Using T4 to Create an AppSettings Wrapper, Part 1

AppSettings are settings stored in your configuration file under the <appSettings> element. Almost every application has them. Each setting consists of a name and value. To access such a setting in code you need only do this.

string setting = ConfigurationManager.AppSettings["someSetting"];

There are a couple of problems with this approach.

  • Quite a bit of boilerplate code to access a setting given what it is actually doing
  • The setting name is hard coded and must match the config file
  • The returned value is a string so if you need a different type then you’ll need to convert it

In .NET v2.0 Microsoft added the Settings class to work around these issues. It allows you to create a setting with a type and value and the designer will generate a type to back it where each property matches the setting. This seems great but never really took off. Not even Microsoft uses it in their own framework. Part of the problem is that the config entries it generates are overly complex storing things like type information, default values and other things. Needless to say appSettings continue to be popular anyway. Fortunately we can get the simplicity of appSettings with the power of the newer Settings class all via T4.

In this series of posts I’m going to walk through the process of generating such a template including the ability to add some more advanced functionality.  A full discussion of T4 is beyond the scope of a blog so refer to the following links for more information.


At my company I was tired of the limitations of working with appSettings so I combined some work I’ve done in the past with the T4 engine to produce a template that all projects can use to simplify working with app settings. Because of the dynamics of the code I work in I had some additional requirements.

  • All settings defined in the project’s config file should be exposed, by default, as a public property that can be read. I’m not interested in writing to them.
  • Based upon the default value (in the config file) each setting should be strongly typed (int, double, bool, string).
  • Sometimes the project containing the config file is different than the project where the settings are needed (ex. WCF service hosts) so it should be possible to reference a config file in another project.
  • Some settings are used by the infrastructure (such as ASP.NET) so they should be excluded.
  • Some settings may need to be of a specific type that would be difficult to specify in the value (ex. a long instead of an int).
  • The configuration file cannot be cluttered with setting-generation stuff. This was the whole issue with the Settings designer in .NET.

Defining the Generated Code

Before you can write a T4 template you need to know what you are going to generate.  The easiest way to do that is to write the actual code you want, given specific inputs.  Here is the basic code to be generated given the specified inputs.

        <add key=”DoubleValue” value=”45.678” />
        <add key=”IntValue” value=”123” />
        <add key=”StringValue” value=”Text” />

using System;
using System.Configuration;

namespace P3Net
    internal partial class AppSettings
        /// <summary>Gets the default instance.</summary>
        public static AppSettings Default
            get { return s_defaultInstance; }
            protected set { s_defaultInstance = value ?? new AppSettings(); }

        #region Setting Properties

        public double DoubleValue
            get { return Convert.ToDouble(GetConfigSetting(“DoubleValue”)); }

        public int IntValue
            get { return Convert.ToInt32(GetConfigSetting(“IntValue”)); }

        public string StringValue
            get { return Convert.ToString(GetConfigSetting(“StringValue”)); }

        protected virtual string GetConfigSetting(string settingName)
            var setting = ConfigurationManager.AppSettings[settingName];
            return setting ?? “”;

        private static AppSettings s_defaultInstance = new AppSettings();

To make the generated type easier to use it is marked as partial and the main method (GetConfigSetting) that all settings are read through is virtual.  But to keep calling code simple the type is implemented as a singleton (although it isn’t enforced).  Each property is backed by the corresponding entry from the config file.  For our purposes type conversion will be handled by the Convert class but you should really use a more resilient type conversion system.   

Identifying the Variant Parts

Once you’ve defined the format of the final code you need to identify the parts that will vary based upon the inputs.  For the earlier code the properties will vary based upon the config file.  There will be a property for each setting in the config.  The property name will follow the setting name and the property type will be determined by the value stored in the config file.  Because settings are returned as strings by the subsystem there will be a type conversion call as well.

But there is more variant components than just the inputs and these must be taken into account as well.  When you add a type to a project (such as the generated code) it is expected to place the type in the default namespace for the project with any child folder taken into account.  Therefore the namespace name is a variant in the template.  The actual name of the type should generally follow the name of the file.  The filename is set by the user when they add the template to the project.  Therefore the type name needs to be a variant and any references to it must be variants as well. 

In the above code all the variant parts are highlighted in yellow.  Each of the highlight parts will need to be converted to an expression that T4 can replace when it generates the template.

Creating the Basic T4 Template

Now that we know what code we want to generate it is time to create the template.

  1. Create a new project or opening an existing project where the settings class will be used.
  2. Ensure the project has a configuration file with some app settings defined.  (I assume you are using the entries mentioned above).
  3. Add a new Text Template item (under Visual C#\General) to the project called  This will be the template name. 
  4. Inside the .tt file paste the actual code you want generated at the bottom of the file.
  5. Save the file.  Whenever the .tt file is saved it will rerun the template.
  6. Assuming nothing went wrong you can expand the AppSettings.txt file under the template and you should see the correct generated code.

If the template failed for any reason then the errors will appear in the Error List.  Otherwise you should be able to set up a simple test call to verify the code is working. 

var intValue = AppSettings.Default.IntValue;
var doubleValue = AppSettings.Default.DoubleValue;
var stringValue = AppSettings.Default.StringValue;

But if you try to do so you’ll find that the type doesn’t show up.  That is because, by default, T4 templates generate text files and not code files.  The output directive in the T4 file determines what type of file to generate.  Change it from “.txt” to “.generated.cs” and save the template.  The type should now show up, provided the project name matches the namespace used in the template.  If not then add a using/import statement.

Parts of a T4 Template

Let’s take a look at the template file.  T4 directives appear between <#@ #> delimiters.  Directives generally appear at the top of the file. 

  • template specifies that this is a T4 template.  This directive can appear only once.

    The debug attribute should be set to true to enable debugging until the template is working.  The hostspecific attribute specifies whether the template needs access to the host.  We’ll talk about this later.  The language attribute specifies the language of the template code.
  • assembly is equivalent to adding a reference to a project in that it indicates an assembly that is needed by the template.  Any number of these directives can appear.  Note that this is for the generation of the template itself and not the final generated code.  Only assemblies needed to generate the template code should be listed.  The assembly must be accessible by T4.
  • import is equivalent to a using/import statement.  Any number of these can appear.  As with the assembly directive this only impacts the template generation.  Any types needed to generate the template need to have their namespace(s) imported.  The final generated code will explicitly include the using/import statements that it will need.
  • output controls the output of the template.  As mentioned earlier the extension attribute specifies the extension added to the generated file.  It is appended to the template name to generate the final file name.  For source files you should use the standard practice of using “.generated.cs”.  Designers use the default “.designer.cs”.  When the file is generated, if it is not yet part of the project, then it gets added automatically.  VS will use the file extension to determine how to properly add the file to the project (ex. content, compile).

After the directives is the code that is generated.  An important note about the T4 generator, blank lines matter.  Some directives are stripped out of the generated code, such as the <#@ @> directives but other directives are replaced with a blank line.  Additionally any blank lines that appear in the template are also written verbatim.  Normally when writing code we try to format the code neatly.  In the case of T4 put your formatting rules on the bench.  Place the text to be generated right after the directives if you don’t want blank lines in the generated file.  It is also generally a good idea to place a file header in the generated code that mentions the file is auto generated and any changes will be lost.

At this point we have a working T4 template but it doesn’t do anything fancy.  It is nothing more than a glorified code snippet but we have set everything up to easily now convert it to a more dynamic template.  We’ll cover that in the next part of this series.


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