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In depth: The ASP.NET MVC Pipeline

If what we’ve heard is true, then the new ASP.NET MVC framework will be the most customisable and extensible web development platform Microsoft has ever shipped.

If you want to take advantage of that, or if you’re just trying to make sense of what bit does what, you’ll want to open up the bonnet and check out the engine.

The Pipeline

ASP.NET MVC Pipeline Thumbnail

Disclaimer: this information is based on pre-CTP1 code samples, so it might be outdated or just plain wrong. I will update this post and the diagram when the public CTP is shipped.

Download diagram: PDF, JPEG

0. App initialisation

When the application starts up, like any ASP.NET application, it runs Global.asax’s Application_Start() method.

In this method, you can add Route objects to the static RouteTable.Routes collection (which is of type RouteCollection). These will be inspected later when each request is received. Each Route object defines a URL pattern to be matched and the controller to be used in this case. Optionally, you can specify a controller action and a custom IRouteHandler if you don’t want to use the default (which is MvcRouteHandler).

If you’re implementing a custom IControllerFactory (for example, if you’re using a 3rd-party Inversion of Control container, like Castle Windsor), you can set this as the active controller factory by assigning it to the System.Web.Mvc.ControllerFactory.Instance property.

1. Routing

Overview: Routing is a stand-alone component that matches incoming requests to IHttpHandlers by URL pattern. MvcHandler is, itself, an IHttpHandler, which acts as a kind of proxy to other IHttpHandlers configured in the Routes table.

The combination of System.Web.Mvc.MvcHandler and System.Web.Mvc.UrlRoutingModule references in the web.config give responsibility for handling all incoming requests to MvcHandler.

First, MvcHandler calls Routes.GetRouteData() which matches the incoming request against the list of Route objects added in Application_Start(). The appropriate Route is chosen and a RouteData object prepared. This references the appropriate IRouteHandler and IController to be used.

Next, the IRouteHandler‘s GetHttpHandler() is called, returning an IHttpHandler, whose ProcessRequest() method is finally invoked. The default IHttpHandler as returned by MvcRouteHandler is, again, MvcHandler, which performs steps 2-4 below.

ScottGu offers another view of this routing process.

2. Instantiate and execute controller

Overview: The active IControllerFactory supplies an IController instance

MvcHandler’s ProcessRequest() method calls ControllerFactory.Instance.CreateController(), passing context information including the type of controller obtained in the RouteData object previously.

The active IControllerFactory is responsible for instantiating and returning an appropriate IController. Usually, this will be a subclass of the Controller base class.

The IController’s Execute() method is then called. If this is a subclass of Controller, steps 3 and 4 below are performed.

3. Locate and invoke controller action

Overview: The controller invokes its relevant action method, which after further processing, calls RenderView()

The Controller.Execute() method uses the RouteData and other context information to pick the appropriate action method. This method must have a [ControllerAction] attribute to be eligible for selection. It also maps incoming request parameters (querystring, form etc from the IHttpRequest context object) to the parameter list of the action method.

The controller calls its own InvokeAction() method, passing details of the chosen action method, which, predictably, invokes the action method. This is where your code finally runs.

Within your [ControllerAction] method, you’re expected to call the Controller’s RenderView() method. By this time, you will have populated the controller’s ViewData property. RenderView() performs step 4 below.

4. Instantiate and render view

Overview: The IViewFactory supplies an IView, which pushes response data to the IHttpResponse object.

The view subsystem follows the same factory pattern as routing. That is, the Controller object has a property called ViewFactory which is of type IViewFactory. The IViewFactory interface defines a method called CreateView(), which takes a view name and other context information, using which it instantiates and returns an IView.

The controller can now invoke the IView‘s RenderView() method, supplying the necessary context information, which includes ViewData and the IHttpResponse object to which it can push any text or binary data into the response. This response data may be HTML, an image, or any other binary or text data.

Summary / Conclusion

As a developer working with ASP.NET, you won’t need to worry about the intricacies of IRouteHandler and IViewFactory and the like very often. The typical development process is simply:

  • From Global.asax, add a Route object representing a certain URL pattern you want to catch and map to a controller / action
  • Add a Controller subclass, whose [ControllerActions] should be invoked in response to requests, populating ViewData
  • Add a view template that uses ViewData to render some HTML

The thing to remember is that there are many extensibility points all over the framework, so if you want to build a custom view engine or a custom request routing system, you can hook in at the appropriate points. Hopefully the diagram and explanation above will prove useful if you’re just starting to do that.

kick it on

17 Responses to In depth: The ASP.NET MVC Pipeline

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  4. sandeep

    I am searching for System.Web.MVC since a long time, but unable to find. Can anybody please tell from where I can get the code/dll

  5. Steve

    Sandeep – the ASP.NET MVC framework isn’t released yet. There is likely to be a CTP release this week, but the final release isn’t expected before the middle of 2008.

  6. nice one. PDF is very helpful…

  7. Pingback: How ASP.NET MVC WORKS? « MVC#

  8. Andy Choi

    I bought the MVC 2 Framework. Great book! Thanks. Is this diagram still reflect the flow of MVC2?


  9. This site called Unblock Websites also has some decent info on the topic.

  10. MercuryNewt

    Is this diagram still accurate in MVC 3?

  11. I have been browsing online more than three hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours. It is pretty worth enough for me. In my opinion, if all website owners and bloggers made good content as you did, the net will be a lot more useful than ever before.

  12. Chinmay Gadre

    This is great! I was searching for this for some time now! Most interestingly concise and yet absolute mind opener! This has opened new possibilities for me in ASP.NET MVC!

    Many Thanks!

  13. Great resource but it leaves out where the action filters get executed… If anyone is looking for that so far it looks like they are getting called after the controller is instantiated.

  14. Very useful article…