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Friday, February 17, 2006

Administrative Configuration of Applications

This article is one of a series of articles exploring .NET Assemblies.
Exploring .NET Assemblies
Multi-File Assemblies
Strong Named Assemblies
Placing Assemblies in the Global Assembly Cache (GAC)
Administrative Configuration of Applications
The articles are intended for programmers who are using .NET for a while, and wish to know more about .NET assemblies.

Introduction
.NET Applications compile into executable assemblies. The standard way to configure .NET applications is through .NET built-in mechanism of configuration files. Those files are Xml files, with a specific format. The exact structure of those files can be seen here.
.NET configration files holds information about versioning, references, Remoting, and many other, including custom configurations done by the user (Here is a nice tutorial about the subject: Article From CodeGuru

In order to create the configuration file yourself, you add to the project a new item of type Application Configuration File. The item that is added to the project is called App.Config (for web applications it is called Web.Config). When you build your project, the App.Config file is copied into the target directory, and renamed to [exename].exe.config. It must be located in the same directory as the exeutable, with that specific name. When an administrator wants to change edit this file, he can open the application.exe.config file in an Xml editor, and if he knows wht he is doing change the configuration. By the way, Whenever building the application, the settings are overwritten by the original App.Config file.

Administrative Configuration
The problem with letting administrators configure Xml files, is that they must be familiar with Xml in general, and with .NET configuration files in particular. It would have been nice to have a tool that can manage the configuration of the application without the need to open Xml files.

Such a tool exist, and supplied when installing the .NET Framework. In the Control Panel->Administrative Tools->Microsoft .NET Framework 1.1 Configuration, there is a configuration tool. Under the Application section, you can select "Add an Application to Configure", and then choose from the list of applications installed on the computer. By selecting "View the Application's Properties", you can select the Garbage Collector mode, Publisher Policy and the relative search path for additional assemblies. I will not discuss the first two here. By selecting a relative search path you can specify directories where referenced assemblies may be located (this is called "Probing"). For example: You might wish to place all the dlls in a subfolder called "references". In that case put the string "references" (of course you will need to deploy the application in this way). The relative path must be underneath the executable (You cannot put "..\" in the relative search path). As soon as you save your settings, an application.exe.config file is created (if the file already exist it is simply modified).

There is a lot of strength in using this tool. There is a central repositories of all managed application. The configuration can be done by administrators (who know what they are doing of course) rather than the programmer. If the assembly is deployed properly, the configuration cannot impact the application performance and correctness. The deployment can be decided administratively rather than be constant (you might want as a user to place files in a different location).

Note that everything you can configure with the tool, can be configured manually by changing the Xml.

More Configurations
The "Managed Configured Assemblies" link, shows you all the references you can configure. By default no assemblies are seen. By right-clicking ad selecting "Add...", you can select assemblies which are referenced: From the GAC, Framework assemblies the application uses, or manually (by typing the name of the assembly and the public key token you can see in the manifest of the application). Once you select the assembly, you can configure some things about the referencing: Publisher Policy (will not be discussed here), Binding Policy (you can select the version of the reference), and Code Bases (you can select the full path to the assembly, including full URLs).

I would like especially to discuss the Binding Policy. It is often that you diploy an application, and then provide a new version of a dll. You do not need to compile the exe and deploy it again. If you did not change the interface of the dll, then the exe should work fine. When you deploy the new version of the dll, the old version of the dll can coexist with the new version (for example by placing both in the GAC). But you still need to tell the exe in the client to change the binding to the new version of the dll. This is done by using the Binding Policy page. You can tell the version the exe is currently using, and the new version you want the exe to use (You can also set a range of versions).

You can also configure the Remoting (when necessary), but I will not discuss this in this scope.

Machine Configuration
There is a set of Xml configuration files for the .NET framework, located in your Windows folder under C:\Windows\Microsoft.NET\Framework\v1.1.4322\CONFIG.

The file machine.config contains a lot of global configurations, some of which are defaults for applications running on the machine. Avoid changing this file as much as possible. Some of the settings can be overrided in the application configuration files.
Discussing the exact contents of the machine.config file is out of scope in this article.

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