January 11, 2008

Book Review: Learning ASP.NET with Ajax

Built on top of the .NET framework, ASP.NET is Microsoft's flagship technology for building web applications. By tightly integrating it with Visual Studio, which remains the premier development IDE across all platforms, Microsoft has made ASP.NET a compelling technology.

The important thing to understand about O'Reilly's Learning ASP.NET 2.0 with AJAX is its guiding purpose. As stated in the preface: "What is the quickest way for me to build real web applications with the least handcoding?" In essence its a beginner's guide to ASP.NET and in that, it remains true to its purpose throughout the book.

Aligned to the purpose, the authors (Jess Liberty, Dan Hurwitz and Brian MacDonald) focus heavily on the tool used to build ASP.NET applications - Microsoft Visual Studio (or Visual Web Developer). All the code is in VB.NET. This bothered me a bit initially because I program primarily in C#, but while going through the book, I realized that this barely slowed me down in terms of understanding the code. In fact, translating some of the examples into C# was not only a breeze but kept my eyes from glazing over.

I'll get one more issue with the book out of the way: its treatment of Ajax is cursory, primarily coming in Chapter 3. And its tightly bound to its usability within Visual Studio. Given the goal of the book, this is fairly consistent because the authors resist digressing into a discourse of Ajax and instead stick to integrating Ajax into the overall ASP.NET tutorial.

This singularity of vision is the strength of this book and makes it a pleasure to read. It comes with some really good samples and code discussions, and it guides you through the major features of ASP.NET as exposed by Visual Studio. At some points I did long for some real-world discussions (what are the cons of using Master Pages, for example).

The book covers useful ground for beginners: there is a chapter on maintaining state, one on interacting with a database, another on errors and exceptions, yet another rather useful one on security and personalization. Again, because the book is a starter course in ASP.NET, the authors keep it light, expecting you to fill in the gaps yourself. Everything you learn in the book is tied together in the end in the final chapter where you read about building a basic commerce application. (The author's don't cross-reference material from individual chapters, however).

Learning ASP.NET with Ajax is an excellent text on table stakes ASP.NET. Its very well organized and contains a good balance of text, pop out tips and source code.

You can download ASP.NET here and the AJAX extensions here. Visual Web Developer, which is a web-centric version of Visual Studio, along with the .NET 2.0 framework is available for a free download here.