CRM MVP David Jennaway is our guest blogger today. He is a founding member of Excitation Ltd, a Microsoft Gold Partner in the UK that specializes in Microsoft CRM, and has been the technical lead in over 50 CRM implementations since the release of CRM 1.2.
The CRM 4.0.12 SDK has recently been released. Normally an SDK update is not particularly significant, but in this case it includes some major enhancements, which come under the banner of 'Advanced Developer Extensions'. David Yack has already posted a quick how-to on the CRM Team Blog; rather than duplicate that, this post is intended to cover the scope and limitations of the new extensions as I see them, and how they differ from the original CRM programming model.
What are the new extensions ?
It seems to make sense to split the new features into 2; the 'Advanced Developer Extensions' (whcih has been helpfully shortened to Microsoft xRM), and the Portal Accelerator (aka Portal Developer). The Portal accelerator uses Microsoft xRM, but I think it is otherwise best treated separately. So, for this post I'll concentrate on Microsoft xRM.
Architecture of Microsoft xRM
Although Microsoft xRM appears to provide a whole new programming model, it can be considered as essentially a (rather big) wrapper around the existing SDK assemblies (microsoft.crm.sdk and microsoft.crm.sdktypeproxy). So, although your code would not directly use the classes in the SDK assemblies, the communication with CRM is still ultimately done via the CRM web services, and is subject to the same limitations (e.g. limitations of the FetchXml query syntax). Another consequence of this is that you do not need to change any of your network configuration to use these extensions.
Changes to the Programming Model
This is where it gets interesting; the new extensions provide a whole new programming model, which can affect pretty well all of the code you use to communicate with CRM. The major changes as I see it are:
- You can use strongly-typed classes for the CRM entities. Although you can do this with the existing SOAP CRM web services, up till now you needed to use the DynamicEntity class with the SDK assemblies
- Native .Net types are used for attributes - e.g. int? rather than CrmNumber. Note that nullable types (e.g. int?, rather than int) as used
- The connection information is covered within a DataContext class, which effectively replaces the use of the CrmService instance
- Data modifications can be cached locally, then submitted as a batch, using the DataContext.SaveChanges method
- The extensions provide additional methods to update lookup values. These can work off either the lookup attribute name (e.g. customerid) or the relationship name (e.g. contact_customer_accounts). The extensions also provide methods to retrieve related records, which avoids the need to use QueryExpression or QueryByAttribute
- You can use LINQ queries to retrieve data from CRM, rather than building QueryExpression instances
- The DataContext and LINQ technologies allow direct data-binding with .Net user interface controls
Use of Strongly-Typed classes
As with the SOAP web services, you can use strongly-types classes for system and custom entities. Superficially the process for setting this up differs from the SOAP web services, although the underlying idea is pretty similar. With these extensions, you use a supplied tool (CrmSvcUtil.exe) to connect to a CRM server. This tool will generate the class definitions for all CRM entities into one output code file which you'll add into your .Net project. Ultimately, this process is very similar to what happens behind the scenes when you create a Web Reference to the SOAP web services. The main internal difference is that the generated classes with these extensions maps down to the DynamicEntity class, but this is hidden from you.
You can still use a generic class with these extensions rather than strongly-typed classes. With the extensions it is ICrmEntity, rather than DynamicEntity.
Native .Net Types
Native .Net Types are used instead of Crm-specific types. The extensions use the nullable versions of the types (e.g. int?, rather than int) so that you can still identify null values (which was one of the main original reasons for the Crm-specific types). For picklist and status attributes the extensions provide an additional Label attribute (e.g. customertypecodeLabel) with the appropriate text, whereas for lookup attributes you can get the related entity via a property that has the relationship name (e.g. price_level_accounts).
This replaces the need for the CrmService instance, and handles the selection of authentication type, passing credentials and management of the CrmAuthentication token. All connection-related information (server URL and port, organisation name, authentication type and credentials) can be specified in one connection string. The extension code includes logic to read connection string information from the application config file. Overall, this should greatly simplify deployment across different environments and authentication types.
The DataContext exposes an IOrganizationService instance, which looks to combine the underlying ICrmService and IMetadataService instances. This allows use of any of the more specific CrmService messages (e.g. InstantiateTemplate), or MetadataService messages.
Interestingly the constructor for the DataContext can take an IContextService or IWorkflowContext instance, but not an IPluginExecutionContext instance. This implies that the extensions can work within a custom workflow activity, but are of limited use within plugins. See below for more on this.
It looks to me as though any changes submitted via the DataContext will be submitted as a batch via the SaveChanges method. This won't provide any transactional support, as this is not possible within the Crm Web Services. Overall, I think this approach is due to the design patterns used in the Microsoft data-related classes, and I'm pretty neutral as to whether this offers more benefits or drawbacks. If you do develop with these extensions, I'd bear the following in mind:
- I could imagine developers forgetting to include the SaveChanges method, and I can't see (though I've not tested this) a way that the extension code would throw an error is pending changes were discarded
- There seems to be no means to control the behaviour if an individual data operation fails, and the documentation doesn't currently describe the default behaviour here. To get such control you need to call SaveChanges for each individual data modification
Handling lookups and relationships
I've not looked at this in great detail, but I see the greatest benefit is the simplicity of retrieving related records with methods such as GetRelatedEntities to get child and many-many entities, and GetRelatedEntity to get a parent entity.
Use of LINQ queries
Again, not an area I've spent much time with. In the first instance I see this as most useful for developers that are already familiar with the LINQ query syntax, but I generally encourage the use of standard technologies (such as LINQ) in preference to application-specific technologies (such as QueryExpression). My expectation is that you should expect developer productivity gains with use of LINQ instead of QueryExpression, but I've not spent enough time on this to get good metrics. It should be emphasised that the LINQ query ultimately maps down to a QueryExpression, and hence you are as limited in the scope of queries as you currently are.
This really comes as a direct benefit of the use of standard .Net data classes, and LINQ. You can directly bind UI components like the ASP.Net GridView control to the results of a LINQ query. Oddly, there doesn't seem to be an example of this in the main crmsdk4.chm help file, but the following code extract from the 'advanced_developer_extensions_-_walkthrough_webapp.docx' document in the SDK shows how easy and powerful this can be:
var crm = new XrmDataContext("Crm");
ContactsGrid.DataSource = crm.contacts.Where
(c => c.emailaddress1.EndsWith("@example.com"));
Limitations of the Advanced Developer Extensions
There's a lot of very good stuff in the areas mentioned above, which could have significant benefits on developer productivity. However, I don't think you can immediately replace all existing .Net code (even if you wanted to), as there are some areas that I don't think these extensions reach (yet?). Note that the following list is based on my investigations so far, and may include features that do exist, but which I've missed in my brief analysis so far.
- Plugins. As mentioned above, the constructor for the XrmDataContext class has no overload that takes an IPluginExecutionContext. I also can't see a way to manipulate a DynamicEntity (e.g. from InputParameters) within these extensions, so I don't think they are viable for use in plugin code
- IFD (aka SPLA) impersonation. AD impersonation is supported, but I can't see the equivalent of the CrmImpersonator class. I need to do some further tests on this to see if IFD impersonation can work with these extensions; if not it would restrict the deployment scenarios for web extensions
It's also worth pointing out that the major benefits of the extension code relate to standard data operations (Create, Retrieve, Update, Delete). You can still use the additional messages (e.g. InstantiateTemplate, Merge) of the CrmService and MetadataService through these extensions, but you'll need to use the standard SDK types
My understanding is that these extensions originated as a basis for developing portal-style applications against CRM, so in that context it is not at all surprising that there are areas where the code can't reach. It'll be interesting to see how this changes, both with CRM 4 and CRM 5.
What Next ?
What next, indeed. The timing of this release is interesting, coming relatively late in the life of CRM 4 as the most recent version of CRM. It's still a little too early to know what will happen with CRM 5, but it would be logical to expect that these extensions will continue to work with future versions of CRM. The more interesting question is whether we will continue to have more that one programming model for CRM 5 (e.g. a native interface, and extensions such as these which form a wrapper around the native interface), or whether these 2 models will start to merge together.