Silverlight Hack

Silverlight & related .NET technologies

About Me

Welcome to Silverlighthack.com.  This is a site where you can find many articles on Silverlight, Windows Phone 7 and .NET related technologies.  

My name is Bart Czernicki.  I have been working with computers since 1988 and have over 12 professional years in the IT field focusing on architecture, technology strategy and product management.  I currently work as a Sr. Software Architect at a large software development company.

Below is the cover of my new book that shows how Silverlight's unique RIA features can be applied to create next-generation business intelligence (BI 2.0) applications.

Silverlight 4 Business Intelligence Soft 

Contact: bartczernicki@gmail.com

View Bart Czernickis profile on LinkedIn

NONE of the comments or opinions expressed here should be considered ofmy past or current employer(s).  The code provided is as-is without anyguarantees or warranties.

Silverlight 3 and F# Support in Visual Studio 2010

The goal of this blog post is to make you aware of F# support in Silverlight in Visual Studio 2010.  In addition, this blog post shows an example why F# is going to be very important for Silverlight architects and developers.  Note:  This is NOT an intro to F#.

Demo and Visual Studio 2010 source code are provided with this article.

In Visual Studio 2010, F# is a first-class language.  Over the last several months, the language has been "productized."  It is officially part of the Visual Studio 2010 ecosystem (tools and .NET 4.0 framework).  However, F# is not limited to the full .NET framework; it is also available in the Silverlight runtime.  This is really exciting as this allows you to take advantage of functional programming features in Silverlight.

 

In Visual Studio 2010, the "F# Silverlight Library" project is natively supported.

 

Silverlight 3 application that includes an F# assembly.

  

Why should I care about F# in Silverlight?

Most C# developers/architects who do not have experience with functional programming language features could assume that F# is another language like Visual Basic, J# or C++.  It would be wrong to compare F# to any of these languages (including C#).  As a functional language, F# allows developers to design software using the functional paradigm.  What does that mean?  This means functional patterns such as interactive programming, pattern matching, immutable data types, type inference, lambda expressions, workflows, higher-order functions, discriminated unions, etc., are all included in F#.  While taking advantage of these features, a developer using F# can use the type system, implement object-oriented design and make use of the .NET classes.  This makes F# a very unique language that combines all the features of a first-class .NET language (i.e., C#) and a professional functional language.

Note: F# compiles to IL just like any other .NET language.  However, F# has been designed from the ground up over the last couple of years.  Therefore, the IL it generates has been optimized and many new language optimization features have been implemented.  For example, you may have seen blog posts that compare C# and F# syntax that shows F# compiling into cleaner IL and faster code.  Conversely, C#'s core functionality has not been redesigned in about a decade (C#/.NET has been extended with functional features such as type inference, extension methods, lambdas, AST, LINQ, etc.)

 

Show me some code that proves how F# can add value to Silverlight

This short blog post is not meant to be an F# introduction (Please see links below for intro material).  However, I did want to pick at least one compelling feature that really shows off the power and functional brevity of F# married with Silverlight functionality.  The feature that I decided to show off in a Silverlight F# module is a concurrent programming pattern.

If you do not already know, Silverlight supports distributing logic up to eight processor cores (This frustrates me that Microsoft doesn't adverstise this enough). In my opinion, concurrent programming is THE biggest feature of Silverlight over other RIA technologies (i.e., Flash, JavaFX).  However, implementing asynchronous patterns in Silverlight is not trivial.  The callback pattern is messy and leads to a lot of code.  Silverlight runs in an STA mode and requires UI elements to only be modified by the main thread (dispatching or synchronization).  Even asynchronous constructs like the BackgroundWorker that are supposed to make concurrent programming simple lead to many messy lines of code with events.  Wouldn't it be great to get the benefit of asynchronous programming without having to write many lines of additional code?

One of the fantastic features of F# is that the default type immutability and functional design allows the language to express the desired result declaratively.  This means you write F# syntax by telling the program what you want it to do rather than how to do it.  For example, if you are using constructs that use secondary threads and allocate code to these threads, then you are writing imperative code.  A lot of lines of code are wasted telling the code how we want it to behave.  Wouldn't it be better to define pieces of logic and simply say that we want them to execute in parallel?  Functional declarative code in F# can do exactly that.  F# includes a feature called asynchronous workflows that allow you to write logic by composition with the aim to be executed in parallel.

Initial Steps

  • I created a simple Silverlight application.
  • I added an "F# Silverlight Library" project
  • In the F# assembly, I added an F# code file called ConcurrencyTest.fs.
  • I created an F# function called addNumbers that takes two parameter:
    • The first parameter is an accumulator that is the existing sum in the running sequence (This will be passed by the reduce sequence function).
    • The second parameter is the number in the sequence we want to add.
  • I created an F# function called squareNumber that takes two parameters:
    • The first parameter is an accumulator that is the existing square sum in the running sequence (This will be passed by the reduce sequence function).
    • The second parameter is the number in the sequence we want to square.
  • I created an F# function (equivelant to a C# method) that takes no input parameters named PerformTwoLongRunningTasks:
    • Inside that function, I defined two tasks that use the addNumbers and squareNumber functions to add the numbers across a sequence of numbers from 0 to 10,000,000
    • The PerformTwoLongRunningTasks function returns an array of 64-bit integers.  The array of 64-bit integers are the results of the two aggregates functions.
    • The first function returns the sum of the numbers.  The second function returns the square of the numbers.

The F# static method/function is shown below (Some familiarity with F# is required to understand what is going on, but I commented on the code for those unfamiliar with F#):


Now that we have this function (static method) defined in our F# library, it is ready to be used.  In the Silverlight application, we can add a reference to the F# library and then we can call the function (static method) as shown below in our C# Silverlight MainPage class.  Note that below we are calling the function just like we would call a static method with the [Name of Class].[Name of public function].  Notice also that because F# uses the base .NET type system, the returned array of integers does not need special casting/marshalling to C#.

Parallizing the Tasks

Now it is time to parallize the two tasks and scale it across multiple logical/physical processor cores.  As mentioned earlier, we are going to accomplish this with asynchronous workflows. In the figure below, I highlighted the changes to the function and it now scales across multiple cores.  This was done in two steps:

  • Wrap the body of the member functions with the async {... } syntax.
    • Add a return keyword (This signifies the return parameter/completion of the body).
    • The body of the function Seq.reduce addNumbers {0L..10000000L} now becomes async { return Seq.reduce addNumbers {0L..10000000L} }.
  • The main function (PerformTwoLongRunningTasks) now returns an array of async tasks.  These can be thought of delegates that need an Invoke-type command to execute them.  We simply change let results = [| task1; task2 |] to let results = Async.RunSynchronously (Async.Parallel [ task1; task2 ]).
    • All this does is tells the F# compiler to parallize these tasks.  However, run the result synchronously.  Therefore, the code returns to the main thread and we do not need dispatching/synchornization, etc.  This is analogous to creating a wait event in C# and having the two pieces of logic scheduled on secondary threads and waiting for this process to come back.


Asynchronous workflows allowed us to simply wrap the tasks as an "async function" declaratively.  This is a very important distinction as we just declared the logic and told it we want this to run in parallel.  Notice we didn't tell it "how to run in parallel" (imperative code).  Therefore, we did not have to:

  • explicitly start, stop threads (i.e., Thread.Start)
  • use BackgroundWorker
  • use callbacks (AsyncCallBack)
  • use BeginExecute asynchronous pattern

We simply told the code we want the tasks distributed among multiple cores and let the F# compiler figure out the hard part and generate the IL.  This is really powerful and in the very near future of "declarative parallel processing".  This is an example of what I mentioned earlier that the F# compiler has been designed recently and can include this type of "magic" right in the language.  C# does not have this feature and needs to be extended to provide this kind of automation.


Can't I do this with PLINQ?

Those familiar with the Parallel Extensions Libraries that will be added to .NET 4.0 might be aware that LINQ has been extended with parallelism features.  This allows you to extend your existing LINQ queries with parallism features.  This is known as PLINQ (parallel LINQ).  For example, a screen shot below shows a LINQ query that can be easily parallized by simply adding the AsParallel() extension method.

Unfortunately, the Parallel Extensions Library will NOT be available for Silverlight for the Visual Studio 2010 release.  However, I think that there is a good chance future versions of Silverlight will eventually get this feature.  There are some big features in the Silverlight assemblies that are simply missing and need to be added before features like PLINQ can be added.  This is exactly where asynchronous workflows can be substituted for PLINQ in a Silverlight application.  If you are working with large data sets, complex math computations, AI for a game, etc., parallelizing your code in F# libraries makes pefect sense for a Silverlight application.  This is MUCH easier than writing your own imperative multithreaded code.

How about the Performance?

I extended the functions and created functions for two, four and eight tasks and put this in a Silverlight application.  On my workstation (four cores), there was about a 50% improvement by parallelizing the two tasks.  With four tasks, the improvement in performance was about 3.5x.  As you can see, asynchronous workflows can easily dramatically improve the performance of your code on the Silverlight client.

Click the picture below to launch the demo application

 

Getting started with F#

Information on F# has been around for several years.  There are many articles, white papers, and books on F#.  However, you do have to be careful and get content that is recent and relative to the current F# release.  The F# specification has changed dramatically over the last several months as the language was being "productized" and many methods/functions simply don't exist in F# anymore.   Below are some links I put together where to get started.

Videos

  • Getting Started with F# - This video (from the 2008 PDC) is the place to start if you have zero F# experience and/or if you want a really good introduction into functional programming and some F# examples.

Books (I have read four different F# books and the two below are by far the best ones and most current.  Don Syme's F# book is good but a little outdated.)

Websites

  • http://www.fsharp.net/- This the main Microsoft F# page.  Includes numerours links, downloads for Visual Studio, F# extensions, etc.
  • Don Syme's blog - Don Syme is one of the main "creators" of F#.  His blog is a must read to get insight into advanced topics and upcoming F# news.

 

I hope this post gets Silverlight architects/developers exited about upcoming F# support.  F# is another tool that software architects can use that helps them create better software.  Furthermore, F# suport is another example of Microsoft's ability to integrate the Silverlight runtime across the .NET development stack.

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Posted: Nov 04 2009, 16:16 by Bart Czernicki | Comments (0) RSS comment feed |
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