An example of bad development…

I recently received an email from a company that’s doing questionnaires. And well, I subscribed to this and did some of their questionnaires before, so I wanted to do this new one too. Unfortunately, the page loaded quite slow, only to return a very nasty error message. A message that told me that this organisation is using amateurs for developers and administrators.

Let me be clear about one thing: errors will happen. Every developer should expect weird things to happen, but this case is not an error but evidence of amateurs. So, let’s start with analyzing the message…

Server Error in ‘/’ Application.

Timeout expired.  The timeout period elapsed prior to obtaining a connection from the pool.  This may have occurred because all pooled connections were in use and max pool size was reached.

So, what’s wrong with this? Users should never see these messages! When you develop in ASP.NET you can just tell the system to just keep these error messages only when the user is connected locally. A remote user should see a much simpler message.

This is something the administrator of the website should have known, and checked. He did not. By failing at this simple configuration setting the organisation is leaking some sensitive information about their website. Information that’s enough for me to convince they’re amateurs.

This error is also a quite common error message. Basically, it’s telling me that the system is having too many database connection open. One common cause for this error is when the code fails to close a connection after opening them. Keep that in mind, because I will show that this is what caused the error…

Description: An unhandled exception occurred during the execution of the current web request. Please review the stack trace for more information about the error and where it originated in the code.

This is a standard follow-up message. The fact that users of the site would see this stack trace too is just bad.

Exception Details: System.InvalidOperationException: Timeout expired.  The timeout period elapsed prior to obtaining a connection from the pool.  This may have occurred because all pooled connections were in use and max pool size was reached.

A timeout error. A reference to the connection pool and the max pool size. This already indicates that there are more connections are opened than closed and the system can’t handle that correctly. There are frameworks for .NET that are better suited for this to prevent these kinds of errors. That’s because these errors happened to be very common with ASP.NET applications. And with generic database applications written in .NET.

Basically, the top of the error message is just repeating itself. Blame Microsoft for that since this is a generic message from ASP.NET itself. Developers can change the way it looks but that’s not very common. Actually, developers should prevent users from seeing these kinds of messages to begin with. Preferably, the error should be caught by an exception handler which would write it to a log file or database and send an alert out to the administrator.

Considering that I received this error on a Friday afternoon, I bet the developer and administrators are already back home, watching television like I do now. Law & Order is just on…

Source Error:

Line 1578:
Line 1579:        cmSQL = New SqlCommand(strSQL, cnSQLconfig)
Line 1580:        cnSQLconfig.Open()
Line 1581:
Line 1582:        Try

This is interesting… The use of SqlCommand is a bit old-fashioned. Modern developers would have switched to e.g. the Entity Framework or other, more modern solution for database access. But the developers of this site are just connecting to the database in code, probably to execute a query and collect the data and then should close the connection again. The developers are clearly using ADO.NET for this site. And I can’t help but wonder why. They could have used more modern techniques instead. But probably they just need to keep up an existing site and aren’t they allowed to use more modern solutions.

But it seems to me that closing the database is not going to happen here. There are too many connections already open thus this red line of code fails. The code has an existing connection called cnSQLConfig which is already open. It then tries to open and execute an SQL command that fails. Unfortunately, opening that command happens outside a try-except block and if this fails, it is very likely that the connection won’t be closed either.

If this happens once or twice, then it still would not be a big problem. The connection pool is big enough. But here it just happened too often.

Another problem is that the ADO.NET technique used here is also vulnerable for SQL Injection. This would also be a good reason to use a different framework for database access. It could still be that they’re using secure code to protect against this but what I see here doesn’t give me much confidence.

Source File: E:\wwwroot\beta.example.com\index.aspx.vb    Line: 1580

A few interesting, other facts. First of all, the code was written in Visual Basic. That was already clear from the code but this just confirms it. Personally, I prefer C# over Visual Basic, even though I’ve developed in both myself. And in a few other languages. Language should not matter much, especially with .NET, but C# is often considered more professional than BASIC. (Because the ‘B’ in BASIC stands for ‘Beginners’.)

Second of all, this piece of code has over 1580 lines of code. I don’t know what the rest of the code is doing but it’s probably a lot of code. Again, this is an old-fashioned way of software development. Nowadays, you see more usage of frameworks that allow developers to write a lot less code. This makes code more readable. Even in a main index of a web site, the amount of code should be reasonable low. You can use views to display the pages, models to handle the data and controllers to connect both.

Yes, that’s Model-View-Controller, or MVC. A technique that’s practical in reducing the amount of code, if used well enough.

And one more thing is strange. While I replaced the name of the site with ‘example.com’, I kept the word ‘beta’ in front of it. I, a user, am using a beta-version of their website! That’s bad. Users should not be used as testers because it will scare them off when things go wrong. Like in this case, where the error might even last the whole weekend because developers and administrators are at home, enjoying their weekend.

Never let users use your beta versions! That’s what testers are for. You can ask users to become testers, but then users know they can expect errors like these.

Stack Trace:

[InvalidOperationException: Timeout expired.  The timeout period elapsed prior to obtaining a connection from the pool.  This may have occurred because all pooled connections were in use and max pool size was reached.]
   System.Data.ProviderBase.DbConnectionFactory.GetConnection(DbConnection owningConnection) +4863482
   System.Data.ProviderBase.DbConnectionClosed.OpenConnection(DbConnection outerConnection, DbConnectionFactory connectionFactory) +117
   System.Data.SqlClient.SqlConnection.Open() +122
   _Default.XmlLangCountry(String FileName) in E:\wwwroot\beta.example.com\index.aspx.vb:1580
   _Default.selectCountry() in E:\wwwroot\beta.example.com\index.aspx.vb:1706
   _Default.Page_Load(Object sender, EventArgs e) in E:\wwwroot\beta.example.com\index.aspx.vb:251
   System.Web.UI.Control.OnLoad(EventArgs e) +99
   System.Web.UI.Control.LoadRecursive() +50
   System.Web.UI.Page.ProcessRequestMain(Boolean includeStagesBeforeAsyncPoint, Boolean includeStagesAfterAsyncPoint) +627

And that’s the stack trace. We see the site loading its controls and resources and the ‘Page_Load’ method is called at line 251. At line 1706 the system is apparently loading country-information which would be needed to set the proper language. Then it returns to line 1580 where it probably opens some table based on information from the language file.

Again, this is a lot of code for basically loading the main page. I even wonder why it needs to load data from the database based on the country information. Then again, I was about to fill in a questionnaire so it probably wanted to load the questionnaire in the proper language. If the questionnaire is multi-lingual then that would make sense.

Version Information: Microsoft .NET Framework Version:2.0.50727.3655; ASP.NET Version:2.0.50727.3658

And here’s one more bad thing. This site still uses .NET version 2.0 while the modern version is 4.5 and we’re close to version 5.0… It would not surprise me if these developers still use Visual Studio 2005 or 2008 for this all. If that’s the case then their budget for development is probably quite low. I wonder if the developers who are maintaining this site are even experts at software development. It’s not a lot of information that I can base this upon but in short:

  • The administrator did not prevent error messages to show up for users.
  • The use of ADO.NET adds vulnerabilities related to the connection pool and SQL injection.
  • The use of VB.NET is generally associated to less experienced developers.
  • The amount of code is quite long but common for sites that are developed years ago.
  • Not using a more modern framework makes the site more vulnerable.
  • Country information seems to be stored in XML while the questionnaire is most likely stored inside the database.
  • The .NET version has been out-of-date for a few years now.

My advice would be to just rewrite the whole site from scratch. Use the Entity Framework for the database and MVC 4 for the site itself. Rewrite it in C# and hire more professional developers to do the work.