LINQ to SQL: Objects all the way down

There are a lot of different opinions on just what LINQ to SQL is or is not. Some of them are actually based on investigation by people who have kicked the tires and taken a test drive. Being its architect, I realize that I am the foremost expert on what’s under the hood, yet that alone does not give me the omniscience to know how the product measures up to everyone’s expectations. What it does give me is the ability to share with you the impetus behind the design and hope that gives you enough insight to make up your own mind.

It’s probably no secret to anyone that’s been following along that the high-order bit with LINQ to SQL has always been LINQ; though it might not be so obvious just how deep that truth goes. LINQ to SQL is not just another LINQ provider. It has been from the beginning and still is the quintessential LINQ provider, shaping and being shaped by the same process that designed LINQ. So to understand the impetus behind LINQ to SQL you need to understand the impetus behind LINQ.

LINQ is more than just new query syntax added into existing programming languages. LINQ is the recognition that objects (in our case CLR objects) are the core of everything you as a programmer do. In the past, you had multiple disciplines to master, including databases, transforms and other scripts. Yet at the center of all your work was your mainstream programming language and runtime that you did everything else with, and instead of using objects to naturally represent this diverse work you used coarse grained API’s, instead of built-in language constructs supported by your development tools you used domain specific languages wedged into the system as unrecognizable text. Using these API’s was adequate but not ideal. You got your work done, but it was like poking at your data through keyholes, and when some of your data did get sucked back through it was basically dead-on-arrival, since none of your tools for manipulating it carried forward across the divide. Believe me, I know. I built many of these API’s.

So for LINQ the high-order bit was not only making it possible to represent your domain information as objects but making the ability to manipulate those objects in domain specific ways first class. LINQ to SQL was the poster child. The important area of manipulation was the query and since query was pervasive throughout most other highly used domains it was obvious that query would need to become first class in the language and runtime. LINQ to SQL’s primary job became the representation of the relational database data as objects and the translation of language integrated queries into remotely executing database queries.

Of course, since this coincides with the territory of ORM systems it should come as no surprise that LINQ to SQL has taken on that role as well, enabling a degree of mapping between the objects you use in the language and the shape of data in the relational database. We took from the experience of customers the most valued features of such systems and laid out a roadmap for delivering those features, yet like with any shipping product reality eventually crept in, so priorities were set and unfortunately a lot that we would have loved to do did not make the cut for the first version. But this is no apology. LINQ to SQL has amassed a set of features that will be compelling for a large part of the market, and over time it will only get better.

The truly interesting thing to understand about LINQ to SQL is just how deep the rabbit hole goes.

One of our primary tenets from the get-go was to enable plain-old-CLR-object (POCO) development. We received enough feedback from earlier prototypes of ObjectSpaces to know that customers really cared about this and what specifically about it mattered the most to them. And yet while we found reason to offer specialized classes such as EntityRef and EntitySet, we never strayed from the objective, since use of these classes has always been optional. You certainly can build an object model with plain-old object references and collections such as lists or arrays; you just don’t get deferred loading or bi-directional pointer fix up. And although some would have preferred for us to invent a cheap interception solution that would have allowed these behaviors without needing to use specialized classes, no such solution was on the horizon and the use of these types could easily be disguised behind properties.

It’s also worth pointing out that these specialized classes don’t actually cause you to mingle data access logic with your business objects. EntityRef and EntitySet don’t actually tie back to the database or LINQ to SQL infrastructure at all. They were designed to be completely free of any such entanglements, having no references back to contexts, connections or other abstractions. Deferred loading is based on assigning each a simple IEnumerable source, such as a LINQ query. That’s it. You are free to reuse them for whatever diabolical purpose you can imagine.

 But it does not stop there. The use of objects, your object’s specifically, and the CLR is pervasive throughout the design of LINQ to SQL. You see it in the way that behavior overrides for Insert, Update and Delete are enabled. Instead of offering a mapping based solution to connect these submit actions to database stored-procedures, the solution is designed to take advantage of objects and the runtime, the ability to add code to a system by defining a method. You define an InsertCustomer method as part of your DataContext and the LINQ to SQL runtime calls it, letting you override how an insert is performed. You can do anything you want in this method, logging, tracing, executing any SQL you prefer, or no SQL at all. Of course, all this is wired up for you when you use the designer to connect a submit action to a stored procedure. But the beauty of it lies in the simplicity of using the runtime and basic extensibility mechanism of the language to enable any custom solution you require.

You see it in the way that mapping can be defined using CLR custom attributes. Of course, an external mapping file variation is also available, but the attribute model was paramount. Some will argue that using attributes in the code breaks from pure POCO design. That might be true. However, it’s precisely the ability to declare mapping inline with the definition of your objects that makes LINQ to SQL simple to use and easy to get started because you always stay focused on your objects and your code.

You also see it in how LINQ to SQL operates internally or communicates to its provider. Queries are LINQ expression trees handed all the way down to the query translation pipeline. It’s your object types and runtime metadata that are reasoned about directly, constructed, compared and navigated. Even stored procedure calls are understood as references to the actual signature of the method defined on the DataContext and the results of ad hoc queries (projections) are never some general object with awkward accessors like DataReader, they are always your objects or objects defined implicitly through anonymous type constructors and are interacted with though strongly typed fields and properties.

Looking back, a lot of this just seems obvious now, but believe me, none of this was readily apparent at the time we started the project. For example, we designed ObjectSpaces with none of this in mind. Before LINQ not much of it was even possible to consider. Yet when it came time to build LINQ to SQL, tradeoffs in design were resolved by keeping true to your objects and the simplicity gained by using the built-in mechanisms of the runtime and language to manipulate them.

LINQ allowed us to finish the puzzle that was started when database access was first mashed together with object oriented languages. LINQ to SQL became the embodiment of this object-to-database solution, focusing the design on query, domain objects and the integration of both into the language and runtime.

Of course, there were many other design goals as well; simplicity, ease of use and performance lead to many interesting consequences that are equally deserving of their own post. I suppose I ought to write about them too. J