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10 Things to Keep in Mind while Developing a New ASP.NET Web Forms Application

Many developers are opting for ASP.NET MVC for their new web applications. However, this may not be always possible (reasons can be many and valid in a given context) and you might be required to use Web Forms for your new projects. In such cases novice developers have this doubt - "If I develop my project using Web Forms and later want to migrate to MVC, how difficult this task would be?". There is no single answer to this question. However, if you follow certain guidelines while developing a Web Forms project today, at later stage migrating to MVC would be less painful than otherwise. Here I have listed my top 10 recommendations in dealing with such a situation. 

1. Use Class Libraries wherever possible

If you observe the evolution of .NET framework over the years you will realize that Class Libraries are best for writing code that is independent if any particular type of UI. The reason is simple - they contain mainly POCOs. If you isolate as much code as possible in class libraries then reusing then during and after the migration would be quite straightforward. Of course, you should design these class libraries in a structured and neat fashion rather than a "dumping ground" for classes. For example, if you isolate your data access and business logic in a separate class library projects you can use them as-is in MVC applications also. 

2. Don't use server control level UI properties

ASP.NET Web Forms make UI development quite easy. Just drag-n-drop controls, set their properties and your UI is ready! One common mistake beginners make is to set UI related properties of the server controls. For example, BackColor, ForeColor, Font-Name and so on. These properties are converted into style attribute of the respective control tag. A recommended approach is to place all such styling information in CSS style sheets and then use ClassName property of the server controls to attach a CSS class. This way your UI uses a standard way of styling and after migration you can reuse the same CSS quickly. 

3. Use jQuery Ajax over Web Forms specific techniques

Web Forms offer AJAX Extensions to help you develop Ajax enabled applications. However, these controls are specific to Web Forms. Instead of relying on them you may consider using standard Ajax techniques such as jQuery $..ajax() or XMLHttpRequest object. This way your Ajax code will be quite portable to any other web development framework including MVC. 

4. Make use of Web API

Web API was introduced along with MVC but now it's the part of the ASP.NET framework and you can use Web API in Web Forms applications too. For example, instead of writing Ajax code that calls a Page Method or ASMX Web Service, it is recommended to create a Web API and call it from your client side code. Your Web API controllers will be 100% reusable in MVC applications. 

5. Avoid Web Forms specific features

Web Forms use several features that are specific to Web Forms. These features are not available in MVC. Features such as Themes and Web Parts fall in this category. Avoid such features for new projects because it will be difficult to migrate them to MVC projects due to the lack of equivalent feature set.

6. Design forms so as to avoid ViewState as much as possible

One big reservation against Web Forms is ViewState. Many Web Forms developers design their data entry pages in such a way that multiple tasks (Insert, Update and Delete) happen on a single page. This may require page ViewState enabled resulting in bulky forms. You should see if these tasks can be separated into their own pages in an attempt to avoid ViewState altogether. For example, say you have a GridView at the top of a page. Selecting a row in the grid displays its content for editing at the bottom half of the page. That means selecting and editing are happing in one page itself and ViewState might be necessary. Instead, think if the grid can have hyperlinks (instead of Select postback buttons) that points to another web form where data editing takes place. In this case you can turn the ViewState off for the page housing the grid since there is no postback and editing is happening on a different page. 

7. Create reusable UI through User Controls

Web Forms developers have two choices for creating reusable user interfaces - Web User Controls and Custom Server Controls. If you create Custom Server controls you can provide a rich design time interface (in terms of toolbox appearance, smart tags, designers etc.) however this control won't be readily reusable in MVC. If you wrap your reusable UI as a Web User Controls your life will be easy. This is because you have raw HTML and code with you and MVC does offer a close equivalent in the form of partial pages. 

8. Use standard HTML over server controls wherever possible

Rich server controls is one of the biggest strength of Web Forms applications. Controls such as GridView and ListView are quite popular. However, using these controls make your migration path difficult because there is no direct equivalent in MVC. Although you may not avoid using them altogether try to minimize their use whenever possible. For example, if you don't need to access Label controls programmatically, don't use them. Use standard <span> or <lable> tags. This way you can reuse that much markup readily in MVC.

9. Think in terms of MVC even for Web Forms applications

Although Web Forms are not designed keeping MVC design pattern in mind, nothing stops you from thinking in MVC terms. The separation of concern (SoC) as enforced by MVC can be done in Web Forms also. When you develop the Web Form try thinking in terms of its Model, Controller Actions and View.

10. Learn and use Design Patterns and SOLID principles

Many Web Forms developers are accustomed to drag-n-drop development. Their applications are UI centric. Although these application may meet the requirements at a given point of time, they become difficult to maintain and extend. This happens because a lot of code is stuffed directly into Web Forms. Take some pain to learn SOLID design principles and commonly used Design Patterns so that you can structure your Web Forms applications in a better way. At the end you will realize that the efforts are worth the learning efforts you put.


Bipin Joshi is an independent software consultant and trainer by profession specializing in Microsoft web development technologies. Having embraced the Yoga way of life he is also a meditation teacher and spiritual guide to his students. He is a prolific author and writes regularly about software development and yoga on his websites. He is programming, meditating, writing, and teaching for over 27 years. To know more about his ASP.NET online courses go here. More details about his Ajapa Japa and Shambhavi Mudra online course are available here.

Posted On : 12 May 2014