Standard generated entity classes in EF4

A customer recently asked if there is still any advantage in using the entities that Entity Framework 4 generates by default instead of POCO classes.

Another way to look at this is: why are non-POCO classes that inherit from System.Data.Objects.DataClasses.EntityObject and use all sort of attributes to specify mapping of properties and relationship still the default in EF4?

This perspective makes the question more interesting for me, especially given a great portion of the investment we made in EF 4 went into adding support of Persistence Ignorance, and also given that using POCO is my personal preference, and I am aware of all the advantage this has for the evolvability and testability of my code.

So, let’s look from closer and see what we find.

Moving from previous versions

If you simply diff the entity code generated using the first version with what we generate nowadays, the first thing you will notice is that they haven’t changed much.

The fact that there aren’t many changes is actually a nice feature for people moving from the previous version to the new version. If you started your project with Visual Studio 2008 SP1 and now you decide to move it to Visual Studio 2010 (i.e. the current beta), it is a good thing that you don’t have to touch your code to get your application running again.

It is worth mentioning that many of the improvements in the new version of EF (i.e. lazy loading) were designed to work with all kinds of entities, so they didn’t really require changes to the code we generate.

Even if you later decided to regenerate your model to take advantage of new features (i.e. singularization and foreign key support), you might need to do some renaming, and some things may be simplified, but most things your code do will remain the same.

New code generation engine

As soon as you look under the hood though, you will notice that we actually changed the whole code generation story to be based on T4 templates. This opens lots of possibilities, from having our customers customize the code to suit their needs, to have us release new templates for entity types optimized for particular scenarios. This last idea is exemplified in the work we have been doing in the POCO template and the Self-Tracking Entities Template included in the Feature CTP 1.

At this point, we don't have plans to include templates for generating entities of other kinds in Visual Studio 2010, so the default, EntityObject-based template is the only one that is included “in the box”.

Update: The Self-Tracking Entities Template will also be in the box in RTM of Visual Studio 2010. Current thinking about the POCO Template is that its going to be available as an add-in in the Visual Studio Extension Manager.

Change tracking and relationship alignment

It is also important that default entities enjoy the highest level of functionality in Entity Framework. To begin with, they participate in notification-based change tracking, which is the most efficient. Also, navigation properties on default entities are backed by the same data structures Entity Framework uses to maintain information about relationships, meaning that any change you make is reflected immediately on the navigation properties on both sides.

By comparison, plain POCO objects do not notify Entity Framework of changes on them, and relationships are usually represented by plain object references and collections that are not synchronized automatically. To work well with POCO, Entity Framework needs to compare snapshots of property values and reconcile changes in linked navigation properties at certain points of a transaction. To that end, we introduced a new DetectChanges method that allows user code to control explicitly when that change detection happens, and we also added an implicit call to it in SaveChanges.

As an alternative to that, we also introduced POCO Proxies that inject most of the change tracking and relationships management capabilities of default entities into POCO types by the means of inheritance. This kind of POCO Proxies are created only (basically) if you make all properties virtual in the POCO class and, if you need to create a new instance, you invoke the new ObjectContext.CreateObject<T> method.

Again, why is non-POCO still the default?

To summarize:

a. Default code-gen classes provide the easiest path for people moving from the previous version

b. When creating a model from scratch or from the database, you don’t even need to write the code for the entities themselves

c. You never need to worry about invoking DetectChanges or about making sure your code always uses POCO Proxies

d. Finally, if you really care the most about writing entities yourself, we make it very easy for you to opt-out of code generation and start writing your own POCO classes.

I hope this information is useful. So, now what kind of entity classes are you going to use?