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DataTablePager Now Has Multi-Column Sort Capability For DataTables.Net February 9, 2011

Posted by ActiveEngine Sensei in .Net, ActiveEngine, Ajax, ASP.Net, C#, DataTables.Net, jQuery.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Some gifts just keep on giving, and many times things can just take on a momentum that grow beyond your expectation.  Bob Sherwood wrote to Sensei and pointed out that DataTables.net supports multiple column sorting.  All you do is hold down the shift key and click on any second or third column and DataTables will add that column to sort criteria.  “Well, how come it doesn’t work with the server side solution?”  Talk about the sound of one hand clapping.  How about that for a flub!  Sensei didn’t think of that!  Then panic set in – would this introduce new complexity to the DataTablePager solution, making it too difficult to maintain a clean implementation?  After some long thought it seemed that a solution could be neatly added.  Before reading, you should download the latest code to follow along.

How DataTables.Net Communicates Which Columns Are Involved in a Sort

If you recall, DataTables.Net uses a structure called aoData to communicate to the server what columns are needed, the page size, and whether a column is a data element or a client side custom column.  We covered that in the last DataTablePager post.  aoData also has a convention for sorting:


In our example we are working with the following columns:


where column 0 is a custom client side column, column 1 is Name (a mere data column), column 2 is Center (another data column), column 3 is a custom client side column, and the remaining columns are just data columns.

If we are sorting just by Name, then aoData will contain the following:


When we wish to sort by Center, then by Name we get the following in aoData”



In other words, the first column we want to sort by is in position 2 (Center) and the second column(Name) is in position 1.  We’ll want to record this some where so that we can pass this to our order routine.  aoData passes all column information to us on the server, but we’ll have to parse through the columns and check to see if one or many of the columns is actually involved in a sort request and as we do we’ll need to preserve the order of that column of data in the sort.

SearchAndSortable Class to the Rescue

You’ll recall that we have a class called SearchAndSortable that defines how the column is used by the client.  Since we iterate over all the columns in aoData it makes sense that we should take this opportunity to see if any column is involved in a sort and store that information in SearchAndSortable as well.  The new code for the class looks like this:

public class SearchAndSortable
        public string Name { get; set; }
        public int ColumnIndex { get; set; }
        public bool IsSearchable { get; set; }
        public bool IsSortable { get; set; }
        public PropertyInfo Property{ get; set; }
        public int SortOrder { get; set; }
        public bool IsCurrentlySorted { get; set; }
        public string SortDirection { get; set; }

        public SearchAndSortable(string name, int columnIndex, bool isSearchable,
                                bool isSortable)
            this.Name = name;
            this.ColumnIndex = columnIndex;
            this.IsSearchable = isSearchable;
            this.IsSortable = IsSortable;

        public SearchAndSortable() : this(string.Empty, 0, true, true) { }

There are 3 new additions:

IsCurrentlySorted – is this column included in the sort request.

SortDirection – “asc” or “desc” for ascending and descending.

SortOrder – the order of the column in the sort request.  Is it the first or second column in a multicolumn sort.

As we walk through the column definitions, we’ll look to see if each column is involved in a sort and record what direction – ascending or descending – is required. From our previous post you’ll remember that the method PrepAOData is where we parse our column definitions. Here is the new code:

//  Sort columns
this.sortKeyPrefix = aoDataList.Where(x => x.Name.StartsWith(INDIVIDUAL_SORT_KEY_PREFIX))
                                            .Select(x => x.Value)

//  Column list
var cols = aoDataList.Where(x => x.Name == "sColumns"
                                            & string.IsNullOrEmpty(x.Value) == false)

if(cols == null)
  this.columns = new List();
  this.columns = cols.Value

//  What column is searchable and / or sortable
//  What properties from T is identified by the columns
var properties = typeof(T).GetProperties();
int i = 0;

//  Search and store all properties from T
this.columns.ForEach(col =>
  if (string.IsNullOrEmpty(col) == false)
    var searchable = new SearchAndSortable(col, i, false, false);
    var searchItem = aoDataList.Where(x => x.Name == BSEARCHABLE + i.ToString())
    searchable.IsSearchable = (searchItem[0].Value == "False") ? false : true;
    searchable.Property = properties.Where(x => x.Name == col)



//  Sort
searchAndSortables.ForEach(sortable => {
  var sort = aoDataList.Where(x => x.Name == BSORTABLE + sortable.ColumnIndex.ToString())
  sortable.IsSortable = (sort[0].Value == "False") ? false : true;
                sortable.SortOrder = -1;

  //  Is this item amongst currently sorted columns?
  int order = 0;
  this.sortKeyPrefix.ForEach(keyPrefix => {
    if (sortable.ColumnIndex == Convert.ToInt32(keyPrefix))
      sortable.IsCurrentlySorted = true;

      //  Is this the primary sort column or secondary?
      sortable.SortOrder = order;

     //  Ascending or Descending?
     var ascDesc = aoDataList.Where(x => x.Name == "sSortDir_" + order)
     if(ascDesc != null)
       sortable.SortDirection = ascDesc.Value;


To sum up, we’ll traverse all of the columns listed in sColumns. For each column we’ll grab the PorpertyInfo from our underlying object of type T. This gives only those properties that will be displayed in the grid on the client. If the column is marked as searchable, we indicate that by setting the IsSearchable property on the SearchAndSortable class.  This happens starting at line 28 through 43.

Next we need to determine what we can sort, and will traverse the new list of SearchAndSortables we created. DataTables will tell us what if the column can be sorted by with following convention:

bSortable_ColNumber = True

So if the column Center were to be “sortable” aoData would contain:

bSortable_1 = True

We record the sortable state as shown on line 49 in the code listing.

Now that we know whether we can sort on this column, we have to look through the sort request and see if the column is actually involved in a sort.  We do that by looking at what DataTables.Net sent to us from the client.  Again the convention is to send bSortColumn_0=1 to indicate that the first column for the sort in the second item listed in sColumns property.  aoData will contain many bSortColum’s so we’ll walk through each one and record the order that column should take in the sort.  That occurs at line 55 where we match the column index with the bSortColumn_x value.

We’ll also determine what the sort direction – ascending or descending – should be.  At line 63 we get the direction of the sort and record this value in the SearchAndSortable.

When the method PrepAOData is completed, we have a complete map of all columns and what columns are being sorted, as well as their respective sort direction.  All of this was sent to us from the client and we are storing this configuration for later use.

Performing the Sort

(Home stretch so play the song!!)

If you can picture what we have so far we just basically created a collection of column names, their respective PropertyInfo’s and have recorded which of these properties are involved in a sort.  At this stage we should be able to query this collection and get back those properties and the order that the sort applies.

You may already be aware that you can have a compound sort statement in LINQ with the following statement:

var sortedCustomers = customer.OrderBy(x => x.LastName)
                                           .ThenBy(x => x.FirstName);

The trick is to run through all the properties and create that compound statement. Remember when we recorded the position of the sort as an integer? This makes it easy for us to sort out the messy scenarios where the second column is the first column of a sort. SearchAndSortable.SortOrder takes care of this for us. Just get the data order by SortOrder in descending order and you’re good to go. So that code would look like the following:

var sorted = this.searchAndSortables.Where(x => x.IsCurrentlySorted == true)
                                     .OrderBy(x => x.SortOrder)

sorted.ForEach(sort => {
             records = records.OrderBy(sort.Name, sort.SortDirection,
             (sort.SortOrder == 0) ? true : false);

On line 6 in the code above we are calling our extension method OrderBy in Extensions.cs. We pass the property name, the sort direction, and whether this is the first column of the sort. This last piece is important as it will create either “OrderBy” or the “ThenBy” for us. When it’s the first column, you guessed it we get “OrderBy”. Sensei found this magic on a StackOverflow post by Marc Gravell and others.

Here is the entire method ApplySort from DataTablePager.cs, and note how we still check for the initial display of the data grid and default to the first column that is sortable.

private IQueryable ApplySort(IQueryable records)
  var sorted = this.searchAndSortables.Where(x => x.IsCurrentlySorted == true)
                                                .OrderBy(x => x.SortOrder)

  //  Are we at initialization of grid with no column selected?
  if (sorted.Count == 0)
    string firstSortColumn = this.sortKeyPrefix.First();
    int firstColumn = int.Parse(firstSortColumn);

    string sortDirection = "asc";
    sortDirection = this.aoDataList.Where(x => x.Name == INDIVIDUAL_SORT_DIRECTION_KEY_PREFIX +                                                                    "0")

    if (string.IsNullOrEmpty(sortDirection))
      sortDirection = "asc";

    //  Initial display will set order to first column - column 0
    //  When column 0 is not sortable, find first column that is
    var sortable = this.searchAndSortables.Where(x => x.ColumnIndex == firstColumn)
    if (sortable == null)
      sortable = this.searchAndSortables.First(x => x.IsSortable);

    return records.OrderBy(sortable.Name, sortDirection, true);
      //  Traverse all columns selected for sort
      sorted.ForEach(sort => {
                             records = records.OrderBy(sort.Name, sort.SortDirection,
                            (sort.SortOrder == 0) ? true : false);

    return records;

It’s All in the Setup

Test it out. Hold down the shift key and select a second column and WHAMO – multiple column sorts! Hold down the shift key and click the same column twice and KAH-BLAMO multiple column sort with descending order on the second column!!!

The really cool thing is that our process on the server is being directed by DataTables.net on the client.  And even awseomer is that you have zero configuration on the server.  Most awesome-est is that this will work with all of your domain objects, because we have used generics we can apply this to any class in our domain.  So what are you doing to do with all that time you just got back?

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