Routing Basics in ASP.NET MVC

Image by Andrew Morton

When getting started with ASP.NET MVC and/or the ASP.NET Web API, it can be overwhelming trying to figure out how it all works. These frameworks offer powerful features, and abstract away a good deal of pain associated with handling, routing, and responding to HTTP requests within an application. This is a great thing for seasoned developers who understand what it is the framework is doing “for” you (and how to modify that behavior, if desired). It also makes it easier for new or less-experienced folk to set up a basic site or API and watch it “just work.”

On the other hand, the abstraction can make it challenging for those new to the MVC world to understand just what is going on, and where the critical functionality they want to modify “lives.”

One of the fundamental concepts to understand when using ASP.NET MVC and/or the ASP.NET Web API is routing, which essentially defines how your application will process and respond to incoming HTTP requests.

IMPORANT NOTE: This post covers the most basic and fundamental concepts of routing as applied to the ASP.NET MVC framework. The target audience are those with little or no familiarity with routing in general, or who may be looking to review the fundamentals. If you are an experience MVC developer, there is probably not much here for you, although your feedback in the comments is greatly appreciated.

Once you have reviewed routing basics here, learn more about Route Customization in ASP.NET MVC

Routing Makes it All Work

Traditional web communication architecture maps a URL (Uniform Resource Locator) to a file within the file system. For example, the following:

would tend to map to a file named favorites.html, in the directory ~/mybooks/favorites, located in the root directory for the site In response to an incoming HTTP request for this resource, the contents of the file are either returned (as in the example above, as HTML) or perhaps code associated with a file is executed (if, for example, the file were a .aspx file).

Within the MVC framework, as well as the Web API*, URLs are instead mapped to specific methods which execute in response to the incoming request, generally returning either a View (MVC) or some sort of structured data (Web API) corresponding to the the requested resource. In other words, instead of pointing to actual physical resources within a file system, MVC and Web API routes instead point to an abstraction which represents the resource requested, in both cases a method which will return the requested item.

NOTE: There are some subtle differences between MVC and Web API with respect to routing, but most of the concepts we cover here are mutually applicable. I attempt to clarify Web Api Routing Specifics in a separate post.

This de-coupling of the URL from the physical file system allows us to construct cleaner, more friendly URLs which are more beneficial to the user, search-engine-friendly, and (in theory) more persistent, meaning URLs associated with specific content are less likely to change, and break incoming links. In the authoritative book Professional ASP.NET MVC 4 , the authors refer to some common guidelines for high-quality URLs:

Usability expert Jacob Nielsen ( urges developers to pay attention to URLs and provides the following guidelines for high-quality URLs. You should provide:

  • A domain name that is easy to remember and easy to spell
  • Short URLs
  • Easy-to-type URLs
  • URLs that reflect the site structure
  • URLs that are hackable to allow users to move to higher levels of the information architecture by hacking off the end of the URL
  • Persistent URLs which don’t change

* Technically, routing is incorporated into ASP.NET generally, and is available to all types of ASP.NET applications. However, the concept has been largely associated with MVC. Further, Web API actually contains its own implementation of routing, such the a Web API application can be hosted independently of ASP.NET and IIS.

How Routing Works in ASP.NET MVC

In MVC, the convention is to map URLs to a particular action (a method) on a particular controller. The action then executes, and (usually, but not always) returns an instance of ActionResult. The ActionResult class handles Framework logic such as rendering to HTML or JSON, and writing to the HTTP response that will be returned to the user’s browser.

Once again, I defer to the authors of ASP.NET MVC 4 (who happen to also be members of the ASP.NET team):

“Routing within the ASP.NET MVC framework serves two main purposes:

  • It matches incoming requests that would not otherwise match a file on the file system and maps the requests to a controller action.
  • It constructs outgoing URLs that correspond to controller actions

The most basic version of this convention would be a URL as follows:


In an MVC project, this is achieved by registering route templates which establish how incoming URLs will be mapped to specific controllers and actions. A typical MVC project defines a Global.asx file, which contains a single method – Application_Start. Within this method, calls are made to various configuration methods to set up the application’s working state. One of these calls is to the RegisterRoutes method of the RouteConfig class found in the App_Start folder of the project.

Global.asx File and the RouteConfig File in a Typical MVC Project:


If we examine the Global.asx file, we find the following code:

The Default ASP.NET MVC Global.asx File:
public class MvcApplication : System.Web.HttpApplication
    protected void Application_Start()

For our purposes, we are interested only in the call to RouteConfig.RegisterRoutes. As we can see, the call passes the the Routes collection of the Global RouteTable as a parameter to the RegisterRoutes method, which then populates the routes collection with pre-defined route templates for the application. The default MVC project template comes with a single pre-configured route:

The Default MVC RouteConfig Class:
public class RouteConfig
    public static void RegisterRoutes(RouteCollection routes)
            name: "Default",
            url: "{controller}/{action}/{id}",
            defaults: new 
                controller = "Home", 
                action = "Index", 
                id = UrlParameter.Optional

Note that any MVC application must have at least one route definition in order to function. In the above, a route template named “Default” is added to the routes collection. The items in curly braces enclose Route Parameters, and are represented by the parameter name as a placeholder between the curly braces. Route Segments are separated by forward slashes (much like a standard URL). Notice how the implied relative URL our route specifies matches the MVC convention:


Route parameters can be named just about anything, however ASP.NET recognizes a few special route parameter names, in particular {controller} and {action} , and treats them differently than other route parameters.

Controller Matching

When the routing framework encounters a route parameter named {controller}, it appends the suffix “Controller” to the value of the parameter, and then scans the project for a class by that name which also implements the System.Web.Mvc.IController interface. Note that the search for a controller with a matching name is case-insensitive.

Action Matching

Once the framework has selected the proper controller, it attempts to locate an action on the controller with a name matching the {action} parameter value. The search for a matching action name is case-insensitive. If more than one action matches by name (as with multiple overloaded methods on the same controller), the framework will select the method for which the most URL parameters match method arguments by name.

Action Parameter Matching

Additional URL Parameters other than {controller} and {action} are available to be passed as arguments to the selected Action method. The framework will evaluate the input arguments of the available actions, and match them by name (case-insensitively) to the URL parameters other than {action} and {controller} . With certain restrictions, the framework will select that action with the greatest number of matching parameters.

Some things to consider:

  • The MVC framework will first match method arguments by name to URL parameters. Then, it will attempt to match any query string parameters included in the URL by name. If the request is a POST, then the framework will attempt to match the contents of the POST body.
  • Method arguments are evaluated for a match by name only. The framework does not consider the type required by the method argument. For example, a URL parameter named {id} with a value of “John” will be considered a match for a method which accepts an int argument named id.
  • Action methods can be decorated with attributes which restrict the type of HTTP request they will respond to. Such attributes indicate the applicable HTTP verb to which the action will respond.

As an example of limiting the HTTP actions which a method may respond, consider the following:

Overloaded Action Method with HttpPost Attribute:
public ActionResult Edit(int id)
    return View();
public ActionResult Edit(int id, FormCollection collection)
        // TODO: Add update logic here
        return RedirectToAction("Index");
        return View();

In the above, we find two methods named Edit. The first accepts an int named id as an argument, and the second accepts an int named id and a FormCollection (a complex type). The purpose of this overloaded method is so that a browser can:

  • Request a view with which to edit a record of some sort and then,
  • Submit the modified record values back to the site for storage.

The first Edit method, which requires only an int id argument will be called using HTTP GET, and return a view with the current representation of the data to be edited. Once the user has updated values in the view and submits the form data, an HTTP POST request is issued. The overloaded Edit method, decorated with the [HttpPost] attribute, is executed, and the modified data is persisted or otherwise processed. 

The MVC Default Route Template – Routing Walk-Thru

The route mapping assumes that the URL template specified is relative to the domain root for your site. In other words, since the entire application is hosted at it is not necessary to include this domain root as part of the route template.

In the case of the default MVC mapping from our RouteConfig class above, the route contains the two special parameters, {controller} and {action}. In processing incoming requests, the framework appends “Controller” to the value provided for the {controller} parameter, and then searches the project for a controller class of that name. Once the proper controller has been identified, MVC next looks for a method name corresponding to the value of the {action} parameter, and then attempts to match any additional parameters with input arguments accepted by that method.

For example, if our application receives a request with the following URL:

the routing will match the default template. The string “Controller” will be appended to the “books” segment, and the runtime will set about searching the project for a class named BooksController. If the controller is located, MVC will then examine the controller for a public method named Details. If a Details method is found, MVC will attempt to find an overload which accepts a single argument named id, and then calls that method, passing in the final URL segment (“25” in this case) as an argument.

The following controller example would provide a suitable match for our incoming request:

A Simple Books Controller:
public class BooksController : Controller
    public ActionResult Index()
        return View();
    public ActionResult Details(int id)
        return View();

The incoming request would result in a call to the Details method, passing in the integer 25 as the proper id argument. The method would return the appropriate view (how MVC does this is another convention for another post – let’s stay focused on request routing for now).

Route Parameter Defaults

Notice in the RegisterRoutes method, the registration of the “Default” route also appears to assign some default values to the controller and action, parameters. These values will be used for any of these parameters if they are missing from the incoming request URL. Additionally, the id parameter is designated as optional. For example, consider the following URL:

In this case, we have specified the Books controller, but have not specified a value for the action or id. However, this route still matches our route definition, since MVC will provide the default value specified for the action parameter (in this case, index). Since the id parameter has been made optional in our route template, MVC will again search for a controller named BooksController, but in this case, examine the controller for a method named Index which does not require an argument. Again, a match is found, and the Index method is called, returning an appropriate view (most likely a list of all the books in the database).

The MVC default route mapping also specifies a default controller to use when no controller parameter is specified; namely, the “Home” controller. In other words, incoming requests to our domain root:

will also match the default project controller. In this case, the runtime will attempt to locate a controller named HomeController, then locate the Index method of that controller. Since no id parameter was provided, the Index method will be called, returning the appropriate view ( most likely, the Homepage of our site).

What Next?

As we have seen above, MVC examines an incoming URL and attempts to map each URL segment to a controller and action according to the route templates set up in the RouteConfig.MapRoutes method. Once a proper controller and action have been identified, any additional URL segments (for example, the optional {id} segment in our example above) are evaluated against the action method signature to determine the best parameter match for the action.

But what happens when we need to do more than just send an ID in as an argument for the desired action method? Or, what if we have one or more overloaded methods by which we wish to perform more complex queries against our data?

While we can always include query parameters as part of our URL (and in fact we will no doubt have to resort to this at various points in our application design), we can customize and extend the default routing, and exert a little more control over how how and what our application will accept in an HTTP request by customizing our routes.

While the default /controller/action/id route baked into the MVC project template is a useful start and will handle many common controller cases, it is safe to say the MVC team did not expect developers to limit their applications to this minimally-flexible, single standard. Indeed, the ASP.NET routing framework (and the corresponding routing framework used by Web API) are very flexible, and within certain limits, highly customizable.

We’ll look at route customization in the next post.

Additional Resources

Getting Started with Git for the Windows Developer (Part III) – Working with Files Using Bash
ASP.NET Identity 2.0: Implementing Group-Based Permissions Management
Git Subtree Merge –The Quick Version
  • Noah Florin-Sefton


    Thanks very much for the help. Im just curious about one thing… you say “If more than one action matches by name (as with multiple overloaded methods on the same controller), the framework will select the method for which the most URL parameters match method arguments by name. ”
    However, when I overload the same action method (the same name but with different number of parameters) I get an “ambigous action exception” whenever that action is called. Apparently .NET MVC doesnt support method overloading. Could you clarify what you mean exactly ?

    Thanks !

  • Baxter


    Author Reply

    Thanks for the intro, John, shows you have a good understanding of programmers like me.