Advanced Code Diff from within Visual Studio

Code evolution and code maintenance are some of the most prominent
characteristics of software engineering. Visual Studio doesn’t deal
directly with code evolution. To explore code changes one needs to plug a
Source Control Manager (like TFS) to Visual Studio. Source Control
Manager can tell that a source file has been changed and it can trace
text change history. But there is an impedance mismatch : Source Control
Manager deals with
text files while Visual Studio deals with code. Source Control Manager
won’t make subtle difference between comments change, code in method
refactored, type added, method visibility change or field removed.

comes with some advanced code
evolution and code diff
features since mid 2007. One of the coolest
results of NDepend v3 integrated in Visual Studio 2010, 2008 and 2005,
is that now, developer benefit from several fine-grained code diff
features, one click away from their natural developing environment.
Let‘s expose 3 typical code diff scenarios.


Code Diff from within Code Source

Since NDepend recognizes the code element currently edited in source,
the user can, for instance, right click a method and see if it has been
changed. If the method code has indeed been changed, several options
appear on the right click NDepend menu. One of the option is Compare
Older and Newer version of source file
, which leads to opening a
diff textual application to see changes

Here is for example,the  Araxis Merge
textual diff tool opened from clicking Compare Older and newer version
of source file
on the NUnit v2.4.8 vs. v2.5.3 method IsPlatformSupported().

Look back in the first screenshot above, and
you’ll see several other interesting options, including Open my
declaration in older source code
and Compare older and newer
version disassembled with Reflector
. With this last option (with
Reflector) the language used for disassembling can be chosen (choosing IL is especially interesting).
Also, comparing disassembled version can work, even from just 2
different versions of an assembly, the source code is not required.

precise that not only method changes are taken account but namespace,
type and field changes as well. For example, one can right click a
namespace source code declaration and ask for types or methods of the
namespace that has been refactored or added.

At this point you
might wonder how NDepend/Visual Studio knows about the previous version
of the code to compare against to (what is called the Baseline for
). This concept is explained later in this post, let’s jump to the
second VS code diff scenario.


Code Diff from within Solution Exlorer or Solution Navigator

As we just saw, there is an NDepend menu in source code right-click
menu, but there is also an NDepend menu in Solution Explorer (and in
Solution Navigator) right-click menu. So for example one can right-click
a project in the Solution Explorer and ask for Select Methods (of
the project) where Code was Changed

This will result in a CQL query generated
that Select Methods (of the project) where Code was Changed.
Naturally, for each method listed, one can jump straight to source code
declaration or ask for diff.

One point interesting, is that NDepend comes
with a heuristic to infer namespace from Solution Explorer folders.
Indeed, it is a popular good practice to organize source code in a
folders hierarchy that mirrors the namespace hierarchy. So
right-clicking a folder can result in asking for code changes in a
namespace, a narrowed scope than project.


Code Change Review through Global Code Diff

The third scenario to expose, is Global Code Diff. NDepend has its
own global Visual Studio menu that comes with a sub-menu Compare.

This sub-menu Compare provides several options,
including Search some particular Code Element changed. This
option opens the NDepend Search panel with the option Search Change. The
Search Change Panel is actually just a CQL query generator related to
Code change. For example, in the screenshot below, we can see that
asking for Method + Change + Code was Changed or was Added
generates the CQL query:  SELECT METHODS WHERE CodeWasChanged OR

The result shown is ideal to do efficient Code
Change Review
: not only all code changes are nicely organized at a
glance, but for each methods refactored, the developer is just one click
away to observe diff in source files.

The Search Change Panel’s options offers various possibilities to
explore diff, including searching for code elements where code and only
code (not comment) was changed or where comment and only comment was
changed, where visibility was changed, where was added or removed etc….

bonus option is to search diff in tier code, like asking for which
library types is not used anymore for example.

Typically, developers
like to write tests for testing automatically refactored
and new code. Another cool bonus option is to search for diff coupled
with code coverage by tests ratio, like asking for methods where code
was changed (i.e refactored methods) and where it is not actually
properly covered by tests.


Defining the Baseline for Comparison

Earlier in the post we introduced the concept of Baseline for
.  This represents the previous snapshot version of the code base
against which, the comparison is done. Typically, the Baseline for
Comparison represents the latest version of the code in production.

Baseline for Comparison can be specified through the menu: Visual
Studio > NDepend > Compare > Define the project’s Baseline for
. The dialog below appears and let chooses through
different options to define the baseline. The Baseline for Comparison
option is then persisted in the NDepend project file.

To harness all the diff capabilities we
presented, it is important that the Baseline for Comparison points to
a previous analysis result with .NET assemblies, PDB files and source
code, all available somewhere on the local machine
. If PDB files
point to a different root folders (typically because .NET assemblies
have been created on a different machine) NDepend comes with a source
file rebasing option. If older version of source files is not available,
it is still possible to query for what was changed, but of course, this
won’t be possible to compare the missing older version of source files
with the newer version. However, the option Compare older and newer
version disassembled with Reflector
will still be available as long
as the older version of the .NET assemblies is available (no matter if
PDB files and source files are absent).

Finally, any diff tools
can be plugged through the menu Visual Studio > NDepend >
Compare > Source Files Compare Tools
(this is something explained
in details in the post Diff

Enjoy live code diffing in Visual Studio!


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  • Charles Strahan

    Very impressive, Patrick. This could be really handy. I find myself hunting through our SVN log when something goes wrong; this would be a much faster way to find what changed.