EntityDataSource and Bind: What are those square brackets?

This post is about a small issue that I have seen in the forums and that arises often in cases in which EntityDataSource is used in combination with bound controls that use templates, like FormsView or a GridView with template based columns.

If you can create your page correctly, simply using the different drag & drop features and context menus provided by the design surface. However, in the end, some Bind expressions will get enclosed in square brackets that produce compile or run-time errors, then your code may look like this:

    <asp:DropDownList ID="CategoryDropDownList" runat="server"
        SelectedValue='<%# Bind("[Category.CategoryID]") %>'>

This annoyance may keep you blocked until you realize how simple the workaround is: just remove the square brackets!

People that watched my video here, may have noticed that I had to remove the square brackets manually around minute 8:10. I wish I had blogged about it then, but it wasn’t clear at the time I recorded that video that the issue would still be there in the RTM version.

Here is a short explanation:

In order to adapt entity objects that do not have foreign key properties to work better with ASP.NET databinding, we decided to wrap each entity returned with a databinding wrapper object that, among other things, flattens the members of EntityKeys in related entities (for more details on how and why the EntityDataSource returns wrapped entities you can go here).

The name of flattened reference keys are usually composed by the corresponding navigation property, plus the name of the property in the related end. For instance, in a Product, the key of the associated Category, will be exposed as “Category.CategoryID”. We decided to use dots to delimit the parts of the name because that plays well and is consistent with the use of dots in most programming languages, and also in Eval expressions, like the one used in the following code:

    <asp:Label ID="CategoryLabel" runat="server" 
        Text='<%# Eval("Category.CategoryName") %>'>

The problem is that for the particular case of Bind (often used in template based databound controls to perform two-way databinding) the design time component of ASP.NET will catch property names that contain dots, and it will try to escape them by surrounding them with square brackets (leading to ta Bind expression of the form “[Categories.CategoryID]”).

Unfortunately, the rest of the ASP.NET components which need to evaluate the binding expression are actually not capable of parsing the square brackets escaping notation (i.e. for DataBinder.Eval() the brackets actually indicate that a lookup in an indexed property is necessary, and there is no indexed property in this case).

Given that the EntityDataSource in fact exposes property descriptors that contain dots in their names, the escaping is unnecessary. So, next time you find this issue, just remove the square brackets.

The good news is that the issue will be fixed in the next release.

Hope this helps!