Ready for Southwest Fox 2009

I don’t know about you, but for me, this has been a stressful year.  The economic situation has had some effect financially, but even more than that, I noticed our users are under more pressure than before.  In turn, they are more demanding of us, which equals more stress.  After a long day of work, the last thing I feel like doing is writing code.  My Fox tank is on empty and there hasn’t been activity lately here or on the FoxTabs project.

So, I was pleasantly surprised to find out my boss is sending me to the Southwest Fox conference.  I didn’t expect to go this year, and I’m really looking forward to it.  It gives me a boost every time, and this year looks to be no exception.  As usual, there are so many good sessions and speakers, I can’t possibly see every session I want, but that’s a good problem.

My first conference was the 2001 Advisor DevCon in San Diego.  One thing I liked about that conference were the many sessions on architectural subjects like OOP, n-Tier, Design Patterns, Refactoring, etc.  I had a lot of “aha” moments at that DevCon.  Since then, the focus turned to .NET, especially at the Advisor conferences, and I put “Need More OOP” on the conference eval ever year.  This year, not a problem.  There are sessions on refactoring, data-driven architecture, business objects, and advanced OOP design.  Let the noodle baking commence!

My Fox tank is refilling already. 🙂

www.swfox.net

The End of 16-bit

As you may have heard, 16-bit applications do not run on 64-bit versions of Windows.  The translation for Fox developers is that neither the DOS nor Windows versions of FoxPro 2.x (and earlier) will run on Windows Vista x64.  In fact, DOS does not exist at all under 64-bit.  Select Start->Run, enter command on Vista 32-bit, and you are greeted with a “Microsoft Windows DOS” command window.  Do the same on Vista 64-bit and you’ll get an error that it does not exist.  (NOTE: cmdis the Windows command-line and it still works, and though similar to DOS, it is not.)  Microsoft’s ability to claim “VisiCalc still runs” is coming to a close.So what?  There’s not any demand for 64-bit on the desktop, and certainly not like there was for 32-bit.  That’s true from a software point of view, but looking at hardware, any new computer with 4GB or more of RAM is going to ship with Vista x64, and that is becoming more commonplace.  By this time next year, the default installation for most new computers may be Windows 7 x64, and you’ll have to request 32-bit.

The obvious solution is to do just that and buy 32-bit Windows.  Of course, you aren’t going to receive a call from your client until after they buy the machine, and wiping the machine may not be a good option.  You could use Virtual PC or other virtualization software to install 32-bit Windows on top of the x64 version and run the app inside that environment indefinitely.  I think that will be a common choice.  If you’re lucky, maybe the client will realize it’s finally time to get off of DOS/Windows 3.x and upgrade the app.  Unless a complete rewrite is in order, the easiest and cheapest path will be to use VFP 9, which works just fine on 64-bit Windows.

Can we use the lifetime of 16-bit computing to predict the lifetime of 32-bit?  Not really, but let’s do it anyway :).  It’s hard to pinpoint the “beginning” of 16-bit, but let’s go with the dawn of the IBM PC in 1980.  32-bit computing clearly became mainstream with the release of Windows 95.  In 2010, whether or not 64-bit will be considered “mainstream” is debatable, but it certainly presents a problem for 16-bit apps.  With that in mind, it appears that desktop computing shifts to the next level roughly every 15 years.  Again, this is just conjecture, but if that pattern holds true, 32-bit Windows apps (like those written in VFP) would continue to function until 2025.  Virtualization may extend that further.  That doesn’t mean they will be acceptable in the marketplace, any more than 16-bit apps are now, but they may at least still run.

The FoxTabs Challenge

 

The latest FoxRockX issue includes an article on FoxTabs by Rick Schummer. After months of neglect, that inspired me to get another release out, so you can now grab FoxTabs 0.9 beta from VFPX. My feeling is that FoxTabs is now “feature complete” for a 1.0 release, although I would not be surprised if there are a few more releases to shake out any remaining bugs. Please download the latest version and help us get to 1.0!

As Rick points out in the article, stability can be an issue, especially while testing your code in the ide. To that end, I added a pause button that removes all event bindings temporarily. If things get a little flaky during testing, or if you just don’t want to risk any interference from FoxTabs, press the pause button. When you’re done, press resume and you’re back in business.

Wikipedia says the following about observation:

One problem encountered throughout scientific fields is that the observation may affect the process being observed, resulting in a different outcome than if the process was unobserved.

Unfortunately, that can sometimes be the case with FoxTabs, making stability the number one challenge of this project. We have come a long way since the initial release of FoxTabs, but there is more work to do. Capturing and responding to the myriads of events flying around can sometimes cause unpredictable results.

This is compounded by the fact that the various VFP IDE windows are not exactly consistent in their behavior. For example, most IDE windows broadcast a WM_SETFOCUS message when activated, which FoxTabs uses to highlight the associated tab. But the Project Manager doesn’t send out a WM_SETFOCUS. Why not? I don’t know. Neither does the Properties window, but it’s different than the Project Manager, because each of its tabs sends out its own messages. I had to find the right combination of events and messages, so that FoxTabs responds consistently to all IDE windows. This can be frustrating, but it’s also interesting, because you get a tiny peek at what’s going on under the hood.

Of a more serious nature is when some amalgamation of events combined with FoxTabs produces unexpected results, or worse, a C5 crash. That’s when you get the sinking feeling that your productivity tool has just become an un-productivity tool. These can be difficult to track down.

A few months ago a developer reported crashes when opening the debugger. I was able to open the debugger without issue using set step on or a breakpoint. It took me a whole day, but I eventually traced this to the Call Stack window, which only caused a crash if you opened it after suspending a program. It was a very specific set of circumstances that led to the crash. Fortunately, I was able to find a workaround.

Another interesting case was fixed in the latest version. Opening the expression builder
using GetExpr() worked fine. However, if you opened it from the functions and expressions button in the view designer, boom! Fox crashed. I traced the problem to this code from the FoxTabs window event handler:

function wmeventhandler(hwnd as integer, msg as integer, wparam as integer, lparam as integer)

local oexception as exception
local lnreturn as integer
lnreturn = 0
***
black hole: hwnd and msg do not exist ***
…
* must pass the message on
lnreturn = callwindowproc(this.prevwndfunc, hwnd, msg, wparam, lparam)
return lnreturn

endfunc

Windows events pass four parameters to the event handler: hwnd, msg, wparam, and lparam. When opening the expression builder from the view designer, those variables don’t exist in the event handler. I don’t mean that they are not assigned a value, I mean that they do not exist! How is that possible given that the variables are clearly defined as parameters only a few lines earlier? It’s as if they were sucked into a black hole and out of existence. When you try to access the variables or pass the event on to its original destination (CallWindowProc), Fox crashes because nothing is there. It’s one of the strangest things I’ve seen in Fox. I was able to plug the hole by checking if the variables exist and simply returning if they do not. My hope is that this is the same hole causing other random C5 errors, and that those are now fixed.

So, yeah, there are some challenges, especially when you’re not a C/C++ programmer and you don’t deal with this kind of stuff every day. But I do have to say it is very satisfying to find solutions to these problems, and I learn a lot in the process. I guess this isn’t the best sales pitch
for using FoxTabs, but I think we’ll get there. I hope you give it a try and let us know how it works for you.

 

Credit Card Security

Credit card security is increasingly becoming an issue.  A couple of years ago, TJ Maxx reported theft of up to 45 million credit card numbers.  More recently, Heartland Payment Systems reported theft of 100 million numbers.  I used to think that stealing a credit card number would be relatively easy, but that purchasing something would lead the authorities right to the front door of the thief.  These days, it is a global problem, and criminals are finding ways to steal without getting caught.

I have a pretty good sense about these things, and in general, I stay out of trouble.  I avoid suspicious downloads, and I only purchase from sites I trust.  In over 20 years of computing, I can count on one hand the number of times I have been infected by a virus, yet in the past 3 months, I have had two fraudulent charges on two different cards.  Google found quite a few instances of other people receiving the same charges I did, and at the same time.  The image of some script kiddie in Nigeria doing this stuff has been erased.  These guys are sophisticated and organized.

It’s no surprise then that credit card companies are clamping down on security requirements for their merchants and software vendors.  We were in the process of adding credit card processing to our application, when our processing partner told us we would have to become PCI PA-DSS compliant.  Evidently, any application that “stores, processes, or transmits” credit card data must go through the compliance process.  That can cost up to $30,000 for the initial review, plus annual costs to keep it current.  The processor offered to walk us through the process and cut our costs to around $15,000.  Um… thanks, but no thanks.  I told them one reason we choose a partner like them is so we don’t have to go through crap like this, but they weren’t able to offer another solution.  Fortunately, we were able to find another partner (X-charge) that integrates with our app in a way that it never has to see a credit card number.  Problem solved.  If your app or web site collects or processes credit card info, chances are PCI will be knocking on your door.

VARIANTs on Fox

As I mentioned previously, I have been experimenting with integrating our application with Maximizer CRM.  Working with their SDK, it doesn’t take long to figure out that the com interfaces were designed with VB and C++ programmers in mind.  Most of it works with VFP, but there are a few exceptions.  I ran into a problem with an interface that accepts a variant variable by reference.  I was surprised to find out that Fox can’t create a variant.

Shirley I can’t be serious?  Everyone knows that all variables in Fox are variants.  While that may be true, Fox can’t create a variable of type variant that can be passed to com components.  Fox always assigns a type to a variable.  Even a simple local myvariable statement creates a logical variable.  Attempting to pass the variable by reference to a com component may result in a “type mismatch” error.

This isn’t entirely Fox’s fault.  After all, should a COM component assume that the calling environment can create a variant?  Microsoft concedes this is a problem in C++ with MFC components and recommends using ATL instead (see link below).

So, what can you do if you run into this situation?  Ideally, the COM interface would be changed not to use variants, but I doubt Maximizer will change their interfaces, in place for years, just so I can use VFP.  VB does allow you to create variables of type variant, so I created a VB wrapper component.  VFP passes a string to the VB component, the VB component converts that to a variant and passes it to the Maximizer component.  It’s not an ideal solution, but it works.

Prb: ActiveX controls passing variant* back to VFP cause error

VFPS: Visual FoxPro Stack

UPDATE: This article is now online for free at http://www.foxrockx.com/seite.htm.
——————-
The January 2009 issue of FoxRockX begins with an article by Ken Levy called “Visual FoxPro Stack”:

“VFPS is a Visual FoxPro Stack, an acronym used to define the key software components making up the Visual FoxPro platform and ecosystem. As a starting point, below is a list of components that comprise VFPS:  Visual FoxPro 9.0, Sedna and XSource, VFPX, VFPY. Also included are VFP 3rd Party products including tools related to .NET for Visual FoxPro such as VFP Studio, Guineu, .NET Extender for VFP, VFPCompiler for .NET, and VFPConversion.

These components represent the future of FoxPro development.  I guess I’ve considered VFPX to be the main effort in that regard, but these other third-party products should not be ignored, as many may find themselves working with them.  Besides, VFPX is primarily an effort for developers, wherease VFPS is aimed at business decision makers.  Ken compares it to LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) as a marketing moniker and adds the following:

“Having an umbrella stack for evolving VFP community components adds awareness and enhanced branding…  While there will not be a VFP 10.0, there is great benefit from enhancing the mindset and perception by referring to VFPS as the latest bundle of VFP related components. This branding will often target businesses and decision makers of VFP based application development.”

Hopefully, they will put the entire article online for all to see.  I recommend subscribing to FoxRockX.  It will be interesting to see how this all develops.

VFPS Home Page (Fox Wiki)

DAO does VFP data natively

I ran across something interesting (albeit of limited use) recently.  We are considering integrating Maximizer CRM with our software, and I’ve been doing some proof-of-concept work along those lines.  One thing about CRM software creators is they know they won’t be replacing your core line of business applications, so they make sure there are plenty of ways to integrate with those apps.  Maximizer is no exception, and being around for quite a few years now, it includes some old-school (but new to me) integration techniques.

The first thing I wanted to do was import some Fox data into Maximizer.  While older products often included native support for dbase and FoxPro 2.x tables, virtually no products supported Visual FoxPro natively, so I was surprised to see FoxPro 3.0 in the list.  I use VFP 9.0, but I haven’t made use of any of the new database features added in versions 7.0 – 9.0.  So, I gave it a try and it worked like a charm.  “Wow, that was easy”, I thought, “I wish Microsoft products supported their own database this well.”

Well, it turns out, they used to.  To my surprise, this all led me to the fact that DAO 3.5 had native support for Visual FoxPro tables.  DAO (data access objects) was Microsoft’s data technology that preceded ado (ActiveX data objects) and was popular with access and VB developers at the time.  It is now deprecated, but some access developers still favor it over newer technologies.  It has been my assumption that Microsoft access got its name because it could “access” multiple databases in addition to its own jet database.  It has done this by means of “ISAM filters” for other databases, including FoxPro.  DAO 3.5 included a filter for Visual FoxPro.

Eventually, ado came along and superseded DAO as the recommended way to access data.  The ISAM filters became part of the Microsoft jet 4.0 engine, but the FoxPro filters were no longer included in the package.  WTF?  Yet another slight against our beloved Fox?  Perhaps, but also consider this: the ISAM filters suck.  While I am sure they work fine for FoxPro 2.x data, the VFP filters are limited and give you read-only access to data.  Compared to the FoxPro ODBC drivers, which give full read/write access as well as much improved performance, it became apparent that ODBC was the preferred way to access FoxPro data and I assume that’s why the ISAM filters were removed.

While I would never recommend DAO for new development, we often find ourselves working with older systems and technology.  It’s interesting what you run across.

Resources:

 

C# 4.0 Gets dynamic

I’ve been watching some of the PDC 2008 videos online.  One of the highlights is The Future of C# by Anders Hejlsberg, and I highly recommend it to anyone that’s interested in .NET.  Most of the session focuses on the dynamic capabilities that are coming to C# 4.0.  The .NET Common Language Runtime (CLR) was built primarily with static typing (aka “strong typing”) in mind, in which every variable must be explicitly declared and assigned a type (string, integer, etc.).  Microsoft recently built the Dynamic Language Runtime (DLR) to support dynamic (non-static) languages, such as Python and Ruby, and they are using the DLR to bring some dynamic features to C#.

To you strong-typing zealots, there’s no need to be alarmed.  C# is not transforming itself from a static to a dynamic language.  There is a gap between static and dynamic languages, and the focus is on closing that gap and improving the interaction.  It just so happens that FoxPro is a dynamic language…

To illustrate the problem, here is a simple VFP class I wrote that finds a customer and creates an object for the customer using Scatter:

Define Class Customers As Session OlePublic

oCustomer = NULL

Procedure GetCustomer(lcCustomerID As String)
Local loCustomer

If !Used("Customers")
 Select 0
 Use (Home(2) + "Northwind\Customers")
Else
 Select Customers
EndIf
Locate For CustomerID = lcCustomerID
Scatter Name This.oCustomer Memo

EndProc

Procedure Destroy

Use In Select("Customers")

Endproc

Enddefine

I compiled the class into a COM DLL and imported it into my C# project.  (For more on that, see Rick Strahl’s article: .NET Interop for VFP Applications.)  Since This.oCustomer is created dynamically at runtime, FoxPro cannot include it in the type library.  Therefore, to access any properties of the oCustomer in C#, you have to use “reflection”.  Here’s the C# code:

string CustomerID = "ALFKI";
netcomtest.Customers oCustomers = new netcomtest.Customers();

oCustomers.GetCustomer(CustomerID);
object oCust = oCustomers.OCUSTOMER;
//use reflection to access object properties
object CompanyName = oCust.GetType().InvokeMember("COMPANYNAME", BindingFlags.GetProperty, null, oCust, null);
object ContactName = oCust.GetType().InvokeMember("CONTACTNAME", BindingFlags.GetProperty, null, oCust, null);
//display company and contact name
MessageBox.Show(CompanyName.ToString() + ContactName.ToString());

What a mess!  If I wanted to access all of the properties on the object, this would get very tedious.  C# 4.0 makes the process easier by introducing a new “dynamic” type.  This tells C# to resolve the type of the variable at runtime (just like Fox would), rather than at compile time.  If I understand Anders correctly, here’s what the new code should look like :

string CustomerID = "ALFKI";
netcomtest.Customers oCustomers = new netcomtest.Customers();

oCustomers.GetCustomer(CustomerID);
//create dynamic reference to object
dynamic oCust = oCustomers.OCUSTOMER;
//display company and contact name
MessageBox.Show(oCust.CompanyName + oCust.ContactName);

Now, isn’t that better?  I can actually understand this code.  I can access all the properties of oCust directly, just like I would in FoxPro.  It’s nice to see that COM Interop is one of the things that Microsoft is still improving.

Anders also showed some things they are working on beyond C# 4.0.  Fast forward to the 60 minute mark in the video to see the cutting-edge stuff they are working on.  In short, they are rewriting the compiler, so they can do stuff like put code into a string variable and evaluate/execute it at runtime.  Fantastic!  Anders took it a step further and showed C# commands being executed as he entered them into a window.  Unbelievable!  It’s amazing what they can do these days!  Seriously, should you find yourself working with C# in the future, it will be nice to have some capabilities we’ve grown to love in VFP.

Grid Header Checkbox

Here’s a little goodie for readers of my blog.  I have several grids that contain a checkbox column to select items in the grid.  I wanted an easy, consistent way to select/deselect all checkboxes in the column, so I created a custom grid header class to do that.  hdrCheckBox.zip is attached (Download).

I initially tried to use a standard checkbox.  VFP doesn’t let you put a control inside a header, so I tried to overlay it on the grid.  That turned out to be too flaky and limited, so I opted to use pictures of a checked and unchecked box, which VFP does do.  The only downside is that the checkbox is a themed control, and Windows XP checkboxes may look slightly different than pictures of the Windows Vista checkboxes I used.  Still, I think the checkbox will look good in any theme.

Another limitation is that the header cannot receive focus like a real checkbox, so no keyboard support.  To get around that, the header Click() is performed when the user presses “A” while the grid column has focus.  I actually tried to use Ctrl+A, but KeyPress() would not detect that combination, I assume because it’s already assigned to the Edit menu.

To make sure the user would know that they could check the box, I put a tooltip on the grid header.  Header tooltips don’t work in VFP9 SP2, so I had to put some workaround code in the class to make the grid tooltip appear.  Hopefully, Microsoft will eventually release a fix for this, but I’m not holding my breath.

To use the class:

  • Change the column HeaderClass to hdrCheckBox in hdrCheckBox.prg.  You may already be done.
  • If you want the box to be checked initially, change the Value property to .T.  Even though this is a PRG-based class, you can use the property sheet and override methods on the form just like you would with any class.  NOTE: Setting this initial value will not check all the boxes in the grid.  You will need to do that in the Grid.RecordSource query.
  • If you want to change the header checkbox back to its original value (for example, if you requery the grid), then call the Reset() method on the class.
  • Another VFP9 SP2 bug!  If you open this form from the menu, you have to use the menu “Procedure” to open the form instead of “Command”.  Otherwise, VFP9 will crash when you open the form.  See Emerson Reed’s blog entry for more info.

Here are the requirements to use the class (which, of course, you could change):

  • Grid.RecordSource is required.
  • Column.ControlSource is required.
  • The column field must be a logical field.
  • Column.CurrentControl must be a checkbox.

Disclaimer: This code is provided AS-IS.  If it doesn’t work for you, fix it!

Head in the Cloud

With Microsoft’s unveiling of Windows Azure at the PDC last week, I’ve been trying to get my head around exactly what Azure is, or more specifically, why this “cloud computing” thing is so important to Microsoft. What is cloud computing? Heck, what is the “cloud”? According to Wikipedia:

The cloud is a metaphor for the Internet (based on how it is depicted in computer network diagrams) and is an abstraction for the complex infrastructure it conceals.

Ok, so the cloud is the Internet. Why not just call it the Internet? Evidently, it’s a more abstract, architectural way of looking at the Internet that’s not concerned with all the hardware and network protocols under the hood. You connect a router to the “Internet”. You put a service in the “cloud”. Indeed, when talking about cloud computing, people often refer to delivering “software as a service” or “software + services”. It’s broader than that and actually has been around for a while, so what’s the big deal? “Cloud computing” is a buzz-word, to be sure; a repackaging of existing concepts and sold as something new. In this case, the packaging could provide some benefits.

So, what is Windows Azure then? First of all, let’s state the obvious: this is web hosting from Microsoft. When it comes to hosting, you have a couple of options: inexpensive shared hosting, which is fine for static web sites and sites that need little processing power, and dedicated hosting, where you get your own machine(s) for mission-critical stuff. Azure Services is kind of a hybrid approach, where you pay for dedicated resources on Microsoft’s data center, but it’s all virtualized and you don’t know about the hardware underneath. Windows Azure is the base platform for managing all of that, an operating system of sorts with APIs exposed to developers.

My first thought is that this would be something Microsoft could sell to ISPs, but once I realized the scale of what they are trying to do, you really do want a Microsoft, a Google, or an IBM behind it. Scalability and reliability are the name of the game. When you sign up, you get an instance on the data center, which is presumably a virtual machine running Windows Server, but I don’t know the exact details and there’s probably more to it than that. You can have as many instances as you want (or can afford) on-demand, and you pay for exactly what you use and for how long you use it. Microsoft demonstrated scaling instances up or down by simply changing a setting in a config file.

How could that be useful? Imagine you’re offering a new web application and you need to easily scale up as you grow. Or maybe you’re an online retailer and you need to quadruple your web capacity during the holiday season. To get more granular, maybe you need 10 servers running your web site during peak hours but only 2 in the middle of the night. That’s the pitch, anyway.  Whether or not anyone actually needs that much flexibility remains to be seen, but it could be enough to convince some people to buy in.

So, how much is this gonna cost? Good question. Microsoft hasn’t released pricing yet, but they are going to have to be competitive with Amazon’s “Elastic Compute Cloud“. I looked at their pricing, and since everything is a-la-carte down to the hour and the gigabyte, I still don’t know. As far as I can tell, a single instance running 24/7 costs about $150-$200/month. That’s comparable to dedicated hosting, but if you added on the managed features you get with EC2 (backups, etc.) to dedicated hosting, EC2 may actually be cheaper than dedicated (I’m sure people will be analyzing and debating that for some time).  Of course, Microsoft has services such as .NET Services and SQL Services that sit on top of Windows Azure, as well as full-blown applications like Office and CRM, so it’s really going to depend on what you need. I hope Microsoft makes it easier than Amazon to determine your costs.

With this highly scalable and supposedly reliable system, will businesses move their applications to the cloud? I think you’ll see some of that, but the basic rules for determining if an application is a good candidate for the web haven’t changed. If a company relies on their line-of-business software for daily operations, I doubt they’ll risk being shut down because their DSL or T1 line goes down. However, maybe the cloud is the ideal place for their CRM system. Microsoft realizes that businesses are not going to put everything in the cloud, so part of .NET Services is to help companies bridge the gap between their on-premises and cloud systems. For example, logging in to your local network can also log you in to the CRM app in the cloud.

Now, for the million dollar question: Can you run FoxPro applications on Azure? Maybe, but not yet. Azure will initially be for managed .NET code only, but Microsoft claims they will open it up to unmanaged code in 2009. We’ll have to wait and see if that includes VFP.

Resources: