Thursday, August 20, 2009

10 tips to integrate CodeSmith into your processes

[This was originally posted at]

Say you've theoretically seen why code generation is so profitable, so you've downloaded a free trial of CodeSmith, and banged out a few templates. In other words, you've got code generation working on a single developer machine. That's great, but it's even better to have it adopted by the entire department. Here are some practical tips on how to integrate CodeSmith into your processes.

  1. Aim for active regeneration - There are two kinds of generation, Active and Passive. Active means that the code is actively regenerated on a regular basis. Passive means it was generated just once, and then modified manually thereafter. The problem with Passive generation is that it lets developers create tons of code upfront, but then people get trigger-happy and use the generator to produce even more code, and you're stuck now maintaining it all. It's like a trip with no return ticket. It also misses out on many of the other benefits of codeGen - like mass updating code with some new change.
  2. Always have a batch script - Yes, people can integrate into VS, or use the CodeSmith IDE. But to enforce uniformity, ensure that the right properties are passed in, and hook into your Continuous Integration (CI) build, you'll need a batch.
  3. Run the codeGen from your CI build - This enforces active regeneration.
  4. Consider not checking generated scripts into source control - This prevents synchronization errors between local developers and the build server. Yes, all code should ultimately be checked into source control, which is why we still check the templates themselves in, from which you can deterministically recreate all the target code. Your automated checkout script, which gets the latest from source control, can then run the templates and recreate the target code. NOTE - this only works if you're not using merge regions (which mix generated and custom code in the same file). If you use merge regions, then you need to check in the generated files.
  5. Avoid merge reasons where possible - CodeSmith has this powerful feature called "merge regions" which lets you mix both generated and custom code. Sometimes you need this, but if you have a choice - always opt to put generated code in its own, dedicated file. This prevents synchronization issues, is less likely to break, is easier to handle overwriting files in active generation, and is easier for most developers to understand and maintain.
  6. Ensure that code generation can be run on every developer's machine - Because you'll want to actively re-generate the code, you'll need each developer to be able to run those generation batch scripts locally. That means each developer will need a license for CodeSmith. This is absolutely not the place to be stingy. If developers cannot simply make a change and have the code re-generated, they will revolt against using code generation.
  7. Clearly identify the generated files - Make sure an average developer can quickly identify that a given file is code-generated. You could name the file with a "*.CodeGen.cs" extension, put a comment disclaimer at the top ("//This file is code-generated. Any changes will be overwritten"), and not check the target code into source control so that it doesn't have any overlay icons (like what SVN offers).
  8. Know your overwrite strategy - If the target file already exists (because you're actively re-generating), make sure you know the expected behavior. If you don't use merge regions, you can simply overwrite the file. Source control should be smart enough to see that the file has the exact same content, and hence it shouldn't be a burden. Worst case, you can have your generator, before it writes out the generated context, detect if the target is the same or not, and handle appropriately (not write anything, have your build server throw a synchronization error if they're different, etc...)
  9. Don't output the DateTime or user info into the code - When someone first uses a code generator, it can be tempting to add as much "free" details into the target file - like displaying "//This code was generated by Homer, on August 20,2009 at 11:34 pm". You'd never maintain that by hand, so it initially looks cool to see all that crisp information in your file. However, the problem is that every time the code is regenerated, that kind of information changes, and the code continually appears to be updated. Furthermore, such comments don't give you anything that you couldn't already get from source control.
  10. Have a backup developer - Make sure that at least one other developer on the team can use the generating tool.


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