Tuesday, November 19, 2013

ASP.NET Code Generators Reviewed for the novice or Business Analyst


Advanced enough for a ASP.NET developer to do whatever they need to do, but simple enough that a business analyst could create a simple application based on a database schema (done by a DBA or developer). Ideally embrace standard and newer technologies such as Linq, Entity Framework, JSON, WCF. It would be nice to have the ability to create a SharePoint application.

Xomega 3/5 stars

Website: http://www.xomega.net
Xomega uses a Visual Studio Plug-in instead of a full proprietary IDE. Leverages the entity framework and WCF. Generates end-to-end web and desktop applications. Uses Webforms or Silverlight or WPF to implement UI. They have created a new type of VS2013 solution type. Separate projects / assemblies are created in Visual Studio for each layer (ClientObjects, Client.Web, Entities, Model, Services). Configurations are done via XML files using Visual Studios standard tools and navigation. All generation is based on what is in the xml files. Can rename generated files to prevent changes from being overwritten. Partial classes are also used in some cases to implement additional functionality. The generated UI is clean. No coding needed to generate basic UI, but requires a bit of configuration with the XML. Appears to not have a date picker built in. This tool is definitely for someone that is comfortable with Visual Studio and would not be suitable for someone like a Business Analyst. Its strength is that it embraces new Microsoft technologies. Overall I like this generation tool for the more technically proficient developer, but maybe not a beginner that doesn't really understand the different layers and how they fit together.

radarc 3/5 stars

radarc sounds very promising for MVC4 code generation (a rare feature) and multiple mobile phone app generation (Android, iPhone, Windows Phone 8) also. When doing phone app generation it creates the backend REST services as well. It just came out of beta this week. The demo video looks great. I had some issues with basic functionality of the generator working. Based on that, I can't say that this is ready for real production use and should still be in beta. However, I am very excited by the quality of code that it generates. It doesn't use stored procedures and instead its own model and includes a model to do Model first design. I appears to use LINQ or something modeled after it (I need to look closer at that). I get the impression you are locked into the application it generates and that it is a generate-once kind of design. I don't see that many options as far as options / configuration, but I'm sure that will improve as the product matures. I can't give this a excellent status yet, but I hope in time it will mature into a great product. The biggest issue I see is that there is a lack of documentation, I can't change the views that are generated (as far as I can tell) without affecting the ability to regenerate the pages. It suggests that there are extension points for changing views, but I have not figured out where that is. This is a great start once you have your model figured out, and are okay with a generate-once application that you can then customize. 

SoftFluent 2/5 stars

The model is continuously generated from the model (CodeFluent Entities). Supports new technologies such as WCF, JSON, It is not an end-to-end code generation tool. It does do the plumbing for you. Think of it as doing the data access layer and the business layer, but not the presentation layer. It is model-first code generator. It does support many types of applications (ASP.NET MVC, WebForms, SharePoint, Silverlight, Windows Phone, WPF, etc. However, they are not full CRUD applications, they are instead empty applications with the model already to go. Has a concept of Producer for each type of application it creates and allows you to extend it as well. The idea is that it leaves you to do important things like the UI since you have essentially created an API to connect to your UI. I don't really see the cost-benefit of using this since this can more or less be done with the entity framework and domain services which are standard .NET components. 

ASPRunner.NET 3/5 stars

This is a pretty nice end-to-end code generation tool. It seems more like you configure it how you want and then generate once. The WYSIWYG editor is pretty limited and I'm not super impressed. It has many nice themes (colors) and gives you options to change the color on top of that. It doesn't create drop downs for foreign key columns with friendly name, but instead showed numbers. Maybe that was somewhere in the config, but it wasn't automatically done. It generates Microsoft MVC code using Razor. The project is using .NET 4.0. I don't see master-detail layouts by default, but I do see they can be added relatively easy. The data Model appears to be non-existent. There is a Data Access layer that handles most any query you can through at it, but it doesn't use the MS Entity framework or LINQ. Each Controller is VERY heavy because there is code for every option that you MAY want to use on the page. So, the code is MVC, it doesn't really follow the best practice of having a fairly lightweight controller. I'm not sure how, but the UI for the generated apps feel very PHP like. In general it feels a bit clunky. I was hoping for more AJAX /HTML 5 interactions.I want to like this because it is only MVC end-to-end generator I have found, but I just don't like the UI it generates and the controllers are so heavy.

Code4Green 1/5 stars

Website: http://www.code4green.com
Code4Green is a web based code generation tool. It is actually pretty nice if you like the way they do things. You must manually type in your table definitions and it then generates a stored procedures, .aspx, code-behind, data objects, data mapper, etc. You must then copy and paste each of these individually into Visual Studio (after you create the files in Visual Studio). It doesn't use LINQ or Entity Framework or really any of the new UI objects. It generates ASP.NET 1.1 style code. While it isn't bad if you have nothing else, it isn't what I am looking for due to not being able to point it at a database and it generating an application. I also want it to generate more modern code and UI. It reminds me of some simple snippet tools. It does generate some interesting SharePoint code that may be worth looking at further.

LayerCake Generator 2/5 stars

While the architecture looks good for this application it is a new effort. It has only been around since Feb 2013 and the web site is a bit light on content, details, and in general just a polished look that is well thought out.. I tried to run the Cooker application and couldn't get past the first screen. I found it very strange that I have to specify a database that does NOT exist yet. I decide to instead just look through the step by step tutorials. What I see from the tutorial is the following. The primary keys and foreign keys must follow a very specific naming convention. The column names must contain the table name then an underscore then the actual column name. I don't like that at all. I like that it creates contracts and WCF Services. It uses specific table format to handle translations. I think using a table instead of a resource file could have serious performance implications. I like that it support unit tests well. It doesn't appear based on the tutorial that any UI is generated. This looks like an interesting tool, but I think falls short in the end-to-end generator category due to strict database naming rules and no UI generation.

OutSystems Platform 3.5/5 stars

This is a very nice piece of software. I know it must cost a lot because there is no price on the site and you can't get a trial edition without giving them your contact info and then they want you to talk to their sales team. Despite that, it is not so much a code generator as it it is a RAD IDE. It does as they say generate well architected code for ASP.NET or Java, but that could mean anything, so I can't really comment on  it. The IDE is VERY polished. I like the idea of it. Pages and applications look like they can be created quickly using default created when you drag tables onto the screen. You can also do more of a manual page creation. It seems to be quite intelligent and would allow for faster development and easier understanding of application flow because much of the tooling is graphical in nature. Being able to do Java as well is a plus. I have to subtract some stars because it doesn't appear to just generate the full application, and I don't know how easy it is to do a lot of things in the tooling. I don't have all the details I need to properly evaluate the tool, but I have a feeling it is a nice tool that will do what I require AND the price will be way too high. It also suffers from a complete new IDE and paradigm and doesn't use Visual Studio. I see these as pretty major drawbacks if you are looking to keep .NET developers happy.

CodeOnTime 3.5/5 stars

It generates ASP.NET Web Forms application. I think this is a pretty good tool overall for end-to-end application generation and I like the SharePoint-like UI that it generates. However, it just doesn't feel natural to work in this tool. For instance, I don't understand why they have a tab with EVERY field in the database, a tab for All the comands, all fields, all controllers, and all pages. Then when I open any one of these items it is just predefined questions about generation. It appears you can do custom layouts, but it is through a little editor window and just doesn't really make sense to me why I would want to work in that manner. The code it generates looks clean enough, but everything is abstracted away so much I find it difficult to find my concrete classes. For instance, if I have a table called Person and I want to find the methods, pages, etc related to that I can't easily find it. I took stars away from this one because in general I just feel like I get lost in all the pages of code generation options when what I want is to modify fields, pages, controllers, etc.

Microsoft Lightswitch 4/5 stars

Lightswitch generates Silverlight applications which are very nice visually, and are very customizable and extensible. Lightswitch is built into Visual Studio 2013. It uses new technologies like WCF, LINQ, Entity Framework, and good design patterns. Granted you are pretty much locked into their architecture, but that is the case with all these code generators. There is a bit of a learning curve for Lightswitch if you want to extend it heavily. Lightswitch was actually my first choice except that it is based on Silverlight. I was very excited when Microsoft came out with a HTML version. Unfortunately, the HTML version is really heavily geared towards mobile access and really isn't good for a full browser experience. 

Microsoft Dynamic Data 4/5 stars

Microsoft Dynamic Data is a project type built into Visual Studio 2010 and newer that is actually very customizable and generates decent UIs. It can use lots of different technologies, but most importantly it can use LINQ and Entity Framework. The cool thing is that it is all template driven at runtime so you can customize it to whatever you want. You can add any custom pages you want, or have a particular table or page for a table be completely custom. There is really not that much code that is generated compared to some code generators. I have successfully extended the base application into very nice applications, so I know it is extensible. That is not to say that it is quicker than standard ASP.NET to develop, but it does allow you to have all your basic CRUD screens right there and create custom pages for the stuff that doesn't fit that mold. It is worth a look and considering it as a real solution. This is a great platform if you want a starting point for making a company standard for all applications and don't mind working a bit to make it just how you want it. Word of warning: you can spend an enormous amount of time extending (more than just customizing) Dynamic Data Applications. For example, to add security to it and add support for only showing certain fields on a page can take a lot of work.

CodeSmith 3.5/5 stars

Out of the box, CodeSmith is really about allowing you to create your own templates to generate your own code. However there are hundreds of templates to help speed up development. One example that allows the generation of an entire application is  .netTiers. Based on a database schema it creates separate Logical layers for entity, dal, business, web, forms, web service. It uses stored procedures or parameterized sql for dal. The UI is reasonable, but a bit dated in look and feel. The good news is this is 100% customizable. CodeSmith would be a good option if you want to completely customize the kind of application that gets generated. It is a reasonable option if you combine it with .netTiers for generating an application with the click of a button

NOTE: There is a open source product called TaHoGen that executes CodeSmith templates, but has no UI.

MVC Scaffolding using Razor and Entity Framework 2.5/5 stars

While scaffolding in ASP.NET MVC projects in Visual Studio 2012 is very cool and extensible (yes you can customize the generated scaffolding). However, there is no ability to maintain the changes and have to be done manually or regenerate the scaffolding. It is also far from point and click to generate the application. For an experiences MVC developer and a polished database, a basic application could be done fairly quickly, but in days and weeks and longer to develop something similar to a polished application. The upside is that the code is very clean and the html pages sent to the browser are generally very light because they are MVC, not WebForms. While I can't recommend this scenario for a business analyst, I would recommend it for developers. Hence, my poor rating for it. Please not I love MVC, but it doesn't fit these requirements. As a tool for a developer I give it 4.5/5.

Iron Speed 4.5/5 stars  THE WINNER

Iron Speed specializes in end-to-end generation of ASP.NET WebForms based applications using its own data, business, and presentation layers, and stored procedures or inline SQL. It excels at picking up changes to the database and maintaining your application. It is not a generate once kind of generation tool. It gives you the tools to edit your application. In general it has an IDE that gives you everything you need to maintain the application. However, there are thimes when you will want to use Visual Studio such as to get Intellisense support if you are writing lots of code. You do not need Visual Studio, but you can use it. However, do NOT edit the .aspx pages. Instead you must use the Excel like editor to manipulate the page. Alternatively, you can make changes via code. There are event handlers for everything, you can override methods, etc It has a concept of formula that work like Excel and are great for doing calculations, manipulations, and in general most customizations you will need to do. It has great transaction support. For example, if you have a master-detail page the all the details rows can be edited at the same time AND the master (parent) is editable all without even saving. This allows for Excel like editing in grids. Filters are trivial to add. Moving columns and layouts is all graphical and trivial. The UI is very polished looking. You can create your own ASP.NET theme to change the look and feel of the application. There are many different kinds of layouts. Training is readily available through videos or through live training classes which include Q&A. Security is trivial as well. Just define if you FBA, Windows authentication, FBA with Active Directory as backend, etc and then set permissions on each page and even field if yo u prefer using the graphical UI. It does NOT use Entity Framework or LINQ, but it does use well written stored procedures and has a data layer. The data layer basically maintains itself. The business layer does too for the most part. This IDE is suitable for a techie Business Analyst or beginning developer. It deploys to SharePoint 2007 and 2010, but not SharePoint 2013. If Iron Speed had support for Entity Framework and LINQ and MVC I would give it a 5/5.

NOTE: I have been using this tool for a few months now and support on the tool is also good. I have not found anything I can't do with it or anything functionality I can't implement in it. I have a deep understanding of ASP.NET, but it is by no means necessary to use this tool. In my mind, this is the best choice for my needs. Depending on your needs you may choose differently. There are lots of good choices and cheaper solutions.


Blake Niemyjski said...

I work for CodeSmith Tools and it's worth noting that we do have Kendo UI templates (PLINQO for EF has them). Most of our framework templates excluding .netTiers will generate a Dynamic Data layer.

On a personal note, it's worth noting that your review is flawed in the aspect that code generation really isn't meant for generating complete UI's. You also state in your review guidelines that you really aren't looking at the generated UI specifically. There are no two development firms that have the same UI Requirements as such code generation usually focus on the back end (data and business layers) allowing the developer to focus on front end development. That's not to say that code generation can't help. We have new bootstrap 3.0 ActiveSnippets that will allow you to quickly create a custom bootstrap site with ease.

Also, I'd really recommend taking a look at support options into your rankings. Any of the Microsoft solutions really have no support. If you hit a bug, how long does it take them to fix it.. Are the templates / runtime open source?

Daniel Efosa Uyi said...

hey nice post mehn. I love your style of blogging here. The way you writes reminds me of an equally interesting post that I read some time ago on Daniel Uyi's blog: Being Grateful For What You Have .
keep up the good work.


Goncalo Gaiolas said...


I work for OutSystems professional services and I wanted to thank you for including us in your write up. You are right when you say that we dedicate a lot of time to polish our product. We believe we can build something that can really help teams looking to develop great web and mobile enterprise web apps.

I'd also like to help clarify a couple of points regarding your initial review. First of all, apps delivered using the OutSystems Platform are complete Java or .NET apps. On top of that, it is important to note that we don't just generate code - we support the full lifecycle from development to deployment and change. Keep in mind that you can model pretty much everything inside the app like UI, database, APIs, web services, workflows, rules, etc. You can also do deep changes (data model, APIs, architecture) and global dependencies are automatically updated, allowing to change and refactor across your entire portfolio of apps.

But this is just my word, and I wouldn't want you to take my word for it ;) We've recently launched free personal environments where everybody in the world can build and host their own personal applications using our platform. Can I invite you to spend 30 minutes trying it out? Just head over to http://www.outsystems.com/get-started and you'll be up and running in no time...without having to talk to our sales team.

If you do take me up on my offer, feel free to email your feedback to success(at)outsystems.com. We're *very* eager to hear more feedback from people using our product.

Best regards,

Scott Shepherd said...

Thank you for this analysis, I am a developer and would like to see this comparison extended for developers; I have re-posted your post and added some comments to it here. I have given you full credit and linked to this site, so I hope you do not mind. I find it beneficial to add to the great knowledge of others. Thanks!


Franz Rodenacker said...

OK, so I am very late to this list, but I have come across a new code generator that deserves to be mentioned - Stadium (http://stadium.twenty57.com) has an excellent design tool and generates a .NET solution file, C# sources, HTML5, Bootstrap CSS and JQuery scripts. Use it to complete the 80% of what you need in 20% of the time and use Visual Studio for the rest.

ガンスフアンフバヤル said...

Thank you for very useful information.