Visual Studio error messages..or…lack of useful information

One of my colleagues at work has been talking about posting some of the more interesting errors that he’s received from Visual Studio.  Since I sit next to him, I’ve had a chance to see most of the messages, and I’ve received a few of them myself.

One of my favorites is “Unexpected Error”.  Well, of course it is unexpected, otherwise I would expect the program to handle more elegantly, provide more information or perhaps fix it!  A friend of mine that is a former Microsoft employee says that this message is one of his pet peeves, not just in Visual Studio mind, but in any application.  I met him ten years ago when we were both on contract to the same company and I can remember back then his disdain for a programmer who let one of these slip through.  Laziness, nothing more, is responsible.

You might ask, how can any developer anticipate every single exception that may occur?  They can’t of course, however even for those “unexpected” errors they should have something better to tell the user.  Unexpected error is almost a redundancy for goodness sake!

Thanks for the interested read Dave.

How Microsoft “Acquires” New .NET Features

I just finished reading David Starr’s recent Open Letter to Scott Guthrie.  I must say bravo!  David, you have hit a lot of good points about the apparent strategy Microsoft has been employing recently regarding the way new features are brought into the development tool-set.

David points out the way some of the features that have been rolled into the .NET Framework or into the Visual Studio Team System lately have had roots in the open source community.  Examples of the unit testing, MS Build, etc..  Most of these are welcome additions to developers that have lived without them, however those of us that were early adopters of NUnit, NAnt and other projects realize that these pale in comparison to the current releases.

Microsoft has done a lot for the development community, don’t get me wrong.  I love the .NET Framework, the productivity and power it brings.  I also believe that Microsoft has had some successes with their new features.  The ASP.NET AJAX extensions exceeded my expectations.  After using other open source libraries such as Michael Schwarz’s Ajax.NET, and then seeing some of the earlier ATLAS releases I though that Microsoft was on a path to “do it again.”  I decided to give the RTM a try and was pleasantly surprised with the jump they made from some of the CTP’s to release.  Way to go guys!

I have two friends that are former Microsoft employees.  One was with MS for over a decade and as such has what I (and others) like to refer to as “Microsoft Blinders”.  His enthusiasm is great, however he fails to give most non-Microsoft technologies much of a chance.  This is too bad and I feel that, although he is brilliant, this limits him slightly.  Don’t get me wrong, I highly respect his skills, his architecture and he is a great person.  It does lead me to believe that many inside of Microsoft share this viewpoint and that may be the reason they bring some of these features on the way that they do.

Scott and crew, please take Davids letter seriously.  There is an army of .NET developers out here who are genuinely happy with the framework.  Please don’t dishearten those of us that have used these open source libraries with less-than implementations of your own and do not make us wait for the fabled “version 3” which we all feel to be the first “usable” release of most Microsoft products.  When there is already something in the community that fits the bill, giving us less hurts.  You have the resources and the talent, live up to the vision!

One thing though David, what’s with the rabbit ears?  I suppose it may be antenae however such as those worn by Arthur from The Tick.

Troubleshooting Memory Leaks in .NET

OK, you’re still here.  You are a brave soul if you’ve stuck around after a title like that, or else you are desperate!  That is exactly where I found myself over the last two days.

A product we are currently working on has a process that, well, processes a lot.  It goes through several different data gathering, manipulation, saving and printing operations.  The end result of this process is a print job that takes about an hour and produces about 1000 printed pages.

For the development we normally sent the jobs to a PDF printer or simply had it stop after printing 20 or 30 pages.  Finally the time came to give this a real test, a complete dry run!

*poof*

I know what you’re thinking, “you should have done that in Dev at least once!”  You are right of course, however sometimes we let things slip due to schedules and pressure.  Lesson learned, I hope!

It appeared as though there was a memory leak causing the application to crash.  Monitoring the memory usage with Process Explorer confirmed this to be the case.  Now to the task of tracking it down.

I must admit that I have never had a leak like this one.  After some initial code reviews there were a few places where we were able to determine the potential for problems.   Implementing code to fix these “phantom menaces” were not successful.  Now it was time to really dig in.  The downside was, I did not know how to dig, and I didn’t have a shovel. 😦

After some searching around on Google, I ran across Finding .NET Memory Leaks by Phil Write.  It was not the easiest thing to find, but it was well worth the time.  Phil goes step by step through using sos.exe (Son of Strike) debugging extensions.   He explained the basis of how to track down what you think the problem is.  Unfortunately the problem was not that easy to find.  I ended up doing comparisons of the output of !dumpheap -stat from very early in the process and another dump from much later on down the line.  It was a tedious exercise, but a necessary one.  Finally I happened upon an object that had a large jump in it’s count between the two samples.  Now I had a place to start!  Using Phil’s instructions again I was able to find out what was holding on to a reference and implement a fix.  It also lead me to a second leak that we did not know existed and had been around for quite a while.  It turned out that the first leak that we fixed would not have been a problem if the other one had been behaving properly.

This is a good example of why bugs can be good.  The second memory leak will be taken care of within the next day or two and the product will be that much better for it.

Success!

Thanks Phil for such a wonderful and simple to understand article!

EDIT: 8/18/2010 – updated link to Phil’s article.  Thanks Aaron D for pointing it out!

Review – VI emulation for Microsoft products

If you, like me, find yourself using Microsoft products for your daily operations (or are forced to as some) yet you have a background in which you have a comfort level using vi, the *nix based text editor.

The percentage of people that prefer to use vi is probably small compared to the people using notepad, emacs or pico or other simple editor. It takes a certain amount of masochism to plow through the various commands used to move around, edit, replace etc.. inside of vi but for those of you that have that trait as I, vi gives you a productivity increase that is unparalleled, in my opinion.

Now, if only we had that in Windows!

Fortunately we do. For several years now the vi project has had a Windows text editor which I use. It is a very good implementation within the Windows environment. For editing text based files where you do not need any further functionality, I highly recommend it.

Now, on to the fun stuff!

Jon at NGEDIT Software has a few products that have made my life a lot easier.  It falls under the heading of VIEmu, the vi-vim editor emulation for Visual Studio, Word, Outlook and SQL Server.  I can tell you that, after downloading the Visual Studio trial and running with it for a few weeks, I have purchased all 3 (Word and Outlook are combined in 1 package) products.  They are wonderful!

You should not expect 100% vi-vim compatibility, there are some things that just do not work quite the same, however most of the basic and much of the advanced functionality is available.  There are a few quirks as well, such as the need to use Shift+Esc instead of just Esc to get out of some modes, but they are workable once you get use to them.

I should say that this review was not sponsored in any way, nor did Jon or anyone at NGEDIT Software know about my writing of this before publication, I do believe in full discloser of sources and sponsorship when posting (thanks Robert Scoble for the inspiration), this is purely a fan-driven review of these products.

The Word and Outlook version is a bit young, only version 1.0, however the Visual Studio product has been around a while and the SQL product just a bit less time.  So far all have been performing well and my productivity has increased, at least I believe it has.

If you are/were a vi-vim junkie living in a Microsoft world, I urge you to head over and try it out for yourself.  I think you will be happily comfortable again within the embrace of vi-vim!

Viewstate Helper from Binary Fortress Software

Wow, I am going to be accused of becoming a Scott Hanselman sycophant if he keeps up the pace of the great posts he’s had lately!  In his most recent post (as of the time of this writing) he points out a piece of software recently discovered.  After reading through his review I had to try it out for myself.  It is the ASP.NET Viewstate Helper from Binary Fortress Software.  This is a very nice tool!

It sits in the background monitoring the HTTP conversations that IE has.  It presents a historical list of the pages visted along with some stats about the size of the page and the Viewstate, if it has one.  It also allows you to double click on a page to see the decompiled version of the Viewstate.

It tries to display the viewstate in a tree view, although I have found it doesn’t always work.  It does give you a text representation that will get you what you need although you may have to search through it a bit if the viewstate is complex.

The one downside I have found so far is that it does not work with Firefox, or at least I have not happened upon how to do it.  For the time, I can live with that.  The information that it provided on a few of the sites we’ve created has already been eye-opening.

In Search Of…

A solution!  Since I have yet to find one, I’ll settle for a little rant.

<rant>
If you are a developer using the Visual Studio 2005 IDE you may have run across the infamous “unable to copy file…..” error when trying to compile your solution.  If you work on anything somewhat complex with many projects in one solution, you may have experienced this a lot.

Formerly I put the blame on Visual Studio itself.  I have been informed that it is not a problem with VS, but rather an issue with the .NET Frameowork.   I’ve ready many posts about the issue, but have yet to find anything that fixes the problem.  It wouldn’t be so bad, however the project I’m currently working on has 18 projects in the solution and reloading VS every time this happens is a real productivity killer!
</rant>

Whew, now that I’ve got that off my chest…if anyone finds a solution that works, please leave me a comment about it!