The core of the newest suite of components that we are building is an authentication and authorization service. Its goal is simple, provide a central location for identifying clients and the data sets and users that they own, for the purposes of using remote, cloud based resources. It forms part of a greater strategy of helping to get previously client side only data into a location where it can be used by mobile applications, websites and third party integrations.

This service also includes the management of application keys, allowing us to control who is able to access the cloud components, and uniquely identifying where requests are coming from. Typically we generate a unique application for each piece of software that wants to interact with the system, including third party software and our own.

Most of our services up to now have been built using the Nancy framework. The main reason for this is because its simple and easy to understand, and gives a lot of control over the entire pipeline, which is important for a number of reasons (one of which is logging).

Unfortunately, when it came time to build the authentication and authorization service, we were unable to use Nancy. Instead we had to use Web API. Now, don’t get me wrong, Web API is a fine framework, but the majority of our experience lay with Nancy, so we might not have put together the best Web API implementation. We were forced the use Web API because the component we were going to use for the core of the authentication (the ASP.NET Identity Framework) integrated easily with Web API, but didn’t seem to have any obvious way to integrate with Nancy (when hosted in ASP.NET).

Really, all of the above is just background to the problem that I’m currently struggling with.

Leaking connections to the persistence store.

A Nice Deep Pool

The backend of our authentication and authorization service is a PostgreSQL database hosted in AWS using RDS. We chose PostgreSQL because SQL Server is generally too expensive (even hosted through AWS) and because there was a PostgreSQL provider for Entity Framework that seemed solid (Npgsql). PostgreSQL is also an extremely mature database engine, and is just far enough out of our comfort zone to provide some new learning opportunities.

Because of the way the Identity Framework uses Entity Framework, all we had to do was create the DbContext using the appropriate connection/provider and EF would take care of the rest, seamlessly persisting our data into the appropriate place.

To be honest, it was actually pretty seamless. We didn’t have any issues (that I can remember anyway) and everything seemed to go pretty smoothly. The service wasn't being actively used in a production environment (because we were still developing the solution it was built for), but it was getting regular traffic and handling it admirably.

Then we did some load testing and it crashed and burnt.

Investigation showed that the service stopped working because it could no longer open new connections to the database, as the database already had too many connections currently in use. We were only using a d2.t2.micros RDS instance, and it has a cap on the number of connections (approximately 26), so that made sense. As soon as there was a greater number of requests trying to access the database than the available number of connections, requests would fail.

A quick investigation showed that the database connections being used for EF did not have pooling enabled. The pooling supported in Npgsql is an entirely client side structured, allowing for efficient reuse of connections by avoiding the work that goes into establishing the pipeline. It also offers the ability to queue the creation of additional connections once the configured pool limit has been set. Obviously there is a timeout (to prevent deadlock), but this allowed us to set the connection pool limit to close to the RDS limit, safe in the knowledge that subsequent requests would simply be slower, rather than failing altogether.

With pooling enabled, the load tests passed with flying colours. I knew that we would have to scale up the RDS instance based on real traffic, but that could happen later. The pooling allowed the service to make better use of limited resources.

For now, problem solved.


These Are My Connections! Mine!

After running happily for many weeks, the staging service went down hard. No load tests involved this time, just normal traffic. Shortly afterwards (within days), a newly provisioned production server did the same thing.

Looking at the logs the symptoms seemed to be similar, errors related to being unable to obtain a connection because the server did not have any available. There was no real sign that the service was doing anything particularly difficult that would require it to hold the connections for an extended amount of time, so we were a bit confused.

Being that the service had been running happily for a number of weeks, it must have been something we changed recently. Unfortuntately, the only recent change made was a fix to a threading issue with Entity Framework, Owin and the Identity Framework (2 threads attempting to lazily initialize the same DbContext at the same time). It was a fairly trivial fix. Instead of returning the DbContext from the factory straightaway, make sure that the model has been initialized first.

It was time to dig into it in more depth.

My hypothesis was that if the application was leaking connections to the database (such that they were hanging around but no longer in a usable state), then I should be able to see them when analysing a memory dump. I started up the Auth API locally using the SciTech .NET Memory Profiler, took an initial snapshot before doing anything meaningful, and then started the stress tests.

Every 15 minutes I would take another snapshot of the memory space, specifically looking for any DbContext or NpgsqlConnection objects that were hanging around for longer than they should have been.

What I found was interesting.

Slowly but surely a collection of NpgsqlConnection objects were accumulating. They were disposed, but could not be garbage collected because they were being rooted by an event handler inside the Npgsql connection pooling implementation. I’m not actually sure if they were holding on to server side resources (being disposed, you would think that they wouldn’t be), but it didn’t look promising.

I turned off connection pooling and those objects stopped being accumulated. Obviously the service also stopped working properly once it reached a certain amount of traffic (when reaching the connection cap of the RDS instance), but it did at least confirm that the issue seemed to be within Npgsql itself and not in our code.

Luckily, a new version of Npgsql had been released (we were using 2.2.5, but version 3 was now available). I removed all of the references to the old package and installed the new one. After dealing with some differences (some very strange errors relating to attempting to use disposed DbContexts during Owin cleanup due to the unnecessary usage of SaveChangesAsync), everything seemed to be working just fine. All of the functional tests passed, and the stress tests didn’t show anything interesting unless I tuned them up to “crash the computer” level.

Pushed, built, deployed.

Job done.

Where Have All The Connections Gone


Still leaking connections. Still fails when some critical mass of leaked connections is reached.

Come back next week for part 2, when I hopefully have an actual answer as to where the connections are going.


Update:I wrote the code for the seeder below outside of a development environment. It doesn’t work. I’ll try to revisit this post at a later date if I get a chance to implement a seeder class, but I’m currently using the Seed extension methods to great effect. My apologies to anyone who finds this post and is surprised when it doesn’t work.

Entity Framework and ORM’s in general have come a long way. Entity Framework in particular is pretty amazing now, compared to where it was 5 years ago. It was around then that my team made the decision to use NHibernate as our ORM, instead of EF. EF has obviously matured a lot since then, and seems to be the default choice now when working in the .NET world.

I’ve made a couple of posts on this blog involving Entity Framework and some of my adventures with it, one on creating test databases leveraging a scratch MSSQL instance in AWS and another on using a different EF provider to allow for in-memory databases.

One of the great things about working with ORMs, is that your persisted data is just objects, which means you have far more control over it than you ever did before. No need to use SQL statements (or similar) to build up some test data, just create some objects, insert them and off you go.

This post is going to talk about a mechanism for creating those objects, specifically about the concept of seeding.

Also, obviously, all of the sub-titles will be puns based on seeds and seeding.

Just Tossing My Seed Around

Most of the time I see seeding functions built into the DbContext class. They are typically executed whenever the context is created, making sure that certain data is available.

To me this is a violation of the Single Responsibility Principle, because now you have a class that is responsible for both managing data access and for putting some subset of the data there in the first place. While this alone is definitely a good reason to have a dedicated seeder class, there are others as well:

  • If you have a hardcoded seed method inside your DbContext, its much harder to customise it to seed different data based on your current needs.
  • Commonly, seed implementations inside the DbContext are wasteful, always trying to seed into the database whenever you create a new DbContext. I’m in favour of using a DbContextFactory and creating a DbContext per operation (or at least per request), which can make the time spent dealing with seeding significant.

I find that the best way to think about seeding is to use the specification pattern (or at least the concept). You want to be able to create an object that describes how you want your data to look (or what capabilities you want your data to have), and then execute it. Let the object sort out the seeding as its dedicated function.

This works fairly well. Yu define a Seeder or DataSpecification class, and expose appropriate properties and methods on it to describe the data (like how many DbFoo entries do I want, how many DbBar entries, what they look like, etc). You implement a method that takes a DbContext of the appropriate type, and in that method you use the information supplied to create and save the appropriate entities.

If you follow this approach, you find that your Seeder can become very complicated very quickly, especially because its entire purpose is to be highly configurable. Its also responsible for knowing how to construct many different varieties of objects, which is another violation of SRP.

I find SRP to be a pretty good guideline for handling class complexity. If you think about the responsibilities that your class has, and it has more than a few, then those responsibilities either need to be very tightly coupled, such that you couldn’t reasonably pull them apart, or you should really consider having more than one class. The downside of SRP is that you tend to have quite a lot of small classes, which is another form of complexity. The upside is that you have a lot of small, composable, modular classes, which are extremely useful once you get over that initial complexity bump for having many many classes.

Ready For Round Two

I didn’t like that my Seeder class had detailed knowledge about how to construct the various entities available from the DbContext. Plus it was huge and hard to understand at a glance.

The next step was to split the logic for how to create an entity into classes dedicated to that. I tend to use the naming convention of XBuilder for this purpose, and they all look very similar:

using System;

public interface IEntityBuilder<TEntity>
    TEntity Build();

public class DbFoo
    public int Id { get; set; }
    public string Do { get; set; }
    public string Re { get; set; }

public class DbFooBuilder : IEntityBuilder<DbFoo>
    private string _Do = "bananas";
    private string _Re = "purple";

    public DbFooBuilder WithDo(string v)
        _Do = v;
        return this;

    public DbFoo Build()
        return new DbFoo()
            Do = _Do,
            Re = _Re

As you can see, the builder features somewhat fluent syntax (the WithX methods) allowing you to chain calls to customise the constructed entity, but has sane defaults for all of the various properties that matter.

The Faker.Net package is handy here, for generating company names, streets, etc. You can also simply generate random strings for whatever properties require it, but its generally much better to generate real looking data than completely nonsensical data.

With the additional of dedicated builders for entities, the Seeder looks a lot better, being mostly dedicated to the concept of “how many” of the various entities. It could be improved though, because its difficult to use the Seeder to specify a subset of entities that meet certain criteria (like generate 10 DbFoo’s with their Do property set to “bananas”, and 200 where its set to “apples”).

We can fix that by providing some additional methods on the Seeder that allow you to customise the builders being used, instead of just letting to Seeder create X number of them to fulfil its “number of entities” requirement.

public class Seeder
    private List<DbFooBuilder> FooBuilders = new List<DbFooBuilder>();

    public Seeder WithDbFoos<TEntityBuilder>(IEnumerable<TEntityBuilder> builders)
        where TEntityBuilder : IEntityBuilder<DbFoo>

        return this;

    public Seeder WithDbFoos<TEntityBuilder>(int number, Action<TEntityBuilder> customise = null)
        where TEntityBuilder : IEntityBuilder<DbFoo>, new()
        var builders = Enumerable.Range(0, number).Select(a => customise(new TEntityBuilder()));
        return WithDbFoos(builders);

    public void Seed(DbContext db)
        foreach (var builder in FooBuilders)

Much better and extremely flexible.

Bad Seed

I actually didn’t quite implement the Seeder as specified above, though I think its definitely a better model, and I will be implementing it in the near future.

Instead I implemented a series of builders for each of the entities I was interested in (just like above), and then wrote a generic Seed extension method for IDbSet:

using System;
using System.Collections.Generic;
using System.Data.Entity;
using System.Linq;

namespace Solavirum.Database.EF
    public IEntityBuilder<TEntity>
        TEntity Build();

    public static class SeedExtensions
        private static Random _random = new Random();

        public static void Seed<TEntity, TBuilder>(this IDbSet<TEntity> set, Func<TBuilder, TBuilder> modifications = null, int number = 10)
            where TEntity : class
            where TBuilder : IEntityBuilder<TEntity>, new()
            modifications = modifications ?? (a => a);

            for (int i = 0; i < number; i++)
                var builder = new TBuilder();
                builder = modifications(builder);

        public static T Random<T>(this IEnumerable<T> enumerable)
            int index = _random.Next(0, enumerable.Count());
            return enumerable.ElementAt(index);

This is nice from a usability point of view, because I can seed any entity that has an appropriate builder, just by using the one method. The Random<T> method exists so I can get a random element out of a DbSet for linking purposes, if I need to (it was used in a method that I removed, dealing specifically with an entity with links to other entities).

What I don’t like about it:

  • Its difficult to supply dependencies to the seed method (unless you expose them in the method signature itself) because its inside a static class. This means supplying a logger of some description is hard.
  • The builders have to have parameterless constructors, again because its hard to supply dependencies. This isn’t so bad, because the builders are meant to be simple and easy to use, with sane default values.
  • Builders with dependencies on other entities (like a hypothetical DbFooBar class that has references to both a DbFoo and a DbBar) have to have their own Seed method in order to use entities that exist in the current DbContext. This isn’t a dealbreaker, but it does complicate things.

I think a well constructed Seeder class better encapsulates the concept, even though its nice to be able to just hit up a Seed method right off the IDbSet and have it all just work.


Being able to easily create data that meets certain criteria is an amazing tool when it comes to development and testing. Doing it in a provider agnostic way is even better, because you can push data into an in-memory database, an SQL database or a Postgres database, using the same code. In my opinion, the ability to sub out providers is one of the best parts of using an ORM (that and not having to deal with query/data manipulation languages directly).

Nothing that I’ve written above is particularly ground breaking, but its still very useful, and I highly recommend following the general strategy when working with a persistence layer via Entity Framework.

I hope you enjoyed all the terrible seed puns.

I regret nothing.


If you’ve ever read any of my previous posts, you would realise that I’m pretty big on testing. From my point of view, any code without automated tests is probably a liability in the long run. Some code doesn’t need tests of course (like prototypes and spikes), but if you intend for your code to be used or maintained (i.e. most of it) you should be writing tests for it.

I’ve blogged before about the 3 different classes of automated tests, Unit, Integration and Functional. I fully admit that the lines between them can get blurred from time to time, but I feel these 3 classifications help to think about tests at different levels, which in turn assists in creating a quality piece of software.

A lot of the work I do in my current job has dependencies on a legacy SQL Server database. Not one gigantic database in a central location, many databases with the same schema, distributed at client locations. Its a bit of a monster, but workable, and we control the schema, so we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.

Quite a few of the older components take a hard dependency on this database. Some of the newer ones use EF at least, which is nice, but others simply use direct SQL execution. Tests have typically been written using an approach I see a lot, use a local database in a known state and write some tests on top of it. Typically this database is specific to a developers machine, and as such the tests will not work inside our CI environment, so they just get marked as [Ignored] (so the build won’t fail) until someone wants to use them again.


Why go to all that effort writing a test if you aren’t going to execute it all the time? Tests that aren’t run are worthless after all.

Making it Work

Testing on top of a real SQL server is a fantastic idea and I would classify this sort of test as an Integration test, especially if you’re doing it directly from the classes themselves (instead of the normal entry point for the application). It verifies that the components that you have written (or at least a subset of them) work as expected when you sit them on top of a real database.

The problem comes in automating those sort of tests.

In an ideal world, your test would be responsible for setting up and tearing down all of its dependencies. This would mean it creates a database, fills it with some data, runs the code that it needs to run, verifies the results and then cleans up after itself.

That’s not simple though and looks like a lot of unnecessary work to some developers. They think, why don’t I just create a local database and put some data in it. I can run my test while I write my code, and I can reset my database whenever I want using scripts/restores/etc. These developers don’t realise that tests live just as long as the code that they verify, and if you’re developing for the long run, you need to put that effort in or suffer the consequences later on.

I’ll take a moment to mention that not every piece of code needs to be written for the long run (most do) and that it is possible to have so many tests that it becomes hard to change you code due to the barrier of requiring that you change you tests (which can be a lot of work). As with most things in software, its a balancing act. Just like your code, your tests should be easy to change and maintain, or they will end up causing the same pain that you were trying to avoid in the first place, just in a different place.

In order to facilitate the approach where each test is responsible for its own test data you need to put some infrastructure in place.

  1. You need a common location where the tests can create a database. If your CI environment is in the same network as your developers, this can simply be a machine at a known location with the required software installed. Its a little more complicated if they are in two different networks (our CI is in AWS for example).
  2. You need to have a reusable set of tools for creating, initialising and destroying database resources, to make sure your tests are self contained. These tools must be able to be run in an automated fashion.

Where the Wild Databases Are

The first step in allowing us to create executable database integration tests is to have a database server (specifically MSSQL server) available to both our development environment and our CI environment.

Since our CI is in AWS, the best location for the database is there as well. The main reason for this is that it will be easy enough to expose the database securely to the office, whereas it would be hard to expose resources in the office to AWS.

We can use the Amazon supplied SQL Server 2014 Express AMI as a baseline, and create a CloudFormation template that puts all the bits in place (instance, security groups, host record, etc).

The template is fairly trivial, so I won’t go into detail about it. Its very much the same as any other environment setup I’ve done before (I think the only publicly available example is the JMeter Workers, but that’s a pretty good example).

In order to expose the SQL instance on the canned AMI I had to make some changes to the server itself. It’s easy enough to execute a Powershell script during initialisation (via cfn-init), so I just ran this script to enable TCP/IP, switch to mixed mode and enable and change the password for the sa account. The instance is only accessible via a secure channel (internally in our VPC and via our AWS VPN) so I’m not too concerned about exposing the sa username directly, especially with a unique and secure password. Its only purpose is to hold temporary test data anyway, and it doesn’t have the ability to connect to any other resources, so I’m not particularly worried.


$ErrorActionPreference = "Stop"

Import-Module sqlps -DisableNameChecking

$localhostname = hostname
$instanceName = "mssqlserver"

$smo = 'Microsoft.SqlServer.Management.Smo.'
$wmi = new-object ($smo + 'Wmi.ManagedComputer').

Write-Verbose "Enabling TCP/IP."
$uri = "ManagedComputer[@Name='$localhostname']/ ServerInstance[@Name='$instanceName']/ServerProtocol[@Name='Tcp']"
$Tcp = $wmi.GetSmoObject($uri)
$Tcp.IsEnabled = $true

Write-Verbose "Enabling Mixed Mode Authentication."
$s = new-object Microsoft.SqlServer.Management.Smo.Server($localhostname)

$s.Settings.LoginMode = [Microsoft.SqlServer.Management.SMO.ServerLoginMode]::Mixed

Write-Verbose "Restarting [$instanceName] so TCP/IP and Auth changes are applied."
$service = get-service $instanceName

Write-Verbose "Editing sa user for remote access."
$SQLUser = $s.Logins | ? {$_.Name -eq "sa"}
$SQLUser.PasswordPolicyEnforced = 0

I know the script above isn’t necessarily the neatest way to do the configuration I needed, but its enough for now.

How Are Baby Databases Made?

The next step is having a library that we can re-use to easily make test databases.

We already had some Entity Framework classes and a database context buried deep inside another solution, so I extracted those, put them into their own repository and built a standalone Nuget package from that. It’s not the same code that actually creates a brand new database for a client (that’s a series of SQL scripts embedded in a VB6 application), but its close enough for testing purposes. I hope that eventually we will use EF instead of the hardcoded scripts (leveraging the migrations functionality for database version management), but that’s probably a long way away.

I’d previously completed a small refactor on the EF project in the past, so it already had the concept of a DbContextFactory, so all I had to do was implement a new one that connected to a known SQL server and created a randomly named database. I made it disposable, so that it would destroy the database once it was done.

EF took care of actually creating the database to match the schema defined by the DTO classes (which were already there), so I didn’t have to worry about that too much.

In the code below, the ITestDatabaseConnectionStringFactory implementation is responsible for knowing where the server is and how to connect to it (there’s a few implementations, one takes values from the app.config, one is hardcoded, etc). The INamedDbFactory has a single Create method that returns a derived DbContent, nothing fancy.

using System;
using System.Data.SqlClient;
using System.Diagnostics;
using System.Linq;
using Serilog;

namespace Solavirum.Database.EF.Tests.Common
    public class TestDatabaseDbFactory : INamedDbFactory, IDisposable
        public TestDatabaseDbFactory(ILogger logger, ITestDatabaseConnectionStringFactory connFactory)
            _connFactory = connFactory;
            var databaseName = _random.GenerateString(20);
            ConnectionString = _connFactory.Create(databaseName);

            _logger = logger
                .ForContext("databaseName", ConnectionString.DatabaseName)
                .ForContext("databaseHost", ConnectionString.Host);

            _logger.Information("New factory for database {databaseName} on host {databaseHost} created");

        private readonly IRandomTestData _random = new DefaultRandomTestData();
        private readonly ILogger _logger;
        private ITestDatabaseConnectionStringFactory _connFactory;

        public readonly TestDatabaseConnectionString ConnectionString;

        public NamedDb Create()
            _logger.Information("Creating a new NamedDb for database {databaseName}");
            var context = new NamedDb(new SqlConnection(ConnectionString.GetFullConnectionString()));

            if (!context.Database.Exists())
                _logger.Information("This is the first time {databaseName} has been created, creating backing database on host {databaseHost}");

            return context;

        public void Cleanup()
            using (var context = new NamedDb(ConnectionString.GetFullConnectionString()))
                _logger.Information("Deleting backing database {databaseName} on host {databaseHost}");

        bool _disposed;

        public void Dispose()


        protected virtual void Dispose(bool disposing)
            if (_disposed)

            if (disposing)
                catch (Exception ex)
                    Trace.WriteLine(string.Format("An unexpected error occurred while attempting to clean up the database named [{0}] spawned from this database factory. The database may not have been cleaned up.", ConnectionString.DatabaseName));

            _disposed = true;

    public interface IRandomTestData
        string GenerateString(int length);

    public class DefaultRandomTestData : IRandomTestData
        private readonly Random _random = new Random();

        public string GenerateString(int length)
            var chars = "ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZabcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz0123456789";
            var result = new string(Enumerable.Repeat(chars, length)
                .Select(s => s[_random.Next(s.Length)])

            return result;

The Cleanup

Of course by extracting the database classes above into its own repository/package, I had to replace all references to the old classes. It turns out the database component was quite heavily referenced in its original location, so it was a non-trivial amount of work to incorporate it properly.

As is almost always the way when you start doing things correctly after a long period of not doing that, I had to shave a few yaks to make the change happen.

On the upside, as a result of the extraction and the creation of the TestDatabaseFactory, I managed to create reliably executable tests for the actual database component itself, proving that it works when connected to a real SQL server database.


For me, the takeaway from this activity is that it takes effort to setup good testing infrastructure so that you can easily create tests that can be repeatedly executed. Its not something that just happens, and you need to be willing to accept the fact that you have to go slower to start off with in order to go faster later. Like delayed gratification.

I could have just setup an SQL server in a remote location without automating any of it, but that’s just another case of the same principle. I now have the ability to setup any version of SQL server that I want, or to change it to deploy a custom version (assuming we had an Octopus package to install SQL server, which is more than possible), and I’ve also automated its destruction every night and recreation every morning, allowing us to easily incorporate changes to the base AMI or to alter it in other ways (like a different version of SQL server).

It can be very hard to get some people to understand this. I find the best approach is to just do it (taking into account hard deadlines of course) and to let is prove itself in the field as time goes on, when you are able to make large changes without fear that you’ve broken everything.

I like knowing that I haven’t broken everything personally.

Or even better, knowing that I have.


Object Relational Mappers (ORMs) are useful tools. If you don’t want to have to worry about writing the interactions to a persistence layer yourself, they are generally a good idea. Extremely powerful, they let you focus on describing the data that you want, rather than manually hacking out (and then maintaining!) the queries yourself, and help with change tracking, transactional constructs and other things.

Testing code that uses an ORM, however, is typically a pain. At least in my experience.

People typically respond to this pain by abstracting the usage of their ORM away, by introducing repositories or some other persistence strategy pattern. They use the ORM inside the repository, and then use the more easily mocked repository everywhere else, where it can be substituted with a much smaller amount of effort. There are other benefits to this approach, including the ability to model the domain more accurately (can abstract away the persistence structure) and the ability to switch out the ORM you use for some other persistence strategy without having to make lots of changes. Possibly.

The downside of creating an abstraction like the above is that you lose a lot of ORM specific functionality, which can be quite powerful. One of the most useful feature of ORMs in C# is to be able to write Linq queries directly against the persistence layer. Doing this allows for all sorts of great things, like only selecting the properties you want and farming out as much of the work as possible to the persistence layer (maybe an SQL database), rather than doing primitive queries and putting it all together in memory. If you do want to leverage that power, you are forced to either make your abstraction leaky, exposing bits of the ORM through it (which makes mocking it harder) or you have to write the needed functionality again yourself, except into your interface, which is duplicate work.

Both of those approaches (expose the ORM, write an abstraction layer) have their upsides and downsides so like everything in software it comes down to picking the best solution for your specific environment.

In the past, I’ve advocated creating an abstraction to help isolate the persistence strategy, usually using the Repository pattern. These days I’m not so sure that is the best way to go about it though, as I like to keep my code as simple as possible and the downsides of introducing another layer (with home grown functionality similar to but not quite the same as the ORM) have started to wear on me more and more.

EF You

I’ve recently started working on an application that uses Entity Framework 6, which is a new experience for me, as all of my prior experience with ORM’s was via NHibernate, and to be brutally honest, there wasn’t much of it.

Alas, this application does not have very many tests, which is something that I hate, so I have been trying to introduce tests into the codebase as I add functionality and fix bugs.

I’m going to assume at this point that everyone who has ever done and programming and writes tests has tried to add tests into a codebase after the fact. Its hard. Its really hard. You have to try and resist the urge to rebuild everything and try and find ways to add testability to an architecture that was never intended to be testable without making too many changes or people start to get uncomfortable.

I understand that discomfort. I mean that's one of the biggest reasons you have tests in the first place, so you can make changes without having to worry about breaking stuff. Without those tests, refactoring to introduce tests is viewed as a risky activity, especially when you first start doing it.

Anyway, I wanted to write an integration tests for a particular piece of new functionality, to verify that everything worked end to end. I’ve written about what I consider an integration test before, but in essence it is any test that involves multiple components working together. These sorts of tests are usually executed with as many things configured and setup the same as the actual application, with some difficult or slow components that sit right at the boundaries being substituted. Persistence layers (i.e. databases) are a good thing to substitute, as well as non-local services, because they are slow (compared to in memory) and usually hard to setup or configure.

In my case I needed to find a way to remove the dependency on an external database, as well as a number of services. The services would be easy, because its relatively trivial to introduce an interface to encapsulate the required behaviour from a service, and then provide an implementation just for testing.

The persistence layer though…

This particular application does NOT use the abstraction strategy that I mentioned earlier. It simply exposes the ability to get a DbContext whenever something needs to access to a persistent store.

A for Effort

Being that the application in question used EF6, I thought that it would be easy enough to leverage the Effort library.

Effort provides an in-memory provider for Entity Framework, allowing you to easily switch between whatever your normal provider is (probably SQL Server) for one that runs entirely in memory.

Notice that I said I thought that it would be easy to leverage Effort…

As is always the case with this sort of thing, the devil is truly in the details.

It was easy enough to introduce a factory to create the DbContext that the application used instead of using its constructor. This allowed me to supply a different factory for the tests, one that leveraged Effort’s in-memory provider. You accomplish this by making sure that there is a constructor for the DbContext that takes a DbConnection, and then use Effort to create one of its fancy in-memory connections.

On the first run of the test with the new in-memory provider, I got one of the least helpful errors I have ever encountered:

System.InvalidOperationException occurred: Sequence contains no matching element
       at System.Linq.Enumerable.Single[TSource](IEnumerable`1 source, Func`2 predicate)
       at System.Data.Entity.Utilities.DbProviderManifestExtensions.GetStoreTypeFromName(DbProviderManifest providerManifest, String name)     at System.Data.Entity.ModelConfiguration.Configuration.Properties.Primitive.PrimitivePropertyConfiguration.Configure(EdmProperty column, EntityType table, DbProviderManifest providerManifest, Boolean allowOverride, Boolean fillFromExistingConfiguration)
       at System.Data.Entity.ModelConfiguration.Configuration.Properties.Primitive.PrimitivePropertyConfiguration.<>c__DisplayClass1.<Configure>b__0(Tuple`2 pm)
       at System.Data.Entity.Utilities.IEnumerableExtensions.Each[T](IEnumerable`1 ts, Action`1 action)
       at System.Data.Entity.ModelConfiguration.Configuration.Properties.Primitive.PrimitivePropertyConfiguration.Configure(IEnumerable`1 propertyMappings, DbProviderManifest providerManifest, Boolean allowOverride, Boolean fillFromExistingConfiguration)
       at System.Data.Entity.ModelConfiguration.Configuration.Properties.Primitive.BinaryPropertyConfiguration.Configure(IEnumerable`1 propertyMappings, DbProviderManifest providerManifest, Boolean allowOverride, Boolean fillFromExistingConfiguration)
       at System.Data.Entity.ModelConfiguration.Configuration.Types.StructuralTypeConfiguration.ConfigurePropertyMappings(IList`1 propertyMappings, DbProviderManifest providerManifest, Boolean allowOverride)
       at System.Data.Entity.ModelConfiguration.Configuration.Types.EntityTypeConfiguration.ConfigurePropertyMappings(DbDatabaseMapping databaseMapping, EntityType entityType, DbProviderManifest providerManifest, Boolean allowOverride)
       at System.Data.Entity.ModelConfiguration.Configuration.Types.EntityTypeConfiguration.Configure(EntityType entityType, DbDatabaseMapping databaseMapping, DbProviderManifest providerManifest)
       at System.Data.Entity.ModelConfiguration.Configuration.ModelConfiguration.ConfigureEntityTypes(DbDatabaseMapping databaseMapping, DbProviderManifest providerManifest)
       at System.Data.Entity.ModelConfiguration.Configuration.ModelConfiguration.Configure(DbDatabaseMapping databaseMapping, DbProviderManifest providerManifest)
       at System.Data.Entity.DbModelBuilder.Build(DbProviderManifest providerManifest, DbProviderInfo providerInfo)
       at System.Data.Entity.DbModelBuilder.Build(DbConnection providerConnection)
       at System.Data.Entity.Internal.LazyInternalContext.CreateModel(LazyInternalContext internalContext)
       at System.Data.Entity.Internal.RetryLazy`2.GetValue(TInput input)

Keep in mind, I got this error when attempting to begin a transaction on the DbContext. So the context had successfully been constructed, but it was doing…something…during the begin transaction that was going wrong. Probably initialization.

After a significant amount of reading, I managed to find some references to the fact that Effort doesn’t support certain SQL Server specific column types. Makes sense in retrospect, although at the time I didn’t even know you could specify provider specific information like that. I assume it was all based around automatic translation between CLR types and the underlying types of the provider.

There is a lot of entities in this application and the all have a large amount of properties. I couldn’t read through all of the classes to find what the problem was, and I didn’t even know exactly what I was looking for. Annoyingly, the error message didn’t say anything about what the actual problem was, as you can see above. So, back to first principles. Take everything out, and start reintroducing things until it breaks.

I turns out quite a lot of the already existing entities were specifying the types (using strings!) in the Column attribute of their properties. The main offenders were the “timestamp” and “money” data types, which Effort did not seem to understand.

Weirdly enough, Effort had no problems with the Timestamp attribute when specified on a property. It was only when the type “timestamp” was specified as a string in the Column attribute that errors occurred.

The issue here was of course that the type was string based, so the only checking that occurred, occurred at run-time. Because I had introduced a completely different provider to the mix, and the code was written assuming SQL Server, it would get to the column type in the initialisation (which is lazy, because it doesn’t happen until you try to use the DbContext) and when there was no matching column type returned by the provider, it would throw the exception above.

Be Specific

Following some advice on the Effort discussion board, I found some code that moved the SQL Server specific column types into their own attributes. These attributes would then only be interrogated when the connection of the DbContext was actually an SQL Server connection. Not the best solution, but it left the current behaviour intact, while allowing me to use an in-memory database for testing purposes.

Here is the attribute, it just stores a column type as a string.

public class SqlColumnTypeAttribute : Attribute
    public SqlColumnTypeAttribute(string columnType = null)
        ColumnType = columnType;

    public string ColumnType { get; private set; }

Here is the attribute convention, which EF uses to define a rule that will interpret attributes and change the underlying configuration.

public class SqlColumnTypeAttributeConvention : PrimitivePropertyAttributeConfigurationConvention<SqlColumnTypeAttribute>
    public override void Apply(ConventionPrimitivePropertyConfiguration configuration, SqlColumnTypeAttribute attribute)
        if (!string.IsNullOrWhiteSpace(attribute.ColumnType))

Here is a demo DbContext showing how I used the attribute convention. Note that the code only gets executed if the connection is an SqlConnection.

public partial class DemoDbContext : DbContext
    public DemoDbContext(DbConnection connection, bool contextOwnsConnection = true)
        : base(connection, contextOwnsConnection)
    protected override void OnModelCreating(DbModelBuilder modelBuilder)
        if (Database.Connection is SqlConnection)

Finally, here is the attribute being used in an entity. Previously this entity would have simply had a [Column(TypeName = “timestamp”)] attribute on the RowVersion property, which causes issue with Effort.

public partial class Entity
    public int Id { get; set; }

    public byte[] RowVersion { get; set; }

Even though there was a lot of entities with a lot of properties, this was an easy change to make, as I could leverage a regular expression and find and replace.

Of course, it still didn’t work.

I was still getting the same error after making the changes above. I was incredibly confused for a while, until I did a search for “timestamp” and found an instance of the Column attribute where it supplied both the data type and the order. Of course, my regular expression wasn’t smart enough to pick this up, so I had to manually go through and split those two components (Type which Effort didn’t support and Order which it did) manually wherever they occurred. Luckily it was only about 20 places, so it was easy enough to fix.

And then it worked!

No more SQL Server dependency for the integration tests, which means they are now faster and more controlled, with less hard to manage dependencies.

Of course, the trade-off for this is that the integration tests are no longer testing as close to the application as they could be, but that’s why we have functional tests as well, which run through the instaled application, on top of a real SQL Server instance. You can still choose to run the integration tests with an SQL Server connection if you want, but now you can use the much faster and easier to manage in-memory database as well.


Effort is awesome. Apart from the problems caused by using SQL Server specific annotations on common entities, Effort was extremely easy to setup and configure.

I can’t really hold the usage of SQL Server specific types against the original developers though, as I can’t imagine they saw the code ever being run on a non-SQL Server provider. Granted, it would have been nice if they had of isolated the SQL Server specific stuff from the core functionality, but that would have been unnecessary for their needs at the time, so I understand.

The biggest problem I ran into was the incredibly unhelpful error message coming from EF6 with regards to the unsupported types. If the exception had stated what the type was that couldn’t be found and for which property in which class, I wouldn’t have had to go to so much trouble to find out what the actual problem was.

Its never good being confronted with an entirely useless exception message, and we have to always be careful to make sure that our exceptions fully communicate the problem so that they help future developers, instead of just getting in the way.

A little Effort goes a long way after all.