Design patterns provide a standard approach to attacking
common programming problems; however, developers often find themselves typing
the same code over and over again. Code generation addresses this issue by
providing the skeleton code necessary to get started. It can speed up
development and provide stability and reliability in your code. Let’s take a
closer look at code generation with CodeSmith.

What is it?

CodeSmith is a template-based code
generator. Templates are patterns for generated code. By using CodeSmith, developers or architects may generate code for
any text language. The result (generated code) is customizable via properties
and includes numerous standard property types. In addition, users may create
custom property types.

Weekly .NET tips in your inbox

TechRepublic’s free .NET newsletter, delivered each Wednesday, contains useful tips and coding examples on topics such as Web services, ASP.NET, ADO.NET, and Visual Studio .NET.

Automatically sign up today!

When targeting the .NET Framework, a property may be any .NET
object that has a designer. For example, it can be as simple as a string
property assigning a title. On the other hand, a TableSchema
object may be used to provide access to everything about a database table.

One of the great aspects of the CodeSmith
tool is its syntax, which is almost identical to the syntax used in ASP.NET. In
fact, you may use C#, VB.NET, or JScript in CodeSmith templates. CodeSmith
can actually output any ASCII-based language.

You can download a 30-day free
of the standard and professional versions of CodeSmith.
The professional version extends the standard version by adding an IDE, VS.NET
integration, an API, and more. Check the CodeSmith Tools site for complete pricing details.


The CodeSmith tool includes
numerous tools for putting code generation to good use in your next project. It
includes the following features:

  • Studio: Allows you to develop your
    own templates.
  • Debugging: Debugging is simplified
    with robust error messages that include the line number and template
    related to the problem.
  • XML: XML is a big part of template
    creation. You can easily use your own XML to drive templates. You may
    provide your own schema or work without one.
  • Console client: The client
    provides a single point for automating code generation or executes one or
    more templates.
  • SQL Script execution: You can
    automatically generate SQL Script when applicable for easy deployment of
    SQL code.
  • Caching: Templates are compiled
    and cached to improve performance.

There are two ways to begin a CodeSmith
session: CodeSmith Explorer or CodeSmith
Studio. The Explorer client, which provides an
interface for organizing templates, is analogous to Windows Explorer. It opens
with the initial view showing all of the folders containing templates in your CodeSmith installation. A default installation includes
numerous sample templates (template files use the .cst
file extension).

An alternate way to use CodeSmith
is via the CodeSmith Studio IDE, which is a complete
template IDE. You can use it to edit, compile, and run templates. A big
advantage with the Studio client is the debugging features, which streamline
the process of finding any errors that may arise in your templates.

The CodeSmith Explorer client
includes a subset of the features found in the Studio IDE. The Explorer is good
if you just want to run templates or generate code; the Studio client is better
for more heavy lifting.

Developing a template

While CodeSmith includes various
sample templates, you will need to develop custom templates to take advantage
of code generation in your projects. Templates are plain text files that
contain three types of content:

  • Code
    generation directives.
  • Static
    content passed through to the generated output.
  • Dynamic
    content that is executed by CodeSmith. This is
    where programming code is used.

Every template begins with the CodeTemplate
directive (notice the ASP.NET similarities):

<%@ CodeTemplate Language="C#" TargetLanguage="C#" Description="TR Sample" %>

Now you need to know what you want to generate. The simplest
approach to determining what you want is developing example code that generates
what is desired. Once you know what you want, you should break the output
(i.e., what you want to be generated) into the following three areas:

  • Static
    content (it never changes)
  • Generated
  • User-generated
    content (the user must enter information)

The C# template in
Listing A provides a simple demonstration of the template creation process. (Listing B contains the equivalent
VB.NET template.)

Let’s examine the template:

  • It
    utilizes ASP.NET style comments. An example is the insertion of the author
    name and other information at the top of the file. CodeSmith
    inserts this section automatically, but you can easily delete it.
  • The CodeTemplate directive is the first real line in the
    template (omitting comments). It assigns a description, the language used,
    and the output format (text). There are more attributes available.
  • The
    Property directive allows properties to be added to the template. We use
    two properties: Boolean and string. The name attribute assigns the name
    that may be used throughout the template. The data type is assigned via
    the type attribute. The default attribute allows you to assign a default
    value, and the optional parameter signals whether it is mandatory (true)
    or not (false).
  • Static
    content is placed directly in the template. The CodeSmith
    engine ignores this text and passes it straight through to the output.
  • Variables
    may be placed in the output by using the ASP.NET syntax (<%= variable
    name %>) and the property name.
  • Code
    may be used as the if statement is used to check
    the Boolean property. The content within the if
    statement is included in the output only if the property is true.
  • Code
    blocks may be included within script tags. This makes the code accessible
    throughout the template. In our example, the NameMethod
    method is declared.

This is a very simple example that demonstrates basic
features. You may be wondering how it can reduce development time when you’ll
need to do additional development in CodeSmith. The
template system lends itself to generating any type of content, so it is easy
to generate the code files you’ll need. Likewise, the customization and code
support make it easy to generate on the fly. The power will be more evident as
you dig into the product.

Free your mind

Code generation promises to reduce development time by
generating repetitious code based upon templates you develop. The CodeSmith tool provides a powerful and extensible template
system that you can use to generate almost any type of output.

Tony Patton began his professional career as an application developer earning Java, VB, Lotus, and XML certifications to bolster his knowledge.

Miss a column?

Check out the .NET Archive, and catch up on the most recent editions of Tony Patton’s column.