Before we delve into the workings of SPMetal, let’s spend some time looking at LINQ. We’ll examine what it is, where it came from, and why it’s an essential tool for developing applications using SharePoint 2010.I have to confess that I’m a relatively late convert to LINQ. I’ve been aware of the technology for some time but had always assumed it to be some kind of framework for generating Structured Query Language (SQL). As a developer who has spent many years avoiding dynamically generating SQL statements in favor of well-written and much more secure stored procedures, I’d always considered the technology to be somewhat contradictory to established best practice. What I’d failed to see was the power of LINQ outside the SQL world. LINQ is not just about SQL—fair enough, the syntax is deliberately similar to SQL—but as a technology, it’s about working with collections of data, not specifically relational database type data, but in fact practically any collection of data that you’re ever likely to use in the .NET world. To illustrate the implications of such a tool, think about the last application you wrote. How many for loops did you use to locate specific items within collections of data? How many lines of code did you write to handle situations in which the item you expected wasn’t found within the collection? What about multiple collections with related items? Did you use nested for loops to extract common data into a new collection for use within your logic? If you’ve written any application of more than a few lines long, you’ve likely used one or more of these techniques.
The true power of LINQ is that it provides a much more effective way to find and process exactly the data that you need. No longer do you need to knock on every door in the street to find out who lives at number 15; you can simply ask the question, “I’d like to know the occupant name where the house number is 15,” and voila, the magic that is LINQ will return the correct answer. But what if you live in a town with many streets, each one with a “Number 15”? What if you want to know who lives at number 15 Main Street specifically? You don’t need to walk up and down every street knocking on every door; you can simply ask the question, “I’d like to know the occupant name where the house number is 15 and the street name is Main Street,” and, again, LINQ will return the correct answer. This truly is powerful stuff. When it comes to working with collections of data, LINQ is the tool we’ve been waiting for.
Of course, LINQ isn’t really magic. There’s a certain amount of smoke and mirrors involved, particularly with regard to the SQL-like syntax. But behind the scenes it’s actually quite simple. Let’s take a look at a few examples to illustrate how it works.
Locating Data Using an Iterator
One of the built-in implementations of LINQ is LINQ to Objects, which is installed as part of the .NET Framework 3.5. Take a look at this code snippet to get an idea of how it works:
As you can see, this piece of code iterates through a list of strings, returning a new list containing only those items from the original list where the character n was found. Nothing groundbreaking here. However, if you include the System.Linq namespace in your class file, you’ll notice that the IntelliSense members’ list for the results object now includes a whole host of new methods. Interestingly, however, if you look up the documentation for a List<T> object, you’ll find that none of the new methods are listed. There’s a perfectly good explanation for this: these new methods are implemented as extension methods, an essential new feature in .NET 3.5 for supporting LINQ. Extension methods allow developers to attach methods to a class by defining additional static methods in a referenced assembly. Here’s an example:
Notice the use of the this modifier in the function signature. The modifier specifies the type to which the extension methods should be attached. This example specifies that the extension method should be available to objects of type List<string>. Extension methods work only when their containing namespace is explicitly imported—hence, the necessity to import the System.Linq namespace to see the additional methods for this generic list. Strictly speaking, the extension methods that we see are actually added to the generic IEnumerable<TSource> interface and as such are available to any object that implements this interface.
Locating Data Using an Anonymous Delegate
One of the extension methods that we can make use of is the Where() method that we could use to rewrite our code as follows:
The Where method accepts an anonymous delegate as a parameter, and behind the scenes the method is actually calling the delegate for every item in the list. Whenever the delegate returns true, the item is added to a new results list. The results list is then returned when the Where method has iterated through each item in the collection. From this explanation, you
can see that we’re actually performing much the same work as our original function; we’re simply writing less code to do it.
Locating Data Using a Lambda Expression
We used an anonymous delegate in the preceding example, but .NET 3.5 introduces another new feature known as the lambda expression. Using a lambda in place of the anonymous delegate, we can rewrite our code as follows:
List<string> members = new List<string>
Lambda expressions make use of the => operator to separate the expression parameters from the expression body. This example defines an expression that accepts a string parameter named m. You’ll notice that we don’t need to define the return type; just as with an anonymous delegate, the compiler does this automatically for us. Hopefully, you’ll see that using lambda expressions offer a more concise way of writing an anonymous method.
Locating Data Using LINQ
With more than a little sleight of hand and a healthy dose of compiler voodoo, LINQ takes this expression syntax a step further. Instead of hammering out several different styles of brackets, we can simply rewrite our code as follows:
As you’ve seen by working through these simple examples, behind the scenes, LINQ to Objects is doing much the same work that we would have done using an iterator; the new syntax simply provides a much cleaner way of presenting the logic. However, consider this example, which we’ll revisit later in this:
I’m sure you can realize the benefit of the LINQ syntax when compared to the complicated logic that you’d have to implement to produce this result set using iterators.
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