Thursday, September 1, 2005

Migrating an app from Excel to .Net, Part I

[This was originally posted at http://timstall.dotnetdevelopersjournal.com/migrating_an_app_from_excel_to_net_part_i.htm]

I recently had the challenge of improving upon an Excel workbook. This was a complicated sheet, with 200 columns of ugly calculations that solved a difficult engineering problem. There were many rows, one for each widget being engineered. I'm going to blog about several issues I encountered for this.

The first issue I needed to deal with: should I extend Excel (with VBA) or rewrite the application in .Net. I see the following pros and cons:

 Extend Excel with VBARewrite in .Net
Pro
  • Potentially much quicker - not rewriting all the complex calculations
  • Excel is already designed for this kind of thing. It's easy to copy new rows, and it has a built in tools like GoalSeek (a numeric solver) of which there is no clear counterpart available in .Net (perhaps I could implement Newton's Method with numeric derivatives, but that takes some work would be very error prone for me to mess up).
  • Excel is easy to maintain for the end user, especially if they need to make a change.
  • Powerful platfom
  • Easier to test code with Test-Driven-Development (what if you need to modify a formula in your Excel book, and you want to make sure everything still works)
  • Splits out input, logic, and view into separate components. For example you could have a WinForm take (and validate) the input, a backend DLL could do all the logic, and then you could generate an Xml file or Html document with the final output results.
Con
  • Limited power, VBA is messy to deal with compared to .Net with C#, Visual Studio, and the .Net Framework
  • Excel combines the input, logic, and view all into one sheet. For example is you wanted to show the client only the calculated output, you'd either send them the entire sheet (which lets them see your calculations unless you do some fancy cell-hiding), or copy those values to a new document.
  • Lot of extra work
  • Hard for the end user to change or maintain

The final solution I'm looking at: make a hybrid. Continue using Excel for user input and calculations, extending it with VBA. But use .Net to read the Excel document and generate output views. I'll discuss this more in my next blog.

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