResult.Error:
            // ...


[Click here to download the source code for IfModifiedSinceWebClient and the sample application shown at the start of the post.]

(Don't forget to update the sample's localhost test URI to a valid URI for your environment.)


IfModifiedSinceWebClient is a simple subclass that adds If-Modified-Since functionality to the .NET Framework's WebClient. But that's only half the battle - the UpdateFileIfNewer method makes the "asynchronously update a file if necessary" scenario work by building on that with a temporary file, error detection, and result codes. The result is a seamless, unobtrusive way for an application to keep itself up to date with dynamically changing online content without incurring unnecessary network overhead. Although there are other, more sophisticated solutions to this problem, it's hard to beat the simplicity and compactness of IfModifiedSinceWebClient!

Aside: For bonus points, IfModifiedSinceWebClient could also set the local file's "last modified" time to the Last-Modified value returned by the server. I haven't done so in the sample because it doesn't seem like the subtle time skew (between the client and server clocks) will matter in most cases. However, I reserve the right to change my mind if practical experience contradicts me. :)
Tags: Technical

Don't make the audience sit through all your typo-ing [Overview of implementing an extension for WebMatrix - and the complete source code for the Snippets sample]

When I wrote about WebMatrix's new extensibility features a couple of posts back, I said I'd share the complete source code to Snippets, one of the sample extensions in the gallery. In this post, I'll be doing that along with explaining the overall extension model in a bit more detail. To begin with, here's the code so those of you who want to follow along at home can do so:

[Click here to download the complete source code for the Snippets extension]



I created the Snippets extension by starting from the "WebMatrix Extension" Visual Studio Project template I wrote about previously. When expanded, the project template automatically set up the right project references (i.e., Microsoft.WebMatrix.Extensibility.dll) and build steps and created a functioning extension with a single Ribbon button. From there, creating Snippets was a simple matter of adding the functionality I wanted on top of that foundation. But more on that later - I want to go over the default code first.


The default project template extension

WebMatrix Extension project template

One key thing to notice is that the template-generated WebMatrixExtension class derives from ExtensionBase, a base class which implements WebMatrix's IExtension interface and simplifies some of the work of dealing with it. In the interest of generality (and because it's just an interface), IExtension doesn't do much beyond identifying a few required properties. ExtensionBase builds on that to offer concrete collections for the IEnumerable(T) properties, automatically MEF Imports the IWebMatrixHost interface, creates an OnWebMatrixHostChanged override, and so on. Of course, none of this is rocket science and the decision to use ExtensionBase is completely up to you. But the whole reason it exists to make your life easier, so I'd suggest at least giving it a chance. :)

In order for an extension to be loaded by WebMatrix, it needs to be located in the right directory (more on that in the previous post) and it needs to MEF Export the IExtension interface. You might think that ExtensionBase should do the latter for you, but it doesn't because that might restrict your own class hierarchy (i.e., intermediary classes would advertise themselves as extensions even though they're not). Therefore, subclasses like the template-generated WebMatrixExtension class need to explicitly export IExtension.

With the groundwork out of the way, the basic functionality of the example extension is to add a Ribbon button and handle activation of that button to open the current web site in the browser. Providing content for the Ribbon is as easy as adding instances implementing the relevant interfaces (IRibbonButton, IRibbonMenuButton, IRibbonGroup, etc.) to the generated class's RibbonItemsCollection. It's important to do this exactly once (typically in the extension's constructor) because subsequent changes are not honored (FYI, that may change in the future, but please don't count on it). Of course, you can show and hide Ribbon content whenever you wish; you just can't add or remove items after initialization. Again, there are simple, concrete subclasses for each of the relevant interfaces (IRibbonButton->RibbonButton, etc.) so you don't need to spend time implementing these simple things yourself. And just like before, using the "helper implementations" is completely optional.

Creating a RibbonButton requires a label, an ICommand implementation, and (optionally) a small/large image. The template's sample includes a couple of images already configured properly to provide a working example. Wiring up the images correctly is standard WPF, but the pack URI syntax can be a little tricky and it's common to forget to change the build type of the image files to "Resource" - so that's already been done for you as a helpful reminder. :) For its ICommand implementation, the template sample uses a simple DelegateCommand class (also included). The sample DelegateCommand is very much in line with other implementations of DelegateCommand or RelayCommand. (Feel free to use whatever version you'd like; the sample DelegateCommand exists simply to avoid introducing a dependency on a third-party library.) As you'd expect, the ICommand's CanExecute and CanExecuteChanged methods are used to dynamically enable/disable the button and its Execute method is called when the button is clicked.

Yeah, it takes a while to describe what's going on, but there's hardly any code at all! :)


The Snippets extension

Snippets extension in use

With the foundation behind us, it's time to consider the Snippets extension itself - and for that, it's helpful to know what it does. Snippets was created with the typical demo scenario in mind: a presenter is showing off WebMatrix and wants to add a block of code to a document, but doesn't want to type it out in front of the audience because that can be slow and boring. Instead, he or she clicks on the Snippets button in the Ribbon, selects from a list of available snippets, and the relevant text is automatically inserted in the editor. Of course, individual snippets should be easy for the user to add or modify and they should allow small and large amounts of text as well as blank lines, etc..

There are probably a hundred ways you could build this extension; here's how I've done it:

  • Each snippet is stored as a text file (ex: "Empty DIV.txt") in the Snippets folder of the user's Documents folder (i.e., %USERPROFILE%\Documents\Snippets). The file's name identifies the snippet and its contents get added when the snippet is used. You can have as many or few snippet files as you'd like; they're read when the extension is loaded and cached. If there aren't any snippet files (or the Snippets folder doesn't exist), the extension provides a simple message with instructions for how to set things up.

    Aside: WebMatrix needs to be restarted in order for snippet changes to take effect. An obvious improvement would be for the Snippets extension to monitor the Snippets directory for changes and apply them on the fly.
  • The Snippets user interface is a RibbonMenuButton which contains a collection of RibbonButton instances corresponding to each of the available snippets. When the RibbonMenuButton is clicked, it automatically shows the IRibbonButton instances from its Itemscollection in a small, drop-down menu. When a selection is made, the menu is automatically closed.

    Aside: A RibbonSplitButton could have been used if there was a scenario where the user could click the top half of the button to perform a similar action (like inserting a default snippet).
  • The Snippets button only makes sense when the "Files" workspace is active (i.e., a document is being edited), so the extension listens to the IWebMatrixHost.WorkspaceChanged event and shows/hides its Ribbon button according to whether the new workspace is an instance of the IEditorWorkspace interface.

    Aside: One of the bits of feedback we've gotten so far is that this scenario (i.e., "only available for a single workspace") is common and should be simplified. Yep, message received. :)
  • To insert text into the document, Snippets invokes the Paste command via the IWebMatrixHost.HostCommands property. While it's possible to get and set editor text directly for more advanced scenarios, the Paste command works nicely because the editor automatically updates the caret position, replaces selected text, etc.. The downside to using the (application-wide) Paste command is that if the input focus isn't in the body of an open file, then the paste action will be directed elsewhere and won't work as it's meant to.

    Aside: The editor interfaces are almost rich enough to manage everything here and avoid using Paste. However, there were a couple of glitches when I tried which led me to use the simpler paste approach for the sample.
  • Input focus aside, one thing that's clear is that Snippets can never be added without an open document visible. To determine if that's the case, Snippets uses an unnamed host command to populate an instance of IEditorContainer. If that fails or the IEditorExt within is null, that means no document is open and Snippets knows to disable its Ribbon buttons.

    Unnamed host commands work just like named commands (i.e., Paste), though they're a little harder to get to. The HostCommands.GetCommand method exists for this purpose and allows the caller to pass a GUID/ID for the command to return. The relevant code looks like this:

    /// <summary>
    /// Gets an IEditorExt instance if the editor is in use.
    /// </summary>
    /// <returns>IEditorExt reference.</returns>
    private IEditorExt GetEditorExt()
        var editorContainer = new EditorContainer();
        _editorContainerCommand = WebMatrixHost.HostCommands.GetCommand(new Guid("27a0f541-c86c-4f0b-b436-0b50bf9f7ef8"), 10);
        if (_editorContainerCommand != null)
        return editorContainer.Editor;

    Helper properties for this and other unnamed commands be added in the future. For now, FYI about a useful one. :)

  • Although the RibbonButton class supports a parameter parameter for passing to the ICommand's CanExecute/Execute methods to provide additional context, this value is not actually passed through in some cases. :( This bug was found too late to fix for the Beta, but the good news is that it's easy to work around by creating a closure to capture the relevant parameter information instead. If you're not familiar with this technique, it involves defining an anonymous method that references the desired data; the compiler automatically captures the necessary values and passes them along when the delegate gets called.

    Here's what it looks like in the sample (using LINQ to create the collection):

    // Create buttons for each snippet
    var snippetsButtons = _snippets
        .Select(s =>
            new RibbonButton(
                new DelegateCommand(
                    (parameter) => GetEditorExt() != null,
                    (parameter) =>
                        // parameter is (incorrectly) null, so add this indirection for now
  • It turns out there's a subtle bug because of the following code in the sample:

    // Paste the snippet into the editor
    var paste = WebMatrixHost.HostCommands.Paste;
    if (paste.CanExecute(insertText))

    Note that Snippets is invoking a special flavor of the Paste command by providing the text as the parameter property for the CanExecute/Execute methods (meaning "paste this text, please"). However, the underlying editor code is returning a CanExecute result based on whether or not it could paste from the clipboard (i.e., it's not honoring the meaning of the text parameter). Therefore, if the clipboard is empty or contains non-text data like a file, CanExecute returns false and Snippets isn't able to insert text.

    The easy workaround is to copy some text to the clipboard so the underlying implementation will return true for CanExecute and the specialized paste operation will be invoked.



Snippets is a small extension that builds on the default WebMatrix Extension project template to implement some useful (if limited) functionality. Its original purpose was to simplify demos, but if people find practical uses for it, that's great, too! :)

But whether or not people use it, the Snippets extension touches on enough interesting areas of extensibility that people can probably learn from it. If you're getting started with WebMatrix extensions and are looking for a "real world" sample, I hope Snippets can be helpful. If you have feedback or questions - about Snippets or more generally - please let me know!