Setting Up Additional Configurations and the Files

When creating a new web application project in ASP.NET 4, the web.config is included as expected, but so are two additional files as seen below.

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If you don’t see them initially, expand the collapsed entries by clicking on little black arrow to the left of the Web.config filename.

What each file does will be disgusted later on, but first let’s see how to add more files. If you right-click on the web project and go through the menu to add a new item and select Web Configuration File, you will not get a file automatically associated like the Debug and Release files seen above. It will look like the following.

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To have things work nicely, the build configurations should be set up first. Go through the toolbar or whatever process you like best to edit the build configurations.

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This will provide us with the popup to create new build configurations.

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In the next window, fill in the settings that are appropriate for your new configuration. For example, Testing, Staging, etc.

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After doing this and reloading the project file, the Web.Testing.config still doesn’t fit into the collapsible Web.config area. This is because it was added before the build configuration, so make sure to add the build configurations first! If you find yourself in this situation, you can manually edit the project file to create the association.

After opening up the project file for editing and searching for Web.config, we find the following.

  <Content Include="Web.config">
    <TransformOnBuild>true</TransformOnBuild>
  </Content>
  <Content Include="Web.Debug.config">
    <DependentUpon>Web.config</DependentUpon>
    <IsTransformFile>True</IsTransformFile>
  </Content>
  <Content Include="Web.Release.config">
    <DependentUpon>Web.config</DependentUpon>
    <IsTransformFile>True</IsTransformFile>
  </Content>

Notice the difference for the Debug and Release files? Where is the Testing entry? Searching for it in the project file, it’s found as a normal file entry.

  <ItemGroup>
    <Content Include="Web.Testing.config" />
  </ItemGroup>

You can manually remove the ItemGroup entry for the Testing file and create a Content entry that mimics the Debug and Release entries.

  <Content Include="Web.config">
    <TransformOnBuild>true</TransformOnBuild>
  </Content>
  <Content Include="Web.Debug.config">
    <DependentUpon>Web.config</DependentUpon>
    <IsTransformFile>True</IsTransformFile>
  </Content>
  <Content Include="Web.Release.config">
    <DependentUpon>Web.config</DependentUpon>
    <IsTransformFile>True</IsTransformFile>
  </Content>
  <Content Include="Web.Testing.config">
    <DependentUpon>Web.config</DependentUpon>
    <IsTransformFile>True</IsTransformFile>
  </Content>

After saving the changes and reloading the project file, the association for Testing is correct.

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Generating the Transformed Configuration Files

At this point, it’s easy to see that the middle portion of the filename corresponds the build configuration. What does it actually do? By default, the deploy will produce a transformed configuration file. This doesn’t happen for normal build operations and debugging, like hitting F5. Take a note here that the Web.Debug.config entry will not be transformed into your debugging web.config file when running in Visual Studio. Without the extension mentioned below, this would only be for deploying the application in debug mode. We will see with an extension that this is possible though. After setting up a Publish entry in One-Click Publish and deploying it to a local file system folder, the following can be seen when Show All Files is selected for the project.

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Notice the path objTestingTransformWebConfig and then the original and transformed directories. Comparing the two Web.config entries at this point will show the differences, if any.

Using the Transformation Syntax to Produce Custom Settings per Build Configuration

There are a variety of ways to apply transformation, but the two I find myself using most often are Replace and SetAttributes. Here are some examples:

<?xml version="1.0"?>
<configuration xmlns:xdt="http://schemas.microsoft.com/XML-Document-Transform">
  <elmah>
    <errorLog
      name="ElmahConnectionString"
      connectionString="Data Source=dbserver;Initial Catalog=dbname;User id=username;Password=password;"
      xdt:Transform="SetAttributes"
      xdt:Locator="Match(name)"
      />
    <errorMail
      name="ElmahMailSettings"
      to="no-reply@devtreats.com"
      xdt:Transform="SetAttributes"
      xdt:Locator="Match(name)"
      />
    </elmah>

  <appSettings xdt:Transform="Replace">
    <add key="RemoteServerIP" value="127.0.0.1" />
    <add key="RemoteServerPath" value="." />
  </appSettings>

  <connectionStrings xdt:Transform="Replace">
    <add name="MyConnectionString" connectionString="Data Source=dbserver;Initial Catalog=dbname;User id=username;Password=password;" />
    <add name="CsvConnectionString" connectionString="Provider=Microsoft.Jet.OLEDB.4.0;Extended Properties='text;HDR=Yes;FMT=Delimited';Data Source="/>
  </connectionStrings>
</configuration>

The ELMAH connection string and mail settings are using the SetAttributes transform by matching on the name of the attribute. The result of these operations will change the attribute values for connectionString and to, respectively. For the appSettings, the Replace transform type is used to swap out the whole appSettings section. You could handle these in different ways, but I find that usually all or most of the appSettings values change per build configuration type, so I simply replace the whole thing rather than adding transform syntax to each line.

What this provides is a way to set any number of configuration changes based on the build configuration. As shown above, the connection strings don’t have to be worried about and changed when doing different deployments. You can set it and forget it, for the most part.

Please reference MSDN for the full documentation on transformation syntax: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ie/dd465326.aspx

That Works for ASP.NET web.config files, But What About the app.config files?

Unfortunately, it’s not directly built into Visual Studio/MSBUILD, but there is an excellent extension available for free called SlowCheetah – XML Transforms. This extension allows for not only doing these same types of operations on app.config files, but it allows for transformations of the config files during Visual Studio debugging. Bring on F5 integration! It even works for any XML file within your projects. For example, I often have a logging.debug.config and a logging.release.config to keep my web.config or app.config clean. This extension allows for transformations of those files perfectly and outputs them into the bin directory.

It also allows for previewing of the transformations when you right-click on one of the transformation XML files.

Conclusion

The built in functionality is long overdue and a much nicer implementation than using the Enterprise Library dynamic changes feature they added around version 3. There are some other tools available as well, but having it built in reduces the guess work and cross-training. Throw in the SlowCheetah extension and it’s pretty feature complete. Hopefully the Visual Studio team incorporates SlowCheetah’s features in vNext.

Happy Transformations!

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