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Visual Studio contains an amazing assortment of tools to help in writing, testing, compiling, and deploying your applications. Microsoft had the foresight to make Visual Studio extendable and customizable. In fact, a lot of that tools you work with everyday in Visual Studio are really extensions. There are two main ways to extend Visual Studio. The simplest is to buy or download a third-party tool and configure Visual Studio to use it. This requires no code writing on your behalf. The second approach requires you to write some code and instruct Visual Studio to use this custom extension.
If you want to write these extensions, you need to install the Visual Studio SDK. Hidden in the depths of Visual Studio are several extensibility frameworks. Most of the functionality of Visual Studio can be accessed via these APIs. One of these APIs is based on the ancient COM specification. You can build either add-ins or Visual Studio Packages that run on COM. In Visual Studio 2010, Microsoft introduces their new extensibility framework called Managed Extensibility Framework, or MEF.
With this, you can build add-ins and component parts. Macros provide a quick and easy way to write plug-in code. They're written in Visual Basic. They are stored in a special Visual Studio macro files and can be imported into your Visual Studio using the Macro Explorer tool. COM add-ins have a higher potential for complexity. For example you can create walkthrough wizards or build new windows to add to the IDE. These are compiled into executable files and then deployed like any other application. Plus, you get to write them in your favorite .NET language.
COM VSPackages are even more powerful than add-ins. These programs have been used by Microsoft partners for years. You have to be an accepted partner before you can acquire the SDK bits. With VSPackages, you get full access to the backend of Visual Studio. You can create your own visual designers, like the Windows Form Designer or the Silverlight Designer. If you've written your own custom languages, you can use Visual Studio Packages to create special code editors and integrate the compilers. MEF add-ins provide access to the fancy new code editor in 2010.
With MEF, you are writing a WPF application, so you can overlay special graphics in the code editor. The rest of this chapter will show you how to use some of these extensibility tools.
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