Strongly-typed Identifiers and T4 Templates

5 minute read Published:

I would like to share with you a Visual Studio T4 template I use to generate strongly-typed identifiers for my domain models. These strongly-typed identifiers are glorified int wrappers. When designing your domain models you should choose to store references as strongly-typed identifiers because it exposes yet another layer of abstraction. Your domain models should never have to know if they reference one another with int, long, string, Guid, or any of the other myriad of identifier types commonly used. They should only be concerned with whether the identifiers represent are equal values. Having a centralized and well-named type to represent an identifier provides many other benefits than just abstraction and separation of concerns. It gives you the ability to have the compiler do some enforcement on your implementation code. I’m sure you’ve run into a few bugs where you’re dealing with model identifiers close in name where you might be confused and accidentally copy/paste code expecting one range of identifiers into a new method that should have expected a different range of identifiers. These two distinct identifier ranges are both represented as ints in your code and your compiler would never tell you since the error is a semantic one, not a syntactic one. Creating strongly-typed wrappers for these different identifier ranges now makes the problem a syntactic one that your compiler can check for you. Furthermore, you get benefits of method overloading whereas you couldn’t before when using the primitive types like int. In case you’re wondering, there are implicit conversion operators to and from int defined on the template. This makes it easy to construct a strongly typed identifier from an integer constant for testing purposes or perhaps to create one from external data sources where the identifier is represented as an int. For example, ASP.NET MVC allows one to define public action methods with virtually any set of typed parameters and it will attempt to convert HTTP form and query-string values from their string representation into the types exposed by the method’s parameters.

public class MyController : Controller
  public ActionResult GetMyObject(int id)
    // Convert the `int` id parameter from the route into a `MyObjectID` using the
    // implicit int conversion operator defined on `MyObjectID` struct:
    MyObjectID objid = (MyObjectID)id;

    // Example code to instantiate a default implementation of our
    // earlier-defined `IMyObjectRepository` interface:
    IMyObjectRepository repo = new MyObjectRepositoryDefaultImpl();
    MyObject myObj = repo.GetMyObject(objid);

    // We intend to display a view named "GetMyObject" providing a `MyObject` view model type:
    return View((object)myObj);

The template can and should be extended to allow customization of base identifier type that the strongly-typed identifier wraps rather than just assuming int for all. As it is, all my models come from a data schema which uses int for identity values so it’s fine with me.

<#@ template language="C#v3.5" debug="True" hostspecific="True" #>
<#@ output extension=".generated.cs" #>
    // This .tt file is a T4 template. T4 is a code-generation template language implemented by
    // Visual Studio and used for simplistic code-generation scenarios like this.

    // The pattern implemented here is to give each model identifier a strongly typed container for
    // its underlying primitive type value. This way, methods can be overloaded based on identifier type
    // and bugs involving the wrong identifier used with a method call can hopefully be reduced.

    // Unfortunately, there's no better way to define each of these identifier structs other
    // than code-generating them. A base class, or any other means of code sharing, would not
    // help since it would defeat the purpose of keeping the identifiers orthogonal and hence
    // non-convertible to each other.

    // Add new identifier names here to be auto-generated using the same boilerplate code:
    // The columns are "ClassName", "BasePrimitiveType", "XMLSummary".
    var idNames = new[] {
        new string[3] { "AbcModelID", "int", "A unique identifer for a Abc model" },
        new string[3] { "XyzModelID", "int", "A unique identifier for a Xyz model" },
        new string[3] { "EventInstanceID", "Guid", "A unique identifier for a unique instance of an event" },
        // add more identifier definitions here...
// WARNING: This code is auto-generated by T4 template. Any modifications made to
// this file will be rendered ineffective as it will be code-generated at build time anyway.
using System;
using System.Collections.Generic;
using System.Linq;
using System.Text;

namespace Your.Namespace.Here
    for (int i = 0; i < idNames.Length; ++i)
        string idName = idNames[i][0];
        string idType = idNames[i][1];
        string comment = idNames[i][2];
    #region <#= idName #>

    /// <#= comment #>
    /// This type is explicitly convertible to int and vice versa using the (int) cast operator.
    /// For example, <#= idName #> id = (<#= idName #>)10; int value = (int)id;
    public struct <#= idName #> : IEquatable<<#= idName #>>
        <#= idType #> _value;

        public <#= idName #>(<#= idType #> value) { this._value = value; }
        public static explicit operator <#= idType #>(<#= idName #> id) { return id._value; }
        public static explicit operator <#= idName #>(<#= idType #> value) { return new <#= idName #>(value); }
        public static bool operator ==(<#= idName #> a, <#= idName #> b) { return a._value == b._value; }
        public static bool operator !=(<#= idName #> a, <#= idName #> b) { return a._value != b._value; }

        public override string ToString() { return _value.ToString(); }
        public override int GetHashCode() { return _value.GetHashCode(); }
        public override bool Equals(object obj)
            if (obj == null) return false;
            if (obj.GetType() != typeof(<#= idName #>)) return false;
            return this.Equals((<#= idName #>)obj);
        public bool Equals(<#= idName #> other) { return _value.Equals(other._value); }

        if (i < idNames.Length - 1) WriteLine(String.Empty);