Where the Provider Model Falls Short

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Now that ASP.NET 2.0 is released, a lot of developers will start to really dig into the provider model design pattern and specification and its various implementations. The provider model is really a blending of several design patterns, but most closely resembles the abstract factory.

Where the provider model really busts out the flashlight and shines is when an application (or subset of an application) has a fairly fixed API, but requires flexibility in the implementation. For example, the Membership Provider.aspx) has a fixed API for dealing with users and roles, but depending on the configured provider, could be manipulating users in a database, in Active Directory or a 4'x6' piece of plywood. The user of the provider doesn’t need to know.

Provider Misuse\ However, one common area where I’ve seen providers misused is in an attempt to abstract the underlying database implementation away from application. For example, in many open source products such as DotNetNuke, an underlying goal is to support multiple database providers. However, the provider model in these applications tend to be a free for all data access API. For example, in the .TEXT (and currently Subtext) codebase, there is one provider that is responsible for nearly all data access. It has a huge number of methods which aren’t factored into well organized coherent APIs.

The other inherent flaw in many of these approaches is they violate a key principle of good object oriented design...

Good design seeks to insulate code from the impact of changes to other code.

Take Subtext as an example. Suppose we want to add a column to a table. Not only do we have to update the base provider to account for the change, we also have to update every single concrete provider that implements the provider (assuming we had some). Effectively, the provider model in this case amplifies the effect of a schema change. The result is that It makes your proverbial butt look fat.

This is why you see an appalling lack of concrete providers for applications such as DotNetNuke, .TEXT, Subtext etc.... Despite the fact that they all implement the provider model, very few take (nor have) the time to implement a concrete provider.

A better way\ For most professional web projects, this is not really an issue since your client probably has little need to switch the database upon which the application is built. However, if you are building a system (such as an open source blogging engine) in which the user may want to plug in nearly any database, this is a much bigger issue.

After a bit of research and using an ORM tool on a project, I’ve stepped away from being a religious stored procedure fanatic and am much more open to looking at object/relational mapping tools and dynamic query engines. ORM tools such as LLBLGen Pro and NHibernate make use of dynamically generated prepared sql statements. Now before you dismiss this approach, bear with me. Because the statements are prepared, the performance difference between these queries and a stored procedure are marginal. In fact, a dynamic sql statement can often even outperform a stored proc because it is targeted to the specific case, whereas stored procs tend to support the general case. One example is the dynamic query that only selects the needed columns from a table and not every column.

Better Insulation\ The key design benefit of such a tool is that they insulate the main application from the impact of schema changes. Add a column to a table and perhaps you only need to change one class and a mapping file. The other key benefit is that these tools already support multiple databases. Every time the ORM vendor spends time implementing support for a new database system, you’re application supports that database for free! That’s a lot of upside.

Think about that for a moment. NHibernate currently supports DB2, Firebird, Access, MySql, PostgreSQL, Sql Server 2000, and SqlLite. Think about how much time and effort it would take to implement a provider for each of these databases.

The very fact that you don’t see a plethora of database providers for DNN, .TEXT, etc... is convincing evidence that the provider model falls short in being a great solution for abstracting the database layer from application code. It is great for small well defined APIs, but not well suited for a generalized data api where there tends to be a lot of code churn.

To this end, the Subtext developers are investigating the potential for using NHibernate in a future version of Subtext.

Referenced Links and other resources\

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