Generate .NET Code in Any Language Using CodeDOM

he .NET framework is replete with nooks and crannies of functionality that are amazingly powerful, but sorely underdocumented. One of those lesser-known capabilities lies in the CodeDOM namespace. This namespace is the .NET language equivalent of the HtmlTextWriter and XmlTextWriter classes, but rather than using the classes to write HTML or XML, you use the classes and methods in the CodeDOM namespace to write .NET code. One of the most interesting things about CodeDOM is that it’s completely language-agnostic. The CodeDOM namespace abstracts most (not all?at least, not yet) types of code operations into an object model. You create object instances that represent namespaces, classes, fields, methods, properties, parameters, references to various types, and so forth.

Each .NET language has a special code provider class. For VB.NET, the code provider class is Microsoft.VisualBasic.VBCodeProvider. For C#, the class is Microsoft.CSharp.CSharpCodeProvider. Each provider gives you access to an object that implements the ICodeGenerator interface. The interface defines several GenerateCodeFrom… methods, one of which is GenerateCodeFromNamespace, which writes all the code for a namespace. Table 1 shows the high-level process to generate a namespace containing a class.

Table 1: The high-level process for generating a namespace containing a class with CodeDOM. You can refer to this process at any time by clicking the sidebar Generic CodeDOM Process.

1.

Create a namespace.

2.

Import namespaces, such as System.Text or System.Drawing.

3.

Create a class and add it to the namespace.

4.

Create member fields for the class, defining the name and type for each field.

5.

Create methods and properties

6.

Populate each method or property with code by adding statements to it.

7.

Add the method or property to the class.

8.

Create an appropriate code provider object.

9.

Use the code provider’s CreateGenerator method to obtain a CodeGenerator object.

10.

Call one of the generator’s GenerateCodeFrom… methods to emit the code.

The CodeDOM namespace has a large number of classes, which can be a little intimidating at first. The best way to learn them is to dive in and create a class.

Generate a Simple Class (Steps 1-5)
In this section you’ll build a simple class that:

  • holds a single value
  • knows how to print that value to the Output window

Create a new Windows Forms application and add the statement Imports System.CodeDOM to the top of the class module. Add a button named btnSimpleClass to the form. You’ll define and generate the class code in that button’s Click event handler.

To create the code, I’ll step through the process steps from above, in detail:

1. Create a namespace
The CodeNamespace class represents a namespace.

   ' create a namespace      ns = New CodeNamespace("Simple")

A CodeNamespace is a top-level object in the code object model. The CodeNamespace exposes an Imports property that returns a CodeNamespaceImportCollection collection containing the namespaces you want to import. Add each namespace using the collection’s Add method

2. Import namespaces

      ns.Imports.Add(New CodeNamespaceImport _         ("System"))      ns.Imports.Add(New CodeNamespaceImport _         ("System.Diagnostics"))      ns.Imports.Add(New CodeNamespaceImport _         ("System.Text"))

The CodeNamespace object exposes a Types property that returns a CodeTypeDeclarationCollection collection containing the classes (CodeTypeDeclaration objects) in that namespace. When you first create the CodeNamespace, its Types collection is empty. The Types collection holds classes, interfaces, structures, or enumerations, all of which are “types.” You add each type to the collection using the Add method. For this example, create one class and add it to the namespace you created in step one.

3. Create a class and add it to the namespace
Use the CodeTypeDeclaration class to create a new class type. (You would also use the CodeTypeDeclaration to create a new interface, structure, or enumeration type.) One overloaded constructor accepts the name of the new type as a parameter.

      ' create a new class named "SimpleClass"      Dim aClass As New CodeTypeDeclaration _         ("SimpleClass")         ' add the class to the namespace's       ' Types collection      ns.Types.Add(aClass)

4. Create member fields for the class, defining the name and type for each field
Each CodeTypeDeclaration object has a Members property that is an instance of the CodeTypeMemberCollection class. As you probably expect by now, the collection accepts instances of the CodeTypeMember class. A CodeTypeMember is a base class that represents a field, a method (Sub or Function), a constructor, a property, or a nested type, collectively termed members of the class. Use the appropriate derived class to represent each member. For example, to create a new field, use the CodeMemberField class. To add a new method, use the CodeMemberMethod class, etc.

For this example, create one private Integer field. Note that “Integer” isn’t a valid type; use System.Int32 instead. Because the class imports the System namespace, you can use simply “Int32” and everything works properly.

   ' add an Integer field named "mNumber"   Dim aField As New CodeMemberField _      ("Int32", "mNumber")      ' make it private   aField.Attributes = MemberAttributes.Private      ' add it to the class Members collection.   aClass.Members.Add(aField)

5. Create methods and properties
Create the methods and properties as new CodeTypeMembers, using the appropriate derived class. Each CodeTypeMember has properties that let you specify the member’s scope (Attributes property), parameters (Parameters property), return type ReturnType property, and contained code (Statements property). Members that may hold more than one value are exposed as collection types. For example, the Attributes, Parameters, and Statements?properties are all collection types. You populate these by creating type instances, and using each collection’s Add method to add them to the collection. The following code creates the SimpleClass constructor.

      ' create a public class constructor      Dim aClassConstructor As New CodeConstructor()         ' make it public      aClassConstructor.Attributes = _         MemberAttributes.Public            ' the constructor accepts one Integer       ' parameter named "aNumber"      aClassConstructor.Parameters.Add( _         New CodeParameterDeclarationExpression( _            New CodeTypeReference("Integer"), "aNumber"))         ' assign the value of "aNumber" to the       ' mNumber field. The following code       ' will output "Me.mNumber = aNumber" in VB.NET      ' or "this.mNumber = aNumber" in C#      aClassConstructor.Statements.Add( _         New CodeAssignStatement( _            New CodeFieldReferenceExpression( _               New CodeThisReferenceExpression(), _                  "Number"), _               New CodeArgumentReferenceExpression _                  ("aNumber")))         ' add the constructor to the class      aClass.Members.Add(aClassConstructor)

When you generate all the CodeDOM code you’ve seen thus far using the VBCodeGenerator class, the result is:

      ' generator output in VB.NET      Imports System      Imports System.Diagnostics      Imports System.Text         Namespace Simple               Public Class SimpleClass                     Private mNumber As Int32                     Public Sub New(ByVal aNumber As [Integer])               MyBase.New               Me.Number = aNumber            End Sub

Compare the constructor code to the output. Note that the VB code generator understands VB.NET syntax well enough to perform some tasks automatically. For example, creating a constructor generates a Sub New automatically. The End Sub is also automatic. In fact, the code generator creates all End <type> statements (or end brackets if you generate C#) automatically. The CodeThisReferenceExpression in the preceding code is the same as writing Me in VB.NET or this in C#.

Creating a constructor and creating a method are essentially the same process, although the CodeDOM classes you need differ slightly. The following code creates a public read-only property named “Number.”

      ' create a public readonly property       ' named "Number" that returns an Integer         ' create a CodeMemberProperty object      ' to represent the property      Dim p As New CodeMemberProperty()         ' give the new property a name      p.Name = "Number"         ' make it public      p.Attributes = MemberAttributes.Public      p.Type = New CodeTypeReference("Int32")      p.HasGet = True      p.HasSet = False   

Pay attention to the HasGet and HasSet properties?you’ll read more about them in the next section.

Generate a Simple Class (Steps 6-10)
Now that you have a namespace, a class, and a property, you need to add code statements to make the property do something.

6. Populate each method or property with code by adding statements to it
Member types such as methods and constructors have only one Statements collection, but properties have two: a GetStatements collection and a SetStatements collection. In this class you need to add only one statement to the SimpleClass.Number property?a Get statement that returns the value of the mNumber field. (To create a Return statement, use the CodeMethodReturnStatement class.) Add the new Get statement to the CodeMemberProperty’s GetStatements collection.

     ' create a statement for the Property Get block     ' which will be "Return Me.mNumber"      p.GetStatements.Add( _      New CodeMethodReturnStatement( _      New CodeFieldReferenceExpression( _      New CodeThisReferenceExpression(), "mNumber")))   

That completes the Number property. The VB-generated output for the new property is:

      Public Overridable ReadOnly Property _         Number As Int32         Get            Return Me.mNumber         End Get      End Property

Going back to the HasGet and HasSet properties, I was surprised that they were read-write. I expected them to be read-only. In fact, they act a bit strange. Here’s how the code generator responds when you set (or don’t set) those properties.

You don’t have to set the CodeMemberProperty class’s HasGet and HasSet properties. If you comment out the two lines that assign values to the Boolean HasGet and HasSet properties (see the code at the end of step 5), you’ll get exactly the same output as shown above; in other words, the code generator is smart enough to “know” whether to generate a read-only or read-write property based on the statements in its GetStatements and SetStatements collections. So if you don’t set the properties, the emitted code is exactly what you’d expect?creating a property with a Get block but not a Set block causes the code generator to emit a read-only property, while creating both a Get and a Set block causes the generator to emit a read-write property.

You can force the generator to output a Set block even if the SetStatements collection is empty by setting the HasSet property to True. When you do that, the generator emits an empty Set block that looks like this:

      Set      End Set

The reverse of the preceding statement is not true. If you populate the GetStatements collection, the generator emits a Get block even if you explicitly set the HasGet property to False. Although I didn’t test the Set, I expect it acts the same way; populating the collection overrides a HasSet value of False.

Adding a Function or Sub (a void function in C#) method is similar to creating a constructor or a property; you can see why Microsoft abstracted constructors, methods, and properties and other member types into subclasses of a single CodeTypeMembers base class. The following code adds a public method named PrintNumber that prints the value of the read-only Number property using the System.Diagnostics.Debug class’s WriteLine method.

         ' create a public method named "PrintNumber"         Dim aMethod As New CodeMemberMethod()         aMethod.Name = "PrintNumber"         aMethod.Attributes = MemberAttributes.Public            ' this will be a Sub method (a void          ' function in C#) because the          ' ReturnType is Nothing (null)         aMethod.ReturnType =  _            New CodeTypeReference("Nothing")            ' create the statement to print the number         aMethod.Statements.Add( _             New CodeMethodInvokeExpression( _               New CodeSnippetExpression( _                  "System.Diagnostics.Debug"), _                  "WriteLine", _                  New CodePropertyReferenceExpression( _                  New CodeThisReferenceExpression(), _                  "Number")))   

The code that creates the single statement for the PrintNumber method is the most interesting part of the preceding code. The CodeDOM contains special classes that represent many types of statements, but when there’s no specific class for a statement type (in other words, the statement is not a Return statement, not a variable assignment, not a method invocation, etc.), you use the CodeSnippetExpression class to hold the statement. The code generator emits the contents of CodeSnippetExpression objects literally; in other words, you can output anything you like by putting the code in a CodeSnippetExpression. The VB-generated output for the new property is:

      Public Overridable Sub PrintNumber()         System.Diagnostics.Debug.WriteLine(Me.Number)      End Sub

The property is now complete. You need to add it to the class’s Members collection.

7. Add the method or property to the class
After creating the method or property, add it to the class’s Members collection.

      ' add the method to the class      aClass.Members.Add(aMethod)

Adding the property completes the code. The CodeDOM code you’ve written so far contains a complete but abstracted representation of a namespace (the CodeNamespace object) that contains one CodeTypeDeclaration object representing a class. The class has one private Int32 field (mNumber), one public read-only property (Number), and one public method (PrintNumber).

The CodeDOM representation is language-independent; you can use the abstracted form as a template for generating compilable code in any .NET-compliant language. To do that, you must first create an instance of the appropriate code provider for the language you want to generate. Remember that each .NET language has a special code provider class that gives you access to an object that implements the ICodeGenerator interface, which you can use to generate language-specific code. In step 8, I’ll show you the code to create both VB.NET and C# versions of the Simple namespace.

8. Create an appropriate code provider object

      ' To generate VB.NET code      ' create a new VBCodeProvider instance      Dim VbProvider As New VBCodeProvider()         ' To generate C# code      Dim CSProvider As New _         Microsoft.CSharp.CSharpCodeProvider()   
Note: Code providers are language-specific, so you won’t find them in any of the System namespaces. The VBCodeProvider class is in the Microsoft.VisualBasic namespace, and the CSProvider is in the Microsoft.CSharp namespace.

   

9. Use the code provider’s CreateGenerator method to obtain an ICodeGenerator object
Each code provider has a CreateGenerator method. The method returns an object that implements the ICodeGenerator interface. The ICodeGenerator has a number of GenerateFrom… methods that generate code, such as GenerateCodeFromNamespace, GenerateCodeFromExpression, GenerateCodeFromCompileUnit, GenerateCodeFromStatement, and GenerateCodeFromType. Use whichever one meets your needs.

         ' Generate VB.NET code      ' create a new VBCodeProvider instance      Dim VbProvider As New VBCodeProvider()         ' get a Generator object      Dim codeGen As ICodeGenerator = _         VbProvider.CreateGenerator()         ' generate the code      Dim s As String = getCode(ns, codeGen)         ' write the results to a text field      Me.txtResult.Text = "VB.NET CODE:" & _         vbCrLf & vbCrLf      Me.txtResult.AppendText(s)         ' Repeat the sequence to generate C# code      ' but with the CSProvider instead.      Dim CSProvider As New _         Microsoft.CSharp.CSharpCodeProvider()         ' get a Generator object      Dim codeGen As ICodeGenerator = _         VbProvider.CreateGenerator()         ' generate the code      Dim s As String = getCode(ns, codeGen)         ' write the results to the Output Window      Me.txtResult.AppendText("C# CODE:" & _         vbCrLf & vbCrLf)      Me.txtResult.AppendText(s)

The preceding code passes the ICodeGenerator instance to the getCode function, which calls the ICodeGenerator.GenerateCodeFromNamespace method. In the next step, you’ll see what this method does.

10. Call one of the generator’s GenerateCodeFrom… methods to emit the code.
In this case, because you want to generate a complete namespace, the most appropriate method to use is GenerateCodeFromNamespace. The method accepts:

  • a CodeNamespace parameter containing the abstract representation of the namespace to generate
  • a TextWriter instance into which the generator writes the emitted code
  • a CodeGeneratorOptions instance containing properties that control various options for generating code. One such option is the IndentString property, which specifies how many spaces the generator uses to indent code, used in the getCode method shown below.
      Private Function getCode( _         ByVal CodeGenerator As ICodeGenerator) As String            ' create a CodeGeneratorOptions instance         Dim options As New CodeGeneratorOptions()                  ' set the indentation level of the          ' emitted code         options.IndentString = Space(3)            ' create a StringWriter          Dim sb As New StringBuilder()         Dim sw As StringWriter = New StringWriter(sb)            ' generate the code         CodeGenerator.GenerateCodeFromNamespace( _            ns, sw, options)            ' return the result string         Return sb.ToString()      End Function

Figure 1 shows a form containing the completed code in VB.NET.

Figure 1: When you click the “Create a Simple Class” button, the sample form generates the namespace and class code from the CodeDOM representation and displays it in the TextBox.

Listing 1 shows the output of the completed process in VB.NET, while Listing 2 shows the output in C#.

It’s a significant amount of work to write the CodeDOM code to emit even a simple class; however, the potential benefits are enormous. Once written and debugged, you can guarantee that the emitted code will be error-free. You should also recognize that CodeDOM isn’t limited to VB.NET and C#; a .NET language developer can implement a code provider and implement ICodeGenerator to emit code in any language. Therefore, the CodeDOM code you write today is very likely to generate code in other languages in the future?even though those languages may not even exist yet!

Simplify the Process
The preceding code shows the linear inline process to create the CodeDOM representation of a class; however, you can simplify the process considerably by wrapping up the code to create various types, members, and statements in easier-to-use methods. For example, here are three wrapper methods that simplify adding member fields to a class, creating a class constructor, and assigning a value to a member field.

Wrapper method to create a member field

   ' create a member field   Private Function CreateField( _      ByVal fieldType As Type, _      ByVal fieldname As String, _      ByVal scope As MemberAttributes)            Dim cmf As New CodeMemberField(fieldType, _         fieldname)      cmf.Attributes = scope      Return cmf   End Function

Wrapper method to create a constructor

   ' create a constructor   Private Function CreateConstructor(_      ByVal aClass As CodeTypeDeclaration, _      ByVal scope As MemberAttributes, _      ByVal params As          CodeParameterDeclarationExpressionCollection, _      ByVal Statements As CodeStatementCollection) _      As CodeConstructor         ' create a class constructor with the       ' appropriate scope attribute      Dim aClassConstructor As New CodeConstructor()      aClassConstructor.Attributes = scope         ' assign parameters      If Not params Is Nothing Then         aClassConstructor.Parameters.AddRange(params)      End If         ' add statements      If Not Statements Is Nothing Then         aClassConstructor.Statements.AddRange _           (Statements)      End If      Return aClassConstructor   End Function

Wrapper method to assign a vaue to a member field

   ' assign a value to a member field   Private Function CreateFieldAssignment( _      ByVal aClass As CodeTypeDeclaration, _      ByVal assignTo As String, _      ByVal assignFrom As String)            Return New CodeAssignStatement( _         New CodeFieldReferenceExpression( _            New CodeThisReferenceExpression(), _               assignTo), New                CodeArgumentReferenceExpression _              (assignFrom))      End Function

Even with only these few wrapper methods, you can see that the process to create a new namespace containing a class with a private member field, a constructor with one parameter, and a field assignment is considerably simpler than writing the CodeDOM code directly. Here’s an example that uses the wrapper methods rather than the in-line method shown in the first part of this article.

      Private Sub btnAutomate_Click(_      ByVal sender As System.Object, _      ByVal e As System.EventArgs) _      Handles btnAutomate.Click         Dim VbProvider As New VBCodeProvider()      Dim aClass As New CodeTypeDeclaration()            ' create a public class      aClass.Name = "AutoGen"         ' add a private field      aClass.Members.Add(CreateField( _         GetType(String), "myPrivateVariable", _         MemberAttributes.Private))         ' create a parameters collection         Dim params As New _         CodeParameterDeclarationExpressionCollection()               ' add a string parameter      params.Add(New _         CodeParameterDeclarationExpression( _         GetType(String), "someValue"))         ' create a statements collection      Dim statements As New CodeStatementCollection()         ' add a field assignment statement      statements.Add(CreateFieldAssignment(aClass, _         "myPrivateVariable", "someValue"))         ' create the class constructor      aClass.Members.Add( _         CreateConstructor( _         aClass, MemberAttributes.Public, _         params, statements))         ' generate the code in VB.NET      Dim sb As New StringBuilder()      Dim sw As StringWriter = New StringWriter(sb)      Dim codeGen As ICodeGenerator =          VbProvider.CreateGenerator()      codeGen.GenerateCodeFromType(aClass, sw, Nothing)         ' show the results      Me.txtResult.Text = "VB.NET CODE " & _         vbCrLf & vbCrLf      Me.txtResult.AppendText(sb.ToString() & _         vbCrLf & vbCrLf)         ' generate the code in C#      sb = New StringBuilder()      sw = New StringWriter(sb)      Dim CSProvider As New _         Microsoft.CSharp.CSharpCodeProvider()      codeGen = CSProvider.CreateGenerator()      codeGen.GenerateCodeFromType(aClass, sw, Nothing)      Me.txtResult.AppendText("C# CODE " & _         vbCrLf & vbCrLf)      Me.txtResult.AppendText(sb.ToString())      End Sub

This time, the code creates a public class named AutoGen with a private String member field named myPrivateVariable. The AutoGen class creates a constructor that accepts a String parameter, and assigns the parameter value to the private member field. When a user clicks the “Automate CodeDOM” button on the sample form to run the preceding method, you’ll see this code in the txtResult TextBox (see Figure 2):

Figure 2: When you click the “Automate CodeDOM” button, the sample form generates the code for the AutoGen class and displays it in the TextBox.
   VB.NET CODE       Public Class AutoGen              Private myPrivateVariable As String              Public Sub New(ByVal someValue As String)           MyBase.New           Me.myPrivateVariable = someValue       End Sub   End Class         C# CODE       public class AutoGen {              private string myPrivateVariable;              public AutoGen(string someValue) {           this.myPrivateVariable = someValue;       }   }

Note that this example uses a different GenerateCodeFrom… method. This example contains only a class, not a complete namespace; therefore, the code calls the generator’s GenerateCodeFromType method, rather than the GenerateCodeFromNamespace method used in the first example.

What’s the Point?
You can use these techniques to write wizards to reduce repetitive coding tasks, to generate GUI code, or to emit code customized by users. For example, Microsoft uses the CodeDOM in Visual Studio to create abstract representations of typed DataSet classes that use the field names and types from a table or query specified by a developer. They then emit the code for the typed DataSet in the same language that the user selected for the project.

Finally, CodeDOM functionality isn’t limited to generating source code; it also contains methods to compile code, so you can compile your generated code to an assembly at runtime. The combination provides a powerful way to create, compile, and execute customized code created at runtime as well as design time.

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