Data Transfer Objects

    Data Transfer Objects are used to transfer data between Application Layer and Presentation Layer.

    Presentation Layer calls to an Application Service method with a Data Transfer Object (DTO), then application service uses domain objects to perform some specific business logic and returns a DTO back to the presentation layer. Thus, Presentation layer is completely isolated from Domain layer. In an ideally layered application, presentation layer does not directly work with domain objects (Repositories, Entities...).

    The need for DTOs

    To create a DTO for each Application Service method can be seen as a tedious and time-consuming work at first. But they can save your application if you correctly use it. Why?

    Abstraction of domain layer

    DTOs provide an efficient way of abstracting domain objects from presentation layer. Thus, your layers are correctly seperated. Even if you want to change presentation layer completely, you can continue with existing application and domain layers. As opposite, you can re-write your domain layer, completely change database schema, entities and O/RM framework without any change in presentation layer as long as contracts (method signatures and DTOs) of your application services remain unchanged.

    Data hiding

    Think that you have a User entity with properties Id, Name, EmailAddress and Password fields. If GetAllUsers() method of UserAppService returns a List<User>, anyone can see passwords of all users, even you do not show it in the screen. It's not just about security, it's about data hiding. Application service should return to presentation layer what it needs. Not more, not less.

    Serialization & lazy load problems

    When you return a data (an object) to presentation layer, it's probably serialized in somewhere. For example, in an MVC method that returns JSON, your object can be serialized to JSON and sent to the client. Returning an Entity to the presentation layer can be problematic in that case. How?

    In a real application, your entities will have references to each other. User entity can have a reference to its Roles. So, if you want to serialize User, its Roles are also serialized. And even Role class may have a List<Permission> and Permission class can have a reference to a PermissionGroup class and so on... Can you think that all of these objects are serialized? You can easily serialize your whole database accidently. Also, if your objects has circcular references, it can not be serialized.

    What's the solution? Marking properties as NonSerialized? No, you can not know when it should be serialized and when it shouldn't be. It may be needed in one application service method, may not be needed in other. So, returning a safely serializable, specially designed DTOs are a good choice in this situation.

    Almost all O/RM frameworks support lazy-loading. It's a feature to load entities from database when it's needed. Say User class has a reference to Role class. When you get a User from database, Role property is not filled. When you first read the Role property, it's loaded from database. So, if you return such an Entity to presentation layer, it will cause to retrieve additonal entities from database. If a serialization tool reads the entity, it reads all properties recursively and again your complete database can be retrieved (if there are suitable relations between entities).

    We can say some more problems about using Entities in presentation layer. It's best to do not reference the assembly containing domain (business) layer to the presentation layer at all.

    DTO conventions & validation

    ASP.NET Boilerplate strongly supports DTOs. It provides some conventional classes & interfaces and advices some naming and usage conventions about DTOs. When you write your codes as described here, ASP.NET Boilerplate automates some tasks easily. 

    Example

    Let's see a complete example. Say that we want to develop an application service method that is used to search people with a name and returns list of people. In that case, we may have a Person entity as shown below:

    public class Person : Entity
    {
        public virtual string Name { get; set; }
        public virtual string EmailAddress { get; set; }
        public virtual string Password { get; set; }
    }

    And we can define an interface for our application service:

    public interface IPersonAppService : IApplicationService
    {
        SearchPeopleOutput SearchPeople(SearchPeopleInput input);
    }

    ASP.NET Boilerplate suggest naming input/output parameters as MethodNameInput and MethodNameOutput and defining a seperated input and output DTO for every application service method. Even if your method only take/return one parameter, it's better to create a DTO class. Thus, your code will be more extensible. You can add more properties later without changing signature of your method and without breaking existing client applications.

    Surely, your method can return void if there is no return value. It will not break existing applications if you add a return value later. If your method does not get any argument, you do not have to define an input DTO. But it maybe better to write an input DTO class if it's probable to add parameter in the future. This is up to you.

    Let's see input and output DTO classes defined for this example:

    public class SearchPeopleInput
    {
        [StringLength(40, MinimumLength = 1)]
        public string SearchedName { get; set; }
    }
    
    public class SearchPeopleOutput
    {
        public List<PersonDto> People { get; set; }
    }
    
    public class PersonDto : EntityDto
    {
        public string Name { get; set; }
        public string EmailAddress { get; set; }
    }

    ASP.NET Boilerplate automatically validates input before execution of the method. It's similar to ASP.NET MVC's validation, but notice that application service is not a Controller, it's a plain C# class. ASP.NET Boilerplate makes interception and check input automatically. There are much more about validation. See DTO validation document.

    EntityDto is a simple class that declares Id property since they are common for entities. Has a generic version if your entity's primary key is not int. You don't have to use it, but can be better to define an Id property.

    PersonDto does not include Password property as you see, since it's not needed for presentation layer. Even it can be dangerous to send all people's password to presentation layer. Think that a Javascript client requested it, anyone can easily grab all passwords.

    Let's implement IPersonAppService before go further.

    public class PersonAppService : IPersonAppService
    {
        private readonly IPersonRepository _personRepository;
    
        public PersonAppService(IPersonRepository personRepository)
        {
            _personRepository = personRepository;
        }
    
        public SearchPeopleOutput SearchPeople(SearchPeopleInput input)
        {
            //Get entities
            var peopleEntityList = _personRepository.GetAllList(person => person.Name.Contains(input.SearchedName));
    
            //Convert to DTOs
            var peopleDtoList = peopleEntityList
                .Select(person => new PersonDto
                                    {
                                        Id = person.Id,
                                        Name = person.Name,
                                        EmailAddress = person.EmailAddress
                                    }).ToList();
    
            return new SearchPeopleOutput { People = peopleDtoList };
        }
    }

    We get entities from database, convert them to DTOs and return output. Notice that we did not validated input. ASP.NET Boilerplate validates it. It even checks if input parameter is null and throws exception if so. This saves us to write guard clauses in every method.

    But, probably you did not like converting code from a Person entity to a PersonDto object. It's really a tedious work. Person entity could have much more properties.

    Auto mapping between DTOs and entities

    Fortunately there are tools that makes this very easy. AutoMapper is one of them. It's distributed on nuget, you can easily add to your project. Let's write SearchPeople method again but using AutoMapper:

    public SearchPeopleOutput SearchPeople(SearchPeopleInput input)
    {
        var peopleEntityList = _personRepository.GetAllList(person => person.Name.Contains(input.SearchedName));
        return new SearchPeopleOutput { People = Mapper.Map<List<PersonDto>>(peopleEntityList) };
    }

    That's all. You can add more properties to entity and DTO but converting code does not change. The only thing to do is define a mapping before using it:

    Mapper.CreateMap<Person, PersonDto>();

    AutoMapper creates mapping code. Thus, dynamic mapping does not become a performance problem. It's fast & easy. AutoMapper creates a PersonDto for a Person entity and assign DTO's properties using naming conventions. Naming conventions can be complex and configurable. Also, you can define custom maps and much more. See AutoMapper's documentation for more information.

    You can define mappings in PostInitialize of your module for example.

    Mapping using attributes and extension methods

    ASP.NET Boilerplate provides several attributes and extension methods to define mappings. To use it, add Abp.AutoMapper nuget package to your project. Then, use attribute AutoMap for two way mapping, AutoMapFrom and AutoMapTo for one way mapping. Use MapTo extension methods to map one object to another. Example mapping definition:

    [AutoMap(typeof(MyClass2))] //define two-way mapping
    public class MyClass1
    {
        public string TestProp { get; set; }
    }
    
    public class MyClass2
    {
        public string TestProp { get; set; }
    }

    Then you can map them using MapTo extension method:

    var obj1 = new MyClass1 { TestProp = "Test value" };
    var obj2 = obj1.MapTo<MyClass2>(); //Creates a new MyClass2 object with TestProp copied from obj1.

    The code above creates a new MyClass2 object from a MyClass1 object. Also, you can map to an existing object as shown below:

    var obj1 = new MyClass1 { TestProp = "Test value" };
    var obj2 = new MyClass2();
    obj1.MapTo(obj2); //Sets properties of obj2 from obj1

    Helper interfaces and classes

    ASP.NET provides some helper interfaces that can be implemented to standardize common DTO property names.

    ILimitedResultRequest defines MaxResultCount property. So, you can implement it in your input DTOs to standardize limiting result set.

    IPagedResultRequest extends ILimitedResultRequest by adding SkipCount. So, we can implement this interface in SearchPeopleInput for paging:

    public class SearchPeopleInput : IPagedResultRequest
    {
        [StringLength(40, MinimumLength = 1)]
        public string SearchedName { get; set; }
    
        public int MaxResultCount { get; set; }
        public int SkipCount { get; set; }
    }
    			

    As a result to a paged request, you can return an output DTO that implements IHasTotalCount. Naming standardization helps us to create re-usable codes and conventions. See other interfaces and classes under Abp.Application.Services.Dto namespace.