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6 important .NET concepts: - Stack, heap, Value types, reference types, boxing and Unboxing.

, 16 Jun 2010 CPOL 613.3K 2.2K 569
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6 important .NET concepts: - Stack, heap, Value types, reference types, boxing and Unboxing.
This is an old version of the currently published article.

6 important .NET concepts: - Stack, heap, Value types, reference types, boxing and Unboxing.





What goes inside when you declare a variable?

Stack and Heap

Value types and reference types

So which data types are ref type and value type?

Boxing and Unboxing

Performance implication of Boxing and unboxing

Source code

This video explains the concept of boxing and unboxing and it also shows the performance implications caused by the same.


This article will explain 6 important concepts Stack , heap , value types , reference types , boxing and unboxing. This article starts first explaining what happens internally when you declare a variable and then it moves ahead to explain 2 important concepts stack and heap. Article then talks about reference types and value types and clarifies some of the important fundamentals around them.

Finally the article concludes by demonstrating how performance is hampered due to boxing and unboxing with a sample code.

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What goes inside when you declare a variable?

When you declare a variable in a .Net application, it allocates some chunk of memory in to the RAM. This memory has 3 things first the name of the variable, second data type of the variable and finally the value of the variable.

That was a simple explanation of what happens in the memory, but depending on what kind of data type your variable is allocated on that type of memory. There are two types of memory allocation stack memory and heap memory. In the coming sections we will try to understand these two types of memory in more details.

 Stack and Heap

In order to understand stack and heap, let’s understand what actually happens in the below code internally.

public void Method1()
// Line 1
int i=4;

// Line 2
int y=2;

//Line 3
class1 cls1 = new class1();


It’s a 3 line code so let’s understand line by line how things execute internally.

Line 1:- When this line is executed compiler allocates a small amount of memory in to memory type called as stack. Stack is responsible of keeping track of running memory needed in your application.

Line 2:- Now the execution moves to the next step. As the name says stack it stacks this memory allocation on the top of the first memory allocation. You can think about stack as series of compartment or boxes put on top of each other.

Memory allocation and de-allocation is done using LIFO (Last in first out) logic. In other words memory is allocated and de-allocated at only one end of the memory i.e. top of the stack.

Line 3:- In line 3 we have a created an object. When this line is executed it creates a pointer on the stack and the actual object is stored in a different type of memory location called as ‘Heap’. ‘Heap’ does not track running memory it’s just pile of objects which can reached at any moment of time. Heap is used for dynamic memory allocation.

One more important point to note here is reference pointers are allocated on stack. The statement, Class1 cls1; does not allocate memory for an instance of Class1, it only allocates a stack variable cls1 (and sets it to null). The time it hits the new keyword it allocates on "HEAP".

Exiting the method (The fun):- Now finally the execution control starts exiting the method. When it passes the end control it clears all the memory variables which are assigned on stack. In other words all variables which are related to ‘int’ data type are de-allocated in ‘LIFO’ fashion from the stack.

The BIG catch – It did not de-allocate the heap memory. This memory will be later de-allocated by “GARBAGE COLLECTOR”.

Now many of our developer friends must be wondering why two types of memory, can’t we just allocate everything on just one memory type and we are done.

If you look closely primitive data types are not complex, they hold single values like ‘int i = 0’. Object data types are complex, they reference other objects or other primitive data types. In other words they hold reference to other multiple values and each one of them must be stored in memory. Object types need dynamic memory while primitive needs static type memory. If the requirement is of dynamic memory it’s allocated on a heap or else it goes on a stack.

Image taken from

Value types and reference types

Now that we have understood the concept of ‘Stack’ and ‘Heap’ it’s time to understand the concept of value types and reference types.

Value types are types which hold both data and the memory on the same location. While a reference type has a pointer which points to the memory location.

Below is a simple integer data type with name ‘i’ whose value is assigned to an other integer data type with name ‘j’. Both these memory values are allocated on the stack.

When we assign the ‘int’ value to the other ‘int’ value it creates a complete different copy. In other word if you change either of them the other does not change. These kinds of data types are called as ‘Value types’.

When we create an object and when we assign one object to the other object, they both point to the same memory location as show in the below code snippet. So when we assign ‘obj’ to ‘obj1’ they both point to the same memory location.

In other words if we change one of them the other object is also affected this is termed as ‘Reference types’.

So which data types are ref type and value type?

In .NET depending on data types the variable is either assigned on the stack or on the heap. ‘String’ and ‘Objects’ are reference types and any other .NET primitive data types are assigned on the stack. Below figure explains the same in a more detail manner.

Boxing and Unboxing

WOW, you have given so much knowledge, so what’s the use of it in actual programming. One of the biggest implications is to understand the performance hit which is incurred due to data moving from stack to heap and vice versa.

Consider the below code snippet. When we move a value type to reference type the data is moved from the stack to the heap. When we move reference type to a value type the data is moved from the heap to the stack.

This movement of data from the heap to stack and vice-versa creates a performance hit.

When the data moves from value types to reference types its termed as ‘Boxing’ and the vice versa is termed as ‘UnBoxing’.

If you compile the above code and see the same in ILDASM you can see in the IL code how ‘boxing’ and ‘unboxing’ looks, below figure demonstrates the same.

Performance implication of Boxing and unboxing

In order to see how the performance is impacted we ran the below two functions 10,000 times. One function has boxing and the other function is simple. We used a stop watch object to monitor the time taken.

The boxing function was executed in 3542 MS while without boxing the code was executed in 2477 MS. In other words try to avoid boxing and unboxing. In project you always need boxing and unboxing , use it when it’s absolutely necessary.

With the same article the sample code is attached which demonstrates this performance implication.

Currently I have not put a source code for unboxing but the same hold true for the same. You can write the same and experiment it by using stopwatch class.

Source code

Attached with article is a simple code which demonstrates how boxing creates performance implications. You can download the source code from here



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


About the Author

Shivprasad koirala
India India

I am an ex-Microsoft MVP for ASP/ASP.NET and currently a CEO of a small
E-learning company in India. We are very much active in making training videos, writing books and corporate trainings. Do visit my site for 
.NET, C#, Design Pattern, WCF, Silverlight, LINQ, ASP.NET, ADO.NET, SharePoint, UML, SQL Server  training 
and Interview questions and answers

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QuestionExcellent explanation , but one mistake Pin
Member 912997122-Sep-15 9:03
memberMember 912997122-Sep-15 9:03 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
ben_mj22-Aug-15 5:06
memberben_mj22-Aug-15 5:06 
GeneralFantastic Article Pin
Jnana.Prakash.Rana20-Aug-15 2:53
groupJnana.Prakash.Rana20-Aug-15 2:53 
QuestionAwesome explanation!!! Pin
vinod reddy k20-Aug-15 0:20
membervinod reddy k20-Aug-15 0:20 
AnswerRe: Awesome explanation!!! Pin
DotNetForAll20-Aug-15 0:35
memberDotNetForAll20-Aug-15 0:35 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
Sangram Nandkhile9-Aug-15 23:21
memberSangram Nandkhile9-Aug-15 23:21 
GeneralVery Nice Pin
saravanaxyz4-Jul-15 21:36
membersaravanaxyz4-Jul-15 21:36 
QuestionAwesome Article Pin
mitesh4874-Jun-15 23:29
membermitesh4874-Jun-15 23:29 
Generalawesome Pin
jitin12317-May-15 8:11
memberjitin12317-May-15 8:11 
QuestionGood Job Pin
Santhosh Babu Mahimairaj23-Apr-15 21:37
professionalSanthosh Babu Mahimairaj23-Apr-15 21:37 
QuestionWhat Goes inside when you declare a Variable. Pin
Member 1041825526-Mar-15 20:25
memberMember 1041825526-Mar-15 20:25 
GeneralGood Article Pin
Sunny65619-Jan-15 18:33
memberSunny65619-Jan-15 18:33 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
Malhotra Sameer7-Jan-15 3:55
professionalMalhotra Sameer7-Jan-15 3:55 
QuestionValue type is inside reference type. Pin
GCvignesh23-Dec-14 18:59
memberGCvignesh23-Dec-14 18:59 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
Anubhav Trivedi3-Dec-14 17:34
memberAnubhav Trivedi3-Dec-14 17:34 
Generalthanks Pin
Uthman Rahimi26-Nov-14 11:24
professionalUthman Rahimi26-Nov-14 11:24 
Member 812686721-Nov-14 0:14
memberMember 812686721-Nov-14 0:14 
QuestionGreat Article! Easy to understand with good examples Pin
Member 1107142830-Sep-14 9:25
memberMember 1107142830-Sep-14 9:25 
QuestionSome inconsistencies / typos Pin
_Noctis_12-Aug-14 14:37
professional_Noctis_12-Aug-14 14:37 
QuestionWhat tool did you use to draw the diagram Pin
dotcpp10-Aug-14 17:54
memberdotcpp10-Aug-14 17:54 
AnswerRe: What tool did you use to draw the diagram Pin
bombersa1-Oct-14 13:36
memberbombersa1-Oct-14 13:36 
GeneralRe: What tool did you use to draw the diagram Pin
dotcpp4-Nov-14 19:30
memberdotcpp4-Nov-14 19:30 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
Sibeesh Venu8-Aug-14 6:54
professionalSibeesh Venu8-Aug-14 6:54 
QuestionStructure inside a class Pin
NigamSahoo17-Jul-14 22:55
memberNigamSahoo17-Jul-14 22:55 
QuestionThanks for being there Shiv.. Pin
NigamSahoo17-Jul-14 22:51
memberNigamSahoo17-Jul-14 22:51 

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