Disclaimer – this article consists of fragments of my book, adapted and re-edited considerably to be presented in the form of an independent whole post.
Most of the time a regular .NET developer uses object references and it is simple enough because this is how a managed world is constructed – objects are referencing each other via object references. An object reference is, in fact, a type-safe pointer (address) that always points to an object MethodTable reference field (it is often said it points at the beginning of an object). Thus, using them may be quite efficient. Having an object reference, we simply have the whole object address. For example, the GC can quickly access its header via constant offset. Addresses of fields are also easily computable due to information stored in MethodTable.
There is, however, another pointer type in CLR – a managed pointer. It could be defined as a more general type of reference, which may point to other locations than just the beginning of an object. ECMA-335 says that a managed pointer can point to:
- local variable – whether it be a reference to a heap-allocated object or simply stack-allocated type,
- parameter – like above,
- field of a compound type – meaning a field of other type (whether it is value or reference type),
- an element of an array
Despite this flexibility, managed pointers are still types. There is a managed pointer type that points to System.Int32 objects, regardless of their localization, denoted as System.Int32& in CIL. Or SomeNamespace.SomeClass& type pointing to our custom SomeNamespace.SomeClass instances. Strong typing makes them safer than pure,
unmanaged pointers that may be cast back and forth for literally everything. This is also why managed pointers do not offer pointer arithmetic known from raw pointers – it particularly does not make sense to “add” or “subtract” addresses they represent, pointing to various places inside objects or to local variables.