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LightSwitch: From Download to a Cloud App in 55 Minutes

You've probably heard about the uproar from professional developers about Microsoft's new direction of catering to amateurs with low-end tools like WebMatrix and Visual Studio LightSwitch, designed for quickly building data-centric apps without that pesky code-writing thing.

Some people complain that Microsoft is promoting poor programming practices; some complain that it devalues their jobs and leads to impossible expectations ("Joe in Finance did this in an hour, why can't you just flesh it out into a companywide app by the end of the day?"); some apparently just don't like opening up software development to the great unwashed masses.

From what I've read, it seems like WebMatrix is targeted to hobbyists or techies just looking to experiment with programming , possibly leading to more advanced coding and escalation of skills, while LightSwitch is designed to let non-programmers quickly get small business apps going for single or small group use.

Or, as Eric Nelson wrote in an MSDN blog: "LightSwitch is targeted at business developers and power users creating custom LOB applications leveraging data from multiple sources that can be easily deployed to the desktop or cloud."

I could fake being a business developer or power user, so I decided to find out just how easy it is to build a LightSwitch data-centric app, using a SQL Azure database in the cloud.

I started from scratch, downloading LightSwitch, installing it and building the app. The timeline went something like this:

  • 11:15 -- Search for LightSwitch; download it.
  • 11:31 -- Begin installation.
  • 11:47 -- Setup Complete, Thank You For Installing, Run The Product Now.
  • 11:48 -- Restart required to finish installation (?) but installation doesn't continue after restart.
  • 11:53 -- Start building an app, roughly following a tutorial.
  • 11:59 -- Connect to my SQL Azure database.
  • 12:10 -- Display a query-based "screen" that lets me add, edit and delete records. Like this:
Flipping LightSwitch on
Figure 1. A LightSwitch query-based 'screen' showing a SQL Azure database. [Click image for larger view.]

So, in less than an hour, with no LightSwitch experience whatsoever, I was looking at a customized pseudo-app in Visual Studio. (Of course, that doesn't include 45 minutes or so of fumbling around because I couldn't find any LightSwitch new project templates in VS until it finally dawned on me I had to target .NET 4 instead of 3.5, but that's just my usual inept Ramel-specific experience that other people don't have to go through).

Deployment is a whole other issue, and seems to be a little buggy in this beta. I couldn't get a "three-tier" app running on my hosted server with msdeploy.exe, but a less ambitious "two-tier" desktop app was easy to get going on localhost.
So the tool seems to do the job it was designed for and should get even better in final release.

I've also been tinkering with the WebMatrix beta. It has required more coding from me, but that's because I've been attempting far more complex experiments with PHP, Odata, SQL Azure and the like.

But it too seems to fulfill its promise. It combines low-end versions of IIS (Developer Express) and SQL Server (Compact, or embedded) with the ASP.NET framework that make it easy to get data-centric Web apps up and running. It provides many templates for common technologies such as WordPress, DotNetNuke, Joomla! and more. And deployment worked out much better. It has a simple "Web Deploy" (apparently a packaged msdeploy.exe) feature that allowed me to get some apps up and running on one of the suggested hosts, Applied Innovations (great service from these guys!).

I like fooling around with these tools. Quite simply, some .NET concepts (covariance, contravariance, anyone?) are beyond me and will never be mastered. The framework is just too complex. It's frustrating to muck around in C# and know there are ways to do what I want to do, but it takes endless hours of searching and blunt-force, trial-and-error drudgery to do it.

Maybe that's not an issue for professional developers who devote their working lives to learning .NET and the like, but I wonder how hard it is for some of them, too. There are a lot of experts out there, but they all seem to have their own little areas of expertise. Has anyone mastered the whole thing?

I greatly admire professional developers and the work they do. But there's a great middle ground between absolute novices and skilled pros, and Microsoft is trying to address that market. Why not?

What do you think? Comment here or drop me a line.

Posted by David Ramel on 09/22/2010 at 1:15 PM

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Reader Comments:

Thu, Jul 7, 2011

I have been a professional developer for over 25 years, and find LightSwitch refreshing. It provides me a simple way to churn out simple data-centric apps/reports in minutes that usually could take a day. Bravo!

Sun, Oct 31, 2010 Ivor99 Uk

I have been using LightSwitch Beta1 for two months. It is awesome. What a brilliantly simple way of building Line of Business apps. Its been over 10 over years since apps were this easy to write :)

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Thu, Sep 30, 2010 Don

Lightswitch is a step in the right direction for MS considering they're making it so it works with MS products. I'd rather see the browser extended so more functional objects exist when it come to interacting with data and backends. Then, maybe we could get back to having real competition of ideas and not having MS dictate what can be done until they're ready to provide us the capability. Although, I have to say that this product is more like the early days if you consider it's only purpose is to front end their backend products.

Thu, Sep 30, 2010 Howard Zelizer Wading River, NY

Just when you think it's safe, and you've rooted out all those ad-hoc MS Access applications written by "talented" amateurs in your organization...

Thu, Sep 30, 2010 Bob Baker

I think it's telling that at a recent .Net Users' Group meeting, the presenter asked how many folks were using the MVVM pattern. Out of about 50 attendees, 9 raised their hands. While I was one of them, I am certainly not one of the elite abstract C# developers (even though I read their blogs). I have been active in the LightSwitch beta, and see a great value in getting business app requirements moving quickly with this kind of tool. Dynamics CRM 2011 is also going this same route on a larger scale, and the design patterns behind LightSwitch and Dynamics CRM are solid. I say stay tuned.

Wed, Sep 29, 2010 Brian Fresno, CA

This will be a nice addition for those situations that require a quick resolution. There have been times when something, usually a tailored report, needed to be done but it would take months to get it out of IT. Since I had the same authority, I would create something in VOS macros, C, or even the custom (enterprise) BASIC. [I had access to the compilers which was NOT standard issue.] Aside from bringing a resurgence to the same group of people that would code in VB6 and/or VBA, I believe that this same group of 'developers' will be able to port much if not all of their application to Windows Phone 7 (look at the database spec). Perhaps a very smart move.

Wed, Sep 29, 2010 Joe

While I am a little worried about some of the crap some people will create with Lightswitch. As a semi-skilled IT person it will be nice to be able to wip out some quick apps to solve specific issues and not have to use Access.

Wed, Sep 29, 2010

I completely agree with the previous post. .NET since year 2000 has been one long nightmare...

Wed, Sep 29, 2010

This market has not been touched since VB6. Thank God someone is finally offering a real solution for real people once again.

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