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A Crash Course on Custom ASP.NET Data-bound Controls : Page 7

Data-bound controls require a data source property and a set of string properties that link to particular columns of the data source. In addition, they need an Items collection property to track all the building blocks of the control's user interface. Finally, a well-done data-bound control supports styles and custom events.


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Using the BarChart Control
The first step to import a custom control in an ASP.NET page is add a @Register directive to make the control visible to the ASP.NET runtime.

<%@ Register TagPrefix="expo" Namespace="Expoware.Controls" Assembly="BarChart" %>

The TagPrefix attribute can take an arbitrary string. The same is not true for the other two attributes which will be set to the control's namespace and assembly name respectively. Here's a styled BarChart control that looks like Figure 1.

<expo:barchart id="BarChart1" runat="server" Font-Names="Verdana" Width="400px" Font-Size="8pt"> <SubTitleStyle Font-Bold="True" HorizontalAlign="Center" /> <LabelStyle Font-Bold="True" Width="80px" /> <TitleStyle Font-Size="Large" Font-Bold="True" HorizontalAlign="Center" BackColor="#FF8000" /> <BarStyle BorderWidth="2px" BorderStyle="Outset" BorderColor="Red" BackColor="Red" /> <ValueStyle Font-Size="8pt" Font-Names="Verdana" Width="300px" /> </expo:barchart>

To bind the control to its data, you use the following code:



DataTable data = ExecuteQuery(1997); BarChart1.Maximum = 150000; BarChart1.Title = "Northwind Sales"; BarChart1.SubTitle = "(Year 1997)"; BarChart1.DataSource = data.DefaultView; BarChart1.DataTextField = "Employee"; BarChart1.DataValueField = "Sales"; BarChart1.DataBind();

The sample page runs a query against the Northwind database and obtains a result set with at least two columns—Employee and Sales. The former is bound as the label; the latter end up feeding the bar. The Maximum property defines the scale for the graph.

What's Next?
Although it is fairly complex already, the BarChart control only scratches the surface of a real-world data-bound control. It lacks at least three key features: events, templates, and designers. Let me briefly review the benefits of each, and related development issues.

The control should fire a couple of events at the very minimum—ItemCreated and ItemDataBound. The former is meant to indicate when an item of a given type (title, subtitle, item) is created; the latter informs when data has been bound to the bars. By wiring some custom code up to these events, you can apply context-sensitive changes and, for example, change the color of bars if the represented value exceeds a given threshold. The source code of the BarChart control clearly indicates where events should be fired.

Templates are an interesting add-on feature that you can implement to let developers customize at least header and footer. Required changes don't prefigure a significant effort. For each template, you add a property and a standard if block in the routines that create the item. The if block looks at the template property and decides whether the template should be instantiated in lieu of the default layout.

Finally, I want to mention design-time features. As is, the control doesn't provide a WYSIWYG experience. To make up for this, you need to create a custom designer—a class that inherits from ControlDesigner and overrides quite a few methods. The overridden methods will basically return the HTML to display in the Visual Studio .NET site.

Real-world data-bound controls are not for the faint-hearted. They require deep knowledge of the ASP.NET internals and familiarity with attributes and base classes. In this article, I built a non-toy control from scratch and added a good deal of features. More importantly, along the way I tried to emphasize pitfalls and caveats that could compromise your efforts, which happened to me several times.

All in all, the good news is that ASP.NET 2.0 is just around the corner and it will bring a full bag of goodies for ASP.NET control developers. Sure, you'll find new and improved controls but also new and improved base classes to build custom data-bound controls more quickly, effectively, and with a dramatically reduced surface for bugs and programming errors.



Dino Esposito is a mentor at Solid Quality Mentors where he manages the ASP.NET, workflow, and AJAX courseware. A speaker at many industry events including Microsoft TechEd, Basta, DevWeek, and DevConnections, Dino is the author of two volumes of Programming Microsoft ASP.NET 2.0 Applications, for Microsoft Press. You can find late breaking news at http://weblogs.asp.net/despos.
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