NDepend

Improve your .NET code quality with NDepend

Not planning now to migrate your .NET 4.8 legacy, is certainly a mistake

2020 will see the achievement of the massive remodeling of the .NET platform initiated by Microsoft in November 2014 with the introduction of .NET Core 1, with the promise of an open-source, a multi-platform and a modernizable framework (thanks to no rock-solid backward compatibility constraint) – everything that the .NET Framework isn’t. This U-turn in the Microsoft plans for .NET is part of the new Microsoft’s strategy initiated by Satya Nadella that became CEO of Microsoft in February 2014, succeeding to Steve Ballmer.

.NET 5 will be released in November this year. Within 6 years Microsoft will have succeeded a complete platform shift like no other. The .NET Core brand was here to make clear that two .NET platforms were living side by side. But now we know that the .NET Framework 4.8 won’t evolve anymore and that all Microsoft efforts will be put on .NET Core continuation with well scheduled releases ahead. Let’s use the term .NET OSS to designate [.NET Core, .NET 5, .NET 6…. [ in the remainder of this post.

We can expect an early beta of .NET 5 before July 2020. Today in January 2020 the .NET 5.0 milestone is 72% achieved.

By now, the way to get prepared to .NET 5 and later is to migrate to .NET Core 3.1. Despite the branding change from .NET Core 3.1 to .NET 5 it is no mystery that .NET 5 will be mostly based on the actual .NET Core platform.

The cost of migration from .NET 4.8 to .NET OSS can get pretty high, especially if the legacy relies on some deprecated APIS (like WCF, WWF, WebForms or AppDomain). Thus it may seems attractive to stick with .NET 4.8 if your application is intended to run on Windows only.

Why it is not a good idea to not anticipate the migration now?

.NET 4.8 won’t evolve but some security patches will be provided for as long as we can foresee. However we can predict that .NET 4.8 will be quickly considered as a thing-of-the-past:

  • Developer mindset: .NET OSS and also C# will evolve. There will come a point where it’ll feel pretty awkward for .NET programmers working with 4.8 to not be able to use all the new goodies. Could you imagine programming with C#3 nowadays?
  • Third-Party Libraries: The .NET 4.8 / .NET OSS increasing gap will push open-sourced libraries authors toward .NET OSS. The cost of maintaining two code bases will be too high for an OSS developer. If your .NET 4.8 application consumes some OSS libraries, not migrating it will put you in an awkward situation where you’ll have to maintain the OSS code consumed yourself! Certainly serious commercial libraries will be maintained on both platforms for a longer period of time, but not forever.
  • Performance: We can expect more and more performance improvements with .NET OSS.
  • Tooling: Tools will continue to evolve and with time, less and less tool will support .NET 4.8 application.

Recently I’ve discussed with Jean-Baptiste Evain that develops the OSS library Cecil. Jb is also responsible for UnityVS at MS. Here at NDepend we’re relying on Cecil for more than a decade. Cecil processes compiled .NET assemblies bytes and thus will obviously benefit from Span<T> only available on .NET Core. This concrete situation illustrates well the points mentioned above:

  • By using Span<T> Jb is not enthusiast to have to maintain two versions of Cecil, one relying on Span<T> and the .NET 4.8 one.
  • Even though these two versions will co-exist because it is too early to discard the .NET 4.8 version of Cecil used by many serious projects, it is a matter of a few years until .NET 4.8 Cecil version gets deprecated.
  • Without Span<T> the .NET 4.8 version of Cecil will be slower.

Our case

NDepend is still running on .NET 4.8. NDepend is a CI tool, a standalone UI tool, an Azure DevOps extension and a Visual Studio extension. Developing an extension is a sensitive situation because we need to align our platform with the platform of the host. VS is such a massive application that I don’t expect it to run on .NET 5 in 2021. On the other hand VS is evolving so quickly nowadays that this possibility is not totally excluded. It is also possible that Microsoft takes an incremental approach and that the main VS process (devenv.exe) will remain on .NET Fx 4.8 for a while, while children processes run on .NET OSS (VS runs with quite a few children processes!).

At this point the reasonable move for us is to anticipate the migration to .NET OSS mostly by compiling as much code as possible against .NET Standard 2.0, supported by both .NET Fx 4.7.2+ and .NET Core. We also need to make sure that our WPF and Winforms code will be easily movable (which shouldn’t be a problem since most of the WPF/Winforms APIs are supported by .NET 3.1). We are also mulling over on having our own child process(es) but all the UI part must remain in the main VS process.

We also keep in mind that it will be tricky to support the future VS version running on .NET OSS and previous VS versions running on .NET v4.8 for a few years.

Conclusion

Those like us still working on a large .NET 4.8 legacy are entering into a turbulence zone for the years to come. However for all the reasons explained above, we can expect that in not so long (2023? 2025?) successful applications still running on .NET 4.8 will be the exception. Certainly not anticipating legacy migration now is likely a strategic mistake.

4 Predictions for the Future of .NET

In May 2019, Microsoft officially announced .NET 5, the future of .NET: it will be based on all the .NET Core work already achieved. Here is the schedule announced:

On one hand the future of .NET has never been so bright. On the other hand this represents a massive move for all .NET development shops, especially for those that still target .NET Framework 4.x that won’t evolve anymore. But not everything is clear from this announcement. Such massive move will have many collateral consequences that we can only guess by now. Certainly many points are not yet cast in stone and still debated.

Hence for large .NET legacy code bases some predictions must be made to plan now a seamless and in-time migration toward the future of .NET. So let’s do some predictions: it’ll still be interesting to come back in a few years and see how good or bad they were.

.NET Standard won’t evolve much

.NET Standard was introduced as a common API set that all .NET flavors must implement. .NET Standard superseded PCL (Portable Class Library). Now that several .NET frameworks will be unified upon .NET Core bases, and that the .NET Framework 4.x won’t support future versions of .NET Standard anymore, it sounds like the need for more .NET standard API will decrease significantly. Actually .NET Framework 4.8 doesn’t even support latest .NET Standard 2.1: “.NET Framework 4.8 will remain on .NET Standard 2.0 rather than implement .NET Standard 2.1”.

However .NET Standard is certainly not dead yet: it is (and will be for years to come) an essential tool to compile code into portable components that can be reused across several .NET flavors. However with this unification process the future of .NET Standard is compromised.

Visual Studio will run on .NET 5 or 6 (and in a x64 process)

It has to. Imagine the consequences if in 3 years from now (2019 Q4) the main Microsoft IDE for .NET professional developments still run on .NET Framework v4.8:

  • Engineers working on VS would lack access to all new .NET APIs, performance improvements and langage improvements. They would remain locked in the past.
  • As a consequence they wouldn’t use their own tool (dogfooding) and dogfooding is a key aspect of developing tools for developers.
  • Overall the message sent wouldn’t be acceptable for the users.

On the other hand, if you know a bit how VS works, imagine how massive this migration is going to be. For more than a decade there have been a lot of complaints from the community about Visual Studio not running in a 64 bits process. See some discussions on reddit here for example. If I remember well this x64 request was the most voted one when VS feedback was still handled by UserVoices. Some technical explanations have been provided by Microsoft like those ones provided 10 years ago! If in 2019 Visual Studio still doesn’t run in a x64 process, this says a lot on how large and complex such migration is.

It seems inevitable that this time the Visual Studio legacy will evolve toward what will be the future of .NET. One key benefit will be to run in a x64 process and have plenty of memory to work with very large solutions. Another implication is that all Visual Studio extensions, like our extension, must evolve too. Here at NDepend we are already preparing it but it will take time, not because we’ll miss much API (we’ll mostly miss AppDomain) but because:

  • We depend on some third-parties that we’d like to get rid of to have full control over our migration, and overall code.
  • For several years we’ll have to support both future Visual Studio versions and Visual Studio 2019, 2017 and maybe 2015 that runs on .NET Framework v4.x (btw we still support VS 2013/2012/2010 but this will have to be discarded to benefit from .NET Standard reused DLLs)

We cannot know yet if Visual Studio vNext will run on .NET 5 or if it’ll take more years until we see it running upon .NET 6?

Btw here are 2 posts Quickly assess your .NET code compliance with .NET Standard and An in-depth analysis of .NET Core 3.0 support for WPF and Winforms APIs that can help plan your own legacy migration.

.NET will propose a cross-platform UI Framework: WPF or a similar XAML UI Framework

On October 4, 2019 Satya Nadella revealed why Windows may not be the future of Microsoft’s business. In August 2019 Microsoft provided a .NET Cross Platform UI Framework Survey. Clearly a .NET cross-platform UI Framework is wanted: the community is asking for it. So far Microsoft closed the debate about WPF: WPF won’t be multi-platform.

Let’s also be crystal clear. This (WPF cross platform) is a very hard project. If the cost was low, this would be a very different conversation and very likely a different outcome. We have enough trouble being compatible with OpenSSL and that’s just one library.  Rich Lander – Dec 5, 2018

But given the immense benefits of what WPF running cross-platform would offer, I wouldn’t be surprise to see WPF become cross-platforms within the next years. Or at least a similar XAML UI framework. Moreover WPF is now open-source so who knows…

The Visual Studio UI is mostly based on WPF hence one of the benefit of having WPF cross-platform would be to have a unique cross-platform Visual Studio: the same way Microsoft is now unifying .NET Frameworks, they could unify the Visual Studio suite into a single cross-platform product.

Xamarin Forms and Avalonia are also natural candidates to be the .NET cross-platform UI Framework. But it seems those frameworks doesn’t receive enough love from the community, this is my subjective feeling. Also we have to keep in mind that Microsoft did a survey and that the community is massively asking for it.

Blazor is promised to a bright future

If you didn’t follow the recent Blazor evolution, the promises of this technology are huge:

  • Run .NET code in all browsers (like Silverlight)
  • with no browser plugin needed (unlike Silverlight)
  • with near-native performance
  • with components compiled to a compact binary format

This is all possible thanks to the WebAssembly (Wasm) format supported by most browsers.

WebAssembly (abbreviated Wasm) is a binary instruction format for a stack-based virtual machine. Wasm is designed as a portable target for compilation of high-level languages like C/C++/Rust, enabling deployment on the web for client and server applications.

Blazor was initially a personal project created by Steve Sanderson from Microsoft. It was first introduced during NDC OSLO in July 2017: the video is worth being watched, also read how enthusiastics are the comments. However Blazor is not yet finalized and still has some limitations: it doesn’t offer yet a decent debugging experience and the application size to download (a few MBs) is still too large because dependencies have to be loaded too. Those ones are currently being addressed (see here for debugging and here for download size, runtime code will be trimmed and cached and usage of CDN (Content Distribution Network) is mentioned).

The community is enthusiast, the technology is getting mature and there is no technological nor political barrier in sight: the Blazor future looks bright. Don’t miss the Blazor FAQ to learn more.