Assembly Organization in MEF

The purpose of MEF is to hook up parts. Parts are indentified by string contracts.

MEF (and tools like it) empower fully composable systems. I use that term to describe a system in which the system no longer knows what is going on. What you write empowers an ecosystem specific to a problem domain it does not solve the problem.

In my case, MEF empowers a harness where processes, generally code generation templates, are run in a specific manner (such as with pre and post processing). I don’t care what your process does. At one level I don’t care about what services it needs or what metadata it uses (although in another post, I’ll explain why I actually do care, the harness definitely doesn’t care). This is a tremendously powerful environment for certain problems, precisely because it becomes an ecosystem solution, not a proscribed solution.

It is also a very different environment where we’re still working out the rules as an industry. One area where the rules shift is in assembly organization. There are always two core drivers for assembly (project) organization – deployment and isolation. How does this play out in a MEF system?

Let’s assume UI isolation. MEF systems generally solve a complex but finite problem. It makes sense for them to be class libraries that are distinct from any single user interface. In the code generation case, we know we will have a graphical UI and a command line. I suspect I’ll have a kind of sucky graphical UI and someone will make a pretty one and starting in 2010 embedding in Visual Studio becomes more realistic. That’s 2 in any single deployment – one of the UI’s and a class library that is the core of the system.

A core goal of a composable system is to replace direct references with indirect references. This means interactions will generally use interfaces which belong in their own library for isolation. These interfaces will generally have a default implementation. While technically these defaults could reside in either the interface or the core library directory, putting them in either location means they will always be available and you will have to work harder for the user to replace them. Thus I think four class libraries is the minimum complexity for a real world MEF solution.

Almost all fully composed systems should go to at least one additional set of assemblies. Fully composed assemblies contain interfaces which are directly referenced and used by the system core and interfaces that do not have this direct interaction. It’s software entropy if I force you to design an interface for extracted database metadata. I’ll give you one, although the core system could care less about it. For isolation and clarifying intent, I think separation is a better approach.

You could place the default implementations for indirect services (such as metadata extraction) into the same assembly as the default implementations for services directly referenced by the core. Nothing will break. But they will always be in the same catalog and export provider, requiring the complexity of selecting the correct one. Deployment is simpler if these are separate. I also think a parallel between implementation and interface assemblies makes the system overall easier to understand.

In some cases, including the code generation harness, there are specific sets of roles parts can play. A given use of the harness may use any combination of these. If the assemblies are partitioned across these boundaries, people setting up the MEF system can employ only those items they need. Among other things, this speeds the MEF discovery process. For example, in the code generator, there are a couple of categories of metadata, output, naming and miscellaneous services.

The specific roles the parts play is defined via the interface assemblies. If these assemblies are partitioned, programmers extending the system later reference the specific set of interfaces they want. With partitioned assemblies, they might need to reference more than one, but once referenced, the complexity of what the programmer sees is less (which could also be done with interfaces).

Let’s explore the role of the extending programmer a bit more. If there is no extending programmer (you or someone else) there is no point in a composable system. This extending programmer might be part of the original team, if the purpose of composition is simply flexibility in deployment, such as whether particular modules based on customer status. In many cases, including the generation harness, the system is really being created for the convenience of the extending programmer, and it is there scenarios that should drive the application design. You may be able to design your system so certain changes can be made without MEF knowledge (new templates in the code generation case) but the reason you’re using a composable system is to support programmers creating new parts.

This extending programmer works in their own assembly, which among other things allows you to issue updates to default assemblies without breaking their work. These assemblies reference interface assemblies. Is it easier for that programmer to select well partitioned interface assemblies and use them to better understand how the system works. If you partition your implementation assemblies to parallel the interfaces, deployment is simpler and if you fully implement an assembly, you can remove the default one.

There are a few blog posts including this by Chad Myers and this by Davy Brion that speak disparagingly about solutions with many projects. I do not actually agree with either post (because solutions are convenience only features and our architectures should not reflect Visual Studio bugs) but I do think they make some good points. And the fundamental agreement is that you should understand why you have a lot of projects if you do. In this case, it’s for isolation (a core tenant of MEF) and deployment. If you want only a couple of projects in your solution, you don’t want a composable system (although you might still use MEF for other reasons).

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