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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘MSBuild’

Technical advice post of the week

Or, what to do with a particular compilation problem

This week, Microsoft released .NET 5, and it reminded me I’ve been meaning to post a piece of technical advice that has bitten me a few times but which doesn’t seem to be very well-documented or well-described online. It’s a piece of technical advice, though, that will slowly be fading away in relevance because it’s advice on .NET Framework; so I thought I should put it up here whilst it is still helpful to people.

(Note for non-technical readers, who are used to photos of trains and cemeteries and probably won’t find this post very interesting: .NET 5 is the latest version of .NET Core, which is the replacement for .NET Framework, hence Microsoft have dropped “Core” from the name to try to make that clearer. .NET 5 is the successor to .NET Core 3, because there were many very popular versions of .NET Framework 4.x which were and are heavily used for a long time, so Microsoft thought reusing the number 4 would be just Too Confusing. Are you less confused now?)

This problem, too, is pretty much specific to people working in teams. It only happens (well, I’ve only seen it happen) if all of the following apply:

  • you’re working in parallel in a team, on a complex system, probably that has solutions containing a relatively large number of projects
  • you’re using the MSBuild tool as part of your continuous integration pipeline, deployment process, or similar
  • you’re using Git as your version control system

The symptoms of the problem are:

  • You can open the solution in Visual Studio and build it with no problems
  • When MSBuild tries to build the solution, it immediately errors, claiming that the solution file has a syntax error on line 2.

Spoiler: there is no syntax error on line 2.

Another note for non-technical readers who are still here: what you might think of loosely as a programming project, in any kind of .NET flavour, has a primary file called a “solution” (its name ends in .sln). The solution contains one or more “projects”; each project contains code. Visual Studio can open your solution file and your project files and turn the projects into some sort of output product, such as a program, a website, a code library or whatever. However, you don’t have to use Visual Studio to do this. .NET Framework has a program called MSBuild that does the same thing. If you have automated your build process (which if you’re working in a team you probably should) and you’re using .NET Framework, your build process will probably use MSBuild to do its work. What happens here is one of a range of problems called “well it worked on my machine”. A developer has code that seems to be in a happy, working state, they upload their code to the team’s server, the automated build process runs, and the automated build process falls over and says it doesn’t work.

The cause of the problem is: two people on the team have added different projects to the solution, in parallel. Now, Git is often quite good, when two people change code at the same time, at either working out how to merge the changes together, or at least, asking you to sort the situation out manually. This, though, is a situation where Git does the wrong thing and breaks your solution file—but it breaks it in a way that only MSBuild notices, and that Visual Studio happily ignores.

The reason this happens is down to the syntax of solution files. The part which lists the projects they contain looks a bit like this:

Project("{FAE04EC0-301F-11D3-BF4B-00C04F79EFBC}") = "Important.Project.Library", "Important.Project.Library\Important.Project.Library.csproj", "{E6FF8E04-A41D-446B-9F8A-CCFAF4B08AD2}"
EndProject
Project("{FAE04EC0-301F-11D3-BF4B-00C04F79EFBC}") = "Important.Project", "Important.Project\Important.Project.csproj", "{9A7E2940-50B8-4F3A-A535-AB6220E6CE3A}"
EndProject
Project("{FAE04EC0-301F-11D3-BF4B-00C04F79EFBC}") = "Important.Project.Tests", "Important.Project.Tests\Important.Project.Tests.csproj", "{68035DDB-1C24-407C-B6B3-32CEC1D964E5}"
EndProject

Don’t worry too much about what each line says: the important thing to spot is that each project has a pair of lines: a Project(...) = line that contains the important information, and an EndProject line that, er, doesn’t. The projects are in a fairly arbitrary order, too; on your screen in Visual Studio they get sorted alphabetically, but that isn’t reflected in the file, where they are in the order they were added in.

The real cause of the problem is that Git doesn’t know that every Project... has to be followed by an EndProject. So, imagine two people have added new, different projects to the solution file. Git sees this and thinks: Alice has added Project... to line 42, and Bob has added a different Project... to line 42. So I’ll make those into lines 42 and 43. Alice added EndProject to line 43, and so did Bob, so I’ll just pop that in as line 44. So you get this:

Project("{FAE04EC0-301F-11D3-BF4B-00C04F79EFBC}") = "Alices.Library", "Alices.Library\Alices.Library.csproj", "{0902233A-3857-4E5E-99F4-54F3F5E695E5}"
Project("{FAE04EC0-301F-11D3-BF4B-00C04F79EFBC}") = "Bobs.Library", "Bobs.Library\Bobs.Library.csproj", "{56ABE9BB-1373-43D3-B1C5-1526E443AD73}"
EndProject

Visual Studio is quite unpeturbed by this. MSBuild, however, doesn’t like it at all. It reads the file, realises there’s a Project without a matching EndProject, and falls over. For some reason, it always complains that the error is on line 2, even though it isn’t anywhere near line 2.

The fix for this, as you might have guessed, is to open up the solution file in a text editor and manually enter that missing EndProject line after Alice’s project. And that’s it. Or, if you don’t feel comfortable going in and hacking your solution file directly, remember I said that Visual Studio is completely unfazed by this? You can make some sort of small change in Visual Studio that will imply a different change to the solution file: for example, tell it not to build one of the projects in one of the build configurations. Visual Studio doesn’t just change that bit, it will write out the whole file from scratch, so the problem gets silently fixed for you. Which one is less work depends on which one you’re happier doing, to be honest.

That’s the abstruse technical post over for now. Next time I write one, I’ll see if I can find something even more technically obscure.

Inconsistency

In which different tools behave in different ways

One of those days when everything seemed to go wrong at work this afternoon. Partly because of things I broke, partly because of things that other people had messed up before I got there, partly because of things that seemed to go wrong entirely by themselves.

For example - warning, dull technical paragraph ahead - I hadn’t realised that Visual Studio can cope remarkably well with slightly-corrupt solution files and will happily skip over and ignore the errors; but other tools such as MSBuild will throw the whole file out, curl up and cry into their beer. Visual Studio, whilst ignoring the error, also won’t fix it. Therefore, when git is a git and accidentally corrupts a solution file in a merge, you will have no problems at all on a local build, but mysterious and hard-to-fix total failures happen whenever you try to build on the build server.

Update, September 8th 2020: At some point I will write a proper blog post about what happened here, how to spot it is going to happen, and how to fix it, because although MSBuild is going away now we are in the .NET Core world there are still plenty of people out there using .NET Framework, and they still occasionally face this problem.