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The Trek of the Wildebeest

Developers are migratory, herding animals. As new programming techniques, languages and paradigms emerge, we flock to new pastures and we eat and we eat and we eat … If you are in the DNN eco system you are led by Microsoft and DNN Corp. Meaning: if one of the two decides that we should do things differently, chances are you’ll move along with the rest. But as we move on we leave behind existing projects and customers. Generally they move a lot slower. Hands up those who still know someone on Windows XP! End users are not part of this herd. They live in a parallel universe from ours.

Over the past few years, however, we’ve seen Microsoft move to a place we couldn’t follow. I’m referring to their mothballing of Web Forms. Web Forms was their way to bring swathes of developers over from Windows Forms and VB 6 to ASP.NET back in 2001. But for years, now, Microsoft has ceased to put much effort into improving it. Either because they figured “it was done” or because they felt it was a dead end. Now there are many in the herd that are screaming it was the latter. It’s a dead end! We’re doomed! And rightly so the rest feels alarmed. In part the alarmists are corroborated by the developments around ASP.NET vNext. No Web Forms. It’s over. If you want Web Forms stay where you were but don’t come over here with the rest of us.

DNN is totally built on Web Forms. Arguably it is the most successful CMS based on this technology and has taken it to near perfection. But that accounts to naught if the rug is pulled from under us by Microsoft. So in 2015 we find ourselves at a cross roads. We have a pretty damn good web application framework that works on technology that is being sunset. So in that sense the alarmists are right. But I want to take a step back and make sense of this.

What is clearly crystallizing in the DNN community, in my opinion, is a division between those that favor a complete overhaul of the platform versus those that wish to keep it as it is and only slowly introduce new technologies as they appear. Let’s call them the progressives and the conservatives. The progressives want to move today rather than tomorrow to MVC. They’d like to get rid of obsolete or undesirable parts of the framework. Maybe even a complete rewrite. The conservatives fear that any breakage will lead to significant erosion of the ecosystem. They claim the end user doesn’t give a hoot *how* it’s built as long as it *works*. Obviously there is merit in each point of view. And it’s equally obvious that Microsoft’s actions have led to a situation where there is probably little to no middle ground.

The progressives claim Web Forms is dead. Well, it is not dead, obviously. Many many servers around the world still run Web Forms applications. So that claim you should take at face value. It risks becoming as dead as say classic ASP. You can still run ASP web sites today on Microsoft’s latest servers. And that technology is substantially older than Web Forms. So why the panic?

The one argument I feel justifies a little anxiety is that obsolete technologies can suddenly fail and you’re left without a path forward. As an example I’ll take WebDAV. I know quite a bit about this protocol and when you have it working it is pretty neat. But it is old and very much a niche technology. Recently Microsoft made a change in IE which broke one particular functionality with regards to WebDAV. But because the community of users has become very small, this fact will not lead to a flurry of forum posts and support calls. So Microsoft offers no solution and carries on with business as usual. So keeping something alive that is built on an underlying technology that is no longer actively maintained has this as a danger.

So to assess the real danger we must estimate how large of a community we are. I.e. are there enough Web Forms sites out there to make it a public relationship disaster for Microsoft if they accidentally kill all those sites? And to that I’d say “yes”. No reason to panic. Not while so many sites are running on Web Forms and so many web development companies are vested in creating more of them.

But the progressives are right that we need to think about where we should go and how we get there. That we cannot stay on Web Forms forever. And there is another good argument to be made here: vNext is still in its infancy. There is no CMS built on top of it AFAIK. So there is an opportunity to migrate there and plant our flag. We have a lot of knowledge and a vast customer base. It’d be foolish to ignore this.

Given that there is no middle ground as I mentioned before (i.e. if you want to be on vNext you need to completely abandon Web Forms) we need to entertain the thought of a fork. One path will continue the Web Forms version of the platform the other will rip out everything Web Forms and aim to run on the new Core CLR. It looks like this is where we’ll be heading with the DNN Platform. But it is still early days. ASP.NET vNext was launched a few weeks ago and from everything I’ve seen and heard, it is not considered “done”. Rather, Microsoft has invited users to suggest where it should go. I fear that that kind of uncertainty is not very helpful for the fork that will be built on top of it. There are currently so many moving parts that are still under development that it is probably unwise to rush into this. If you’re already doing MVC and are frustrated DNN is not MVC: version 7.5 will include support for MVC modules so you can program using this paradigm.

The take away from all this should be: don’t panic and don’t think we’re sitting on our hands. It is a massive undertaking to migrate the whole herd over to where Microsoft has pointed us. But there is no rush. No imminent threat that we will be faced with broken sites any time soon. DNN 7 is an awesome platform to build websites with and you should continue to do so knowing that others are working behind the scenes to make sense of where the ASP.NET herd is going and how we will get you there.

Mitchel Sellers
  Awesome writeup! I couldn't agree more! We are at a crossroads, but it is too early to determine which side, or which path is going to be the future.
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Philipp Becker
  It's that last sentence that disturbs me most and therefore makes me sort of not so much interested in that new thing.
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Peter Donker
Peter Donker  That's an issue of trust. And I know that is in short supply right now. Let's see if they/we can get this right and we'll rebuild some of that.
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Chris Wylie
Chris Wylie  Hi Peter, Thank you for the bigger picture. DNN has announced that version 8.x will be released in Q3 of 2015 and run on 5.0. Questions: - Does this mean that DNN 8.x will NOT support web forms? - Do you know how long DNN 7.x will be maintained and updated concurrent to 8.x? Thanks, Chris
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Peter Donker
Peter Donker  The idea is that DNN 8 will be fully vNext .net Core compliant. That means no Web Forms. But like I said above ... it is very hard to see clearly in the crystal ball. We're talking about ambition levels here. This is not cast in stone I think.
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Peter Donker
Peter Donker  I'm also of the opinion that the old platform will need to be maintained for a considerable amount of time. I'm thinking years. Lots of them. I don't see that as the biggest challenge, though. Rather as an opportunity. Maybe it will be just fine to refine and stabilise DNN 7.5 for many years. I.e. no new features, just ironing out bugs.
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