07/02/2016

Report from the battlefield #3 - IEnumerable vs IQueryable

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Sometime ago I was reviewing the data access layer that was based on Entity Framework. I found a code which immediately attracted my attention. The simplified version is shown below.
public IList<Product> GetAll()
{
   return ctx.Products.Select(p => new Product() { ... }).ToList(); 
}
...
var numberOfProducts = GetAll().Count();
GetAll method is pretty simple because it just reads products from a database. The result returned from this method is used to count number of products in the database. Although it is simple it contains a serious bug. The problem is that it uses ToList method to return a list of products. It causes that ALL products must be retrieved from the database in order to return them in the form of a list. In other words there is no deferred execution here.

If we work with a local database and the number of products is small it shouldn't be a problem. However, this kind of code might lead to difficult to analyse performance problems. For example if our application uses a remote database and/or there are thousands of products. The desired behaviour is that products are counted by a database engine. So let's try to make a fix:
public IEnumerable<Product> GetAll()
{
   return ctx.Products.Select(p => new Product() { ... });
}
...
var numberOfProducts = GetAll().Count();
Now it looks much more better, doesn't it? GetAll doesn't use ToList and returns IEnumerable. interface. Unfortunately this solution is far from being perfect. In comparison to the first version, the only difference is the moment when all products are retrieved from the database. This time it will happen when Count method is executed. Why? Before I'll explain let's see the correct solution:
public IQueryable<Product> GetAll()
{
   return ctx.Products.Select(p => new Product() { ... });
}
...
var numberOfProducts = GetAll().Count();
This time I used IQueryable instead of IEnumerable. This small change is crucial. It causes that no products are read from a database. Entity Framework "sees" that we only wanto to count number of products and an appropriate query is sent to a database. In other words LINQ To Entities is used.

The situation is completely different when we work with IEnumerable. In order to understand a difference we have to realise one thing. Count method for IEnumerable is something different than Count method for IQueryable. With IEnumerable we use LINQ To Objects and LINQ To Objects operates on objects in memory, it cannot communicate with a database. It is why all products must be read from a database if we want to count them.

Now someone inquiring can say that for virtual methods it shouldn't matter if we have variables of type IEnumerable or of type IQueryable if these variables points the same objects. After all C# is an object oriented language that supports polymorphism etc. Well, it is all true but only for virtual methods and Count is not a virtual method. It is an extension method and extension methods don't support polymorphism.

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