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Creating a generic Message Display Page
for ASP.Net



By Rick Strahl
www.west-wind.com
rstrahl@west-wind.com

 

 

Last Update:

October 22, 2008


 

Source Code for this article:
http://www.west-wind.com/presentations/wwMessageDisplay/wwMessagedisplay.zip
 

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Creating messages in your Web application  should be quick and easy and most importantly, consistent. They should look like they belong with the rest of the application even if – low and behold – an error occurs. How often have you created a new page to display some simple text or a notification message to your users? Wouldn’t it be much nicer if you could reuse an existing template and simply passed in a few parameters to tell it to render an application specific message? In this article Rick shows how to create a reusable Message Display class that reduces displaying messages generically in you application to a single line of code.

 

ASP.Net reduces the need for generic message pages considerably with its PostBack based metaphor. Because most pages post back to themselves rather than going off to other pages, messages can in many cases be re-displayed on the original page along with a message or error header. Not only is this convenient to code with .Net by simply adding a label or other display control to show the message, but it's also much nicer for the user who sees the message in the context of the operation that that produced the error or action that caused the message.

 

However, there are still a number of occasions where I find the ASP.Net PostBack mechanism doesn't lend itself well for message and especially error display. In these situations a generic message display page comes in very handy. By generic message display I’m referring to a simple reusable page template that can be called easily as a single method call by passing a couple of parameters. I use it for these types of situations:

 

  • Global Error Messages
    Errors that you capture in Global.asax generally will end up displaying a generic error page. Rather than redirecting to a completely static page, I can provide some customized info via a generic display page that may contain a semi-static message, or for administrators detailed error information.

     
  • Simple Confirmation Pages
    There are still a number of forms that do well with simply having a confirmation page that tells you – “Thank you, M'am for your submission”. ASP. Net always wants you to post back to the same page but in many instances there’s nothing to display when you go back. For example, if you delete a record or you need to display a simple, but lengthy generated result. Although you can do this with a Redirect() you really don’t want to create a new form for each of those messages, nor do you always want to just go somewhere else without giving the user some feedback first.

     
  • Redirection Situations where you need Cookies
    In my applications there are a number of login scenarios where users are either automatically logged in or logged in through a login form. Although Forms Authentication can handle some of these scenarios it’s often not granular enough to provide functionality needed. In login situations I need to forward to a new page, but at the same time need to store a Cookie (for permanent record), so I can't use a Response.Redirect(). Instead I use an intermediate Display page that includes a META refresh tag to automatically or optionally via link handle the forwarding while still being Cookie friendly.

     
  • Quick Dynamic Display of Html Data
    Because this class is using predefined controls, it's easy to just pass in just a header and a message – optionally in HTML format to very easily create an HTML display. I can use this for debugging scenarios or while testing code.

Using the class

The primary purpose of this class and template is to display standalone messages easily and consistently from within your application. To implement this functionality I created a generic reusable class that must be subclassed for each application you build. The base class consists of a non-visual WebForm class and it relies on the concrete implementation and the ASPX template of the subclassed WebForm to provide its visual interface.

 

The concept is simple: You add a new WebForm to your application and subclass it from the wwMessageDisplay base class. The Html layout/design for your message page is customized to your application and reflects your own theme and layout, plus it must add a few required labels that are used to dynamically fill the data that is to be displayed – the header and body as well as the title and optional redirection directives. Beyond that the form can be of your own design to match your Web application’s look and feel. Figure 1 shows an example of an application specific error message displayed in my Web Store application for the West Wind site that uses the MessageDisplay form created for the application.

 


Figure 1 – Showing a generic message page. A single method call to the DisplayMessage() method with a Header and Message body is all it takes to generate a parameterized, generic message page from anywhere in the Web application.

 

Once you’ve designed your HTML form and subclassed it from wwMessageDisplay, calling this custom message page is as simple as making a static method call with at least two parameters to specify the header and message. Assuming the custom class and ASPX page is called the default MessageDisplay (MessageDisplay.aspx) you can call like this from anywhere in your application:

 

MessageDisplay.DisplayMessage("Application Error",
  "An <b>error</b> occurred in the application. blah module…");

 

You can call this from anywhere: From another ASPX page event, from within an ASPX page expression, and even from an HTTP handler. The call will take care of the current request displaying the message display page and then exit. You don’t need to issue Response.End() to finish as it’s implicit in the DisplayMessage() code.

 

You pass in a header message and the body for the message. Both can contain HTML markup to allow you to embed links or formatting if necessary as Figure 1 does with the link back to the Home Page. Additional overloads of the DisplayMessage() method allow you to specify an explicit ASPX page  (in case you have more than one ‘message template page’ in your application) or you can pass in a URL to automatically redirect to after a specified interval.

 

As you can see in Figure 1 the page is customized with the look and feel of the main application – it has the toolbar, links and page footer that the original application shows. This is provided by the custom WebForm the developer creates which is required to contain at least the two controls – Header and Message in order to work. The template Html in this example includes several User Controls (the toolbar, footer and links boxes), but you could just as well handcode all of the Html.

 

In order for the information to display the Html Template (your .ASPX page) requires that a couple of expressions and a couple of label controls exist in the page. Listing 1 shows the ASPX HTML source for the page above. The required portions are marked in bold.

 

Listing 1 – Example .ASPX page for the MessageDisplay template. This one uses several user controls. 

<%@ Page language="c#" Codebehind="MessageDisplay.aspx.cs" Inherits="Westwind.WebStore.MessageDisplay" AutoEventWireup="false"  enableViewState="false" %>

<%@ Register TagPrefix="ww" TagName="CategoryList" src="CategoryList.ascx"%>

<%@Register TagPrefix="ww" TagName="PageHeader" src="PageHeader.ascx"%>

<%@Register TagPrefix="ww" TagName="PageFooter" src="PageFooter.ascx"%>

<HTML>

   <HEAD>

      <title>

        <%= this.Header %>

      </title>

      <%= this.RedirectMetaTag %>

      <link REL="stylesheet" TYPE="text/css"

            HREF='<%= this.BasePath %>/wwWebstore.css'>

      <base href='<%= this.BasePath %>/' >

   </HEAD>

   <body TOPMARGIN="0" LEFTMARGIN="0">

 

      <!-- West Wind Menu -->

      <ww:PageHeader RUNAT="server" ID="oMenu" />

     

      <table BORDER="0" CELLSPACING="0" CELLPADDING="0"
            
WIDTH="100%" CLASS="body" HEIGHT="100%">

         <tr>

           <td class="categorylistbackground" valign="top"><br>

                 <ww:categorylist RUNAT="server" ID="oCategoryList" />

            </td>

 

            <!-- Custom Form Stuff -->

            <td VALIGN="top" BGCOLOR="#ffffff" CLASS="body" WIDTH="*">

               <form ID="form1" RUNAT="server">

                  <br>

                  <table border="0" width="97%">

                     <tr>

                        <td class="gridheader"  align="center" height="35">

                           <asp:label ID="lblHeader" RUNAT="server"></asp:label>

                        </td>

                     </tr>

                     <tr>

                        <td>

                           <br>

                           <blockquote>

                              <asp:label ID="lblMessage" RUNAT="server"></asp:label>

                              <br>

                              <p></p>

                           </blockquote>

                           <center><small>

                    <asp:label ID="lblRedirectHyperLink" RUNAT="server"></asp:label>

                          </small></center>

                          <ww:PageFooter id="oFooter" runat="server"></ww:PageFooter>

                        </td>

                     </tr>

                  </table>

               </form>

            </td>

         </tr>

         <!-- End Custom Form Stuff -->

      </table>

   </body>

</HTML>

 

Only a few things are specific to the MessageDisplay routine:

 

lblHeader Label
This is where the header label text is stored. In Figure 1 this is the Application Error message in the blue bar.


lblMessage Label
This is the label that receives the main message text. This text should be in Html format or plain text (in which case it just flows as a single paragraph).

 

lblRedirectHyperLink Label
If you’re using a Redirect link this label is used to show the page you are redirecting to. The page should automatically redirect to this link when the timeout is hit, but if it doesn’t (if the browser doesn’t support it or has it disabled) it’s there to click on.

 

<title> Tag
Usually you’ll want to set the Title of the page to display your main message. To do so. use the this.Header member and embed it into the <title> tag. Each of the passed in parameters are available here as properties: Header, Message, RedirectUrl and also RedirectMetaTag. You can use these anywhere you need.

 

this.BasePath
This property contains the base path of the Web application as a fully qualified URL like http://www.west-wind.com/WebStore/. A base Url is quite important if you need to display messages out of multiple directories. Without a <base> tag in the HTML header images might not be found since relative paths can easily break. The <base> above points back to the application root from which it can find any relative links. Here this.BasePath is used to reference the style sheet and set the <base> tag.

 

The above describes the contents of the .ASPX page (MessageDisplay.aspx) Html template. You also need a little bit of code to hook up the page logic. This basically consists of forwarding the standard page processing to a helper method that parses out the values passed in and assigning them to the appropriate controls. A full codebehind implementation of the class looks like this:

 

Listing 2 – the Codebehind implementation of the application specific Message handler.

public class MessageDisplay : Westwind.Web.Controls.wwMessageDisplay

{

      protected System.Web.UI.WebControls.Label lblHeader;

      protected System.Web.UI.WebControls.Label lblMessage;

      protected System.Web.UI.WebControls.Label lblRedirectHyperLink;

 

      private void Page_Load(object sender, System.EventArgs e)

      {

            this.DisplayPage();

      }

}


The key here is the DisplayPage() method which is inherited from the base class and is responsible for picking up the values passed into the static DisplayMessage() method. It looks for the above mentioned controls and populates them with the values retrieved from its internal state before the page is displayed.

How it works

Prior to ASP.Net I had always had a function like this in my toolbox because it was a requirement in so many places to dump a quick message to the user. In those days the idea was simple enough: Generate some code on the fly from within the source code and eventually call Response.Write() or equivalent to dump the hand generated HTML to the Http output stream. ASP.Net makes this process much cleaner by providing a clear Page processing model, the ability to transfer control to another page and pass context information to this page. Because of this it’s now much easier to create a new subclass that includes a template that describes the display formatting (the .ASPX template).

 

The implementation is based on a base class that provides all the processing functionality and a subclass you implement to provide the display template plus any additional logic that you might need to fire when the page runs.

 

The flow of this process is shown in Figure 2. You simply call the static DisplayMessage() method on your subclass from anywhere in your application with at least two parameters of Header and Body. This method then handles calling your ASPX page by using the Server.Transfer() mechanism and the Context object’s state mechanism to pass it the input parameters.

 

Figure 2 – The static DisplayMessage method accepts simple parameters and uses the HttpContext object to pass the values to the ASP.Net page handler for processing via the Server.Execute() method. This process allows a single method call to cause an ASP.Net page to be generated from anywhere in the application.

 

The .ASPX page is then run as a live instance of your subclass. Your only task is to call this.DisplayPage() which inherits from the base class. This method contains the logic to retrieve the data stored in the Context object, populate properties on the form and then renders the ASPX page.

 

The key concept is ASP.Net's ability to transfer control from one request to another using the Server.Transfer() mechanism. If you’re not familiar with Server.Transfer() it provides the ability to stop execution of the current request and jump over to another page in the same application and process it. All Request information (except the URL which is adjusted for the Transfers new Url) are kept intact so when you jump over to the new page your Request.Form and Request.ServerVariables still contain the same content as they had on the original page.

 

Keeping Context

What ties the original page or request and the transferred page together is the Context object. The Context object - as the name implies – has the lifetime of the current request. All of ASP.Net's intrinsic objects like Request, Response, Session etc. are actually members of the Context object. Think of the Context object as the main object that passes through the current request from beginning to end. The Context object also includes a state bag that can be used to store values into so they can be picked up at a later point in processing, which is exactly what is needed to pass information over a Server.Transfer() call. Using Context.Items["key"] values essentially serves as the parameter interface for Server.Transfer().

Implementation

To provide this functionality I used a subclass of the Page class that implements both a static and public interface to handle the generic tasks of message creation. The static methods are called from your application and are static to let you easily call the methods without any setup. The instance properties and methods are called only from within running WebForm. This way the two interfaces have clear separation as external for the static and internal for the instance.

 

Message display is a two step process: Initiating the request with a simple static method call, then transferring control to your custom class and letting ASP.Net render the template.

 

Let’s start with the static call interface. Listing 3 shows the full parameter list DisplayMessage method implementation and its overloads which can be called from anywhere in your ASP.Net application.

 

Listing 3 – The static external call interface of the wwMessageDisplay base class

public class wwMessageDisplay : System.Web.UI.Page

{

 

public static string Pagename = "MessageDisplay.aspx";

 

public static void DisplayMessage(string TemplatePageName,

                string Header, string Message,

                string RedirectUrl, int Timeout)

{

      HttpContext Context = HttpContext.Current;

      Context.Items.Add("ErrorMessage_Header",Header);

      Context.Items.Add("ErrorMessage_Message",Message);

      Context.Items.Add("ErrorMessage_Timeout",Timeout);

      Context.Items.Add("ErrorMessage_RedirectUrl",RedirectUrl);

     

      Context.Server.Transfer(Context.Request.ApplicationPath + "/" +

                              TemplatePageName);

}

 

public static void DisplayMessage(string Header, string Message,

                                  string RedirectUrl, int Timeout)

{

      DisplayMessage(Pagename,Header,Message,RedirectUrl,Timeout);

}

public static void DisplayMessage(string Header, string Message)

{

      DisplayMessage(Header,Message,null,0);

}

 

}

 

The DisplayMessage() method simply accepts a set of parameters and stuffs all of them except the TemplatePageName into the Context object. The full function version includes a first parameter of the TemplatePageName in case you don’t want to use the default name specified in the Pagename static property. This means if you implement your page as MessageDisplay.aspx you can use one of the other overloads that omits the page name. Why am I passing the page name? A static method has no way to determine the name of the currently access class and so the name of the page/class needs to be stored somewhere (Pagename) or be passed in as a parameter so that we can transfer to the correct page. If you have more than one message page in your application you’ll want to use the TemplatePageName to specify it excplicitly.

 

Note the use of the HttpContext.Current reference to get a reference to the ASP. Net intrinsic objects including Context and Request. HttpContext.Current is always available to an ASP.Net request (except in designmode) and provides a great way to access all the ASP.Net object in generic methods like this one without having to explicitly pass in either Request, Response or even the Context object.

 

The class contains additional methods and properties that are non-static that provide the page execution behavior. The non-static interface shown in Listing 4 shows the internal interface used to fill the controls of the WebForm.

 

Listing 4 – The internal display interface that provides rendering of the ASPX page

protected string BasePath = "";

protected string RedirectMetaTag = null;

 

protected string Header

{

      getreturn  (string) Context.Items["ErrorMessage_Header"]; }

}

protected string Message

{

      get { return (string) Context.Items["ErrorMessage_Message"]; }

}

protected string RedirectUrl

{

      get { return (string) Context.Items["ErrorMessage_RedirectUrl"]; }

}

 

public void DisplayPage(Label Header,Label Message,Label RedirectHyperLink)

{

     

      string Port = Request.ServerVariables["SERVER_PORT"];

      if (Port == null || Port == "80" || Port == "443")

            Port = "";

      else

            Port = ":" + Port;

 

      string Protocol = Request.ServerVariables["SERVER_PORT_SECURE"];

      if (Protocol == null || Protocol == "0")

            Protocol = "http://";

      else

            Protocol = "https://";

 

      // *** Figure out the base Url which points at the application's root

      this.BasePath =  Protocol + Request.ServerVariables["SERVER_NAME"] +

            Port + this.ResolveUrl(Request.ApplicationPath);

 

      Header.Text = this.Header;

      Message.Text = this.Message;

 

      if (this.RedirectUrl != null)

      {

            string NewUrl = this.RedirectUrl;

 

            // Must fix up the path in case we're in a separate sub-dir

            // because the page is using <base> we must include full relative path

            if (NewUrl.StartsWith("~") || NewUrl.StartsWith("/") )

                  NewUrl = this.ResolveUrl(NewUrl);

            else if ( !NewUrl.ToLower().StartsWith("http:") &&

                      !NewUrl.ToLower().StartsWith("https:") )

            {

                  // Relative Path. Must use current server path  + relative path

                  NewUrl = Request.FilePath.Substring( 0,

                             Request.FilePath.LastIndexOf("/") + 1) + 

                             NewUrl;

            }

 

            this.RedirectMetaTag =  string.Format(

                "<META HTTP-EQUIV='Refresh' CONTENT='{0}; URL={1}'>\r\n",

                this.Context.Items["ErrorMessage_Timeout"],NewUrl);

     

            RedirectHyperLink.Text = "<a href='" + NewUrl + 

                  "'>Click here</a> if your browser…";

      }

}


public void DisplayPage()

{

      this.DisplayPage((Label) this.FindControl("lblHeader"),

                       (Label) this.FindControl("lblMessage"),

                       (Label) this.FindControl("lblRedirectHyperLink"));

}

 

This part of the interface consists of a few properties that simply pull their values out of the Context object for easier access inside the ASPX page code and the DisplayPage method which is responsible for parsing the context values into the appropriate placeholder Label controls of your page.

 

Notice that the DisplayPage() method has two overloads – one with no parameters and one with a set of control references for the controls that are to be updated on the page. The parameterless version uses Page.FindControl() to create references to the common names of the controls. Header.Text and Message.Text are simply assigned from the Header and Message properties which return the corresponding Context collection values.

 

Most of the DisplayPage code deals with fixing up URLs to display properly. Dealing with the Urls is a bit tricky, because this page can be loaded from different locations in your application. The page can be loaded from the root of the application or one of its subdirectories which makes it difficult to determine relative paths of links, stylesheets, images etc. For this reason the HTML template includes a <BASE> tag in the page to force all related links relative to this base URL. Things are further complicated that some URLs are bound by this base tag and others not – for example redirect tag and style sheet references in the header since <BASE> doesn’t apply to the header.

 

There are two paths that are used: The path for the <base> tag which is a full URL including protocol and port, and the path that is used for the redirection link if provided which must be server relative. Creation of the base path invovles taking the Request.ApplicationPath and prepending protocol, server and port information. The redirection Url is more work as you have to deal with absolute URLs, relative links or links that use ASP. Net’s ‘root’ convention (using the ‘~’ character to signify the application root). The Control.ResolveUrl() method can easily take care of ‘~’ parsing and converting that into a application relative Url. If the URL is absolute and includes protocol prefix and port we don’t need to do anything else and just use it as is. If the path is relative, we have to start with the page’s current path and then add the relative path to it. Unfortunately ASP.Net has no mechanism to return you just the path of the current request so we have to parse it out of the full script path using the Request.FilePath property. All of this takes care of parsing the URL for redirection and the <base> tag.

You’ve got messages!

And voila! You now have a generic message display implementation that can be called from anywhere in your application with a single method call. You can even set up multiple message display pages by using providing a specific page name to display. As long as the pages derive from wwMessageDisplay and they include the required controls to display the header and messages you’re ready to go.

 

I use this class all over the place. All of my error handling goes through this class as well as many administrative forms that do not work well for the Postback mechanism. For example, many of my apps include delete functionality where the main operations are handled through plain postback, but at the end of a delete operation I display message of the final status that lets the user know that the operation has completed:

 

MessageDisplay.DisplayMessage("Invoice Deleted",

                  "Invoice Number: " + Invoice.InvNo +

                  "<hr>has been deleted.",

                  "InvoiceList.aspx",5);

 

This is much nicer than just redirecting – you’re giving some feedback first, then going to another location. Also in this case where a deletion occurs it’s hard to post back to the current page – the invoice no longer exists, and we can’t display a message on that invoice page itself since there’s nothing left to show. Instead we have to go somewhere else and it’s nice to be notified first that the operation completed before moving on. Being able to do this with a couple of lines of code is very convenient.

 

I hope that this article has given you a few tips and insides in how you can build front end routines to ASP.Net pages. In essence, I’ve shown a generic way to call an ASPX page through a simple method.  If you look at this approach you might find a few other places where a single method interface provides efficient access to frequently used pages that require dynamic data to be passed in and displayed.

 

As always if you have any questions or comments you can contact me on our message board at:

http://www.west-wind.com/wwThreads/Default.asp?Forum=White+Papers

 

 

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