Masonry Extensibility. Part 1.


This is a second post in a series of articles about Masonry starter kit. Please refer to this article in order to get more information about Masonry:

Announcing Masonry public preview

Masonry starter kit was designed with extensibility in mind from the very beginning. There are several out-of-box blocks that greatly reduce learning curve and efforts required to extend main navigation elements like sidebar and header bar, provide custom content and routing, integrate into help or search system or messaging pipeline.

Masonry is also shipped with a project template for Visual Studio 2012 that turns the process of extension library creation into a several mouse-click procedure.

Part 1 of this article will give a high-level overview of supported extensibility features as well as developer tools shipped with version 1.0

Part 2 will dwell on technical details of extension discovery, processing and mapping of dynamic/static content and UI composition.

Extensions in Masonry are based on Areas that are compiled into a single-assembly libraries and deployed to Masonry-based web application by means of xcopy. For more details on Areas in ASP.NET MVC please refer to the following articles:

Walkthrough: Organizing an ASP.NET MVC Application using Areas

ASP.NET MVC Areas – A Better Way to Structure The Application

Using Areas in ASP.NET MVC Application

Every Masonry extension depends on the following assemblies:

  • Masonry.Core.dll (required)contains low-level infrastructure required by Masonry and 3rd party extensions in order to function.
  • Masonry.Extensibility.dll (required)contains shared blocks that may be used by all or any 3rd party extension. For the moment of writing this article it consists mainly of UI-relacted contracts.
  • Masonry.Resources.dll (optional)contains default localized content that may be reused within extensions

Masonry does not require extra efforts in order to enable extensibility support for a web application, referencing “Masonry.Core” is usually enough to automatically enable underlying infrastructure.

There are two different modes supported by Masonry out-of-box: automatic (or convention-based) and controlled (or configuration-based) extension discovery.

Automatic extension discovery

This is the default mode and requires zero coding efforts besides referencing “Masonry.Core” assembly from within your Masonry-based web application.

Prior to web application startup the following workflow is executed automatically:

  • Underlying extensibility engine is initialized and started
  • All assemblies are discovered by “*.Extension.dll” mask and loaded
  • Custom ASP.NET MVC view and content providers (Masonry-specific) are initialized and wired with the extension libraries if loaded with previous step

With automatic discovery mode every 3rd party extension library must follow the following predefined conventions in order to allow resulting assembly to be discovered and loaded:

  • Extension assembly file name should end with “.Extension.dll
  • Default root namespace for the extension assembly should not end with “Extension” word

The process of configuring assembly file name and namespace for a new extension project is pretty simple. For example in order to configure a “Dummy” extension developer may need performing the following steps:

  • Create a .NET class library project named “Dummy” and navigate to project properties pane
  • Ensure “Default namespace” property is set to “Dummy”
  • Change “Assembly name” property from “Dummy” to “Dummy.Extension”

02.project-properties

Note: steps above can be omitted when using “Masonry Extension” project template for Visual Studio 2012 shipped with Masonry kit out-of-box. More details regarding project template will be given further in this article.

Controlled extension discovery

Due to security, performance, additional level of extension management and review, or any other reasons it is possible switching off automatic discovery for 3rd party extensions and defining them explicitly within configuration file (web.config) instead.

The following picture demonstrates registration of “Dummy” widget within configuration file:

01.webconfig

In this case the following workflow will be executed prior to web application startup:

  • Underlying extensibility engine is initialized and started
  • All assemblies from configuration file are discovered and loaded
  • Custom ASP.NET MVC view and content providers (Masonry-specific) are initialized and wired with the extension libraries loaded during previous step

The are no file and namespace naming conventions for configuration-based mode (as it is possible defining corresponding values within configuration file as well).

Extension project template

In order to greatly simplify development process and reduce amount of efforts and time needed to create and configure a new extension library Masonry is shipped with a special project template for Visual Studio 2012.

03.vstemplate

Important note: for version 1.0 the resulting project should reside within “Extensions” subfolder of the project like displayed on the picture. This is required in order to automate configuration of assembly references and Nuget packages for a newly created project.

Project template handles and automates development process by executing the following operations:

  • Creates new class library within “Extensions” subfolder
  • Configures all Masonry-related assembly references, wires project with required and/or optional Nuget packages
  • Enables Razor support for newly created project (code highlighting, intellisense, compilation, etc.)
  • Creates initial file structure that conforms to common ASP.NET MVC Areas design
  • Generates “Area Registration” settings for the given project including default route registration
  • Generates set of files that address basic extensibility scenarios, for example sidebar and header bar extensions, grouping, default “main content” and “about” pages, etc.
  • All generated files and automated settings take into account name of project

So upon creating a new project with this template you get a working Masonry Extension library that is ready to be instantly compiled and deployed to main web application.

By default Masonry also provides and embedded demo extension called “Dummy” that reuses most of the extensibility features:

05.extension-structure-expanded

The file structure of the project when using Masonry Extension project template will be nearly the same except the name of the area registration class, all code namespaces and all UI labels/names will be reflecting the name of the project you have defined at the creation stage. This means that multiple extensions created from the same template won’t conflict.

06.custom-extension

Here’s for example the content of the Area Registration file that was automatically generated for the “MyExtension1” project:

07.custom-arearegistration

And image below provides a quick example on a sidebar extension element generated automatically and aligned with your project name and settings:

08.custom-sidebar-integration

Needless to say that resulting project can be tuned in any way. Visual Studio template just takes care of the most frequent, repetitive and so time-consuming tasks.

Compiling and deploying extensions

Every class library created with “Masonry Extension” project template can be instantly compiled and deployed to a Masonry-based web application without any modifications.

As a result of successful compilation you will be getting a single assembly file with all the features and content required by extension.

Important note: all non-C# files related to ASP.NET MVC (i.e. “.cshtml” files) and static content should be marked as “embedded resources” in order to be included into resulting assembly and processed by Masonry at run time. It is possible including images, JavaScript, CSS, etc. files as embedded resources as well. Masonry will ensure those files are mapped properly during execution and behave as common MVC views or static/script files.

Besides changing build action to “Embedded Resource” developers need performing no actions. Picture below demonstrates the default set of files delivered by Masonry Extension project template as embedded resources:

11.extension-resources

Deploying compiled extensions has no special requirements or prerequisites. Resulting “.dll” file can be copied into the binaries folder of the target Masonry-based web application. Optionally you can drop debugging information (.pdb files) to enable debugging of deployed extensions and stepping through the code:

09.extension-binaries

Note: when using “controlled discovery mode” you may need defining a new configuration entry upon deploying your extension to the target web application.

Upon execution and extension discovery Masonry will automatically populate sidebar, header bar and other extensible UI areas with corresponding elements. Every action (link) will point to custom extension-provided content.

10.extensions-ui

This is the end of basic overview of extensibility in Masonry. In the second part I will be giving more information about areas that support extensibility in Masonry, classes and contracts that may be utilized when writing custom extensions, technical details on embedded resources and the process of mapping them at run time, and a lot more…

Announcing Masonry public preview


Today I’m happy to announce the public availability of my new project “Masonry”. Please note that this post is a high-level overview of the project and its major features. For the sake of simplicity technical details are omitted. Developer-oriented articles will be published separately.

Introduction

Social networks and corresponding UI/UX gains more and more attention. Even big enterprise players are looking forward to embedding social and gamification features into their products these days. Most of the projects I’ve been involved with during this year had requirements for lightweight “socialization” of common business workflows, i.e. chats, timelines and data aggregation, comment systems, following/unfollowing, user profiles, etc. Most of the project prototyping I’ve observed or was part of during the year assumed Twitter/Facebook-like user experiences besides mandatory functionality requirements.

Masonry was born as an ASP.NET MVC4 starter kit (or template) to greatly reduce learning curve, time and development efforts required to start prototyping and building social-enabled web applications, or integrating social-enabled features into existing applications. It provides most common building blocks and allows startup or research teams concentrating on main application functionality rather than building social features from scratch.

Home Page

Overview

Masonry is not a static template. Many frequently required and expected features are still being researched, analyzed and included into the roadmap. You should expect frequent updates that bring new blocks in the future.

The major set of features shipped with initial beta is as follows:

  • Account registration with email confirmation/validation and reCaptcha support
  • Account settings and password management
  • Timeline and user posts (status updates)
  • Public profiles, following/unfollowing other users
  • Personal feeds and “twitterization” of content (account links, hash tags, etc.)
  • Comment system
  • Mentions and People hubs
  • Wiki-based help system with Markdown support
  • Extensibility support (single-assembly modules built with ASP.NET MVC4 template and deployed with xcopy)

There’s also a supplementary content to aid development:

  • Default demo database to get started instantly (SQL LocalDb)
  • SQL schema scripts to setup a new database
  • Visual Studio 2012 project template for creating custom extensions/modules with less efforts

Account Registration

Account management is built on to of SimpleMembership provider by MS used in most of the WebMatrix projects these days. That allows having more flexible membership scenarios (i.e. support for external OAuth authentication models, Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn integration without much efforts) and provides greatly refined SQL database schema compared to popular ASP.NET SQL Membership provider.

Registration form prevents cross-site request forgery (CSRF) out of box by utilizing ASP.NET MVC’s AntiForgeryToken helpers.

Google reCaptcha is also preconfigured by default

Account Registration

In addition Masonry supports account validation and email validation. This feature when opted in through configuration allows automatically generating confirmation emails with links to confirm and enable newly created account.

Signing in

Similar to Registration form the LogOn one prevents cross-site request forgery (CSRF) attacks by default. All redirect URL links (used to redirect back to the requested content that requires authentication) are verified to be valid local addresses rather than external links.

Sign In

Timeline

All authenticated users are automatically redirected to the Timeline. Similar to Twitter it is a long stream showing all Posts from those you have chosen to follow, or your own posts with user comments. There are no paging controls on the Timeline, similar to Facebook new content is downloaded smoothly while you scroll down the page.

Timeline

All content is “twitterized” by default – all user account tags are turned into user profile links and point to Personal Feeds (see below), all hash tags are wrapped with hyperlinks redirecting to internal Search controller upon click. In addition all hash tags are enumerated in a separate area below the main post content.

There are at least 2 easy ways to post new content (i.e. status update) in Masonry:

  • Inline editor box at the bottom of the Timeline
  • “New Post” button on the header bar and available on any page

Image below demonstrates a dialog that appears when user presses “new post” button:

Status Update

Personal Feeds

Masonry provides support for personal feeds – streams showing public posts by a specific user. There are several ways quickly accessing personal feed:

  • User account name within the post header
  • User account tag within the post or comment content
  • Public profile dialog that pops up upon clicking user avatar
  • People or Mentions hub

Upon navigation the sidebar control will automatically reflect the account opened:

Personal Feed

Public Profile Popups

Masonry automatically wraps all user avatars with profile popups that allow following/unfollowing particular user, navigating to a personal feed or People hub to see followings/followers.

Profile Popup

Mentions

Similar to Twitter Mentions Masonry provides support for streaming posts that “mention” current user – i.e. any post that has an account tag in the content. All Timeline features like profile popups, comments, personal feed navigation are automatically applied to Mentions stream as well.

Mentions

People Hub

To simplify intranet/corporate scenarios Masonry provides a special feature “People Hub” that allows newly registered users discovering already existing members (to follow, view personal feeds, etc.). People hub lists existing uses with basic public information (see Account Settings section below) and main statistics like number of posts, followers or users being followed by a particular user. It is possible following/unfollowing users directly from the People hub:

People Hub

Note: it may be possible wiring People hub with additional logic and business rules, like showing/filtering users by department, etc.

Account Settings

Users can access their account and profile settings from the header bar. Besides account editing Settings drop down menu provides access to Help system, About information and allows signing out as shown on the picture below:

Settings

There are no mandatory fields within account settings section. All public fields are optional: photo, display name, location, website and bio. If current browser supports HTML5 File API user will be able to preview changes to the picture live without uploading any data to server.

Account Settings

Both “Account settings” and “Change password” forms provide lightweight unobtrusive alerts to indicate update results.

Change Password

Comment system

For extensibility and flexibility purposes Comment system in Masonry is separated from status updates (posts). To avoid user distraction comment areas are collapsed by default:

Generic Post

Moreover comments are loaded asynchronously upon expanding “Comments” area. That reduces initial page memory footprint and speeds up main content loading.

Post Comments

The author of the post has possibility removing posts with corresponding comments:

Removing Posts

Similar to Facebook Masonry supports displaying posts in separate pages. Every post that has more than 10 comments is automatically opened in a separate view.

Help System, Markdown Support

Help system is a separate block within Masonry that provides Wiki-like experience and powered by Markdown syntax.

Help System with Markdown

Underlying Help Controller maps physical “.md” files automatically, it is possible updating Markdown content with a running application:

Help Content

Markdown syntax

Extensibility and Modules

Masonry utilizes Managed Extensibility Framework (MEF) and ASP.NET MVC Areas to provide rich extensibility support. External extensions are discovered and loaded automatically with zero code configuration and prerequisites within main application. All extensions are represented by a single-file assemblies containing a fully-fledged ASP.NET MVC4 pieces together with static content, styleshees and javascript files.

Upon new extension library discovery Masonry automatically augments UI with additional entities taken from the corresponding plugin:

Extensions

Every custom extension can provide extra elements for header bar (with grouping support), sidebar, may provide user with additional content. With Masonry it becomes extremely easy extending standard UI and functionality.

Dummy Extension

In order to greatly simplify development process Masonry provides a special “Masonry Extension” project template that can be used with Visual Studio 2012. This project template takes care of project structure generation, enables Razor compilation and syntax highlighting for the generated class library project and contains all extensibility/routing settings automatically preconfigured.

Note: there will be a separate article that dives deep into Masonry extensibility, tooling and plugin development. 

That’s pretty it. Feel free to grab the code, play with it, request features that are important, file issues… everything is in the GitHub repository.

Thanks for following.