Session data is evil

I’ve been working in ASP.MVC recently after working in Java for a long time. One of the things that struck me was the common use of session data in web application.

Now I know that people can and do use abuse sessions in Java, but the default routing and ease of access make using it more tempting in ASP.MVC. The standard routing convention of “/Controller/Action/:id” means you need to explicitly code to use RESTful paths that give you multipleĀ IDs in URLs like “order/2/item/3” for non-trivial scenarios, and out of the box convenience methods like “TempData” seem to offer magical persistence between requests. These incentives combine to make using session data the path of least resistance in ASP.MVC.

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Any data stored in session is inherently unreliable and use of it makes load balancing and scaling your application much more difficult. Once you use it, each instance of your web application must be able to find the users session data to reliably handle requests. Since it’s now extremely common to use multiple instances even for small applications (irresponsible not to for disaster recovery and redundancy) you will need to think about this before you deploy into production.

It also adds hidden complexity to testing your application. Each endpoint which relies on state stored in session needs to be tested with that application state simulated. This means you have at least two places in your code defining and using the same semi-structured data, which makes your tests complex/fragile and your code harder to maintain.

Stelhi_Silk_Mill_Lanco_broken_windows

Once you make using session data part of your architecture it’s very hard to refactor and remove it. That little innocent use of TempData to store details from the last request will spread as Developers think “If it was ok there then it’s ok here…” and “one more can’t hurt” (the broken windows theory). Now your user flows in the web application rely on session stored details to go from screen A to B to C, and refactoring them means re-writing and testing a lot of the view/controller logic to replace the data held in session.

There are acceptable uses for session data in web application, authentication is the obivous one. What they have in common is having alternative flows to cope if session data is not found without breaking functionality.

If you have an over reliance of session in your application you are making a flakey, hard to scale and maintain application that will at best limp into production. At worst it will fall over and take your users data with it.

There are common patterns and methods to avoid needing session data, below are some links to help:

ASP.MVC Datatables server-side

This is an example implementation of JQuery Datatables with server-side processing. The source is here.

datatables

Introduction

JQuery Datatables is a great tool, attach it to a table of results and it gives you quick and easy sorting/searching. Against a small dataset this works fine, but once you start to have >1000 records your page load is going to take a long time. To solve this Datatables recommend server-side processing.

This code is an example of implementing server-side processing for an ASP.MVC web appliction, using a generic approach with Linq so that you can re-use it for different entities easily with little code repetition. It also shows an implementation of full word search across all columns, which is something that the Javascript processing version offers but is very tricky to implement on the database side with decent performance. It’s a C# .NET implementation but you can take the interfaces and calls from the controllers and convert the approach for Java or Ruby (missing the nice Linq stuff tho).

Details

I’ll skip the basic view/js details as that is easily available on the datatables documentation.

The request comes into the controller as a GET with all the sort/search details as query parameters (see here), it expects a result matching this interface:

public interface IDatatablesResponse<T>
{
    int draw { get; set; }
    int recordsTotal { get; set; }
    int recordsFiltered { get; set; }
    IEnumerable<T> data { get; set; }
    string error { get; set; }
}

The controller extracts the parameters, creates the DB context and repository and makes three calls asynchronously:

  • get the total records
  • get the total filtered records
  • get the searched/sorted/paged data

The data is returned and Datatables Javascript uses it to render the table and controls for the correct searched/sorted/paged results.

The magic happens in the DatatablesRepository objects which handle those calls.

DatatablesRepository classes

Interface:

public interface IDatatablesRepository<TEntity>
{
    Task<IEnumerable<TEntity>> GetPagedSortedFilteredListAsync(int start, int length, string orderColumnName, ListSortDirection order, string searchValue);
    Task<int> GetRecordsTotalAsync();
    Task<int> GetRecordsFilteredAsync(string searchValue);
    string GetSearchPropertyName();
}

The base class DatatablesRepository has a default implementation which provides generic logic for paging, searching and ordering an entity:

protected virtual IQueryable<TEntity> CreateQueryWithWhereAndOrderBy(string searchValue, string orderColumnName, ListSortDirection order)
{
    ...
    query = GetWhereQueryForSearchValue(query, searchValue);
    query = AddOrderByToQuery(query, orderColumnName, order);
    ...
}

protected virtual IQueryable<TEntity> GetWhereQueryForSearchValue(IQueryable<TEntity> queryable, string searchValue)
{
    string searchPropertyName = GetSearchPropertyName();
    if (!string.IsNullOrWhiteSpace(searchValue) && !string.IsNullOrWhiteSpace(searchPropertyName))
    {
        var searchValues = Regex.Split(searchValue, "\\s+");
        foreach (string value in searchValues)
        {
            if (!string.IsNullOrWhiteSpace(value))
            {
                queryable = queryable.Where(GetExpressionForPropertyContains(searchPropertyName, value));
            }
        }
        return queryable;
    }
    return queryable;
}

protected virtual IQueryable<TEntity> AddOrderByToQuery(IQueryable<TEntity> query, string orderColumnName, ListSortDirection order)
{
    var orderDirectionMethod = order == ListSortDirection.Ascending
            ? "OrderBy"
            : "OrderByDescending";

    var type = typeof(TEntity);
    var property = type.GetProperty(orderColumnName);
    var parameter = Expression.Parameter(type, "p");
    var propertyAccess = Expression.MakeMemberAccess(parameter, property);
    var orderByExp = Expression.Lambda(propertyAccess, parameter);
    var filteredAndOrderedQuery = Expression.Call(typeof(Queryable), orderDirectionMethod, new Type[] { type, property.PropertyType }, query.Expression, Expression.Quote(orderByExp));

    return query.Provider.CreateQuery<TEntity>(filteredAndOrderedQuery);
}

The default implementation for creating the Where query (for searching) will only work if you provide a SearchPropertyName for a property that exists in the database that is a concatenation of all the values you want to search in the format displayed.

You can implement and override to use a custom method if your Entity does not support this, here is an example from the Person Entity:

public class PeopleDatatablesRepository : DatatablesRepository<Person>
{
    ...
    protected override IQueryable<Person> GetWhereQueryForSearchValue(IQueryable<Person> queryable, string searchValue)
    {
        return queryable.Where(x =>
                // id column (int)
                SqlFunctions.StringConvert((double)x.Id).Contains(searchValue)
                // name column (string)
                || x.Name.Contains(searchValue)
                // date of birth column (datetime, formatted as d/M/yyyy) - limitation of sql prevented us from getting leading zeros in day or month
                || (SqlFunctions.StringConvert((double)SqlFunctions.DatePart("dd", x.DateOfBirth)) + "/" + SqlFunctions.DatePart("mm", x.DateOfBirth) + "/" + SqlFunctions.DatePart("yyyy", x.DateOfBirth)).Contains(searchValue));
    }
}

The same is true of the order by query, which may need customisation to sort correctly for data, i.e. dates. Here is an example from the PersonDepartmentListViewRepository, which replaces the formatted date column being formatted with the raw date:

public class PersonDepartmentListViewRepository : DatatablesRepository<PersonDepartmentListView>
{
    ...
    protected override IQueryable<PersonDepartmentListView> AddOrderByToQuery(IQueryable<PersonDepartmentListView> query, string orderColumnName, ListSortDirection order)
    {
        if (orderColumnName == "DateOfBirthFormatted")
        {
            orderColumnName = "DateOfBirth";
        }
        return base.AddOrderByToQuery(query, orderColumnName, order);
    }
}

Using a view will make life much easier, as the data can be pre-formatted and you can supply a search column to do the full word searching, here’s the view I used to combine results from two tables:

CREATE VIEW [dbo].[PersonDepartmentListView]
AS
SELECT dbo.Person.Id, 
dbo.Person.Name, 
dbo.Person.DateOfBirth,
CONVERT(varchar(10), CONVERT(date, dbo.Person.DateOfBirth, 106), 103) AS DateOfBirthFormatted,
dbo.Department.Name AS DepartmentName,
CONVERT(varchar(10), dbo.Person.Id) + ' ' + dbo.Person.Name + ' ' + CONVERT(varchar(10), CONVERT(date, dbo.Person.DateOfBirth, 106), 103) + ' ' + dbo.Department.Name AS SearchString
FROM  dbo.Person INNER JOIN
       dbo.Department ON dbo.Person.DepartmentId = dbo.Department.Id

Notes

  • If you are displaying date values be aware that you will need to format the date for display before returning in JSON, and the date format will affect how you sort the column on the backend as you will need to identify the actual date column property rather than the formated string
  • For effort and performance you are better off creating view than using complex Linq queries
  • I created the initial example with the help of Stephen Anderson