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Pointers UNDOCUMENTED

By , 1 Jul 2003
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Introduction

Hi, once again, it's me - the ex-Microsoft Excel developer. This new article is an examination of pointers within C# and .NET. This follows the pattern of my earlier two articles Strings UNDOCUMENTED and Array UNDOCUMENTED. It's been a while since those last two but I will be rolling in more articles in the new future.

Why talk about pointers? Aren't pointers supposed to be unsafe in C#, hence requiring the unsafe keyword. Well. Yes and no.

The keyword unsafe in C# really means unverifiable--that the runtime cannot verify that an unsafe program is type-safe. Generally, it is impossible to determine if a program is type-safe or not. But, in .NET, the runtime places restrictions and conventions on the type of code that can be generated in IL; if the code adheres to these restrictions and conventions, then it is verified as a type-safe. In actuality, even verified code can not be type-safe because of some conventions that can not theoretically be verified are automatically accepted as type-safe if encounted. Type-safety ensures, for one thing, that any pointers do not refer to inappropriate memory or memory of the wrong type. Thus, one of these restrictions is that any pointer dereference is instantly considered unverifiable.

Type-safety is very useful in the case when two programs or libraries share the same address space; type-safety ensures that one program cannot directly refer memory from the other program. This a level of protection that historically could only be provided by each program being in separate processes with separate address spaces. It is useful for libraries and for codes and controls hosted within other applications or servers such as IIS. Code that is not type-safe will only executed if it "trusted" by the hosting application, or if it is part of the Microsoft's .NET framework.

For stand-alone applications, there few, if any disadvantages, in using unsafe code. Managed C++, for instance, can only generate unverifiable code. If it's good enough for C++, why not C#? However, the use of pointers, in general, are prone to errors in any language, and care must be used. Of course, object references are pointers, too, but misuse of object references result quickly in a NullReferenceException or InvalidCastException. Regular pointers do not throw exceptions after an invalid cast. Regular pointers can be incremented or decremented or converted to/from another integer type--increasing the likelihood of referring to invalid memory. Regular pointers can also refer to invalid memory quietly, if the memory allocation is freed elsewhere, if the garbage collector compacts the heap (there shifting object references downward), or if stack-based allocation is reclaimed after a function call.

Disadvantages aside, pointers can do wonders for the performance and compactness of an application. In addition, because of their flexibility and few restrictions, they can accomplished tasks which would be otherwise impossible, particularly when dealing with unmanaged resources and the Win32 API. Pointers, for instance, allow the binary representation of a double or other valuetype to be serialized and deserialized as a compact stream of bytes to disk.

I personally avoid the use of pointers, if possible. If I use them, I encapsulate the pointer-provided functionality with a special class to isolate the use of pointers for ease of maintenance. The chances of pointers breaking is relatively high with each new revision of the .NET framework or each new platform that .NET is extended to, such as Win64, Rotor and the Compact .NET framework. Having done some contract work for Microsoft just recently, I have seen the specs on the next version of C#. All I can say is that many radical improvements are in store for .NET and that it is highly likely that there may be fundamental changes to the underlying engine that can affect the use of pointers. Of course, you have the ability to bind the application to a particular version of the framework, but keep pointer-based code isolated in a single class will allow ease any future migration to a later, and better framework.

The Pointer Data Type

In this article, I will give a summary of the various different things that can be done with pointers, both documented and undocumented. I also show how one can emulate many of the neat features provided to the Managed C++ compiler, but missing in C#.

We were led to believe in C# that everything is an object. However, this is not true. Pointers are indeed a recognized type in CLR; but, they are neither a descendant of Object nor of ValueType - they are a root of their own, with no member functions, not ToString(), not even GetType().

Being a root, a pointer cannot be converted or boxed to an Object, so all the polymorphism provided by functions like Console.WriteLine doesn't work on them. But you can create various pointer types using Type.Create("System.Void*") or typeof(int*), but you can't dynamically instantiate one with Activator.CreateInstance(), since that returns an object.

Pointers must be converted to an IntPtr indirectly. An IntPtr is guaranteed to be the same size of a pointer, which becomes more important as .NET moves to PDAs, Unix, and Win64. IntPtr.Size contains the current size of a pointer.

To use pointers with the Reflection APIs, the pointers must be wrapped inside the System.Reflection.Pointer class.

Pointers require that the developer turn on the unsafe switch in the C# compiler and declare as unsafe some enclosing scope such as a class, method, or block where a pointer is used. Pointers are not CLS-Compliant, so any code that cares about compliance should prefix the function or class with the [CLSComplaint(false)] attribute.

Pointers may be neglected by the .NET Framework, but they are a fundamental data type in IL. There are actually three pointer types in IL, (not counting object, array, or string).

&   ref, out managed pointer
* System.IntPtr void *, ... unmanaged pointer
typedref System.TypedReference typedref  

I'll go over each of these types.

Unmanaged Pointers

Unmanaged pointers are the standard pointers that you are familiar with. In IL, they are essentially like integers, except with the ability to dereference the value contained within them.

In C#, unmanaged pointers can refer only to ValueTypes, and only those ValueTypes that do not contain embedded object references - also known as blittable types. A large amount of effort was expended by the C# designers trying to keep the object data type inaccessible and opaque.

There are a variety of standard operations that can be performed with them.

pointer ++ Pointer Increment
pointer -- Pointer Decrement
pointer + integer Pointer Arithmetic
pointer - pointer Pointer Difference
(void *) integer Integer Casting
(void *) pointer Pointer Casting

In addition, several keywords are also provided.

Stack-based Allocation: stackalloc

char *pointer = stackalloc char[10]

stackalloc allocates memory dynamically from the stack. Its very fast and the memory is reclaimed after the enclosing function exits. But it has some limitations. It only works with blittable types. It's good for arrays that will never be anything more that a few hundred kilobytes. By default, the maximum stack size is one megabyte, I believe. In practice, function call depth is very very small, unless you something like a recursive function scanning a deep tree. Offsetting the risk that a stackalloc can generate an StackOverflowException is the infrequency of multiple dynamic stack allocations in use at the same time.

Even for moderately large arrays, stack-based allocation can be preferable to heap allocations, especially if these allocations are very frequent or very temporary. The worst type of allocation for the garbage collector are large arrays, especially temporary ones. Large objects (over 85K) are placed separately in the large heap and are only released during a full garbage collection. (That is, the more frequent Gen 0 or Gen 1 partial collections do not release large memory allocations.) Large objects are never compacted, resulting in potential fragmentation and wasted memory.

Memory Pinning: fixed

fixed (int *p = &obj.member) 
{
 /* CODE */
 }

The fixed statement causes an object in the heap to be pinned. For values stored on the stack, the fixed statement is not necessary and is actually disallowed.

There are really three different types of fixed assignments, with three different results in IL.

string referencing Calls System.Runtime.
Compiler.Services.
RuntimeHelpers.
OffsetToStringData
array referencing This results in a
call to ldelema in IL.
field member This results in a call
to ldflda in IL.

The fixed statement is exactly equivalent to the following in Managed C++.

int __pin *p = &obj->member 

There is no overhead for entering the fixed block other then the actual (&) address referencing operation. Pinning occurs upon garbage collection, when the runtime scans information about the local variables contained in the function metadata and discovers that the variable "p" is marked as pinned pointer. After control leaves the fixed boxed, the only overhead is the assignment of null to p, so that the original object is no longer pinned.

Pinning has a HUGE cost to the garbage collector. I assume that you are familiar with the generational algorithm of the garbage collection. Let us say we allocated enough memory to fill Gen 0 Heap (the youngest), and that an additional allocation will trigger a collection. If that very last allocation at the end of the heap was pinned, the pinned object moves to generation 1. (Call GC.GetGeneration(obj) and see). Gen 1 is guaranteed to grow to include the pinned memory at the very end of the Gen 0 Heap. Even if all other memory in Gen 0 was freed, that would still leave a huge unreclaimed space of memory and Gen 0 will begin allocating starting from its previous limit. That is how bad "pinning" is.

Moral of the story: when you use fixed, do whatever you have do quickly and avoid any memory allocation in the process, which can potentially trigger a garbage collection. If a garbage collection did occur inside a fixed block, most likely the pinned memory was close to the end of Gen 0 heap.

Managed Pointers

Managed pointers are available in Managed C++ and IL, but not directly in C#. The ref and out parameters are each implemented as managed pointers. In managed C++, managed pointers are "interior" __gc  pointers that point to ValueTypes, while "whole" pointers are just regular object references.

There is a way to mimic managed pointers through System.TypedReference, but at a performance cost and the loss of pointer arithmetic. Even though managed pointers are not directly supported by C#, I will describe a little about them.

What are differences between managed pointers and unmanaged pointers?

The main difference is that managed pointers are tracked by the garbage collector, and unmanaged pointers are not. After garbage collection, the address of an object may move downward or disappear as memory is being compacted. So, the data with a heap object pointed to by an unmanaged pointer will most likely be invalid.

However, there is one exception, at least for the current version of the CLR. Large arrays (over 85KB are never moved), so an unmanaged pointer reference to data within that array will remain valid, provided another object reference to the array exists so that the memory is not freed. But, using fixed is still safer and won't hurt performance.

Managed pointers refer to field members or elements within the object. Managed pointers can point to members of any types - not just blittable types. During a garbage collection, objects in regular heap referred to by managed pointers are both visited and later adjusted. References to values that are outside the regular heap are not adjusted, because only objects in the heap are modified.

The other big difference is that managed pointers can only be used as function parameters or local variables. They cannot be used stored inside structures or used as global/static variables.

If C# had provided managed pointers, it would have helped with the potential pinning issue mention earlier, which is minor if the operation is performed quickly; on the other hand, managed pointers can't be used inside object like unmanaged pointers. The potential exists for compiler optimization.

System.TypedReference

TypedReferences are basically managed pointers that also include type information. They map to the typedref datatype in IL. Like managed pointers, they cannot be used as a member of structure or in global variables; they can only be used in declarations for parameters and local variables.

Unlike pointers, TypedReference are derived from ValueType, which is derived in turn from Object. However, like pointers, the runtime will disallow any conversion of the type to Object or any ValueType. Otherwise, this would have circumvented the restriction that managed pointers cannot be members within structures and classes--an ability that would greatly hurt  the performance of garbage collection .

Someone has mentioned that TypedReference were provided to support ParamArray for VB developers. I refuse to believe that they aren't very useful if some developer thought that they merited their own special undocumented keywords, especially since these are no other undocumented keywords listed in the source for C# compiler.

 There are four additional undocumented keywords supported by the compiler all support the use of the TypedReference: __makeref, __refvalue, __reftype, __arglist.

TypeReferences are constructed by using __makeref.

int value = 0;
TypedReference typedRef = __makeref(value);

The type and value of a TypedReference is extracted by using the  __refvalue and __reftype.

Type t = __reftype(typedRef);
int result = __refvalue(typedRef, int)

 To change the value of the memory location referred to by a TypedReference, one can use __refvalue as on the left-hand side of an assignment.

__refvalue(typedRef, int) = 2;

Typed references can be returned from functions, unlike regular C# pointers that refer to heap objects, because the fixed block must be contained with a single function. Type references offer a polymorphic alternative to using objects that eliminates the need for boxing. The tradeoff is that the programmer may need to explicitly check the type of the reference before reading or assigning to the reference. Even with the checking, there are still enormous performance benefits from excessive copying and the invocation of the garbage collector.

A classic use is something like obj.SetProperty(propertyname, typedRef) and obj.GetProperty(propertyname, typedRef). If an object had a number of "properties" that indexed by a name, but each of these "properties" are of a different type, and not necessarily of a reference type. One function call with one signature suffices to handle all the possible types.

System.Reflection.FieldInfo has a GetValueDirect(typedRef) and SetValueDirect(typedRef, value) that allow valuetypes in unboxed form to be set and read easily through reflection. Otherwise, it would have been almost impossible to set the value of valuetype through reflection, since the regular function SetValue only works on boxed types.

 I say "almost" because another way of creating a Typed Reference is to use the TypedReference.MakeTypedReference(Object target, FieldInfo[] flds). In most cases, you will just use a one-element array of FieldInfo, but if a field desired is embedded in a series of structs inside the object, multiple elements are needed. Once created, reading and writing from the a typed reference is significantly faster than making multiple calls to reflection with FieldInfo.GetValue and FieldInfo.SetValue. On the other hand, the traditional reflection approach allows non-public fields to be accessed, where the MakeTypedReference includes a ReflectionPermission security attribute to guard against unauthorized member access.

The other places in the framework where TypedReferences are used include serialization and the obsolete and hidden System.Variant struct, that was initially intended to be offered in VB.NET.

In addition, there is an __arglist keyword that is similar to params. It may have been provided to support both VB and C++ style variable-length arguments. Instead of passing an array, parameters are stored inline with their type information. To read the values requires the use of the System.ArgIterator struct. (There is a System.ParamArray struct available too, which takes an arglist, and has a GetArg(int i) and a GetCount(). It's marked as obsolete and considered dead technology, perhaps because it appears to support a maximum of nine arguments.) String.Concat has an arglist variant that allows compilers to automatically perform concatenation of multiple strings with one function call and no need to use additional arrays. Console.WriteLine also has an arglist variant.

Function (__arglist(a,b,c));

If you are looking for a performance advantage using __arglist over params, you would be disappointed to find out that this argument passing convention can be an order of magnitude slower than recommending method of using params.

public void Function(__arglist) 
{
    ArgIterator iterator = new ArgIterator(__arglist);
    for (int count=iterator.GetRemainingCount(); count>0; count--)
    {
        TypedReference typedRef = iterator.GetNextArg();
        Console.WriteLine(__refvalue(typedRef, int));
   }
}

TypedReferences can also be constructed and manipulated by static methods provided in the class.

TypedReferences have several disadvantages like the lack of pointer arithmetic, but do they produce type-safe code.

TypedReference parameters are used throughout the framework as a polymorphic substitute for objects, to prevent unnecessary boxing.

System.Runtime.InteropServices.GCHandle

Managed C++ uses GCHandle and its C++ wrapper gcroot<> to store managed pointers within unmanaged classes.

GCHandle, located in System.Runtime.InteropServices, is a structure that contains a handle, which is an index to some global table of object references, together with information about the reference type--whether it is a normal, pinned, weak or long weak reference.

A GCHandle is created by using GCHandle.Alloc(object, gcHandleType). The handle type can be one of GCHandleType.Normal, GCHandleType.Weak, GCHandleType.WeakTrackResurrection, and GCHandleType.Pinned.

It does have a couple uses for C# programmers.

1. Unboxing

In IL and Managed C++, the unboxing provides a managed pointer to the underlying value within an boxed object.

In C#, however, during an unboxing operation, the value in the object is copied over to another variable. Because of this, it's almost impossible to change the value of a boxed int. Once a ValueType is boxed and stored in the heap, the contents are virtually immutable unless an Interface has been implemented on the ValueType that allows its values to be changed, since an object can be casted to an Interface.

In contrast, C++, one can dereference the managed pointer obtained through the unboxing operation and directly change the content of the boxed form of the value.

However, with a pinned object from a GCHandle.

GCHandle h = GCHandle.Alloc(obj, GCHandleType.Pinned);
int *p = (int *) h.AddrOfPinnedObject();
*p = n;
h.Free();

2. Directly using GCHandle in place of the WeakReference class

The WeakReference class encapsulates a GCHandle, a struct, into a class. In addition, it defines a finalizer that calls Free on the handle. The use of wrapper class introduces an overhead of 16 additional bytes, none of which may be freed until a full garbage collection is performed.

If one were to write a WeakArray, where all the elements are weakly referred to, or a WeakHashMap, which is a HashTable, found in Java, where elements drop out automatically when no longer used, it would be more efficient to store a GCHandle directly for each element and attach just one finalizer to the collection instead of for each item. (A WeakHashTable is similar to a String Intern Table, where one can alway obtain the canonical form of multiple equivalent objects, with the added feature of automatic freeing of unreferenced objects).

Structure Layout

When using pointers, it is helpful to know how the runtime presently rearranges fields in an object. The layout of an object can be overrided by using the StructLayoutAttribute with different values of LayoutKind (Auto, Sequential, and Explicit).

For C# classes, the default behavior is AutoLayout. For C# structs, the default behavior is sequential, since it is more likely to be used through P/Invoke.

Auto Layout is designed to allow the runtime to proceed through garbage collection most quickly and for reducing the total size of a struct or class. Different arrangements of fields can result in different structure sizes because of padding and alignment issues. Int32 need to be aligned on 4-byte boundaries for optimal processor performance. Int64 and doubles require an 8-byte boundary. For primitive value types, the boundary requirements correspond to the size of the data type.

All object references are sorted first to make it easier for the garbage collector to visit each references. Then each field member is sorted from the most restrictive to the least restrictive alignment requirements--beginning with double, then int, then short, then bytes and bool. Note: A field member whose type is an 8-byte struct may still be aligned on 1 byte boundaries, if it consists entirely of byte field member; the alignment of the struct is based on the alignment requirements of its most restrictive field.

Sequential Layout is pretty straightforward with the following caveats. Object references are still sorted first. Each member is still properly aligned with its natural byte boundary. There is no packing option in .NET.

Explicit Layout is useful for implemented C++-like unions in C#. But the FieldOffset attribute needs to be specified for each member.

Unmanaged Memory Allocations

If you are going to be using pointers, it may make sense to allocate from an unmanaged heap. For the vast majority of needs is not any better than the using the garbage collector, but if you are allocating a large amount of memory, especially for short periods of time, need better control of when memory is release, Win32 provides a set of Memory Management functions.

The class below is from the ECMA C# Standard specification. I had created a similar Memory class, which I can't seem to find at the moment, which includes the Win32 CopyMemory, FillMemory, MoveMemory and ZeroMemory functions, missing below. I will be replacing this sometime soon.

using System;
using System.Runtime.InteropServices;

public unsafe class Memory
{
    // Handle for the process heap. This handle is used in all calls to the
    // HeapXXX APIs in the methods below.

    static int ph = GetProcessHeap();

    // Private instance constructor to prevent instantiation.

    private Memory() {}

    // Allocates a memory block of the given size. The allocated memory is
    // automatically initialized to zero.

    public static void* Alloc(int size) 
    {
        void* result = HeapAlloc(ph, HEAP_ZERO_MEMORY, size);
        if (result == null) throw new OutOfMemoryException();
        return result;
    }

    // Copies count bytes from src to dst. The source and destination
    // blocks are permitted to overlap.

    public static void Copy(void* src, void* dst, int count) 
    {
        byte* ps = (byte*)src;
        byte* pd = (byte*)dst;
        if (ps > pd) {
            for (; count != 0; count--) *pd++ = *ps++;
        } else if (ps < pd) {
            for (ps += count, pd += count; count != 0; count--) 
                *--pd = *--ps;    
        }
    }

    // Frees a memory block.

    public static void Free(void* block) {
        if (!HeapFree(ph, 0, block)) throw new InvalidOperationException();
    }

    // Re-allocates a memory block. If the reallocation request is for a
    // larger size, the additional region of memory is automatically
    // initialized to zero.

    public static void* ReAlloc(void* block, int size) {
        void* result = HeapReAlloc(ph, HEAP_ZERO_MEMORY, block, size);
        if (result == null) throw new OutOfMemoryException();
        return result;
    }

    // Returns the size of a memory block.
    public static int SizeOf(void* block) {
        int result = HeapSize(ph, 0, block);
        if (result == -1) throw new InvalidOperationException();
        return result;
    }

    // Heap API flags
    const int HEAP_ZERO_MEMORY = 0x00000008;

    // Heap API functions

    [DllImport("kernel32")]
    static extern int GetProcessHeap();

    [DllImport("kernel32")]
    static extern void* HeapAlloc(int hHeap, int flags, int size);

    [DllImport("kernel32")]
    static extern bool HeapFree(int hHeap, int flags, void* block);

    [DllImport("kernel32")]
    static extern void* HeapReAlloc(int hHeap, int flags, void* block,
      int size);

    [DllImport("kernel32")]
    static extern int HeapSize(int hHeap, int flags, void* block);
}

Conclusion

This concludes my discourse on pointers for now. I will continue update this article with new source code and actual benchmarks in the future. Be sure to watch for update versions of this page.

There is probably a whole lot more to talk about with Marshaling and P/Invoke.

All of this behind-the-scenes information takes some amount of work to research and obtain, so, if you enjoyed this article, don't forget to vote.

Version History

Version
April 30 Original article on pointers

License

This article has no explicit license attached to it but may contain usage terms in the article text or the download files themselves. If in doubt please contact the author via the discussion board below.

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About the Author

Wesner Moise
Web Developer
United States United States
I was former employee at Microsoft from 1994-2000. I was hired by Microsoft upon graduating from Harvard College, where I studied Applied Math and Computer Science. I co-developed Microsoft Excel (versions 97-XP) during that period. I left to pursue MBA studies in California for the next two years. I am currently starting a company called SoftPerson specializing in software applications, enhanced with Artificial Intelligence. I keep a blog as http://wesnerm.blogs.com/net_undocumented/ which I plan to update daily.

Comments and Discussions

 
Generalgreat article PinmemberJ Xie2-Nov-08 7:20 
QuestionGetting a the real object from it's handle PinmemberSkpananghat31-May-07 19:56 
QuestionHow to convert a byte array to struct [modified] Pinmembervinh2b17-Jan-07 20:04 
Generalit's a good article, PinmemberBlueLoveCyn20-Aug-05 18:02 
QuestionIs there an alternative to pointers for hosted c# code? PinmemberMadHands18-Jun-05 18:22 
Hi there,
 
We've run into a code secutiry issue with our web hosting provider.
 
Because pointers are unsafe (or require the /unsafe compiler option) code, we can't run such code under hosted trust levels at our hosting company.
 
Could you please (no pun intended) me as to where i might find an alternative to using pointers?
 
A friend with far more c# experience than I has suggested we can just use arrays although we'll take a significant performance hit.
 
thanks for your time
Nath Manley
GeneralGCHandle bug in .NET Compact Framework PinmemberMichal Wünsch1-Apr-04 11:50 
GeneralRe: GCHandle bug in .NET Compact Framework PinmemberMartijn van Dorp7-May-12 23:10 
GeneralPacking is Allowed Pinmemberschweitn4-Feb-04 5:37 
GeneralGreat article PinmemberJudah H.4-Jan-04 10:47 
Questionhow can do it in C# safe code Pinsussjankis23-Jul-03 3:59 
GeneralSuggestions for future Pinmember4space7-Jul-03 0:30 
Generalexcellent Pinmemberalibaba761026-May-03 17:59 
GeneralA Beautiful piece... Pinmemberdimd00d20-May-03 1:10 
GeneralRe: A Beautiful piece... PinmemberMtnBiknGuy8-Jun-03 4:42 
GeneralRe: A Beautiful piece... PinsussAnonymous19-Oct-03 8:16 
GeneralRe: A Beautiful piece... PinmemberWesner Moise10-Aug-13 11:02 
GeneralUnboxing in Managed C++ PinmemberGeorge L. Jackson1-May-03 6:07 
GeneralRe: Unboxing in Managed C++ PinmemberWesner Moise3-May-03 19:50 
GeneralExcellent Article! Pinmemberjdunlap30-Apr-03 21:43 
GeneralExcellent PineditorHeath Stewart30-Apr-03 18:21 

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