Stories about Software


Creating a Word Document from Code with Spire

I’d like to tell you a harrowing, cautionary tale of my experience with the MS Office Interop libraries and then turn it into a story of redemption. Just to set the stage, these interop libraries are basically a way of programatically creating and modifying MS Office files such as Word documents and Excel spreadsheets. The intended usage of these libraries is in a desktop environment from a given user account in the user space. The reason for this is that what they actually do is launch MS Word and start piping commands to it, telling it what to do to the current document. This legacy approach works reasonably well, albeit pretty awkwardly from a user account. But what happens when you want to go from a legacy Winforms app to a legacy Webforms app and do this on a web server?

Microsoft has the following to say:

Microsoft does not currently recommend, and does not support, Automation of Microsoft Office applications from any unattended, non-interactive client application or component (including ASP, ASP.NET, DCOM, and NT Services), because Office may exhibit unstable behavior and/or deadlock when Office is run in this environment.

Microsoft says, “yikes, don’t do that, and if you do, caveat emptor.” And, that makes sense. It’s not a great idea to allow service processes to communicate directly with Office documents anyway because of the ability to embed executable code in them.

Sometime back, I inherited an ecosystem of legacy Winforms and Webforms applications and one common thread was the use of these Interop libraries in both places. Presumably, the original author wasn’t aware of Microsoft’s stance on this topic and had gone ahead with using Interop on the web server, getting it working for the moment. I didn’t touch this legacy code since it wasn’t causing any issues, but one day a server update came down the pipeline and *poof* no more functioning Interop. This functionality was fairly important to people, so my team was left to do some scrambling to re-implement the functionality using PDF instead of MS Word. It was all good after a few weeks, but it was a stressful few weeks and I developed battle scars around not only doing things with those Interop libraries and their clunky API (see below) but with automating anything with Office at all. Use SSRS or generate a PDF or something. Anything but Word!


But recently I was contacted by E-iceblue, who makes document management and conversion software in the .NET space. They asked if I’d take a look at their offering and write-up my thoughts on it. I agreed, as I do agree to requests like this from time to time, but always with the caveat that I’ll write about my experience in earnest and not serve as a platform for a print-based commercial. Given my Interop horror story, the first thing I asked was whether the libraries could work on a server or not, and I was told that they could (presumably, although I haven’t verified, this is because they use the Open XML format rather than the legacy Interop paradigm). So, that was already a win.

I put this request in my back pocket for a bit because I’m already pretty back-logged with post requests and other assorted work, but I wound up having a great chance to try it out. I have a project up on Github that I’ve been pushing code to in order to help with my Pluralsight course authorship. Gist of it is that I create a directory and file structure for my courses as I work on them, and then another for submission, and I want to automate the busy-work. And one thing that I do for every module of every course is create a power point document and a word document for scripting. So, serendipity — I had a reason to generate word documents and thus to try out E-iceblue’s product, Spire.

Rather than a long post with screenshots and all of that, I did a video capture. I want to stress that what you’re seeing here is me, having no prior knowledge of the product at all, and armed only with a link to tutorials that my contact there sent to me. Take a look at the video and see what it’s like. I spend about 4-5 minutes getting setup and, at the end of it, I’m using a nice, clean API to successfully generate a Word document.

I’ll probably have some more posts in the hopper with this as I start doing more things with it (Power Point, more complex Word interaction, conversion, etc). Early returns on this suggest it’s worth checking out, and, as you can see, the barriers to entry are quite low, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of just one line of offerings.

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Steven Hunt

Ah yes, good old interop. A long time ago I was on a team that implemented something similar to your web application, We had a stand-alone server with office and a windows service running on it. When the web server needed an Excel file generated, it would send a message to an MSMQ inbox, which would then cause the service to process the request and when it was done write a record to a SQL server table, which was being polled by the web application. It was a royal mess 🙁

Erik Dietrich

That sounds like quite the work-around — I don’t envy you. (Although I’ve certainly unwittingly stumbled into plenty of weird things like that in my time)