HttpApplication Class and the
ASP.NET Application Object
By Peter A. Bromberg, Ph.D.
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Peter Bromberg

 The ASP.NET HttpApplication class hides a number of complex concepts in order to simplify the programming model. Some of these simplifications are designed to handle compatibility issues with the classic Microsoft Active Server Pages (ASP) Application object in order to make migration easier. Therefore, it may be important for developers to understand some of the differences, in particular where performance issues are a concern.

Application Class and Application Instances

An application class is defined in the Global.asax file. The code in Global.asax defines a new class that is derived from System.Web.HttpApplication. Consider the following code in Global.asax, which adds a new object array to the Application object:

 public class Global : System.Web.HttpApplication
        public Global()
protected void Application_Start(Object sender, EventArgs e) { this.Application.Add("TestItem",new object[]{"one","two","three"}); }
And here, in the Page_Load event handler of a page in our Application , we will pull it back out:

private void Page_Load(object sender, System.EventArgs e)
object[] MyStuff=(object[])Page.Application["TestItem"];
for(int i=0;i<MyStuff.Length;i++)
Response.Write(MyStuff[i]+" <br/>");

In the absence of a Global.asax file, the base class, HttpApplication, is used as the application class.

The ASP.NET runtime creates as many instances of application classes as needed to process requests simultaneously. For most applications, this number is limited to the number of threads and remains in the range of 1 through 100, depending on the hardware, server load, configuration, and so on. Many requests reuse application instances, and a list of free application instances is kept during periods of reduced load. Application instances are used in a thread-safe manner, that is, one request at a time. This has important implications:

  • You do not have to worry about locking when you access non-static members of the application class.
  • Application code can store request data for each request in non-static members of the application       class (except after the EndRequest event because this event can maintain the request for a long       time).

Because static members of any class, including an application class, are not thread-safe, the user code must provide appropriate locking for access to static members. This applies to any static member that you add to the application class.

Microsoft provides the following guidelines to access the application instance that is associated with the current request:

  • From the Global.asax, use the this (Me in VB.Net) object.
  • From a page, every page includes a strongly-typed ApplicationInstance property (e.g.,        "Page.Application["TestItem"]")
  • From the HttpContext object, use the HttpContext.ApplicationInstance property (which you type as HttpApplication):
HttpApplication ctx=(HttpApplication)HttpContext.Current.ApplicationInstance;
     object[] MyAppStuff=(object[])ctx.Application["TestItem"];
     for(int j=0;j<MyAppStuff.Length;j++)

Because Application refers to the global application state dictionary in classic ASP, ASP.NET uses ApplicationInstance and not Application as a property name to refer to the application instance that processes the current request.

Application Events

The lifetime of a request (commonly referred to as the "Http pipeline") consists of a series of the application events (and some implicit steps that ASP.NET implements). These events are listed below in the order in which they are executed:

1.                   BeginRequest

2.                   AuthenticateRequest event

3.                   DefaultAuthentication internal event

4.                   AuthorizeRequest event

5.                   ResolveRequestCache event

6.                   Internal step to "map handler" (when compilation takes place, a page instance is created)

7.                   AcquireRequestState event

8.                   PreRequestHandlerExecute event

9.                   Internal step to "execute handler" (when the page code is executed)

10.               PostRequestHandlerExecute event

11.               ReleaseRequestState event

12.               Internal step to filter responsesUpdateRequestCache event

13.               UpdateRequestCache event

14.               EndRequest event

The following items can handle these events:

  • Internal ASP.NET page framework (for example, steps 6, 9, and 12 in the preceding list).
  • HTTP modules that are configured for the application. The default list of HTTP modules is defined in the Machine.config file. Additional custom modules may be specified by the developer in the web.config for the application.
  • Code in Global.asax that is hooked through the Application_[On]EventName method or that is hooked explicitly when you add event handlers for an alternative handler name:

	  protected void Application_OnBeginRequest(Object sender, EventArgs e)
               Response.Write("OnBeginRequest Fired!");

           Each event can have synchronous and asynchronous subscribers. Asynchronous subscribers are executed first. Not all events are always executed; the only event that is always executed is EndRequest. As a result, you should perform all after-request cleanup in the EndRequest event: 

	  protected void Application_OnEndRequest(Object sender, EventArgs e)
{ Response.Write("OnEndRequest Fired!<br/>"); }

In most cases, the actual response content is sent to the client after the application instance is finished with the response (which is after EndRequest).

Application_OnStart and Application_OnEnd

ASP.NET introduces the Application_OnStart and Application_OnEnd "events" for compatibility with classic ASP. These handlers are executed only once in the lifetime of an application and not for every application instance. So, if you change non-static members in these methods, you affect only one application instance and not all instances. You can initialize one application instance either in the constructor or by overriding the Init method.

Application_OnStart is a logical equivalent to the class constructor for the application class, but it offers one advantage: the code has access to the HttpContext for the first request to the application.

Application State

Application state is a global dictionary of late-bound objects, which classic ASP introduces to compensate for the absence of global variables in Microsoft Visual Basic Scripting Edition (VBScript). In ASP.NET, you can access application state through one of the following:

  • Application property (which is defined in both HttpApplication and Page classes)
  • HttpContext.Application

ASP.NET includes application state primarily for compatibility with classic ASP so that it is easier to migrate existing applications to ASP.NET. It is recommended that you store data in static members of the application class instead of in the Application object. This increases performance because you can access a static variable faster than you can access an item in the Application dictionary.

To access static application members from pages in Microsoft Visual C# .NET and Microsoft Visual Basic .NET, you must use the ClassName attribute in Global.asax to name your application class. For example, in a "Script Only" global.asax:

<%@ Application Language="C# | VB" ClassName="MyClass" %>

In CodeBehind:

public class Global : System.Web.HttpApplication


public static string StaticTest ="This is the original value";
. . .

If a static member is named MyStaticMember in your Global.asax file, you can use MyClass.MyStaticMember to access it from your page.  

The code in the sample Web application for this article writes items to the output stream that illustrate some of these unique properties as they are set or fired from within the global.asax or the Page itself, and will make it easier to examine and / or experiment with the unique Application Object.

Download the Code that accompanies this article

Peter Bromberg is a C# MVP, MCP, and .NET consultant who has worked in the banking and financial industry for 20 years. He has architected and developed web - based corporate distributed application solutions since 1995, and focuses exclusively on the .NET Platform.