LINQed Up (Part 1)

This is the first of a series intended as an introduction to LINQ. The series should provide a good enough foundation to allow the uninitiated to begin using LINQ in a productive manner. In this post we’ll look at what LINQ is and how it works.

My director and I were recently talking about questions he has been asking candidates for senior level .NET development positions. He mentioned that he has been asking the candidates to describe LINQ and some situations where it would be useful.  The response from each of the candidates has ranged from a blank stare to something along the lines of “it means you don’t need to write SQL anymore.”  Those responses are the inspiration for this series.

The blank stares are discouraging but the statements that constrain LINQ to a very specific use case illustrate a fundamental lack of understanding of the technology. It is true that LINQ can greatly simplify interaction with a database through LINQ to SQL or Entity Framework but those are only a small part of what LINQ can do.  In fact, the majority of the places I’ve used LINQ have no database interaction whatsoever.  LINQ has so many applications beyond database access that I find myself using at least some part of it in most of my projects and often in some unexpected places.

Let’s start with a trip through the basics.

What is LINQ?

Language INtegrated Query (LINQ) was introduced with the .NET Framework v3.5. MSDN has this to say about it:

LINQ is a set of extensions to the .NET Framework that encompass language-integrated query, set, and transform operations. It extends C# and Visual Basic with native language syntax for queries and provides class libraries to take advantage of these capabilities.

Although the description is accurate I think the language regarding “native language syntax for queries” is what leads people to mistakenly believe that the only use for LINQ is with a database. After all, we’ve been conditioned to think that queries are database operations.  That said, I offer an alternative definition:

LINQ is a set of extensions to the .NET Framework that encompass language-integrated query, set, and transform operations. It extends C# and Visual Basic with native language syntax for querying data from a variety of sources and provides class libraries to take advantage of these capabilities.

The idea that LINQ makes it possible to query data from a variety of sources is critically important to using it to its full potential. It means that LINQ is not constrained to working with databases but actually comes in several flavors:

  • LINQ to Objects
  • LINQ to XML
  • LINQ to SQL (and Entity Framework)
  • LINQ to DataSets
  • LINQ to Twitter
  • etc…

Essentially any data source can be queried with LINQ as long as there’s a corresponding provider. In addition to providing a common query language for disparate data sources these sources can be queried in a unified manner through the use of joins and subqueries.  LINQ also gives us some really powerful transformation capabilities.  Essentially LINQ is a domain specific language for working with sets of data.

How Does LINQ Work?

LINQ is made possible by several additions to the .NET Framework and in order to truly appreciate its power and elegance we need to first look at:

  • Extension Methods
  • Delegates/Lambda Expressions
  • Type Inference
  • Anonymous Types

Since these are all features of the .NET framework and/or compiler their usage is not restricted to LINQ.  Most of them are actually quite useful outside of LINQ as well.

Extension Methods

Central to the functionality of LINQ are extension methods. Extension methods allow adding capabilities to types without needing to derive a new type. They must be static methods within a static class. The type being extended must be the first parameter of the method and is modified using an overload of the this keyword.  Because extension methods add capabilities to an existing type without relying on inheritance we can even write extension methods for sealed classes.

LINQ introduces the class System.Linq.Enumerable that contains extension methods that extend the IEnumerable interface.  Microsoft could have added the signatures to the interface but that would be a breaking change and everything that previously built against IEnumerable would no longer compile until the implementations of those were provided.  By using extension methods Microsoft was able to introduce all of the LINQ query methods into the framework without breaking anything.

Activating LINQ is merely a matter of importing the System.Linq namespace.  Once the namespace is imported the extension methods are available to any type that implements IEnumerable including lists, arrays, and even strings.  There’s even a trick for using the non-generic IEnumerable with LINQ that we’ll discuss in a later post.

Delegates/Lambda Expressions

While extension methods provide the methods that make LINQ possible delegates make them work.  Most of the extension methods in the Extensible class accept one or more delegates as parameters.  Delegates have always been available in .NET but their usage and syntax has evolved over the years.

Before C# 2.0 the only way to use delegates was to have a named method.  C# 2.0 introduced anonymous methods using the delegate keyword.

Handling an event with the delegate syntax

var t = new System.Timers.Timer(1000);
t.Elapsed += delegate(object sender, System.Timers.ElapsedEventArgs ea) { Console.WriteLine("Timer elapsed"); };

t.Start();
System.Threading.Thread.Sleep(10000);
t.Stop();

Notice how the event is handled by an inline anonymous method rather than a separate named method.  LINQ makes heavy use of delegates to control query behavior. Having to include a full method signature to pass to a method would make LINQ statements virtually unreadable so clearly something else was needed. This is where lambda expressions come in to play.

C# 3.0 added support for lambda expressions. Lambda expressions are functionally equivalent to the delegate syntax above but are more developer friendly. In C# lambda expressions use the => (goes to) operator. The left side contains the list of parameters and the right side contains the method body.

Handling an event with a lambda expression

var t = new System.Timers.Timer(1000);
t.Elapsed += (s, ea) => Console.WriteLine("Timer elapsed");

t.Start();
System.Threading.Thread.Sleep(10000);
t.Stop();

In both examples the timer’s elapsed event is handled by an anonymous method and both handle the event exactly the same way but in the lambda example we have the much more concise and easier to read syntax.  The key difference between the traditional delegate syntax and a lambda expression is the lack of any type information in the parameter list of the lambda expression.  This lack of type information is a great segue into the next technology important to LINQ: type inference.

Type Inference

Type inference allows the compiler to determine the type of a variable, return type, or generic type. By letting the compiler do its job with type inference we can remove a lot of the explicit nature of type identification. Type inference gives us the ability to use anonymous types and use the var keyword to declare variables (and is required to use anonymous types).

Using the var keyword to declare variables is the subject of debate. One side is opposed to its use saying that code is too ambiguous whereas the other side likes the simplicity and convenience of it. I fall into the later group because I’ve found that as I’m first developing something I may change variable or return types multiple times as the design is flushed out.  By using the var keyword I typically only have to change the type on one place rather.  The var keyword is also required when using anonymous types.  If there’s ever any question about what type is being resolved, just hover over var in Visual Studio.

Don’t confuse use of the var keyword with the dynamic keyword in .NET 4.0 or JavaScript’s var. Variables declared with the var keyword are still strongly typed, we’re just letting the compiler figure out what the type really is.

Anonymous Types

Finally, we have anonymous types. Anonymous types are dynamically defined types with no formal definition outside of their usage.  At compile time the compiler will generate a read-only type based on the inline definition of the type.  The type name is not known until compile time and the generated type name is not valid within C# so the only way to declare a variable of an anonymous type is through the var keyword described above. Although they’re not required to use LINQ anonymous types add a lot of capabilities for projecting results from a query.

Creating an anonymous type with two properties

var anon = new { IntegerValue = 1, StringValue = "A String" };

Due to the way anonymous types are defined there are some restrictions on their use. Although there are some ways around this the rule of thumb is that anonymous types can only be used within the scope where they are declared.

Next Steps

We’ve covered what LINQ is and the main pieces of the .NET Framework make it possible.  In the next post we’ll look at the common query methods and how to construct queries.

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