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Shallow Copy vs. Deep Copy in .NET

, 10 Oct 2008
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Shallow and deep copy are used for copying data between objects.

Introduction

This article describes the difference between shallow and deep copy using C#. Shallow and deep copy are used for copying data between objects.

Shallow Copy

Shallow copying is creating a new object and then copying the non-static fields of the current object to the new object. If a field is a value type --> a bit-by-bit copy of the field is performed; for a reference type --> the reference is copied but the referred object is not; therefore the original object and its clone refer to the same object.

In C# and VB.NET, shallow copy is done by the object method MemberwiseClone().

Example: the following clsShallow class is to be cloned which includes value types (like Age) and ref types (like EmpSalary is a class):

public class clsShallow
{
    public static string CompanyName = "My Company";
    public int Age;
    public string EmployeeName;
    public clsRefSalary EmpSalary;

    public clsShallow CreateShallowCopy(clsShallow inputcls)
    {
        return (clsShallow)inputcls.MemberwiseClone();
    }
}
public class clsRefSalary
{
    public clsRefSalary(int _salary)
    {
        Salary = _salary;
    }
    public int Salary;
}

Now let us debug and trace the outputs to do shallow copy using the CreateShallowCopy() method.

First, use the following code to call the CreateShallowCopy method from other classes.

// Creates an instance of clsShallow and assign values to its fields.
clsShallow objshallow = new clsShallow();
objshallow.Age = 25;
objshallow.EmployeeName = "Ahmed Eid";

// add the ref value to the objshallow 
clsRefSalary clsref = new clsRefSalary(1000);
objshallow.EmpSalary = clsref;

// Performs a shallow copy of m1 and assign it to m2.
clsShallow m2 = objshallow.CreateShallowCopy(objshallow);

// then modify the clsref salary value to be 2000
clsref.Salary = 2000;

// so the m1 object salary value become 2000
int EmpSalary = objshallow.EmpSalary.Salary;

After assigning the values (value and ref types) to the object objShallow and before doing the shallow copy, the values are (for the current object value): Age: 25 (value type), EmpSalry: has salary value of 1000 (ref type).

shal1

then do the shallow copy and modify the value of clsref.salary, reference field type, then check the value of m2, the newly created object (ref and value fields) again.

shal1

The values are (for the newly created object): Age: 25 (value type), a new copy of the objShallow object; EmpSalry: has a salary value of 2000 (ref type), a reference to objShallow.EmpSalry object, which is also referenced to the clsref object.

Note: values of m2.EmpSalry and clsref are the same after modifying the clsref values (reference type concept).

Deep Copy

Deep copy is creating a new object and then copying the nonstatic fields of the current object to the new object. If a field is a value type --> a bit-by-bit copy of the field is performed. If a field is a reference type --> a new copy of the referred object is performed.

Note: the classes to be cloned must be flagged as [Serializable].

Example: the following is the clsDeep class to be cloned which includes value types (like Age) and ref types (like EmpSalary which is a class).

[Serializable]
// serialize the classes in case of deep copy
public class clsDeep
{
    public static string CompanyName = "My Company";
    public int Age;
    public string EmployeeName;
    public clsRefSalary EmpSalary;
    public clsDeep CreateDeepCopy(clsDeep inputcls)
    {
        MemoryStream m = new MemoryStream();
        BinaryFormatter b = new BinaryFormatter();
        b.Serialize(m, inputcls);
        m.Position = 0;
        return (clsDeep)b.Deserialize(m);
    }
}

[Serializable]
public class clsRefSalary
{
    public clsRefSalary(int _salary)
    {
        Salary = _salary;
    }
    public int Salary;
}

Now let us debug and trace the outputs to do deep copy using the CreateDeepCopy() method.

First, use the following code to call the CreateDeepCopy method from other classes.

// Creates an instance of clsDeep and assign values to its fields.
clsDeep objdeep = new clsDeep();
objdeep.Age = 25;
objdeep.EmployeeName = "Ahmed Eid";

// add the ref value
clsRefSalary clsref = new clsRefSalary(1000);
objdeep.EmpSalary = clsref;

// Performs a shallow copy of m1 and assign it to m2.
clsDeep m2 = objdeep.CreateDeepCopy(objdeep);

// then modify the clsref salary value to be 2000 
clsref.Salary = 2000;

// so the m1 object salary value become 2000
int EmpSalary = objdeep.EmpSalary.Salary;

After assigning the values (value and ref types) to the object objDeep and before doing the deep copy, the values are (for the current object value): Age: 25 (value type); EmpSalry: has salary value of 1000 (ref type).

deep1

Then do a deep copy and modify the value of clsref.salary, reference field type, then check the value of m2, the newly created object (ref and value fields) again.

deep1

The values are (for the newly created object): Age: 25 (value type), a new copy of the objDeep object; EmpSalry: has a salary value of 1000, a new copy of the objDeep object.

Note: values of m2.EmpSalry and objDeep.EmpSalary are not the same as deep copy creates a new object of the reference type (objDeep.EmpSalary) in m2.EmpSalry. But clsref and objDeep.EmpSalary are the same (reference type concept).

With the help of Google, I found a very smart method for performing deep copy. Its performance is good than that of the one I used above.

/// <summary>
/// Using generics will solve some performance issues
/// </summary>
/// <typeparam name="T"></typeparam>
/// <param name="item"></param>
/// <returns></returns>
public static T DeepCopy<T>(T item)
{
    BinaryFormatter formatter = new BinaryFormatter();
    MemoryStream stream = new MemoryStream();
    formatter.Serialize(stream, item);
    stream.Seek(0, SeekOrigin.Begin);
    T result = (T)formatter.Deserialize(stream);
    stream.Close();
    return result;
}

You can find that article at: http://ahmadeed.blogspot.com.

I hope this article helps you to deeply understand the difference between shallow and deep copy in .NET.

License

This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)

About the Author

Ahmad Eid Salim
Software Developer (Senior)
Egypt Egypt
No Biography provided

Comments and Discussions

 
GeneralVery Good Article PinmemberImtiaz.Ahmed22-Apr-11 9:24 

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