Monday, April 28, 2008

Dispatcher Frames

With scant exception, WPF controls must be accessed from the same thread on which they were created. Because of this, we say they have 'thread affinity'.

In WPF, thread affinity is realised via DispatcherObjects, which can be accessed directly only on the thread on which they were created. Alternatively, they can be accessed via their Dispatcher. The Dispatcher contains methods for adding operations to a queue which is processed on the Dispatcher's thread. Each thread has at most one Dispatcher instance associated with it (which is created on demand). Many WPF classes - including controls such as TextBox and Button - inherit from DispatcherObject. This means that accessing instances of these controls must be done on the control's thread, possibly via the control's Dispatcher.

You may have noticed a type called DispatcherFrame whilst browsing MSDN (as you may be inclined to do on a Saturday night. Or not). That's what I want to discuss in this post.

You can think of a DispatcherFrame as something that forces operations to be processed until some condition is met. Every WPF application has at least one DispatcherFrame that is created when you run the application. It will continue pumping operations until the application is shut down.

At times it can be useful to pump operations until some condition of your own is met. Perhaps your code is executing on the UI thread and you want to empty the queue of operations in the Dispatcher to force control and screen updates. In the Winforms world, this is achieved via a call to Application.DoEvents(). In WPF, there is no equivalent method, but we can easily simulate one:

public static void DoEvents(this Application application)
    DispatcherFrame frame = new DispatcherFrame();
    Dispatcher.CurrentDispatcher.BeginInvoke(DispatcherPriority.Background, new ExitFrameHandler(frm => frm.Continue = false), frame);

private delegate void ExitFrameHandler(DispatcherFrame frame);

The above code is part of a small demo project, which you can download here. It adds a DoEvents() method to WPF's Application class. The DoEvents() method adds a Background priority operation to the Dispatcher's queue, and then pushes a new frame that pumps operations until that operation is processed. As a result, all other operations that were already queued in the Dispatcher will be processed. There are several important things I need to point out here:

1. Adding the new operation to the Dispatcher is done asynchronously. As such, the operation is not processed until we call PushFrame().
2. The choice of Background as the priority is important. If we were to choose a higher priority (such as Render), then we would potentially leave lower-priority operations in the queue after the frame had exited. That's because our operation would be executed prior to those lower-priority operations, and thus we'd end the frame too soon. Perhaps there's value in adding a DoEvents() overload that accepts a minimum priority of operations that should be executed, but I haven't included one in the download.
3. Operations in a Dispatcher are not associated with a particular DispatcherFrame. A DispatcherFrame can cause any queued operation to be processed, not just those added after the frame is pushed.
4. The code assumes it is running on the thread whose Dispatcher should be pumped.

A DoEvents() implementation is nice for illustrating the utility of DispatcherFrames (indeed it is used in the MSDN documentation too), but I believe it is unnecessary. As you can see in the demo, it is possible to simulate DoEvents() in a much simpler fashion: by synchronously adding a low-priority no-op to the Dispatcher's queue:

public static void DoEvents(this Application application)
    Dispatcher.CurrentDispatcher.Invoke(DispatcherPriority.Background, new VoidHandler(() => { }));

private delegate void VoidHandler();

The call to Invoke() will not return until our operation has been processed, which won't be until all higher priority operations are processed. Therefore, the end result is the same - all queued operations are pumped (apart from those with a priority lower than Background, but I'm ignoring that in this post).

So where would you use a DispatcherFrame?

I recently had need for one at my day job. We have a splash screen that usually just shows progress information (downloading files, searching for modules etcetera) but sometimes needs to ask the user which catalog they would like to load (a catalog is just a set of modules).

The splash presenter tries as hard as it can not to ask the user (if they only have one catalog, or it has been specified via a command line switch then it doesn't need to ask), but if it does need to, it delegates a call to the splash view on the UI thread. This call needs to return the catalog that the user selected. However, it has been called on the UI thread, so obtaining a catalog from the user requires pumping operations so they can select one from a list. The code looks like this:

public Catalog SelectCatalog(ICollection<Catalog> availableCatalogs)
    StatusLabel = "Please select a catalog:";
    _catalogsItemsControl.ItemsSource = availableCatalogs;

    _catalogSelectionFrame = new DispatcherFrame(true);
    StatusLabel = "Thank you";     _catalogsItemsControl.ItemsSource = null;

    return _selectedCatalog;

This method sets up the catalogs for the user to select from by assigning them to an ItemsControl (which renders each catalog as a hyperlink). It then pushes a new DispatcherFrame, which blocks until the frame is stopped. After the DispatcherFrame finishes, the selected catalog is returned. The only way to end the frame is by clicking on one of the hyperlinks representing the catalogs. Each hyperlink rendered by the ItemsControl has a Click handler as follows:

private void _hyperlink_Click(object sender, EventArgs e)
    _selectedCatalog = (sender as Hyperlink).DataContext as Catalog;
    _catalogSelectionFrame.Continue = false;

When a hyperlink is clicked, I store the selected catalog and then end the DispatcherFrame. As a result, the code that pushed the DispatcherFrame will continue execution. Note that I would not have to manually track the selected catalog if I was using a ListBox, but for now I'm using with the ItemsControl because it was simpler to style.

Above I suggested that the only way to end the DispatcherFrame was by setting DispatcherFrame.Continue to false. That's not the entire story. DispatcherFrames may also be asked to stop during application shutdown. When that happens, DispatcherFrames will, by default, comply with the request. However, there is a constructor overload that allows you to bypass this behaviour and instead continue processing operations until your condition is met. This might be useful for a short-lived frame whose completion is critical to the correctness of your application.


Kevin said...

Good article. I've been wanting to know more about DispatcherFrame but never looked into it.

HaxElit said...

That was a perfect explanation! Thanks

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a nice and simple explanation.

Anonymous said...

Very good! Thanks!