Projecting Onto a Presentation Model with the Entity Framework and ASP.NET MVC

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In this post, I will demonstrate how to map entity models to views in an ASP.NET MVC application without worrying about implementation details like eager loading, lazy loading, or having to manually optimize SQL for the task at hand. I will argue that expressing the relationship between an entity model in the presentation model in a LINQ projection is far simpler than other methods of doing this mapping.

Imagine that you've been asked to write a new web application to track employees for a customer, Chotchkies restaurant. The application must use ASP.NET MVC and the ADO.NET Entity Framework. The user interaction designers have mocked up the following interface for editing an employee:

Employee editor

Upon seeing this mockup, your first recommendation is to fire the user interface designers. But management declines to follow your recommendation. So how should you implement this? Since this is a new application, you have no database, no entity model, nothing. Where to begin?

Presentation Models

For a variety of reasons, I always use strongly-typed views in my ASP.NET MVC applications. Also, I use presentation models instead of using entity types directly as the model type for my views.This allows the user interface and data models to evolve independently.

Because I am likely to want to build user interfaces using ASP.NET MVC 2's Dynamic Templated Views, I need to decorate the view model with presentation concerns, like noting that the "Flair count" field is read-only in this particular view.

Especially in view of the less-than-compelling user interface markup, it's important to realize that the design of the user interface is likely to change wildly over the course of implementing the application. When actual users begin to test the application, they will request changes to the user interface, and you need to be able to adapt to this.

This has two important implications: You must get a prototype to testers and end-users as fast as possible, and your user interface must not be deeply coupled to the rest of the application, given the high likelihood of change.

So based upon the user interface prototype above, the following presentation model might be reasonable:

It's now trivial to write an action which can be used to develop a view for editing the employee, and which matches the UI prototype above. Such an action might look like:

Demo employee action code

I'll spare you the HTML. At this point, I have a running application which the user interaction designer can approve, and testers can try out. My total effort, thus far, is a few minutes of work. If I had started by designing a database and the data model, I would still have nothing to show for my efforts.

Entity Model

At some point however, you need to create a database and an entity model. That was, after all, part of the requirements you were given for the application. Knowing that there might be a need to reference people who are not employees, the entity model is going to have to look very different than the presentation model above. After some discussions with the business analyst, you learn that Chotchkies management is very serious about tracking employee flair, so a first attempt at an entity model might look like this:

Now you can generate a database. At this point, you have a presentation model and an entity model, and need only wire them together.


Taking a collection of instances of one type, and mapping their properties onto a collection of instances of another type is often called mapping or projection. With older ORMs, which have either no or very limited LINQ support, this can be quite tedious, requiring manual code, the use of tools like AutoMapper, and a good deal of thinking about eager loading, lazy loading, and optimizing situations like the fact that we don't actually want to load all of the flair for an employee here; we just need the count.

The Entity Framework, on the other hand, makes this very easy, as we can just express the relationship between the entity model and the presentation model with a LINQ expression:

I'm glossing over some details here. In a real-world application, for example, we would use the repository pattern rather than grabbing the context directly in the controller. But the point of this post is shown in the code above:

By expressing the relationship between the entity model and the presentation model as a LINQ query, it is no longer necessary to worry about implementation details like eager loading versus lazy loading, optimizing the SQL for the Count and avoiding loading big properties not actually used here. All of this can be — and is — derived from the query above, automatically.
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