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Dated: Aug. 11, 2004

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ActiveX Controls


An ActiveX control can be automatically downloaded and executed by a Web browser. ActiveX is not a programming language, but rather a set of rules for how applications should share information. Programmers can develop ActiveX controls in a variety of languages, including C, C++, Visual Basic, and Java.

Active Platform is Microsoft's view of the world. It uses ActiveX controls as a mechanism to interact with users and to automate everything from COM-enabled transaction processing (TP) monitors to Web servers. It has two parts: Active Server and Active Client.

The Active Client is cross-platform. Microsoft is hoping to deliver techno logy to a broad range of operating systems, albeit on its own terms. The plan is to use standard HTML, Microsoft's flavor of the Java virtual machine (JVM), and a scripting engine using Microsoft's VBScript and JScript (Microsoft's version of JavaScript). So where do you find the Active client? It's built into Microsoft Explorer 3 and 4, and it can be part of your client/server application through ActiveX.

A loosely defined set of technologies developed by Microsoft. ActiveX is an outgrowth of two other Microsoft technologies called OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) and COM (Component Object Model). As a moniker, ActiveX can be very confusing because it applies to a whole set of COM-based technologies. Most people, however, think only of ActiveX controls, which represent a specific way of implementing ActiveX technologies.

For Windows shops, Active Platform provides a sound and scalable server-side application development platform. Since Active Server leverages commodity tools and technologies even with high-end products such as TP monitors, small workgroup or intranet applications won't exceed the capacity of Active Server. While Active Platform targets different environments, it's too dependent on Internet Explorer to drive the client. Explorer is appearing on some non-Windows platforms, but Windows is receiving the best support and the latest versions.

ActiveX Controls

ActiveX® controls are among the many types of components that use COM technologies to provide interoperability with other types of COM components and services. ActiveX controls are the third version of OLE controls (OCX), providing a number of enhancements specifically designed to facilitate distribution of components over high-latency networks and to provide integration of controls into Web browsers. These enhancements include features such as incremental rendering and code signing, to allow users to identify the authors of controls before allowing them to execute.

History of ActiveX

The story begins with OLE, a technology for creating compound documents. While OLE's first release was focused solely on compound documents, the next release, OLE2, introduced COM. COM grew out of the OLE architects' desire to provide a more general mechanism for allowing one piece of software to provide services to another. Accordingly, while OLE2 was the first technology to use it, COM isn't really tied to compound documents in any significant way. Very quickly, then, COM began to be used in technologies that had nothing whatsoever to do with compound documents

So now Microsoft had a nice, general infrastructure technology -- but it's not a product -- and needed a brand name. The company's marketing wizards, perhaps unfortunately, chose to use "OLE" as that brand name. Deciding that the term should no longer be viewed as an acronym, Microsoft began adding the "OLE" tag to every technology that used COM. Most of these technologies, of course, had nothing at all to do with compound documents, so the company spent several years trying to convince all of us that "OLE" no longer referred to just compound documents.

Future of ActiveX

It's fair to say that the ActiveX technologies will always be most at home in the world of Windows and Windows NT. But no matter how much Microsoft pushes its operating systems, most organizations will always have some diversity -- single-vendor environments just aren't in the cards. Accordingly, Microsoft is working to make COM, DCOM, and some other parts of the ActiveX family available on other operating systems.

Microsoft already provides ActiveX support for the Macintosh, including support for ActiveX controls (sinceActiveX Tutorial Microsoft Office now depends heavily on COM, Microsoft had little choice but to support COM in that environment). Software AG is porting these technologies to various flavors of Unix and to IBM's OS/390 (the current name for the venerable MVS operating system). Digital and HP have also committed to providing these technologies on their systems, again by porting Microsoft's code.

COM has become a crucial part of the software infrastructure in the Windows 95 and Windows NT environments. But there are still plenty of uncertainties about the future. Will Microsoft succeed, for example, in making COM a viable multiplatform technology? Fitting Windows NT servers into existing enterprises will all but require that DCOM and other distributed services be available on non-Microsoft platforms.

The process has taken longer than expected, and while many organizations have made promises in this area, not much code is actually shipping. Meanwhile, both CORBA-based products and Java's RMI are successfully running in multi-OS environments today. The more time passes before multiplatform DCOM becomes a reality, the larger CORBA and RMI's lead will become.

ActiveX Control and Java Beans

What about the contest between ActiveX controls and JavaBeans? Componentware is the next great wave in software development, whether that software runs in a Web browser or somewhere else. ActiveX controls are ahead today, but with the demise of OpenDoc, all of Microsoft's opponents have rallied behind a single competitor. If only because of users' desires to avoid monopoly, JavaBeans will very likely acquire some market share.

COM has grown to play a key role in Microsoft's Internet strategy, its applications, and even its operating systems. And as with all living software technologies, enhancements to COM are on the way. But whatever label is applied to the core COM-based technologies -- originally OLE, now ActiveX, and tomorrow perhaps something else -- COM's importance shows no signs of declining. As long as Windows and Windows NT are important operating systems, the ActiveX technologies will play a significant role in our lives.

Tools for Building Controls

As ActiveX becomes more popular, more ActiveX control development tools are appearing. Since ActiveX is language-independent, almost any traditional development tool can build and deploy ActiveX controls. The most popular tools include Borland's Delphi, Powersoft's PowerBuilder, and the arsenal from Microsoft, featuring Visual Basic, Visual C++, and Visual J++.

There are several ways to create ActiveX controls using 3GLs, including:

  • Using the Microsoft Foundation Classes (MFC)
  • Using the ActiveX Template Library (ATL)
  • The BaseCtrl Framework

Most current ActiveX development uses MFC because MFC has been around the longest and many C++ developers know it. Also, unlike the other techniques, MFC enables developers to concentrate on the behavior of the object rather than the interface. The downside (especially for Internet distribution) is the size of the controls and the need for a run-time DLL to exist with the container.

ATL is able to generate code each time you need it using templates. Thus, you don't need libraries or DLLs that have to ship along with the control. ATL requires that you derive a class from several base classes existing as templates. Typically, developers will use the ATL wizard to create the classes automatically. ATL also has drawbacks. It's much more difficult to deal wit h interfaces using ATL since you must create each interface you need for your application. Also, ATL does not support the Class Wizard that's able to automatically keep the Object Description Language and interface definition language files in synch with your code. The wizards leave a lot to be desired.

BaseCtrl is a lightweight library, very much like ATL, but without the templates. BaseCtrl is so lightweight, in fact, that Microsoft does not support it. Several skeleton controls come with BaseCtrl. While BaseCtrl provides an easy-to-understand ActiveX control development model, it's not that much easier than ATL, and it does not provide as much flexibility. For now, it's a poor choice for ActiveX control developers.


Microsoft's Visual C++ was the first tool to provide capabilities for creating ActiveX controls. Today it provides the most control for ActiveX developers. Visual J++ can also create ActiveX controls. This keeps many Java purists up at night, and it's a good comeback for Microsoft when arguing the ActiveX-versus-Java issue.

Although two of Borland's development tools -- JBuilder and IntraBuilder -- get much attention, Delphi 3.0 and C++ Builder are the only Borland tools able to create ActiveX components. Borland calls Delphi's ActiveX development features Active Inside. The idea is to turn any Delphi Window into an ActiveX form. Active Inside prepares your new control for deployment on the Web. Delphi is also able to link your control to COM or DCOM for links to other objects

PowerBuilder 5.0 is a client/server development tool redone for use as an ActiveX factory. PowerBuilder is able to deploy Data Windows (the core of PowerBuilder application development) as ActiveX controls, and it allows current PowerBuilder developers to use familiar features such as the PowerScript programming language.

Microsoft has probably the best tools for creating ActiveX controls. Visual Basic 5.0, for example, allows developers to use the friendly visual programming environm ent of VB and the native Visual Basic for Applications language to create controls.

Why Create ActiveX Controls?

If ActiveX controls are basically dangerous to your health, why should you bother with them? After all, most of us leave strenuous mental pursuits to others. For the few who are ready to tame these intellectually challenging beasts, the advantages of learning how to create controls in Visual Basic outweigh the efforts required. Knowing the process involved in creating controls is good for you. It will make you a better human being, or at least a better user of third-party controls.

You will gain a broader understanding of how controls operate. Think of it this way: controls and containers have to work together. Historically, Visual Basic has been a big consumer of controls, and Visual Basic developers have always seen things from the side of the container. In Visual Basic, however, you have a chance to see the world from the side of the control. Understanding the perspective of developers who create controls is a big step toward better and more efficient use of controls in general.

Beyond making better use of existing controls, you might want to extend those controls in new and innovative ways. For example, a particular control might have a basic functionality that you like, but you want it to work just a little differently. Visual Basic allows you to make such changes, but only if you know how to create controls. Imagine the possible benefits if you create a control for use in your project that can then be reused in other software projects at your company. You might decide to take the totally awesome control you created for your own software and market it as a reusable component for use in other people's software. Who would have ever imagined that you could get this far in Visual Basic?

By structuring parts of your application as ActiveX controls, you make your software more maintainable since it is divided into multiple components with distinct interfaces.

Lets the Game Begin

ActvieX Components and its control in Visual Basic

Visual Basic has a lot of strong points, but I think that the strongest of its strong points is its database programming capabilities. I read that, according to Microsoft, 85% of Visual Basic applications involve database access of some sort. Nowhere, to my reasonably extensive knowledge (hey, I'm a columnist, so I must know something!), can you find a combination of a powerful programming environment and ready-to-use database tools that even comes close to Visual Basic. Compared with other approaches, Visual Basic makes database application programming as easy as falling off a log. As an aside, the database power of Visual Basic is something I do not advertise to my paying clients. When I bring in yet another project on-time and on-budget, I am perfectly content to let them continue to think of me as some sort of programming wizard guru type guy.

Much of Visual Basic's database power comes in the form of data-aware controls. These controls have special capabilities that take much of the tedium out of database programming. They fall into two categories: Data sources provide a link between your program and the external data (the database file), while data consumers make use of the data in your program, displaying it to the user for example or using it to create a chart. I tend to prefer the term sink to consumer, partly because of my engineering background and partly because I think of a consumer as a person running amok with a credit card. Much as a heat sink absorbs the heat produced by a hot-running CPU, a data sink "absorbs" the data produced by a data source. (Remember, however, that consumer is Microsoft's preferred term.)

If you have done even a little database programming with Visual Basic, you have seen data sources and sinks in action. Collectively, data sources and sinks are referred to as data-aware classes. The Data control, or its smarter younger brother, the ADO Data control, is probably the best-known data source. With a few keystrokes, a Data control can be connected to just about any database file. When your program runs, it has, through the Data control, access to all the information in the database file. You can view records, navigate from record to record, add new records, and delete or edit existing ones. All the hairy programming required to directly access a database file is taken care of for you. Alone, however, a data source is not enough.

To make use of the data provided by a data source, your program needs one or more data sinks. A data sink is an object that can be bound to external data that is made available by a data source. A Text Box control can act as a data sink. You bind the Text Box to a specific field in the external database-the LastName field in an address list database, for example-and the Text Box will automatically display the LastName data for whatever record is current in the data source. Likewise, if the user edits the data in the Text Box, the changes will automatically be stored in the database. Quite a few of Visual Basic's controls can act as data sinks, including Check Box, Picture Box, List Box, Masked Edit, and Label. Most data sinks, including those just listed, can be bound to a single field in the source. A few others, including the DataList and DataGrid controls, can be bound to an entire record and display data from multiple fields at once.

So far so good, but what I have told you so far is stuff that most Visual Basic programmers already know. The data sources and sinks that are provided with the Visual Basic development environment are indeed great, but you can go beyond them and create your own data sources and sinks. To be more specific, you can program data-aware classes. Of course, the ability to program your own always brings with it the potential for greater flexibility and power.

This is an important feature of Visual Basic 6, even though a fairly small percentage of developers will ever actually use it. This is a fairly extensive topic. I will cover the background and show you how to create a simple-bound data sink. I'll expand the project to include complex binding and show how to program a data source.

As for data sinks, you have the same choice between an ActiveX control and a DLL or EXE. To serve as a data sink, a class's DataBindingBehavior property must be set to one of two values. The vbSimpleBound value permits the class to be bound to a single field in the data table, while vbComplexBound permits binding to an entire record, or row, in the data table.

Creating the Data Sink

For demonstration purposes I have kept this project simple, but it covers all of the important aspects of creating your own data sink. The goal is an ActiveX control that displays a bar graph indication of a percentage value, with the bar at half of its maximum height for 50%, and so on. We will create an ActiveX control that contains two Shape controls as its visual interface. The first Shape control will be sized to fill the entire ActiveX control to provide a white background and a thin black border. The second Shape control will be a different color, and its size will reflect the percentage value that the control is displaying. For example, if the percentage value is 33, the second shape control will fill the lower 1/3 of the control.

Start a new ActiveX control project and change the Name property of the UserControl to PC (for Percent Chart). Also change its DataBindingBehavopr property to 1 -vbSimpleBound. Place a Shape control on the UserControl and set its Backstyle property to 1 - Opaque, leaving all other properties at their default settings. Add a second Shape control on top of the first one. Change its Backstyle property to 1 - Opaque, its BackColor property to any bright color you like (I used red), and its BorderStyle property to 1 - Transparent. Do not worry about the precise sizes or positions of the Shape controls, as they will be set in code. In the Project Properties dialog box, change the Project Name to PercentChart and, on the debugging tab, select the Wait for Components to be Created option.

The control's code is fairly simple. It will have a single property called PercentValue. We use the UserControl's Resize event procedure to position the first Shape control to fill the UserControl. Also, there will be a procedure named Update that sizes the second Shape control to fill the appropriate percentage of the space.

Dim pPercentValue
 Private Sub UserControl_Resize()
' Fill control with Shape1.
 Shape1.Move 0, 0, ScaleWidth, ScaleHeight
 End Sub
Public Property Get PercentValue() As Variant
 PercentValue = pPercentValue 
 End Property
 Public Property Let PercentValue(ByVal vNewValue As Variant)
' Restrict values to 0-100.
 If vNewValue <= 100 And vNewValue >= 0 Then
    pPercentValue = vNewValue
    ' Update the display.
End If
 End Property
 Private Sub Update()
' Position Shape2 at the bottom of Shape1 and
' with a height equal to the PercentValue property.
 Shape2.Move 0, _
  Shape1.Height * (1 - pPercentValue / 100), _
  Shape1.Width, _
  Shape1.Height * pPercentValue / 100
 End Sub

That’s it! The data sink is complete. You may be thinking that you missed something; other than setting the UserControl’s DataBindingBehavior property to VBSimpleBound, we have not done anything differently than for a regular ActiveX control that is not a data sink. That’s because most of the action takes place outside the control, and involves something called a BindingCollection.

The BindingCollection Object

The information that links, or binds, one or more data sinks to a data source is kept in a BC (BindingCollection) object. A BC is a collection, and has many things in common with other Visual Basic collections. There are some differences, however, and note also that the name BC departs from the usual Visual Basic practice of naming collections as the plural of the member object. Since it is a collection of Binding objects, it would normally be called Bindings, but because it has some extra properties and methods specific to ADO data binding, the name BC is used instead.

Each BC object can be associated with only a single data source at any one time. Within the collection, each Binding object defines a link between a field in the data source and a property in the data sink object. Table 1 describes the properties of the Binding object. The BC object has its own properties and methods. They are described in Tables 2 and 3.

Table 1. Properties of the Binding object.
Property Name Description
DataChanged Returns True if the data sink has changed the data.
DataField The name of the field to which the sink is bound.
DataFormat A stdDataFormat object that controls the formatting of the data. A default stdDataFormat object is created for each Binding, but you can modify it if special formatting is required. See the Visual Basic Help system for more information.
Key An optional unique string identifying the Binding object
Object A reference to the bound data sink object.
PropertyName The name of the data sink object’s property that is bound to DataField.

Table 2. Properties of the BC object.
Property Name Description
Count The number of Binding objects in the collection.
DataMember References a Command object of a DataEnvironment object that is the data source.
DataSource References a DataSource of RecordSet object that is the data source.
Item References a specific Binding object either by its index in the collection (1 to Count) or by the Binding object’s Key property.
UpdateMode Specifies the conditions under which the data source is updated (see Visual Basic Help for more details).

Table 3. Methods of the BC object.
Method Syntax Description
Add Adds a Binding object to the collection (see below for details).
Clear Removes all Binding objects from the collection.
Remove item Removes a Binding object. Item can be a numeric value specifying the object’s position in the collection, or a string specifying its Key property.
UpdateControls Re-fetches data from the data source and updates the bound data sinks.

The Add method has the following syntax which, as you can see, is very similar to the Add method for other Visual Basic collections:

Add(object, PropertyName, DataField, DataFormat, Key)

Here, object is the data sink that will be bound. PropertyName is the property of the data sink that will be bound. DataField is the field in the data source that will be bound to PropertyName. DataFormat is an optional reference to a stdDataFormat object that specifies data formatting. Key is an optional unique string identifier for the Binding object.

Let’s look at an example. Suppose you had a data source named MyDataSource that connected to a database table that included a field named CITY. Suppose also that you had a data sink named MyDataSink and it had a property named Text. Here’s how you would create a BindingCollection object and add a Binding to the collection to link these:

Dim BindColl As New BindingCollection
Set BindColl.DataSource = MyDataSource
BindColl.Add MyDataSink, "Text", "City"

While a BC is limited to a single data source, you can bind as many different data sinks to that source as you need—or, as is sometimes useful, multiple properties of the same data sink.

Testing the Data Sink

To see our data sink in action, we will need a regular Visual Basic project that contains a data source. You can use the usual procedures for testing an ActiveX control, namely creating a project group that includes both the ActiveX control project and a standard EXE project. To create the group, do the following: With the ActiveX control project still open, select Add Project from the File menu, and select Standard EXE. Now you’ll have two projects listed in the Project Explorer window. When you close the UserControl designer window by clicking on the X in its title bar, the ActiveX control becomes available for use in the other project, as indicated by the UserControl icon appearing in the Toolbox. Then you can place an instance of the ActiveX control on the form in the Standard EXE project and test it. You can also re-open the UserControl designer to modify the ActiveX control code as needed. To ensure that the Standard EXE project runs when you press F5 or click the Start button on the Visual Basic toolbar, you must set it as the startup project. You do this by right-clicking the project name in the Project Explorer window and selecting Set As Startup from the popup menu.

The test program’s form will contain only three controls: an instance of the ActiveX control we just created, plus one Text Box and one ADO Data control to serve as the data source. Remember, to use the ADO Data control, you must select it in the Components dialog box. After placing the ADO Data control, set its CommandString property to link to the database MYDATA.MDB you created earlier, and set its RecordSource property to "select * from Contributors". Now, when the project runs, the ADO Data control will provide the application with a RecordSet containing all fields from all records in the table named Contributors.

The next step is to bind the Text Box control to the Name field. This is done in the usual way, by setting its DataSource property to Adodc1 (the name of the ADO Data control) and its DataField property to Name.

All that’s left is to bind the ActiveX control to the data source. Here is where the BindingCollection comes in. You must declare a variable to refer to the BindingCollection object as follows:

Private OBColl As BindingCollection

Then, in the Form_Load procedure, add the code shown in Listing 2. Let’s look at what the three lines of code in Listing 2 do:

Line 1 creates an instance of the BindingCollection object. Line 2 specifies that the BindingCollection object’s data source will be the ADO Data control on the form, named Adodc1. Line 3 specifies a binding between the field "Percent" in the data source and the property "PercentValue" in the object "PC1" (which is the default name assigned to the ActiveX control when you placed it on the form).

Listing 2. The test project's Form_Load procedure.

Private Sub Form_Load()
 Set OBColl = New BindingCollection
Set OBColl.DataSource = Adodc1
OBColl.Add PC1, "PercentValue", "Percent"
 End Sub

The project is ready to run now. When you run it, you’ll see the name of the first record displayed in the Text Box, and a representation of the percent value displayed by the ActiveX control. When you use the ADO Data control to navigate between records, you can see the Text Box and the ActiveX control both update automatically.

Data Sources

The data-aware controls provided with Visual Basic give you a great deal of database programming power, but many programmers want to take the technology much further for highly customized applications. Creating a custom data source has been a possibility for Visual Basic programmers for quite a while, and custom ActiveX controls can be created to "consume" the data. However, programming these could get rather complex because one part of the equation was missing: the ability to bind together custom data sources and data sinks, so that the transfer of data is handled automatically without the need to write code. Visual Basic 6 adds this missing ingredient. Actually, this capability is more flexible than you might think, because you are not limited to binding to controls on a form but can bind any ADO/OLE DB data source to any ADO/OLE DB data sink.

The BindingCollection object is used to define a binding between a data source and a data sink. Each BindingCollection object is associated with a single data source and defines bindings between that data source and one or more data sinks. A binding can be simple, which means that one field from the data source is bound to the data sink, or it can be complex, which means that an entire record, or row, from the data source is bound to the data sink. The binding behavior of a class is determined by its DataBindingBehavior property which can be set to vbNone, vbSimpleBoundvbComplexBound. The BindingCollection object is utilized only for simple bindings.

I already demonstrated a basic example of simple binding: an ActiveX control that had one property bound to a field in a data source, which was an ADO Data Control. I promised to explain creating a data sink that uses complex binding in this column, but that was before I started looking into the details. In the Visual Basic documentation, Microsoft talks about complex binding of custom data sinks but provides no information about doing it. All my efforts with other sources of information have turned up precious little, aside from some rather obscure C++ code, so I must (with some embarrassment) postpone an explanation of complex data binding of custom data sinks to some future column.

Semi-Complex Binding

I already showed you how to create an ActiveX control that served as a data sink, with a single property bound to a data source. You are not, however, limited to binding a single property to a single field; you can bind as many properties as you like. The properties are each bound individually, with each having a separate entry in the BindingCollection object, so this is not the same as true complex binding, in which an entire row is bound collectively. In some ways, however, it lets you accomplish the same things as complex binding, so I refer to it as semi-complex binding.

To demonstrate, I’ll use the same Access database table that we created earlier. It has a single table named Contributors which contains only three fields, a type Text field (length = 50) called Name, a type Single field called Percent, and a type Long field called Index with AutoIncrement set to True.

Next, start a new ActiveX control project. Set the UserControl’s DataBindingBehavior property to vbSinpleBound. Place three text boxes and three labels on the UserControl, and assign the following Name property values to the text boxes:


When the visual design is complete, it should be pretty clear which Text Box goes with which Label.

The ActiveX control has three properties, corresponding to the three fields in the database table that it will be bound to. They are called Idx, Named, and Percentage (I used the property names Idx and Named instead of Index and Name to avoid confusion with the control’s intrinsic properties named Index and Name.) The required property procedure code is shown in Listing 3.

Property procedures in the ActiveX data sink.

Public Property Get Idx() As Variant
    Idx = txtIndex.Text
End Property
 Public Property Let Idx(ByVal vNewValue As Variant)
    txtIndex.Text = vNewValue
End Property
 Public Property Get Named() As Variant
    Named = txtName.Text
End Property
 Public Property Let Named(ByVal vNewValue As Variant)
    txtName.Text = vNewValue
End Property
 Public Property Get Percentage() As Variant
    Percentage = txtPercentage.Text
End Property
Public Property Let Percentage(ByVal vNewValue As Variant)
    txtPercentage.Text = vNewValue
End Property

That’s all that’s required for the ActiveX data sink. To test the control you need a standard EXE Visual Basic project as part of a project group, along with the ActiveX control. Procedures for doing this were explained above. The test project requires one ADO Data Control on its form, as well as one instance of the ActiveX control you just created. You must set the ADO Data Control’s ConnectionString property to link it to the database file, and set its RecordSource property to "select * from contributors" to select all fields and all records in the table.

The only code required in the test project is code that creates the data bindings. You need to create a BindingCollection object, associate it with the ADO Data Control, then add a binding for each of the field/property combinations. This code is shown in Listing 4, and assumes that the ADO Data Control is named ADODC1 and the instance of the ActiveX control is named MyControl1.

Saving Database Changes

The simplest kind of binding, as in the example just presented, moves data from the data source to the data sink, but not in the other direction. In other words, if the user edits any of the data in the bound control, those changes are not written to the database table. Saving of changes is controlled by the DataChanged property of the Binding object. Each binding that is defined in the BindingCollection is represented by a Binding object, and the default setting of the DataChanged property is False. If this property is True, however, then moving the data source to another record will automatically invoke the Edit and Update methods, and any changes that were made to the data in the bound data sink will be written back to the database table.

For a simple demonstration, change the code in the demo program’s Form_Load procedure as shown in Listing 5. The last two lines of the modified procedure set the DataChanged property to True for the Binding objects representing the Name and Percentage fields. (Now you can see why we set a Key property for these Binding objects earlier.)

Listing 5. Setting the DataChanged property to True so that data changes will be saved.

Private Sub Form_Load()
 Set OBColl = New BindingCollection
Set OBColl.DataSource = Adodc1
OBColl.Add MyControl1, "Named", "Name", , "Name"
OBColl.Add MyControl1, "Percentage", "Percent", , "Percent"
OBColl.Add MyControl1, "Idx", "Index", , "Idx"
OBColl("Name").DataChanged = True
OBColl("Percent").DataChanged = True
 End Sub

After these changes, when you run the program you’ll see that any changes to the Name or Percentage values in the control are saved to the database table and will be displayed the next time you open the file. Using the DataChanged property gives you complete control over which, if any, data changes are saved. You could, for example, set it to True for all Binding objects when the program starts, making saving of data changes the program default, but also provide a "Cancel" bttuon that permits the user to abandon data changes by setting DataChanged to False for all or selected bindings.

Creating a Data Source

To quote from the Visual Basic Help system, "A data source is an object that binds other objects to data from an external source." The external source is a database file, and the "other objects" are the data-aware data sinks that we have already covered. At its most basic, a data source is a class module that exposes one or more interfaces to the external data. While not strictly required, custom data sources are usually created as ActiveX components, because this greatly simplifies the task of sharing the class between multiple applications or using it as a software component that is shared by many programmers. An ActiveX data source can take the form of an ActiveX control, an ActiveX DLL, or an ActiveX EXE. As an ActiveX component, your custom data source can easily be shared. Of course, it can interface with data in a wide variety of sources, such as a local Access file, a private OLE DB data store, or a remote SQL server database.

As you might expect, the topic of custom data sources in Visual Basic is very complex, if only because it encompasses essentially the entire range of Visual Basic’s data access capabilities, and that’s a wide range indeed. It may help simplify our look at custom data sources by thinking of it as two related topics. First is the general topic of data access in Visual Basic, regardless of whether or not the access is part of a custom data source. Second is the question of encapsulating that data access within a custom data source. In the remainder of this column I will try to scratch the surface of the second topic, which taken on its own is not especially complicated.

One of the things that is possible with a custom data source is creating an emulation of the existing ADO Data Control. Now, why would you want to do this? One reason is to provide a different visual interface, a not-unreasonable idea since the ADO Data Control’s appearance leaves a lot to be desired. Another reason is to customize the behavior of the control in some way that better suits your needs. For demonstration purposes, I’ll combine these two rationales and show you how to create a modified clone of the ADO Data Control that has a better visual interface and is dedicated to a specific database file.

To begin, create a new ActiveX Control project. Open the Project Properties dialog box and enter "CustomDataSource" as the Project Name and "Data Source for MYDATA.MDB" as the Project Description. Change the UserControl’s Name property to CDS (for Custom Data Source) and change its DataSourceBehavior property to vbDataSource.

Next, place a control array of 4 command buttons on the UserControl. Do not worry about exact size and placement, as these will be set in code. Change the Caption property of the four command buttons as shown in Table 4.

ow add a label control, changing its Alignment property to 2 (that is, center). Again, the label’s size and position will be set in code, in the UserControl’s Resize event procedure, as shown in Listing 6.

Listing 6. Control sizes are set in the Resize event procedure.

Private Sub UserControl_Resize()
 Dim i As Integer
Dim x As Integer, y As Integer
Dim w As Integer, h As Integer
 For i = 0 To 3
    x = i * ScaleWidth / 4
    y = 0
    w = ScaleWidth / 4
    h = ScaleHeight * 0.8
    Command1(i).Move x, y, w, h
Next i
Label1.Move 0, ScaleHeight * 0.8, ScaleWidth, ScaleHeight * 0.2 
 End Sub

The next step is to define a Caption property, which will be displayed by the label control. This is accomplished by adding the two property procedures shown in Listing 7.

Listing 7. Property procedures for the Caption property.

Public Property Get Caption() As String
   Caption = Label1.Caption
End Property
Public Property Let Caption(ByVal NewCaption As String)
   Label1.Caption = NewCaption
   PropertyChanged "Caption"
End Property

We need two object variables to refer to the ADO connection and the recordset that the control will use. These are declared in the general declarations section of the code, as shown below:

Listing 8. Declaring global object variables to reference the connection and recordset objects.

Private cn As ADODB.Connection
Private WithEvents rs As ADODB.Recordset

You must also open the References dialog box and select Microsoft ActiveX Data Objects 2.0 Library, so that the class definitions will be available for early binding.

The GetDataMember Event

At the center of a data source is the GetDataMember event. This event is not normally part of an ActiveX control, and is added only when the class’s DataSourceBehavior property is set to vbDataSource. GetDataMember is called whenever a bound data sink requests a new data source, or requests a data source for the first time. The event procedure looks like this:

Private Sub object_GetDataMember(DataMember As String, Data As Object)
End Sub

The DataMember argument is a string containing the name of the data member to be bound as a data source—in other words, the DataMember property of the data sink that the control is boundto. The Data argument is a reference to the ADO recordset object (or the OLEDBSimple provider, but that’s a technology I will not cover here). The Data argument is used to return information from the procedure. What this usually means is that code in the GetDataMember event procedure creates a recordset containing the required data, then returns a reference to that recordset in the Data argument. Alternatively, the recordset objects can be created elsewhere, and code in GetDataMember simply needs to return a reference to the correct one.

Let’s look at an example. Suppose you have written a custom data source, and bind it to a text box control. This means that the text box’s DataSource property is set to the name of the data source control. Suppose also that the text box’s DataMember property is set to "Sales." Then, when the program begins running, the data source’s GetDataMember event procedure will be called, and the value of the DataMember argument will be "Sales." If, during program execution, code changes the text box’s DataMember property to "Agents",  then the GetDataMember event procedure will be called again, this time with the DataMember argument equal to "Agents."

The code below demonstrates this. (Note: This code is not part of the demo project.) Assume that code elsewhere in the program has established the connection to the database file and created two recordsets, rsSales and rsAgents, that contain the appropriate data.

Private Sub UserControl_GetDataMember(DataMember As String, Data As Object)

Select Case DataMember
  Case "Sales"
    Set Data = rsSales
  Case "Agents"
    Set Data = rsAgents
  Case Else
    Err.Raise "DataSource", "Invalid DataMember"
End Select

End Sub

Returning to the demo project, we can now write the code for the GetDataMember event procedure. Because the project is relatively simple, and the program never requests a change in the data source, the GetDataMember event will fire only once, when the data binding is first established. Since we will not make use of the data sink’s DataMember property, this too can be ignored. (A blank string is passed to the DataMember argument of GetDataMember if the bound data sink’s DataMember property is blank.) Therefore we can use this event procedure to set up the ADO Connection and Recordset objects and establish the connection.

The code is shown in Listing 9. You’ll note that I have hard-coded the connection string required to connect to the MYDATA.MDB database file that we are using. You will likely need to edit the path information to indicate the location of your database file. Note also that the code sets the ActiveX control’s Caption property to display the name of the record source.

Listing 9. Code in the GetDataMember event procedure.

Private Sub UserControl_GetDataMember(DataMember As String, Data As Object)
Dim ConString
Dim RecordSource
 RecordSource = "Contributors"
Caption = RecordSource
ConString = "Provider=Microsoft.Jet.OLEDB.3.51;"
ConString = ConString & "Persist Security Info=False;Data Source="
ConString = ConString & "C:\documents\VB Projects\binding\mydata.mdb"
 Set cn = New ADODB.Connection
Set rs = New ADODB.Recordset
cn.ConnectionString = ConString
rs.Open RecordSource, cn, adOpenKeyset, adLockPessimistic
Set Data = rs
 End Sub

This completes the coding for the data source; now it’s time to take it for a spin.

Testing the Data Source

To test the data source, create a project group by adding a Standard EXE project to the Visual Basic workspace. Be sure that this new project is designated as the StartUp project. (Remember, the UserControl designer must be closed to make the ActiveX control available on the toolbar.) Then, working with the new Standard EXE project, place an instance of the ActiveX control on the form. Its default name will be CDS1. Next, place a text box on the form. With the text box selected, select the DataSource property in the properties window. You want CDS1 as the data source, and you’ll see that this is available on the drop-down list for the DataSource property.

Next, set the text box’s DataField property to "Name." The drop-down list for this property does not contain a list of available fields because the data source will not be connected to the database table until runtime.

You can now run the project. You’ll see that the binding works just the way it should: You can use the buttons on the custom control to move from record to record in the database table, and the Name field for each record is displayed in the text box.

But hold on, there’s more. A custom data source such as the one we just designed can also be complex-bound to a data sink. It’s remarkably simple, as the difficult details of complex binding are all taken care of behind the scenes. You can easily see this using the demo project that we just created. Add a data grid control to the test form, and set its DataSource property to CDS1. Run the project again, and the data grid control displays all of the records in the database table.

Summing Up

In the end I conclude the basics of creating custom data sources and data sinks (data consumers in Microsoft-speak) using Visual Basic 6. If there’s one single most important take-home message I learned from all this, it’s how simple it all it is! As is so often the case, Visual Basic takes care of most of the dirty work for you, so that you can devote your energies to the more important aspects of program design. Overall, database programming remains a fairly demanding task, made easier (but not easy!) by Visual Basic. As in so many other areas of development, Visual Basic provides you with two ways to approach a project: pre-programmed components that can be dropped in and used for many tasks, and the ability to create your own custom components as needed.

Now that you've gotten free know-how on this topic, try to grow your skills even faster with online video training. Then finally, put these skills to the test and make a name for yourself by offering these skills to others by becoming a freelancer. There are literally 2000+ new projects that are posted every single freakin' day, no lie!

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Rohan Patra's Comment
Nicely Explained.
01 Mon Oct 2012
Admin's Reply:


Kalyan's Comment
Returning to the demo project, we can now write the code for the GetDataMember event procedure. Because the project is relatively simple, and the program never requests a change in the data source, the GetDataMember event will fire only once, when the data binding is first established. Since we will not make use of the data sink�s DataMember property, this too can be ignored. (A blank string is passed to the DataMember argument of GetDataMember if the bound data sink�s DataMember property is blank.) Therefore we can use this event procedure to set up the ADO Connection and Recordset objects and establish the connection.
25 Wed Nov 2009
Admin's Reply: You explained it so well :)