Extensibility without Open-Source

| | August 7, 2015

My company is currently in the process of creating a large multi-tier software package in C#. We have taken a SOA approach to the structure and I was wondering whether anyone has any advice as to how to make it extensible by users with programming knowledge.

This would involve a two-fold process: approval by the administrator of a production system to allow a specific plugin to be used, and also the actual plugin architecture itself.

We want to allow the users to write scripts to perform common tasks, modify the layout of the user interface (written in WPF) and add new functionality (ie. allowing charting of tabulated data). Does anyone have any suggestions of how to implement this, or know where one might obtain the knowledge to do this kind of thing?

I was thinking this would be the perfect corner-case for releasing the software open-source with a restrictive license on distribution, however, I’m not keen on allowing the competition access to our source code.


EDIT: Thought I’d just clarify to explain why I chose the answer I did. I was referring to production administrators external to my company (ie. the client), and giving them someway to automate/script things in an easier manner without requiring them to have a full knowledge of c# (they are mostly end-users with limited programming experience) – I was thinking more of a DSL. This may be an out of reach goal and the Managed Extensibility Framework seems to offer the best compromise so far.

7 Responses to “Extensibility without Open-Source”

  1. Jonathan van de Veen on November 30, -0001 @ 12:00 AM

    We are currently in a similar situation. We identified different scenarios where people may want to create a live connection on a data level. In that case they can have access to a sinle webservice to request and import data.

    At some point they may want to have a custom user interface (in our case Silverlight 2). For this scenario we can provide a base class and have them register the module in a central repository. It then integrates into our application in a uniform way, including security, form and behaviour and interaction with services.

  2. Microsoft already did exactly this, resulting in Reporting Services, which has every attribute you mention: user defined layout, scriptability, charting, customisable UI. This includes a downloadable IDE. No access to source code is provided or required, yet it’s absolutely littered with extensibility hooks. The absence of source code inhibits close-coupling and promotes SOA thinking.

  3. I would take a look at the MEF initiative from Microsoft. It’s a framework that lets you add extensibility to your applications. It’s in beta now, but should be part of .Net 4.0.

    Microsoft shares the source, so you can look how it’s implemented and interface with it. So basically your extensibility framework will be open for everyone to look at but it won’t force you to publish your application code or the plug-ins code.

  4. Open source is not necessary in any way shape or form to make a product extensible.

  5. As mentioned by Steve, using interfaces is probably the way to go. You would need to design the set of interfaces that you would want your clients to use, design entry points for the plugins as well as a plugin communication model. Along with the suggestions by Steve, you might also want to take a look at the Eclipse project. They have a very well defined plugin architecture and even though its written in java, it may be worth taking a look at.

    Another approach might be to design an API available to a scripting language. Both
    IronPythonand Boo are dynamic scripting languages that work well with C#. With this approach, your clients could write scripts to interact with and extend your application. This approach is a bit more of a lightweight solution compared to a full plugin system.

  6. Just use interfaces. Define an IPlugin that every plugin must implement, and use a well defined messaging layer to allow the plugin to make changes in the main program. You may want to look at a program like Mediaportal or Meedios which heavily depend on user plugins.

  7. I agree that open source is a scary idea in this situation. When you say approval by a production administrator – is that administrator within your company, or external?

    Personally, I would look at allowing extensibility through inheritance (allowing third parties to subclass your code without giving them the source) and very carefully specified access modifiers.

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