Understanding the Role of ASP.NET View State

1/17/2011 5:53:05 PM
Under classic (COM-based) ASP, web developers were required to manually repopulate the values of the incoming form widgets during the process of constructing the outgoing HTTP response. For example, if the incoming HTTP request contained five text boxes with specific values, the *.asp file required script code to extract the current values (via the Form or QueryString collections of the Request object) and manually place them back into the HTTP response stream. Needless to say, this was a drag. If the developer failed to do so, the caller was presented with a set of five empty text boxes!

Under ASP.NET, we no longer have to manually scrape out and repopulate the values in the HTML widgets because the ASP.NET runtime automatically embeds a hidden form field (named __VIEWSTATE), which will flow between the browser and a specific page. The data assigned to this field is a Base64-encoded string that contains a set of name/value pairs representing the values of each GUI widget on the page at hand.

The System.Web.UI.Page base class's Init event handler is the entity in charge of reading the incoming values in the __VIEWSTATE field to populate the appropriate member variables in the derived class. (This is why it is risky at best to access the state of a web widget within the scope of a page's Init event handler.)

Also, just before the outgoing response is emitted back to the requesting browser, the __VIEWSTATE data is used to repopulate the form's widgets. Clearly, the best thing about this aspect of ASP.NET is that it just happens without any work on your part. Of course, you are always able to interact with, alter, or disable this default functionality if you so choose. To understand how to do this, let's see a concrete view state example.

1. Demonstrating View State

First, create a new Empty Web Site called ViewStateApp and insert a new Web Form. On your .aspx page, add asingle ASP.NET ListBox web control named myListBox and a single Button control named btnPostback. Handle the Click event for the Button to provide a way for the user to post back to theweb server:

public partial class _Default : System.Web.UI.Page
protected void Page_Load(object sender, EventArgs e)

protected void btnPostback_Click(object sender, EventArgs e)
// No-op. This is just here to allow a postback.

Now, using the Visual Studio 2010 Properties window, access the Items property and add four ListItems to the ListBox using the associated dialog box. The resulting markup looks like this:

<asp:ListBox ID="myListBox" runat="server">
<asp:ListItem>Item One</asp:ListItem>
<asp:ListItem>Item Two</asp:ListItem>
<asp:ListItem>Item Three</asp:ListItem>
<asp:ListItem>Item Four</asp:ListItem>

Note that you are hard-coding the items in the ListBox directly within the *.aspx file. As you already know, all <asp:> definitions in an HTML form will automatically render back their HTML representation before the final HTTP response (provided they have the runat="server" attribute).

The <%@Page%> directive has an optional attribute called EnableViewState that by default is set to true. To disable this behavior, simply update the <%@Page%> directive as follows:

<%@ Page Language="C#" AutoEventWireup="true"
CodeFile="Default.aspx.cs" Inherits="_Default"
EnableViewState ="false" %>

So, what exactly does it mean to disable view state? The answer is, it depends. Given the previous definition of the term, you would think that if you disable view state for an *.aspx file, the values in your ListBox would not be remembered between postbacks to the web server. However, if you were to run this application as is, you might be surprised to find that the information in the ListBox is retained regardless of how many times you post back to the page.

In fact, if you examine the source HTML returned to the browser (by right-clicking the page within the browser and selecting View Source), you may be further surprised to see that the hidden __VIEWSTATE field is still present:

<input type="hidden" name="__VIEWSTATE" id="__VIEWSTATE"
value="/wEPDwUKLTM4MTM2MDM4NGRkqGC6gjEV25JnddkJiRmoIc10SIA=" />

However, assume that your ListBox is dynamically populated within the code-behind file rather than within the HTML <form> definition. First, remove the <asp:ListItem> declarations from the current *.aspx file:

<asp:ListBox ID="myListBox" runat="server">

Next, fill the list items within the Load event handler in your code-behind file:

protected void Page_Load(object sender, EventArgs e)
if (!IsPostBack)
// Fill ListBox dynamically!
myListBox.Items.Add("Item One");
myListBox.Items.Add("Item Two");
myListBox.Items.Add("Item Three");
myListBox.Items.Add("Item Four");

If you post to this updated page, you'll find that the first time the browser requests the page, the values in the ListBox are present and accounted for. However, on postback, the ListBox is suddenly empty. The first rule of ASP.NET view state is that its effect is only realized when you have widgets whose values are dynamically generated through code. If you hard-code values within the *.aspx file's <form> tags, the state of these items is always remembered across postbacks (even when you set EnableViewState to false for a given page).

If the idea of disabling view state for the entire *.aspx file seems a bit too aggressive, know that every descendent of the System.Web.UI.Control base class inherits the EnableViewState property, which makes it very simple to disable view state on a control-by-control basis:

<asp:GridView id="myHugeDynamicallyFilledGridOfData" runat="server"


Under .NET 4.0, large view state data values are automatically compressed, to help reduce the size of this hidden form field.

2. Adding Custom View State Data

In addition to the EnableViewState property, the System.Web.UI.Control base class provides a protected property named ViewState. Under the hood, this property provides access to a System.Web.UI.StateBag type, which represents all the data contained within the __VIEWSTATE field. Using the indexer of the StateBag type, you can embed custom information within the hidden __VIEWSTATE form field using a set of name/value pairs. Here's a simple example:

protected void btnAddToVS_Click(object sender, EventArgs e)
ViewState["CustomViewStateItem"] = "Some user data";
lblVSValue.Text = (string)ViewState["CustomViewStateItem"];

Because the System.Web.UI.StateBag type has been designed to operate on System.Object types, when you wish to access the value of a given key, you should explicitly cast it into the correct underlying data type (in this case, a System.String). Be aware, however, that values placed within the __VIEWSTATE field cannot literally be any object. Specifically, the only valid types are Strings, Integers, Booleans, ArrayLists, Hashtables, or an array of these types.

So, given that .aspx pages can insert custom bits of information into the __VIEWSTATE string, the next logical question is when you would want to do so. Most of the time, custom view-state data is best suited for user-specific preferences. For example, you may establish view-state data that specifies how a user wishes to view the UI of a GridView (such as a sort order). However, view-state data is not well-suited for full-blown user data, such as items in a shopping cart or cached DataSets. When you need to store this sort of complex information, you must work with session or application data. Before we get to that point, though, you need to understand the role of the Global.asax Global.asax file.

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