Developer .NET UPDATE, February 25, 2003

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February 25, 2003--In this issue:


  • Detecting Changes in Application Configuration Settings


  • Our Active Directory Web Seminar Is in Just 3 Weeks!
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  • Find Framework Applications' Coding Problems


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(contributed by Robin Sanner, [email protected])


  • Last week, I discussed the common ways to store an application's custom configuration settings, including using the Windows .NET Framework's .config files. I also began to discuss the contents and functionality of .config files.

    No matter where you store your application's configuration settings, sooner or later you'll need to retrieve them. In addition, sometimes you'll need to detect changes to the configuration settings as the application is running. Let's look at how you can retrieve configuration settings and how you can dynamically detect changes in those settings.

    Retrieving Application Settings

    To retrieve configuration settings from your application, you can use the System.Configuration.AppSettingsReader object. Although this object has many methods, only one--the GetValue method--isn't inherited from the System.Object class. The GetValue method retrieves the value of the specified key from the <appSettings> configuration section of the executing assembly.

    The first parameter of the GetValue method is the name of the configuration setting found in the key attribute of the XML <add> node. The second parameter is the expected System.Type class (i.e., the data type) of the value stored in the value attribute of the <add> node. For example, to retrieve the value for the connectionString key, which you expect to be a String data type (i.e., the System.String class), you can use the following Visual C# .NET code:

    using System.Configuration;
    AppSettingsReader reader = new AppSettingsReader();
    string conn = (string)reader.GetValue("connectionString",


    Note that although you specify the data type you want returned, the GetValue method returns a System.Object. Thus, you have to cast the returned value into the data type you want. For example, in the above code, the "(string)" cast operator casts the value that reader.GetValue returns into a String data type.

    If the specified key doesn't exist or the specified data-type class can't parse the actual value, the GetValue method returns the value InvalidOperationException. Note that I said "parse." The specified data type's Parse method parses the value stored in the value attribute. Keep this point in mind when you set values in the <appSettings> section. The results aren't always what you expect. For example, one result that surprised me was that the Int32.Parse method (the parse method for the "32-bit signed integer" data type) wouldn't parse an empty string as zero. To account for missing or invalid values, you need to handle the InvalidOperationException value accordingly. This way, if a problem exists with the default values or if the .config file is deleted or corrupted, you can still restart your application and rebuild the appropriate defaults in the file.

    An advantage to using the AppSettingsReader object is that you don't need to be concerned with the .config file's name or location. Internally, the AppSettingsReader object figures that out for you.

    Dynamically Detecting Changes

    In non-Framework applications, a common way to dynamically detect changes in configuration settings is to poll at periodic intervals and refresh the settings at each poll interval. However, this practice isn't without problems. If you poll too much, the application's (and possibly the system's) performance declines. If you poll too little, the latency period between when the configuration parameter changed and when the change is actually implemented can cause the application to malfunction.

    If the configuration settings are in the registry or an .ini file, you can use the Win32 API as an alternative to polling. You use the Win32 API's RegNotifyChangeKeyValue function if the settings are in the registry. You use the Win32 API's FindFirstChangeNotification function if the settings are in an .ini file. These functions let you set up a change-notification handle that you wait on. When a change in a configuration setting occurs, the functions return a handle to a "find change notification" object. As you can see, the Win32 API approach is simple--no polling threads and no performance penalties.

    Unfortunately, detecting changes in Framework applications isn't as easy as detecting changes in non-Framework applications because the Framework doesn't include the entire Win32 API set. In particular, the Framework doesn't include the RegNotifyChangeKeyValue function. Thus, if you store an application's configuration settings in the registry, you must make a Platform Invoke (P/Invoke) call against the Win32 API to use the RegNotifyChangeKeyValue function. You also need to make P/Invoke calls if you want to use other supporting functions, such as RegOpenKey and RegCloseKey. Thankfully, the Framework includes the Win32 API functions that deal with file changes. As a result, you can use the FindFirstChangeNotification function directly (i.e., no P/Invoke calls) to dynamically detect changes in .ini files.

    A disadvantage of detecting configuration-setting changes in .config files is that you can't use the AppSettingsReader object. This object doesn't read values from the .config file. When an application first starts, it caches the contents of the .config file; the AppSettingsReader object reads those cached values. So, you must use the System.IO.FileSystemWatcher object to detect changes in a .config file. The FileSystemWatcher object's NotifyFilter property lets you specify the types of changes to watch for. For example, if you want to watch for changes to the last time the file was accessed and written to, you use the LastAccess and LastWrite filters, respectively.

    Because a .config file includes many configuration sections, when the FileSystemWatcher object detects a change, you don't know whether the change occurred in the <appSettings> section or another section. Or maybe someone just loaded and saved the file and the file's contents didn't change. This situation points out another difficulty when trying to detect changes in .config files: The detection of changes is at the file level rather than the setting level. In fact, if you configure the FileSystemWatcher object to monitor LastWrite, you'll get two notifications for every file change presumably because the file system applies your change, then updates the file's attributes to reflect when the file changed. If you want to detect which setting changed, you need to load the initial values from the <appSettings> section into an XML document and perform a search in which you compare the section's current values against stored values. By creating a separate object that loads the application's configuration settings into an XML document, you can have the object fire a different event for each value changed. Here's some sample code that loads and stores values from the <appSettings> section into an XML document:

    string filename =

    FileInfo fileInfo = new FileInfo(fileName);

    XmlDocument xmlDocument = new XmlDocument();
    XmlNamespaceManager nsMgr = new

    XmlNode appSettingsRoot =
    XmlNode xmlNode = null;

    string searchString = string.Format("add\[@key='\{0\}'\]", key);
    xmlNode = appSettingsRoot.SelectSingleNode(searchString);
    XmlNode xmlValue = xmlNode.Attributes.GetNamedItem("value");

    Note the way the first block of code obtains the information necessary to locate the .config file--that's all the code you need to use to locate any .config file. You then use the System.Xml.XmlDocument class to create an XML document and use the class's Load method to load the .config file's contents into the XML document. Next, you use XML Path Language (XPath) functions to find the <appSettings> node and retrieve the values you need.

    You need to repeat the last block of code for each value you want to retrieve from the .config file. Each time, you must set the "key" variable specified in the second parameter of the string.Format function. That's all you have to modify in that code block for each value you want to retrieve from the configuration file. If you expect the configuration setting to be something other than a string, you need to use the System.Convert class object or the data type's Parse method to convert the incoming string.

    Finally, you need to add code that checks whether xmlNode and xmlValue come back null. If xmlNode is null, the specified configuration setting wasn't found. If xmlValue is null, that particular configuration setting is corrupted because all configuration settings in the <appSettings> section should consist of an <add> node with two attributes (i.e., key and value). If you want to implement default values for a specific setting, you can simply store them as constants in the code. Then, if xmlNode is null for that particular setting, the default constant value will be returned instead. You might also go so far as to update the XML code by adding the configuration node with the default value set. If no default value exists, you can then throw the appropriate exception to explain what went wrong. What exception you throw depends on what's missing, but you can always default to throwing a System.ApplicationException exception.

    If you're using .config files to store your application's configuration settings, here's the bottom line: If you don't care about changes to the configuration settings as the application is running, you can use the AppSettingsReader object. If you need to detect configuration changes while the application is running, you need to use the FileSystemWatcher object to watch for file changes to the .config file. When a change occurs, you need to load the .config file's contents into an XML document and search for the value that changed.


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