Chapter 1. Quick-start with IIS and Microsoft SQL Server

1.1. Getting started with NHibernate

This tutorial explains a setup of NHibernate 5.0.0 within a Microsoft environment. The tools used in this tutorial are:

  1. Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS) - web server supporting ASP.NET.
  2. Microsoft SQL Server 2012 - the database server. This tutorial uses the desktop edition (SQL Express), a free download from Microsoft. Support for other databases is only a matter of changing the NHibernate SQL dialect and driver configuration.
  3. Microsoft Visual Studio .NET (at least 2013) - the development environment.

First, we have to create a new Web project. We use the name QuickStart. In the project, add a NuGet reference to NHibernate. Visual Studio will automatically copy the library and its dependencies to the project output directory. If you are using a database other than SQL Server, add a reference to its driver assembly to your project.

We now set up the database connection information for NHibernate. To do this, open the file Web.config automatically generated for your project and add configuration elements according to the listing below:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8" ?>
  <!-- Add this element -->
        type="NHibernate.Cfg.ConfigurationSectionHandler, NHibernate" />

  <!-- Add this element -->
  <hibernate-configuration xmlns="urn:nhibernate-configuration-2.2">
      <property name="dialect">NHibernate.Dialect.MsSql2012Dialect</property>
      <property name="connection.connection_string">
        Server=localhost\SQLEXPRESS;initial catalog=quickstart;Integrated Security=True

      <mapping assembly="QuickStart" />

  <!-- Leave the other sections unchanged -->

The <configSections> element contains definitions of sections that follow and handlers to use to process their content. We declare the handler for the configuration section here. The <hibernate-configuration> section contains the configuration itself, telling NHibernate that we will use a Microsoft SQL Server 2012 database and connect to it through the specified connection string. The dialect is a required setting, databases differ in their interpretation of the SQL "standard". NHibernate will take care of the differences and comes bundled with dialects for several major commercial and open source databases.

An ISessionFactory is NHibernate's concept of a single datastore, multiple databases can be used by creating multiple XML configuration files and creating multiple Configuration and ISessionFactory objects in your application.

The last element of the <hibernate-configuration> section declares QuickStart as the name of an assembly containing class declarations and mapping files. The mapping files contain the metadata for the mapping of the POCO class to a database table (or multiple tables). We'll come back to mapping files soon. Let's write the POCO class first and then declare the mapping metadata for it.

1.2. First persistent class

NHibernate works best with the Plain Old CLR Objects (POCOs, sometimes called Plain Ordinary CLR Objects) programming model for persistent classes. A POCO has its data accessible through the standard .NET property mechanisms, shielding the internal representation from the publicly visible interface:

namespace QuickStart
    public class Cat
        public virtual string Id { get; set; }

        public virtual string Name { get; set; }

        public virtual char Sex { get; set; }

        public virtual float Weight { get; set; }

NHibernate is not restricted in its usage of property types, all .NET types and primitives (like string, char and DateTime) can be mapped, including classes from the System.Collections.Generic namespace. You can map them as values, collections of values, or associations to other entities. The Id is a special property that represents the database identifier (primary key) of that class, it is highly recommended for entities like a Cat. NHibernate can use identifiers only internally, without having to declare them on the class, but we would lose some of the flexibility in our application architecture.

No special interface has to be implemented for persistent classes nor do we have to subclass from a special root persistent class. NHibernate also doesn't use any build time processing, such as IL manipulation, it relies solely on .NET reflection and runtime class enhancement. So, without any dependency in the POCO class on NHibernate, we can map it to a database table.

For the above mentioned runtime class enhancement to work, NHibernate requires that all public properties of an entity class are declared as virtual. It also requires a parameter-less constructor: if you add a constructor having parameters, make sure to add a parameter-less constructor too.

1.3. Mapping the cat

The Cat.hbm.xml mapping file contains the metadata required for the object/relational mapping. The metadata includes declaration of persistent classes and the mapping of properties (to columns and foreign key relationships to other entities) to database tables.

Please note that the Cat.hbm.xml file should be set to an embedded resource.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8" ?>
<hibernate-mapping xmlns="urn:nhibernate-mapping-2.2"
    namespace="QuickStart" assembly="QuickStart">

    <class name="Cat" table="Cat">

        <!-- A 32 hex character is our surrogate key. It's automatically
            generated by NHibernate with the UUID pattern. -->
        <id name="Id">
            <column name="CatId" sql-type="char(32)" not-null="true"/>
            <generator class="uuid.hex" />

        <!-- A cat has to have a name, but it shouldn't be too long. -->
        <property name="Name">
            <column name="Name" length="16" not-null="true" />
        <property name="Sex" />
        <property name="Weight" />


Every persistent class should have an identifier attribute (actually, only classes representing entities, not dependent value objects, which are mapped as components of an entity). This property is used to distinguish persistent objects: Two cats are equal if catA.Id.Equals(catB.Id) is true, this concept is called database identity. NHibernate comes bundled with various identifier generators for different scenarios (including native generators for database sequences, hi/lo identifier tables, and application assigned identifiers). We use the UUID generator (only recommended for testing, as integer surrogate keys generated by the database should be preferred) and also specify the column CatId of the table Cat for the NHibernate generated identifier value (as a primary key of the table).

All other properties of Cat are mapped to the same table. In the case of the Name property, we mapped it with an explicit database column declaration. This is especially useful when the database schema is automatically generated (as SQL DDL statements) from the mapping declaration with NHibernate's SchemaExport tool. All other properties are mapped using NHibernate's default settings, which is what you need most of the time. Here the specification of the table name with the attribute table is redundant, it default to the class name when not specified. The table Cat in the database looks like this:

 Column |     Type     | Modifiers
 CatId  | char(32)     | not null, primary key
 Name   | nvarchar(16) | not null
 Sex    | nchar(1)     |
 Weight | real         |

You should now create the database and this table manually, and later read Chapter 21, Toolset Guide if you want to automate this step with the SchemaExport tool. This tool can create a full SQL DDL, including table definition, custom column type constraints, unique constraints and indexes. If you are using SQL Server, you should also make sure the ASPNET user has permissions to use the database.

1.4. Playing with cats

We're now ready to start NHibernate's ISession. It is the persistence manager interface, we use it to store and retrieve Cats to and from the database. But first, we've to get an ISession (NHibernate's unit-of-work) from the ISessionFactory:

ISessionFactory sessionFactory =
            new Configuration().Configure().BuildSessionFactory();

An ISessionFactory is responsible for one database and may only use one XML configuration file (Web.config or hibernate.cfg.xml). You can set other properties (and even change the mapping metadata) by accessing the Configuration before you build the ISessionFactory (it is immutable). Where do we create the ISessionFactory and how can we access it in our application?

An ISessionFactory is usually only built once, e.g. at start-up inside Application_Start event handler. This also means you should not keep it in an instance variable in your ASP.NET pages or MVC controllers, but in some other location. Furthermore, we need some kind of Singleton, so we can access the ISessionFactory easily in application code. The approach shown next solves both problems: configuration and easy access to a ISessionFactory.

We implement a NHibernateHelper helper class:

using System;
using System.Web;
using NHibernate;
using NHibernate.Cfg;

namespace QuickStart
    public sealed class NHibernateHelper
        private const string CurrentSessionKey = "nhibernate.current_session";
        private static readonly ISessionFactory _sessionFactory;

        static NHibernateHelper()
            _sessionFactory = new Configuration().Configure().BuildSessionFactory();

        public static ISession GetCurrentSession()
            var context = HttpContext.Current;
            var currentSession = context.Items[CurrentSessionKey] as ISession;

            if (currentSession == null)
                currentSession = _sessionFactory.OpenSession();
                context.Items[CurrentSessionKey] = currentSession;

            return currentSession;

        public static void CloseSession()
            var context = HttpContext.Current;
            var currentSession = context.Items[CurrentSessionKey] as ISession;

            if (currentSession == null)
                // No current session


        public static void CloseSessionFactory()
            if (_sessionFactory != null)

This class does not only take care of the ISessionFactory with its static attribute, but also has code to remember the ISession for the current HTTP request.

An ISessionFactory is threadsafe, many threads can access it concurrently and request ISessions. An ISession is a non-threadsafe object that represents a single unit-of-work with the database. ISessions are opened by an ISessionFactory and are closed when all work is completed:

ISession session = NHibernateHelper.GetCurrentSession();
    using (ITransaction tx = session.BeginTransaction())
        var princess = new Cat
            Name = "Princess",
            Sex = 'F',
            Weight = 7.4f


In an ISession, every database operation occurs inside a transaction that isolates the database operations (even read-only operations). We use NHibernate's ITransaction API to abstract from the underlying transaction strategy (in our case, ADO.NET transactions). Please note that the example above does not handle any exceptions.

Also note that you may call NHibernateHelper.GetCurrentSession(); as many times as you like, you will always get the current ISession of this HTTP request. You have to make sure the ISession is closed after your unit-of-work completes, either in Application_EndRequest event handler in your application class, or with a MVC action filter, or in a HttpModule before the HTTP response is sent. The nice side effect of the latter is easy lazy initialization: the ISession is still open when the view is rendered, so NHibernate can load uninitialized objects while you navigate the graph.

NHibernate has various methods that can be used to retrieve objects from the database. Nowadays the most standard way is using Linq:

using(var tx = session.BeginTransaction())
    var females = session
        .Where(c => c.Sex == 'F')
    foreach (var cat in females)
        Console.Out.WriteLine("Female Cat: " + cat.Name);


If you use an older NHibernate, you may have to import the NHibernate.Linq namespace.

NHibernate also offers an object-oriented query by criteria API that can be used to formulate type-safe queries, the Hibernate Query Language (HQL), which is an easy to learn and powerful object-oriented extension to SQL, as well as a strongly-typed LINQ API which translates internally to HQL. NHibernate of course uses DbCommands and parameter binding for all SQL communication with the database. You may also use NHibernate's direct SQL query feature or get a plain ADO.NET connection from an ISession in rare cases.

Since NHibernate 5.0, the session and its queries IO bound methods have async counterparts. Each call to an async method must be awaited before further interacting with the session or its queries.

1.5. Finally

We only scratched the surface of NHibernate in this small tutorial. Please note that we don't include any ASP.NET specific code in our examples. You have to create an ASP.NET page yourself and insert the NHibernate code as you see fit.

Keep in mind that NHibernate, as a data access layer, is tightly integrated into your application. Usually, all other layers depend on the persistence mechanism. Make sure you understand the implications of this design.