Validating attribute usage with PostSharp Aspects

This post expands on my previous article on PostSharp. If you haven’t already, read it here.

Most of January has flown by with just one post, effectively shooting down my resolution to blog more often. In my defence, I have to state that I’ve just moved on to newer pastures, with all the re-settling in that involves.

Apart from that, I also spent a few hours twiddling with the Jasema sources, so I do have something to post about at least. :)

The .net attribute architecture supports an Attribute Usage definition, which is itself an attribute that can be applied to attributes. AttributeUsageAttribute determines whether said attribute can be applied to fields, methods, classes, assemblies, or any combination thereof. This allows you to identify, at compilation time, whether the attributes you have specified are used correctly, which is great.

There are situations, however, where you might want to enforce some more detailed constraints on an attribute; for example, you might want to make sure that it is only used by classes that implement a given interface, or check what parameters have been defined for it.

It is possible to implement this as a runtime check within the attribute itself, however this is not always a very elegant solution. If you check the constraints every time the attribute is invoked in some way, you’re incurring a performance hit, however slight. If one considers that PostSharp aspects may be called every time data changes in a given field, or every time a method (or even any method in an assembly is called), this may add up to quite a bit, depending on what sort of checking you’re doing.

By making this sort of check at run time, you’re also depriving yourself of compile time checking. Even if you have unit tests in place to make sure you catch incorrect behaviour. it can still take time to run the suite; wouldn’t it be a lot nicer if the compiler could be instructed to raise an error when an attribute is given the wrong parameters, or is used with the wrong sort of class?

While PostSharp aspects don’t allow you to give such instructions to the compiler, they do allow you to do something that’s so similar that the difference, to someone like me, is purely academic (so, flame me). These aspects define an OnCompileValidate method, which can be overridden in your custom aspects. Continue reading