My Late Reflections on T4

Friday the 13th – a perfect day for grumbling. And I mean it – it’s going to be counterproductive and is not going to help you with anything (at most you will be able to say “Me too!” or “I am not alone”). I am going to grumble about probably well known things and a few years too late. So if you are having a good day my advise would be to stop reading now. I typically don’t grumble but just move on but this time I already had the content so it made it easier. All this started with an email from a colleague from my old team looking for someone on the EF team who “owns” T4 templates. I answered that there is no such person since probably more than half people of the team had to deal with the templates so if he had any specific question he could send it to me and I would either answer or add to the thread someone who would be able to answer. It turned out that they had a tool that generates code – a kind of an .exe or something even worse (but not as bad as perl) and were looking at moving to T4 and he asked me what were my thoughts on this. The first thought was that moving to T4 was in general not a bad idea (and I still think it is given what they currently have). However when I started gathering “my thoughts” I concluded that every rose (even a dead one – pun intended) has its thorn.

  1. Out of the box a T4 template can spit just one file. This sucks a big time – you can end up having a file with hundreds of classes. There are some ways of working this around but they usually make your template cryptic and messy (as if it was already not the case) since all the logic has to live in the template itself
  2. Visual Studio does not have a built-in editor for T4. This makes it even harder to see what’s going on in the template (as if it was not hard enough). There are 3rd party tools/add-ons that provide syntax coloring and perhaps intellisense. I have not tried any them otherwise I could have one less thing to grumble about
  3. Developing T4 templates is messy. At first it feels a little bit like classic ASP. After a while you start adding some functions and soon the code looks pretty much like a classic ASP page which – when you scroll down – gradually turns into a kind of procedural code like C or Pascal. You could try using ttinclude but it does not help a lot – now ‘ASP’ is in one file and ‘Pascal’ in the other file
  4. If you have to ship templates generating code for both C# and VB.NET you most likely won’t be able to re-use most of the logic which means you have to replicate the code (as if shipping VB.NET version was not painful enough)
  5. T4 templates are basically not testable. To be able to write some kind of unit tests you would probably have to create a custom transformation host for testing. The problem is that even if you did that it does not solve the problem since T4 transformations can behave differently for different hosts so you would not be testing the thing the way it will eventually be used/executed anyways
  6. You supposedly can debug T4 templates. Realistically you can forget about it. For me it is like Santa – I know he exists but have never seen him. Maybe it works for very simple templates but once you start doing more complicated things it will just not work (never worked for me at least) and you will end up using “WriteLine” debugging – welcome to the nineteen-eighties
  7. If you screw something up, in the best case you will get an exception displayed in the error pane which – if you find the correct stack frame – sometimes can be even helpful. Otherwise you will just get a message saying “Error Generating Output” in your output file – and then you need to debug (see above)
  8. Some more advanced things may be impossible – I recently tried to spin a new AppDomain to run some code I could not run inside the transformation app domain (have you seen how my view gen templates break when you install new EF Designer? – I wanted to fix that by using a separate app domain) and had to give it up. Could not make it work since I did not have enough control over generating the class that included my transformation code, nor how the transformation is being run
  9. People are afraid of T4 and don’t realize that they can actually modify the template they added to the project and it will not break their Visual Studio. I think this is because of what they see when they open a T4 template first time (did I mention it looks messy and cryptic – especially if you don’t have syntax coloring?)
  10. It’s nice that you can ship T4 templates as vsix packages but Visual Studio is not really helpful in preparing those – at least I had to prepare the EF view gen templates mostly manually. I have been wanting to describe steps for shipping T4 templates as vsix files for a while but so far have not managed to

This is just grumbling – the T4 technology has been around for a while and my grumbling is not going to change anything there. I also don’t think there is anything better for text transformations that ships with Visual Studio so, as my mom would say, “if you can’t have what you like you have to like what you have”. Tomorrow will be a better day 🙂

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