Entity Framework with Caching and ViewState

I’ve been doing quite a few projects now using Entity Framework with .NET 4.0 and wanted to post a few hints and tips based on my experiences dealing with entities and caching.

 

First off I’d like to mention that my experience with Entity Framework has been very positive in general. I’ve been using it since its .NET 3.5 version both for commercial and private projects and found it to be very useful and easy to use. I also intend to keep using it as my DAL for future projects.

 

As far as performance goes, and to prevent relatively static data from being retrieved from the database, it’s usually preferred to cache or somehow temporarily store the data to minimize the load on the database as much as possible. For Entity Framework this usually means storing the individual entities or a collection of them.

 

A very quick and  simple generic way to cache results in the memory here is used regardless of entities could be as follows, using the System.Runtime.Caching implemented in .NET 4.0. (Previously found in System.Web)

 

 

This will simply store the results from GetStuffFromDatabase for 24 hours in a sane matter, the double cache check with lock is to prevent multiple simultaneous requests from accessing the database at the same time.

 

The important thing to note here when using this with the regular entities from Entity Framework – is that by default, this will include the DataContext which the objects are attached to. Meaning that, for instance, the entities will be able to access linked related objects through this specific context – which also means it will perform additional queries against the database later as long as you don’t explicitly dispose of the specific context.

 

It’s also important to note that if you intend to use the cached objects as references for other entities later on, you will most likely use a separate context and can’t use the objects directly. The simplest workaround for this is either to use exposed foreign key ids on the entities, or re-load the entity in the other context. An example to demonstrate this using the GetStuff method above is as follows, assuming that the AddAndSave will add the object to a fresh context and the GetStuff data has already been cached. Also, if you don’t expose foreign key id columns (4.0 feature), you won’t be able to do this, but need to reload the object instead.

 

When it comes to ViewState in ASP.NET applications, you want to be very careful when it comes to storing entities there. As with entities cached in memory, the ones you store in viewstate will also include the context, which might seem fine when you’re doing simple testing. However, a worse scenario could be if you for some reason retrieve 1000 entities and decide that you want to store one of them in the viewstate for a given page, the entire context will still be included, so the actual size will end up being that of all 1000 entities in the context.

 

There are a few relatively simple workarounds to this, the quickest one is to detach the entity from the context before you put it into the viewstate, meaning that only the actual entity will be stored there. It should be noted that you wouldn’t be able to access any foreign key related entity properties once you decided to do this unless you explicitly re-attach it to a context – which typically is not something you want to explicitly keep track of in an ASP.NET application.

 

The other, and slightly smarter way, includes creating a custom simple wrapper class including only the properties you deem relevant for the page being presented. This will effectively minimize the size of the viewstate and provide a much more defined way of saying to developers that it’s *not* an actual entity which can use its relations to access more data like a detached entity might say – but an object which already should have the data needed for the specific page. For anyone using entities and really wanting to optimize the page presented to the user and still need to use viewstate, this is the way to go. It’s really as lightweight as possible, and you weed out any extra properties and general overhead that you would still have in a POCO-entity/detached state. For more static data, you could combine this with the memory cache to store wrapped entities for the best performance.

 

In short, I’m quite happy with Entity Framework! It’s all incorporated nicely into the core of the .NET framework now, and it has in my opinion improved quite a bit in its 4.0 version. Getting it set up and working with the performance improvements you get from cached entities is also very simple and effective once you see the pitfalls related to how the contexts actually behave.

 

Setting up the data layer of any application in the most optimal way obviously depends on the nature of the different applications, but I hope this post has given a few pointers regarding how you can use Entity Framework with the standard .NET memory-caching.

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