C# 8 adds Nullable Reference Types, which warns us about problematic null values. If you’re upgrading to C# 8, you may run into a few challenges for Entity Framework. Although frustrating at first, the warnings can also be catalysts for finding more effective ways to communicate intent. Let’s walk through the upgrade and devise a few new EF patterns to adopt.

Upgrading Entity Framework Core

You’ll need the latest version of Entity Framework Core, so start by making sure your Nuget package references are up to date. I upgraded Microsoft.EntityFrameworkCore.SqlServer to version 3.0.0, as it has first-class support for working with Nullable Reference Types.

Enable Nullable Reference Types across all projects

I turned on the feature for all projects in my solution by placing a Directory.build.props file beside my *.sln file. I could have turned the feature on within each *.csproj file individually, but I don’t want to have to remember to do this each time I add another project to the solution. I want to solve this once so that it stays solved:

Once you turn on the feature, you get compiler warnings based on two strong opinions:

  1. A reference like a string is intended to never be null.
  2. If a reference does deserve to be null, you have to say so: string?

You’ll get a lot of warnings at first: “You said this wasn’t going to be null, but I think you’re wrong!” In the middle of a method, it can be clear what to do in response to each warning, but when it comes to Entity Framework DbContext and entity classes, the warnings can be a little confusing.

Deal with DbSets

My first challenge was with my DbContext class’s own DbSet properties. Anyone comfortable with EF just knows that these DbSet properties will be non-null by the time we need them. EF ensures that they are initialized for us, but the C# compiler doesn’t know that. All the compiler sees is a non-null reference type (DbSet<Contact>) that is apparently never initialized. Rather than “chase the warning message” by adding meaningless constructor assignments, we’ll instead declare that in this case, we know better. We add “= default!” to each DbSet property:

Technically this means, “Initialize it to the default (null), but act like it’s not null.” In practice, we’ll read this as, “Trust me! This will be defaulted for me by EF!”

Deal with entities

Next, I got a warning about my Contact entity class. We started with a typical bag of mutable properties:

Similar to the DbSet warning, the compiler complained that I had declared non-null string properties, but that they would in fact be null upon construction, as they are never initialized.

This time, it would be a serious mistake to initialize them with “default!”. It was safe before because, in that case, we knew with great certainty that any usage of the properties would work without null checks. In the case of entity properties, we know that there is no such safety net. This time, we need to really follow the suggestion by initializing the non-null columns’ properties in a constructor. In my case, only the PhoneNumber column was truly nullable:

Wait, what about Id?

You may be surprised that we’re not accepting the never-null Id property via the constructor as well. We leave it out for good reason.

First, as a value type, we have no warning about it; it will simply default to the empty value.

Second, we know that EF would prefer to own our Id properties. If we want to perform an INSERT, for instance, EF wants us to construct the entity without bothering with the Id, Add(…) it, and then save those changes. EF will know what to do and will populate our Id when it’s good and ready. Likewise, on a SELECT, EF will fill it in before we ever look at it.

Our entity class is a little more verbose now, but it’s also doing a better job of telling the next developer how it should be used. We’re saying, “You really need at least these values to be valid, and you really should keep your hands off that Id property.”

Conclusion: A Mixed Bag

Enabling Nullable Reference Types is going to challenge some long-held bad habits around “good enough” coding patterns, like leaving entities poorly initialized. That can hurt at first, but it’s a clear step towards correctness.

It’s also going to hand us some ugliness in the form of syntax like “default!”. It’s a shame that we’ll have to put that on every DbSet, but at least it’s a pattern you can learn quickly and that is contained in a single file.

Most importantly, as you explore the feature in your own projects, stop at each warning, consider what it’s really telling you about what can go wrong in your system, and only then decide how to react to resolve the warning.

This blog post was part of C# Advent 2019. 

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