Monday, 20 February 2017

Bring back alt.NET? But… why?

Pull up a chair, dear reader. I’m going to tell you why I think we should revive alt.NET, but first, we need to establish a little context, which means it’s time for a good old-fashioned origin story.

I’ve been building web apps professionally since before they were called web apps, since the days when IIS was part of the Windows NT 4 Option Pack. I cut my teeth writing Active Server Pages, although unlike most of the ASP crowd, I wrote mine in JScript. That’s right, kids — I was running JavaScript on web servers back when The Matrix didn’t have any sequels. And I loved it. The web was a simpler place in those days, and JScript ASP provided a lightweight, expressive language and runtime that did 99% of everything I ever needed to do. But it was obvious that the Microsoft had a vision for the future of web development, and it wasn’t about JScript and what we now call classic ASP.

I stuck it out with JScript and ASP for a long while, but eventually a project came along that clearly required something with a bit more oomph. Multi-tenancy, internationalisation, that kind of thing. So I brushed up on my C# chops and started building WebForms. C# was — and is — a truly wonderful language to work in, but WebForms? Not even close. I was banging my head against a wall, battling with the .NET framework daily to deliver even the most basic features. The elegant, expressive programming models provided by HTTP and HTML were gone, hidden beneath endless layers of leaky abstractions and fragile redirection. I was unhappy and I was unproductive, but it was incredibly easy to rationalise the misery as a necessary part of the learning curve. It didn’t help that the few developers I discussed it with seemed to be using ASP.NET quite happily and didn’t see any problem at all with the idea of <form runat=”server” /> and OnItemDataBound.

So here’s the scene. It’s 2007, I’m fed up, I haven’t shipped any working code for literally months, and — probably via Scott Hanselman’s blog — I start hearing noises about something called “alt dot net”. Now, this sounded exciting. Unfortunately, many of the original posts and articles have been lost to the mists of time and website redesigns, but the original movement defined itself as:

What is ALT.NET?
1. You’re the type of developer who uses what works while keeping an eye out for a better way.
2. You reach outside the mainstream to adopt the best of any community: Open Source, Agile, Java, Ruby, etc.
3. You’re not content with the status quo. Things can always be better expressed, more elegant and simple, more mutable, higher quality, etc.
4. You know tools are great, but they only take you so far. It’s the principles and knowledge that really matter. The best tools are those that embed the knowledge and encourage the principles

To somebody drowning in the prescribed chaos of ASP.NET WebForms, that sounded like a pretty attractive set of principles.

Now, before we go any further, I’d like to share two things by way of qualifying the rest of this post. Firstly, I’m talking very specifically here about the alt.NET movement as it happened here in the UK, and why it mattered to me, personally, as a developer. Alt.NET as an international movement generated a lot of interest, a lot of opinions and a lot of controversy, and yes, to some extent we’re reviving the alt.NET “brand” because this very controversy has given it a degree of recognition among the tech community that transcends geography and specialisation. But here in the UK, I think alt.NET caught just the right people, at just the right time, and I believe many of those people found it to be a really positive thing to be part of.

Second, I’m well aware that it’s not all smooth sailing — to highlight one recent example, last week’s post from JetBrains about the licensing dispute with a Microsoft debugging component they were using in Rider generated a lot of controversy. I know people on both sides of that particular exchange, and until we have a bit more clarification about exactly what’s happened, all I’ll say is that having multiple vendors working on commercial IDEs, targeting an open source .NET Core platform, is somewhat unprecedented, and there’s bound to be the odd bump along the way.

OK, back to alt.NET. In February 2008, the first alt.NET UK ‘unconference’ took place here in London. For me, it was a revelation. It was about openly challenging an orthodoxy that had become so established it was easy to think it was completely non-negotiable. Instead of “you do Microsoft.NET or you do open source”, it was “find what works for you, and don’t be afraid to mix it up”. Here was a loose-knit community of developers who were cherry-picking the bits of .NET that they liked and happily ignoring the rest. Don’t like WebForms? Cool, let me show you FubuMVC and Monorail. Don’t like Windows? Check out the Mono project. Having nightmares about SOAP, WSDL and DISCO? Here, have a look at this thing called REST. Oh, and by the way, here’s a bunch of neat ideas from Ruby and Java and Haskell that you might be interested in.

It suddenly became apparent that over time “.NET” had become an umbrella term for a whole gamut of languages, frameworks and technologies; some of them were really quite good, some of them were pretty poor, but you didn’t have to use all of them.

It was that first alt.NET UK conference that inspired me to start blogging — in fact, my very first blog post ever was a write-up of the event. I stopped relying so much on MSDN documentation, and I started going to user group meetings. I stopped writing stored procedures (I know, right?) and started using ORM’s — Linq-to-SQL, NHibernate, Castle ActiveRecord, and always with a very definite mindset of “use what works, ship working code, but keep your eyes open for something better”. I never took the plunge with Monorail or Fubu, but when Microsoft came out with ASP.NET MVC, I found it a perfect antidote to the bloated misery of WebForms. I remember vividly a quote from a Scott Hanselman podcast: “you don’t need a Repeater control; you’ve got a for() loop.” — that was the ASP.NET MVC ethos, and I loved it. My team launched our first ASP.NET MVC project in August 2008, whilst it was still on RC3. By the time it went beta, we’d put nearly a million pounds in revenue through it. The WebForms project was put ‘on hold’, and we never went back to it.

There were three alt.NET UK conferences. I don’t remember exactly when the third one was — probably 2009? — but I remember Ian Cooper saying at the time that there was unlikely to be another one any time soon. It felt like the right people had found each other, the conversations had started, the changes were happening. It wasn’t just in the UK, either. Dozens of blogs and meetup groups were spawned in the wake of alt.NET — a handful of them are still going, in Melbourne and Sydney, Paris, New York, and Brighton. Twitter was taking off in a big way; StackOverflow (built on ASP.NET MVC) was changing the way developers asked for help and shared solutions. We did a thing, and it worked.

So here in 2017, why are we talking about doing it again? For me, the answer’s simple. Partly, it’s just the passage of time. For every developer who has loudly and publicly abandoned the .NET platform, there’s a company somewhere whose investment in .NET isn’t going away anytime soon — and in the years since alt.NET, thousands of Comp Sci graduates have left university, landed their first job and ended up working on .NET. Sure, a lot of them are probably happy just to show up, write code, get paid and go home — but I suspect there’s also a lot of them who will go on to do really great things, and who haven’t yet grasped the power and the flexibility of the platform they’re using, and the community that’s built up around it.

But more than that, I don’t want to see the post-alt .NET community become an echo chamber. The ideas that were radical a decade ago have ossified into “best practice”, and it’s time to kick things up again. My personal and professional investment in .NET runs deep, because I sincerely believe that it’s a platform and a community worth investing in. I really enjoy working in .NET. C# and JavaScript are my languages of choice. but I like the fact that I can explore F# and TypeScript without having to learn a whole new platform to go with them. I’m a big fan of — and very occasional contributor to — open-source libraries like Dapper, NancyFX, Newtonsoft.Json, Shouldly and Moq. I’m also involved in running the London.NET User Group, and lately it feels like we’re seeing a lot of familiar faces and retreading a lot of familiar ground. Which is comfortable, and reassuring — and, yes, it’s fun; I love being a part of this community, and count the people I’ve met through it among my dearest friends. But I miss the cross-pollination, the fresh faces and the new ideas and that were such a vital part of alt.NET, and I want to see what we can do to reinvigorate that.

I want us to reach the junior developers — and aspiring future developers — who are looking around for a fast and free way to build their first web apps, and help them get started with .NET Core. I want to reach the people who have always dismissed .NET because they don’t want to run Windows and let them know about things like Visual Studio for Mac and JetBrains Rider. I want to learn more about projects like Unity, and new platforms like HoloLens — not just the “ooh, shiny!”, but to understand the patterns and principles that developers are using to create great products using these tools. And I’d like to reconnect with the people who have abandoned .NET in the years since that first wave, and say “hey! What are you working on? How’s it going? And whilst we’re chatting, have you seen what’s happened to .NET since you last looked at it?”

It’s 2017. .NET Core is open source, Entity Framework is open source — even Windows Live Writer is open source. Bash runs on Windows, SQL Server runs on Linux, and Microsoft is doing some genuinely innovative things. Visual Studio 2017 is right around the corner, and .NET is a free, fast, cross-platform development system that you can use to build just about anything. We’ve got cloud-native applications, running on hosting so cheap it’s basically free. We’ve got Universal Windows Apps running on phones, tablets, laptops, desktops and consoles. We’ve got Xamarin and .NET Core bringing .NET to Linux, Mac, iOS and Android. We’ve got VR headsets and 3D printers and autonomous drones and all sorts of fascinating and unprecedented ways to make our software do cool things… and I think it’s high time we broke down some barriers, shared our ideas and tried to restart some of those conversations.

This essay is also published at


Climens said...

Oh, I remember those times when Webforms appeared. What kind of devilish mind engineered that?
I know some people still use them but coming from classic ASP (and PHP) it seemed like a completely unneeded bloat added to the simple concept of HTTP request/response.
Fortunately I found Monorail, and MVC framework inspired by Rails et al. and that was joy again. Then ASP.NET MVC appeared and I've never looked back.
Same happened with NHibernate. Accessing databases with DataSets was insane. OR/Ms were a bit bloated and complex but for big projects were a great tool to write readable DB heavy apps.
That led me to the community. And now I see that the ideas that we were proposing and implementing at that time (not the ones endorsed by Microsoft at the time) were geared towards the right direction.
I hope that with these whole new world that opens with MS openness leads to a new golden .NET era.

tracker1 said...

What it really came out of was the pain in the shear number of differences in JS between the browsers at the time... in 1997-2000 there were radical changes. People complain today about the missing pieces in JS between browsers/engines, but it's NOTHING like the pain of dramatically different DOM implementations... Layer/Frame NN/IE... and if you had to support Netscape 4.x when IE5-6 were just released, OMG that was a nightmare.

I'm a big fan of JS, and love what it's become today (fatigue from webpack, babel, etc and all), but at that point in time, it was truly painful. IE6 getting well over 90% market share was a bit of a mixed blessing as all the old cruft of the v4 browsers had passed, and the newer DOM started to take hold with Mozilla and IE. JQuery wasn't around until 1996, and prototype (the library) had quite a few issues itself.

People were begging for a server-side solution to all the client-side problems. That's how we got WebForms, and frankly by the time ASP.Net MVC came out the landscape had changed dramatically.

tracker1 said...

grr.. jquery was 2006, not 1996.. lol

Rob Karatzas said...

- Bash doesn't run on Windows Server 2016 (only Windows 10)
- Http2 isn't supported on Windows Server 2012
- Xamarian is cooler than cool
- Entity Frame in all but the latest version has some very bad mojo (I think it was ranked 13th in terms of the performance with other ORMs commonly used with ASP.NET). Remember, during run-time, EF/Linq/etc. are guestimating the optimal data access process, not YOU :)

- WebForms do what forms really do best, if you want portability try Xamarin Forms (not that I'm a big fan of WebForms, but I'd rather have them on a PC for doing things where layout and forms-like events are what's expected out of the UX) MVC on the other had is actually slower than WebForms (MS has the number and Guthrie can vouch for it, but probably not with nginx/kestrel/owin), it relys on routes which often expose URL parameters that one doesn't really ever want to expose, that can be abuse security if mishandled (where WebForms are just objects and you can read object properties from one to another :)

- Javascript is turning out to have huge security holes (like encoding using falseys and offset (try; and other issues securing JWT, etc.

- the "beauty" of is it's flexibility (I can combine WebForms, MVC, Javascript SPA, etc. ALL in ONE Solution -> and use what's best for the UX based on scenario/context) caveat, that might change as I learn more about Xamarin and portability becomes a requirement.

I appreciate the dialog :)