Microsoft recently released the first CTP of a new development environment called WebMatrix (, which along with some of its supporting technologies are squarely aimed at making the Microsoft Web Platform more approachable for first-time developers and hobbyists. But in the process, it also provides some updated technologies that can make life easier for existing .NET developers.

Let’s face it: ASP.NET development isn’t exactly trivial unless you already have a fair bit of familiarity with sophisticated development practices. Stick a non-developer in front of Visual Studio .NET or even the Visual Web Developer Express edition and it’s not likely that the person in front of the screen will be very productive or feel inspired. Yet other technologies like PHP and even classic ASP did provide the ability for non-developers and hobbyists to become reasonably proficient in creating basic web content quickly and efficiently.

WebMatrix appears to be Microsoft’s attempt to bring back some of that simplicity with a number of technologies and tools. The key is to provide a friendly and fully self-contained development environment that provides all the tools needed to build an application in one place, as well as tools that allow publishing of content and databases easily to the web server.

WebMatrix is made up of several components and technologies:

IIS Developer Express

IIS Developer Express is a new, self-contained development web server that is fully compatible with IIS 7.5 and based on the same codebase that IIS 7.5 uses. This new development server replaces the much less compatible Cassini web server that’s been used in Visual Studio and the Express editions. IIS Express addresses a few shortcomings of the Cassini server such as the inability to serve custom ISAPI extensions (i.e., things like PHP or ASP classic for example), as well as not supporting advanced authentication. IIS Developer Express provides most of the IIS 7.5 feature set providing much better compatibility between development and live deployment scenarios.

SQL Server Compact 4.0

Database access is a key component for most web-driven applications, but on the Microsoft stack this has mostly meant you have to use SQL Server or SQL Server Express. SQL Server Compact is not new-it’s been around for a few years, but it’s been severely hobbled in the past by terrible tool support and the inability to support more than a single connection in Microsoft’s attempt to avoid losing SQL Server licensing. The new release of SQL Server Compact 4.0 supports multiple connections and you can run it in ASP.NET web applications simply by installing an assembly into the bin folder of the web application. In effect, you don’t have to install a special system configuration to run SQL Compact as it is a drop-in database engine: Copy the small assembly into your BIN folder (or from the GAC if installed fully), create a connection string against a local file-based database file, and then start firing SQL requests.

Additionally WebMatrix includes nice tools to edit the database tables and files, along with tools to easily upsize (and hopefully downsize in the future) to full SQL Server.

This is a big win, pending compatibility and performance limits. In my simple testing the data engine performed well enough for small data sets. This is not only useful for web applications, but also for desktop applications for which a fully installed SQL engine like SQL Server would be overkill. Having a local data store in those applications that can potentially be accessed by multiple users is a welcome feature.

ASP.NET Razor View Engine

What? Yet another native ASP.NET view engine? We already have Web Forms and various different flavors of using that view engine with Web Forms and MVC. Do we really need another? Microsoft thinks so, and Razor is an implementation of a lightweight, script-only view engine. Unlike the Web Forms view engine, Razor works only with inline code, snippets, and markup; therefore, it is more in line with current thinking of what a view engine should represent. There’s no support for a “page model” or any of the other Web Forms features of the full-page framework, but just a lightweight scripting engine that works with plain markup plus embedded expressions and code.

The markup syntax for Razor is geared for minimal typing, plus some progressive detection of where a script block/expression starts and ends. This results in a much leaner syntax than the typical ASP.NET Web Forms alligator (<% %>) tags. Razor uses the @ sign plus standard C# (or Visual Basic) block syntax to delineate code snippets and expressions.

Here’s a very simple example of what Razor markup looks like along with some comment annotations:

<!DOCTYPE html>
    <h1>Razor Test</h1>
    <!-- simple expressions -->
    <hr />
    <!-- method expressions -->
    <!-- code blocks -->
        List<string> names = new List<string>();
    <!-- structured block statements -->
    @foreach(string name in names){
   <!-- Conditional code -->
   @if(true) {
       <!-- Literal Text embedding in code -->
       <!-- Literal Text embedding in code -->

Like the Web Forms view engine, Razor parses pages into code, and then executes that run-time compiled code. Effectively a “page” becomes a code file with markup becoming literal text written into the Response stream, code snippets becoming raw code, and expressions being written out with Response.Write(). The code generated from Razor doesn’t look much different from similar Web Forms code that only uses script tags; so although the syntax may look different, the operational model is fairly similar to the Web Forms engine minus the overhead of the large Page object model. However, there are differences: -Razor pages are based on a new base class, Microsoft.WebPages.WebPage, which is hosted in the Microsoft.WebPages assembly that houses all the Razor engine parsing and processing logic. Browsing through the assembly (in the generated ASP.NET Temporary Files folder or GAC) will give you a good idea of the functionality that Razor provides. If you look closely, a lot of the feature set matches ASP.NET MVC’s view implementation as well as many of the helper classes found in MVC.

It’s not hard to guess the motivation for this sort of view engine: For beginning developers the simple markup syntax is easier to work with, although you obviously still need to have some understanding of the .NET Framework in order to create dynamic content. The syntax is easier and much shorter to type than alligator tags (<% %>) and also easier to understand aesthetically what’s happening in the markup code.

Razor also is a better fit for Microsoft’s vision of ASP.NET MVC: It’s a new view engine without the baggage of Web Forms attached to it. The engine is more lightweight since it doesn’t carry all the features and object model of Web Forms with it and it can be instantiated directly outside of the HTTP environment, which has been rather tricky to do for the Web Forms view engine.

There are also no legacy properties in the engine that can be accessed but that don’t actually work, such as Page.Clientscript in the Web Forms view engine in MVC. Razor also better fits the “view-based” approach where the view is supposed to be mostly a visual representation that doesn’t hold much, if any, code. While you can still code, the code you do write has to be self-contained. Overall I wouldn’t be surprised if Razor will become the new standard view engine for MVC in the future.

Razor can also be used in existing Web Forms and MVC applications, although that’s not working currently unless you manually configure the script mappings and add the appropriate assemblies. It’s possible to do it, but it’s probably better to wait until Microsoft releases official support for Razor scripts in Visual Studio. Once that happens, you can simply drop .cshtml and .vbhtml pages into an existing ASP.NET project and they will work side by side with classic ASP.NET pages.

WebMatrix Development Environment

To tie all of these three technologies together, Microsoft is shipping WebMatrix with an integrated development environment. An integrated gallery manager makes it easy to download and load existing projects, and then extend them with custom functionality. It seems to be a prominent goal to provide community-oriented content that can act as a starting point, be it via a custom templates or a complete standard application.

The IDE includes a project manager that works with a single project and provides an integrated IDE/editor for editing the .cshtml and .vbhtml pages. A run button allows you to quickly run pages in the project manager in a variety of browsers. There’s no debugging support for code at this time. Note that Razor pages don’t require explicit compilation, so making a change, saving, and then refreshing your page in the browser is all that’s needed to see changes while testing an application locally. It’s essentially using the auto-compiling Web Project that was introduced with .NET 2.0. All code is compiled during run time into dynamically created assemblies in the ASP.NET temp folder.

WebMatrix also has PHP Editing support with syntax highlighting. You can load various PHP-based applications from the WebMatrix Web Gallery directly into the IDE. Most of the Web Gallery applications are ready to install and run without further configuration, with Wizards taking you through installation of tools, dependencies, and configuration of the database as needed. WebMatrix leverages the Web Platform installer to pull the pieces down from websites in a tight integration of tools that worked nicely for the four or five applications I tried this out on. Click a couple of check boxes and fill in a few simple configuration options and you end up with a running application that’s ready to be customized. Nice!

You can easily deploy completed applications via WebDeploy (to an IIS server) or FTP directly from within the development environment. The deploy tool also can handle automatically uploading and installing the database and all related assemblies required, making deployment a simple one-click install step.

The IDE contains a database editor that can edit SQL Compact and SQL Server databases. There is also a Database helper class that facilitates database access by providing easy-to-use, high-level query execution and iteration methods:

    var db = Database.OpenFile("FirstApp.sdf");
    string sql = "select * from customers";
@foreach(var row in db.Query(sql)){
        <li>@row.FirstName @row.LastName</li>

Likewise Execute and ExecuteNonQuery allow execution of more complex queries. Note these queries use string-based queries rather than LINQ or Entity Framework’s strongly typed LINQ queries. While this may seem like a step back, it’s also in line with the expectations of non .NET developers who are quite used to writing and using SQL strings in code.

This looks a lot like a DataTable-style data access mechanism, but to be fair, this is a common approach in scripting languages. This type of syntax that uses simple, static, data object methods to perform simple data tasks with one line of code are common in scripting languages and are a good match for folks working in PHP/Python, etc. Seems like Microsoft has taken great advantage of .NET 4.0’s dynamic typing to provide this sort of interface for row iteration.

FWIW, all the examples demonstrate using local SQL Compact files-I was unable to get a SQL Server connection string to work with the Database class (the connection string wasn’t accepted). However, since the code in the page is still plain old .NET, you can easily use standard ADO.NET code or even LINQ or Entity Framework models that are created outside of WebMatrix in separate assemblies as required.

The beauty of Razor and the compilation model is that, behind it all, it’s still .NET. Although the syntax may look foreign, it’s still all .NET behind the scenes. You can easily access existing tools, helpers, and utilities simply by adding them to the project as references or to the bin folder. Razor automatically recognizes any assembly reference from assemblies in the bin folder.

In the default configuration, Microsoft provides a host of helper functions in a Microsoft.WebPages assembly (check it out in the ASP.NET temp folder for your application), which includes a host of HTML Helpers. If you’ve used ASP.NET MVC before, a lot of the helpers should look familiar. Documentation at the moment is sketchy-there’s a very rough API reference you can check out here:

What Does It All Mean?

Clearly Microsoft is trying hard to create an environment with WebMatrix that is easy to use for newbie developers. The goal seems to be simplicity in providing a minimal development environment and an easy-to-use script engine/language that makes it easy to get started with. There’s also some focus on community features that can be used as starting points, such as Web Gallery applications and templates. The community features in particular are very nice and something that would be nice to eventually see in Visual Studio as well.

The question is whether this is too little too late. Developers who have been clamoring for a simpler development environment on the .NET stack have mostly left for other simpler platforms like PHP. Microsoft will be hard pressed to win those folks-and other hardcore PHP developers-back. Regardless of how much you dress up a script engine fronted by the .NET Framework, it’s still the .NET Framework and all the complexity that drives it. While .NET is a fine solution in its breadth and features once you get a basic handle on the core features, the bar of entry to being productive with the .NET Framework is still pretty high. The MVC style helpers Microsoft provides are a good step in the right direction, but I suspect it’s not enough to shield new developers from having to delve much deeper into the Framework to get even basic applications built.

The more interesting scenario is Razor as a view engine for MVC. as it provides the core feature set that MVC needed from the start and didn’t have available. The potential for lightweight performance and more readable syntax that provides purely scripted page support make it ideal as a view engine for MVC applications or for simple standalone pages.

The current version of WebMatrix hits many sweet spots, but it also feels like it has a long way to go before it really can be a tool that a beginning developer can feel comfortable with. I suspect IntelliSense support will be coming at some point-this is a crucial piece given the complexity of the .NET Framework and having to discover the components you need in order to do even basic stuff with .NET. Anything to make discovery of components easier is crucial, for a beginner tool especially.

Debugging support is also very important for a tool like this, even if it’s fairly basic with the ability to set breakpoints, step through the code, and examine variable values.

Visual Studio integration is currently missing, but is promised for a later release. The ASP.NET MVC team has already mentioned that Razor will eventually become the default MVC view engine, which will guarantee continued growth and development of this tool along those lines. And the Razor engine and support tools actually inherit many of the features that MVC pioneered, so there’s some synergy flowing both ways between Razor and MVC.

As an existing ASP.NET developer who’s already familiar with Visual Studio and ASP.NET development, the WebMatrix IDE probably doesn’t give you anything that you want. The tools provided are minimal and provide nothing that you can’t get in Visual Studio today, except the minimal Razor syntax highlighting, so there’s little need to take a step back. With Visual Studio integration coming later there’s little reason to look at WebMatrix for tooling.

It’s good to see that Microsoft is giving some thought about the ease of use of .NET as a platform For so many years, we’ve been piling on more and more new features without trying to take a step back and see how complicated the development/configuration/deployment process has become. Sometimes it’s good to take a step-or several steps-back and take another look and realize just how far we’ve come. WebMatrix is one of those reminders and one that likely will result in some positive changes on the platform as a whole. Keep an eye on these technologies-you’re sure to see and hear more of it in the near future.