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Entity Framework Gets Open Source Boost

The Microsoft Entity Framework has a spotty history of inconsistent release strategies, lagging feature requests and other issues, but things seem to be getting better with new leadership and even community contributions since it went open source.

The past problems with the Object Relational Mapping (ORM) tool were candidly discussed this week when EF team members Rowan Miller and Glenn Condron visited with Robert Green on the Visual Studio Toolbox Channel 9 video show to preview EF 6, which is "coming soon."

Reviewing past release history, Miller admitted the 2 years it took to update EF 3.5 SP1 to EF 4 was excessive. "That's really slow if you're waiting for new features," he said. Trying to get new features out to customers sooner, the team tried a hybrid model for subsequent releases with the runtime core components being part of the .NET Framework while new features shipped out-of-band via NuGet and the tooling was part of Visual Studio.

"We made one not-very-good attempt at doing an out-of-band release of the tooling, the 2011 June CTP of 'death and destruction' as we call it on our team," Miller said. "It went horribly; our product just wasn't set up for shipping out-of-band."

While the hybrid model got features out quicker, Miller noted there was a confusing mismatch of EF and .NET versions, so the team "bit the bullet" going from EF 5 to EF 6, going out-of-bound by moving the runtime to NuGet and the tooling to the Microsoft Download Center, while also being "chained in" to new Visual Studio releases.

The whole history, which Condron admitted was "still confusing," is explained in the 1-hour-plus show if you want to try to sort it out.

I was more interested in the move to open source at the same time EF was moved out of the .NET Framework, putting source code, nightly builds, issue tracking, feature specifications and design meeting notes on CodePlex. "Anything that we can make public, we made public," Condron said. The team also opened up the development effort to the community. "We happily accept contributions from as many people as we can," Condron said. But that strategy raised concerns by some, so he emphasized only the EF team has commit rights, and any pull requests must go through the same rigorous code review and testing process as do internal changes.

"We've gotten 25 pull requests; we've accepted 21 from eight different contributors," Condron said. He noted that while the development effort is open source, the shipping, licensing, support and quality remain in the hands of Microsoft.

Green noted that the strategy was a great way to get more people on the development effort, and Condron agreed, citing the thorny issue of enum support long requested by thousands of customers but not introduced until EF 5 and .NET 4.5. "Why is there no enum support--because nobody had written enum support," he said. "If you guys write it, we'll put it in." You can see the list of contributors on CodePlex (though only seven were listed in the Feb. 27 post).

Other benefits of open source, Miller said, include better customer relations, transparency and release cadence. "Back in the 3.5 SP1 days, we weren't listening to customers that great, but we've ... opened up the EF design blog" and started doing more frequent releases, he said. Condron also noted that with the nightly builds, the team has even gotten a few immediate bug reports the very next day after some source code was broken in the ongoing development efforts, which he said was "fantastic."

And the open source strategy will be expanding, Miller said. "The open source codebase at the moment just has the runtime in it" he said. "The tooling for EF 6 isn't going to be there, but after the EF 6 release, we're planning to put the tooling in as well. So we'll have the tooling there and you'll get to watch us develop on it, and we'll even accept pull requests on it as well."

Previewing EF 6, Miller and Condron ran through many new features coming from the EF team, such as nested entity types, improved transaction support and multiple contexts per database. But other new features are coming from community contributors, such as custom migrations operations, improved warm-up time for large models, pluggable pluralization and singularization service and "a few other cool things."

EF 6 is currently in Beta 1, and will go to RTM at same time as Visual Studio 2013, with an RC1 coming "soon." [CLARIFICATION: The RC1 was actually made available on Wednesday, Aug. 21.]

For more information, see the EF feature suggestions site and CodePlex for community contribution guidelines and a product roadmap.

What do you think of the new EF 6? Comment here or drop me a line.

Posted by David Ramel on 08/22/2013

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