Essential PowerShell: Define default properties for custom objects

After posting my blog entry about naming your custom object types on Thursday, Hal Rottenberg left me a comment saying how it’s a shame that you have to manually create ps1xml files to store your type data and format data extensions.  Hal’s right.  Having to create ps1xml files to accompany each script you make that generates custom objects is too much work for the script author, and the script consumer has more files to download each time.  But then I thought twice about what Hal said, and asked myself: Is creating the ps1xml files to get the output you want from custom objects really necessary?

Fortunately the answer to this is “No”.  But why not?  Before I answer that, I should give a short explanation about how PowerShell determines what properties it will display when an object is output and in what format that object will be displayed.

How PowerShell determines the default format for an object

Let’s use the WMI service object for the Windows Update service as an example.  You can get this object in PowerShell using this command:

$object = gwmi Win32_Service -Filter ‘name=”wuauserv”‘

This command calls Get-WmiObject (using the gwmi alias) and requests the Win32_Service object that has the name “wuauserv”.  The result object is stored in the $object variable.

Now that the object is stored, if you want to view it you simply need to enter “$object” (minus the quotes) in your PowerShell console and you’ll see the default representation of that object.  It looks like this:


Here you can see the ExitCode, Name, ProcessId, StartMode, State and Status properties for the Win32_Service object.  There are many more properties than these six though.  You can type “$object | Format-List *” in PowerShell for yourself to see them all…there is quite a long list.  So how did PowerShell decide that these six properties were the ones to display by default?  In this case, the object itself contained the list of properties that would be displayed by default.  In PowerShell, any object may have the set of properties that will be output by default when that object is displayed stored in a member on the object itself.  It’s not kept in the most obvious of locations, but you can find it when you need to.

For any object in PowerShell, you can access its PSStandardMembers.DefaultDisplayPropertySet property to see the properties that are default for that object, if they are defined.  They won’t be defined for all objects, but in our example, they happen to be.  I show the results of the command to see the default property set here:


In this output window, the ReferencedPropertyNames property contains the list of properties that are displayed in PowerShell by default (ExitCode, Name, ProcessId, …).

What caused our object to display the properties in list format though?  After the default properties are set on an object (assuming they are set), when you output an object to the console without any Format-verb cmdlets at the end of the pipeline, the PowerShell formatting engine looks in the format data it has loaded and finds the first format data specification whose object type matches the one of the types in the object hierarchy that can be found by accessing the PSObject.TypeNames parameter.  It doesn’t matter if it is for a list format, a table format, a wide format, or a custom format — the first one found is used.  The types in the object hierarchy are looked up starting with the lowest derived type (index 0 in that collection) and then moving on to the next lowest (index 1), and so on until the base type is reached.

For our Win32_Service object, there is no format data specification for any of the object types, in which case PowerShell applies a default formatting rule: if there are four properties or less in the list of properties to display (the default properties if they were assigned, all properties if they were not), display the object in table format; otherwise, display it in list format.  For other types of objects there may be formatting data found, and when this happens the default properties are ignored and the default format is derived using the first matching format data specification.  This simplifies this whole process, but it should give you an idea how it works.

How to define the default properties for any object

Now that you have a general idea how formatting works, do you see the shortcut to defining the default output for custom objects you create?  Here’s a hint: it isn’t through the creation of a ps1xml file.

The easiest way to define the default output for a custom object is to add a PSStandardMembers member to the object and set the default properties in that member.  For objects that don’t have their default properties defined in a type data file, this is very easy to do.  Assume you have a script that generates and returns one or more custom objects with six properties: Name, Property1, Property2, Property3, Property4 and Property5.  Here’s a script to create one such object:

$myObject = New-Object PSObject
$myObject | Add-Member NoteProperty Name ‘My Object’
$myObject | Add-Member NoteProperty Property1 1
$myObject | Add-Member NoteProperty Property2 2
$myObject | Add-Member NoteProperty Property3 3
$myObject | Add-Member NoteProperty Property4 4
$myObject | Add-Member NoteProperty Property5 5

To view this object, enter $MyObject in the console.  Here is the default output for that object:


There are no default properties assigned for this object and there are no type data or format data for the object type, so PowerShell resorts to determining the output format based on the number of properties that the object has.  This is fine for one object, like we have here, but if you have a script that returns a collection of these, having their default output in list format does not give users of your script a very good user experience because it is very hard to find information in a long list of objects output in list format in PowerShell.  To show the objects in table format users can simply pipe them to the Format-Table cmdlet where they can specify the properties to show, but they shouldn’t have to do that.  Instead, you can update your script so that it specifies the default properties when these objects are created.  Here are the additional commands required to specify the default properties for our sample object:

$defaultProperties = @(‘Name’,’Property2′,’Property4′)

$defaultDisplayPropertySet = New-Object System.Management.Automation.PSPropertySet(‘DefaultDisplayPropertySet’,[string[]]$defaultProperties)

$PSStandardMembers = [System.Management.Automation.PSMemberInfo[]]@($defaultDisplayPropertySet)

$myObject | Add-Member MemberSet PSStandardMembers $PSStandardMembers

The first command sets the default properties.  Then in the next command we create a new property set containing those default properties.  With that property set, we can create the collection of member info objects we need.  And then once we have that collection we can add that as our member set to our object.

After you have done this your custom object will display the default properties you specified when you output it without any Format-verb cmdlets.  Here’s our $myObject default output after running the commands shown above:


That’s more like it!  Now we have a custom object with a predefined default property set, ready for users to start using, and our custom object still contains all of the properties for the object so that users can get additional fields if they want them!

Taking it further

Armed with this knowledge, you should be able to specify the default properties on any custom objects you create without using ps1xml files.  What if you wanted to take this further?  What functionality would be useful to have for this in a generic script so that you could get even more use out of it?

Using the knowledge derived above I was able to put together a script called Select-Member.ps1 that provides rich support for selecting the default properties for an object if none exist, or overriding the default properties for an object if they were defined in a type data file.  Select-Member can be used in a pipeline against a collection, or it can be used by itself passing the objects to process into the inputObject property.

Note that when you download this script, if you haven’t already you will also need to download Get-PSResourceString.ps1.  This is a simple utility script used to look up localized error messages, and it is used by Select-Member.

Here are the syntaxes supported by Select-Member:

Select-Member [-include] <string[]> [-exclude <string[]>] [[-inputObject] <psobject>]
Select-Member -exclude <string[]> [[-inputObject] <psobject>]
Select-Member -reset [[-inputObject] <psobject>]

The first variation allows you to specify which properties you want to include and optionally which properties you want to exclude.  If you exclude properties, those will be removed only after the list of properties to include have been processed.  Both the include and the exclude parameters support wildcards as well.

The second variation allows you to specify which properties you want to exclude from the default without including any parameters.

The last variation allows you to reset the object so that it will use the default property set as defined by the type data files and throw away any default property set that was added with Select-Member.

Here’s a screenshot showing some cool things you can do with this script and WMI objects:


Here’s another screenshot showing how you can get better formatting on ADSI objects:


Note that in both these examples, the value isn’t simply in being able to specify the defaults ad-hoc like this; format-table can allow you to specify which properties you see.  The real value lies in writing scripts or functions that output objects already formatted a certain way.  You could have a script that would set the default properties for a bunch of WMI objects you use, or a script that creates its own objects and outputs them with default properties defined.  There are other opportunities with this cmdlet as well, but this should get you started.

What’s missing from this?

The Select-Member script doesn’t yet support specifying the parameter sort order, nor does it support specifying the single default parameter that is used when using wide format.  These could be easily added in the future, and I will look into that as time permits.

Give feedback!

As with all scripts I write, I’d love to hear what you think.  Whether you use the simple solution to specify default properties for custom objects or the more advanced Select-Member script, let me know how well it works out for you.


Kirk out.

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