.NET reference

Almost every article about .NET memory tells the same story – “there are value types allocated on the stack and reference types allocated on the heap”. And, “classes are reference types while structs are value types”. They are so many popular job interview questions for .NET developers touching this topic. But this is by far not the most appropriate way of seeing a difference between value types and reference types. Why it is not quite correct? Because it describes the concept from the implementation point of view, not from the point that explains the true difference behind those two categories of types. It was already explained in popular articles The Stack Is An Implementation Detail, Part One and The Stack Is An Implementation Detail, Part Two.

We will delve into implementation details later, but it is worth it to note that they are still only implementation details. And as all implementations behind some kind of abstractions, they are subject to change. What really matters is the abstraction they provide to the developer. So instead of taking the same implementation-driven approach, I would like you to present a rationale behind it. And only then we can reach the point when understanding the current implementation will be possible (and will be sensible also).

Let’s start from the beginning, which is an ECMA 335 standard. Unfortunately, the definitions we need are a little blurry, and you can get lost in different meanings of words like type, value, value type, value of type, and so on, so forth. In general, it is worth remembering that this standard defines that:

“any value described by a type is called an instance of that type”

In other words, we can say about value (or instance, interchangeably) of value type or reference type. Going further, those are defined as:

“type, value: A type such that an instance of it directly contains all its data. (…) The values described by a value type are self-contained.”

“type, reference: A type such that an instance of it contains a reference to its data. (…) A value described by a reference type denotes the location of another value.”

We can spot there the true difference in abstraction that those two kinds of types provide: instances (values) of value types contain all its data in place (they are, in fact, values itself ), while reference types values only point to data located “somewhere” (they reference something). But this data-location abstraction implies a very significant consequence that relates to some fundamental topics:

Lifetime:

  • Values of value types contain all its data – we can see it as a single, self-contained being. The data lives as long as the instance of the value type itself.
  • Values of reference types denote the location of another value whose lifetime is not defined by the definition itself.

Sharing:

  • Value type’s value cannot be shared by default – if we would like to use it in another place (for example, although we are passing a bit of implementation details here, method argument, or another local variable), it will be copied byte by byte by default. We say then about passing-by-value semantics. And as a copy of the value is passed to another place, the lifetime of the original value does not change
  • Reference type’s value can be shared by default – if we would like to use it in another place, passing-by-reference semantics will be used by default. Hence, after that, one more reference type instance denotes the same value location. We have to track somehow all references to discover the value’s lifetime.

Identity:

  • Value types do not have an identity. Value types are identical if and only if the bit sequences of their data are the same.
  • Reference types are identical if and only if their locations are the same.

Again, there is no single mention about heap or stack in this context at all. Keeping in mind those differences and definitions should clarify things a little, although you may need a while to get used to them. Next time when asked during job interview about where value types are stored, you may start from such an alternative, extended elaboration.

Note. There is yet another type of category we should know – immutable types. Immutable type is a type whose value cannot be changed after creation. No more and no less. They do say nothing about their value or reference semantics. In other words, both value type and reference type can be immutable. We can enforce immutability in object-oriented programming by simply not exposing any methods and properties that would lead to changing an object’s value.

Locations

When considering a .NET stack machine, we should mention an important concept of locations. When considering storage of various values required for program execution, a few logical locations exist:

  • local variables in a method
  • arguments of a method
  • instance field of another value
  • static field (inside class, interface or module)
  • local memory pool
  • temporarily on the evaluation stack

Type Storage

One could insist on asking where is the place here that implies using stack or heap for those two, basic kinds of types? The answer is – there is none! This is an implementation
detail taken during design of Microsoft .NET Framework CLI standard. Because it was for years overwhelmingly the most popular one, the “value types allocated on the stack
and reference types allocated on the heap” story have been repeated again and again like a mantra without deep reflection. And since it is a very good design decision, it was
repeated in different CLI implementations we have discussed earlier. Keep in mind, this sentence is not entirely true in the first place. As we will see in the following sections,
there are exceptions to that rule. Different locations can be treated differently as to how to store the value. And this is exactly the case with CLI as we will soon see.

Nevertheless, we only can think about the storage of the value types and reference types when designing CLI implementation for a specific platform. We simply just need
to know whether we have stack or heap available at all on that particular platform! As the vast majority of today’s computers have both, the decision is simple. But then probably
we have also CPU registers and no one is mentioning them in the “value types allocated on the…” mantra although it is the same level of implementation detail like using
stack or heap.

The truth is that the storage implementation of one or another type may be located mostly in the JIT compiler design. This is a component that is designed for a specific
platform on which it is running so we know what resources will be available there. x86/x64-based JIT has obviously both stack, heap, and registers at its disposal. However, such
a decision on where to save a given type value can be left not only at the JIT compiler level. We can allow the compiler to influence this decision based on the analysis that
it performs. And we can even expose somehow such a decision to the developer at the language level (exactly like in C++ where you can allocate objects both on the stack or
on the heap).

There is an even simpler approach taken by Java, where there are no user-defined value types at all, hence no problem exists where to store them! A few built-in primitives
(integers and so forth) are said to be value types there, but everything else is being allocated on the heap (not taking into consideration escape analysis described later). In
case of .NET design, we could also decide to allocate all types instances (including value types) on the heap, and it would be perfectly fine as long as the value type and reference type semantic would not be violated. When talking about memory location, the ECMA-335 standard gives complete freedom:

“The four areas of the method state – incoming arguments array, local variables array, local memory pool and evaluation stack – are specified as if logically distinct areas. A conforming implementation of the CLI can map these areas into one contiguous array of memory, held as a conventional stack frame on the underlying target architecture, or use any other equivalent representation technique.”

Why these and no other implementation decisions were taken will be more practical to explain in the following sections, discussing separately the value and the reference types.

Note. There is only a single important remark left. When we know now that talking about stack and heap is an implementation detail, it can still be reasonable to do that. Unfortunately, there is a place where “as it should be” odds with the “as is practical”. And this place is performance and memory usage optimization. If we are writing our code in C# targeting x86/x64 or ARM computers, we know perfectly that heap, stack, and registers will be used by those types in certain scenarios. So as The Law of Leaky Abstractions says, value or reference type abstraction can leak here. And if we want, we can take advantage of it for performance reasons.

Value Types

As previously said, value type “directly contains all its data”. ECMA 335 defines value as:

” A simple bit pattern for something like an integer or a float. Each value has a type that describes both the storage that it occupies and the meanings of the bits in its representation, and also the operations that can be performed on that representation. Values are intended for representing the simple types and non-objects in programming languages.”

So what about “value types are stored on the stack” part of the story? Regarding implementation, there is nothing stopping from storing all value types on the heap, irrespective of the location used. Except for the fact that there is a better solution – using the stack or CPU register. The stack is quite a lightweight mechanism. We can “allocate” and “deallocate” objects there by simply creating a properly sized activation frame and dismissing it when no longer needed. As the stack seems to be so fast, we should use it all the time, right?

The problem is it is not always possible, mainly because of the lifetime of the stack data versus the desired lifetime of the value itself. It is the life span and value sharing that determines which mechanism we can use to store value type data.

Let’s now consider each possible location of value type and what storage we can use there:

  • local variables in a method – they have a very strict and well-defined lifetime, which is a lifetime of a method call (and all its subcalls). We could allocate all value-type local variables on the heap and then just deallocate them when the method ends. But we could also use stack here because we know there is only a single instance of the value (there is no sharing of it). So there is no risk that someone will try to use this value after the method ends or concurrently from another thread. It is then just perfectly fine to use a stack inside an activation frame as storage for local value types (or use a CPU register(s)).
  • arguments of a method – they can be treated exactly as local variables here so again, we can use the stack instead of the heap.
  • instance field of a reference type – their lifetime depends on the lifetime of the containing value. For sure it may live longer than the current or any other activation frame so a stack is not the right place for it. Hence, value types that are fields of reference types (like classes) will be allocated on the heap along with them (which we know as one of the boxing reasons).
  • instance field of another value-type – here the situation is slightly complicated. If the containing value is on the stack, we would also use it. If it is on the heap already, we will use the heap for the field’s value also.
  • static field (inside class, interface or module) – here the situation is similar to using an instance field of reference type. The static field has a lifetime of the type in which it is defined. This means we could not use the stack as storage, as an activation frame may live much shorter.
  • local memory pool – its lifetime is strictly related to the method’s lifetime (ECMA says “the local memory pool is reclaimed on method exit”). This means we can without a problem use stack and that’s why local memory pool is implemented as a growth of the activation frame.
  • temporarily on the evaluation stack – value on the evaluation stack has a lifetime strictly controlled by JIT. It perfectly knows why this value is needed and when it will be consumed. Hence, it has complete freedom whether it would like to use the heap, stack, or register. From performance reasons, it will obviously try to use CPU registers and the stack.

So that is how we come to the first part – “value types are stored on the stack”. As we see, the more true is the statement – “value types are stored on the stack when the value is a local
variable or lives inside the local memory pool. But are stored on the heap when they are a part of other objects on the heap or are a static field. And they always can be stored inside CPU register as a part of evaluation stack processing”. Slightly more complicated, isn’t?

Reference Types

When talking about reference types, it is convenient to consider them as consisting of two entities::

  • reference – a value of the reference type is a reference to its data. This reference means, in particular, an address of data stored elsewhere. A reference itself can be seen as a value type because internally it is just a 32- or 64-bit wide address. References have copy-by-value semantics so when passed between locations, they are just copied.
  • reference type’s data – this is a memory region denoted by the reference. Standard does not define where this data should be stored. It is just stored elsewhere.

.NET reference

Considering possible storage for each location of the reference type is simpler than for value types. As mentioned, because references can share data, the lifetime of them is
not well-defined. In general cases, it is impossible to store reference types on instances the stack because their lifetime is probably much longer than an activation frame life (method call duration). Hence it is quite an obvious implementation decision where to store them and that is how we come to “reference types are stored on the heap” part of the story.

Regarding the heap allocation possibilities for reference types – there is one exception. If we could know that a reference type instance has the same characteristic as a local value-type variable, we could allocate it on the stack, as usual for value types. This particularly means we should know whether a reference does not escape from its local scope (does not escape the stack or thread) and start to be shared among other references. A way of checking this is called Escape Analysis. It has been successfully implemented in Java where it’s especially beneficial because of their approach of allocating almost everything on the heap by default. At the time of this writing, .NET environment does not support Escape Analysis, yet. Well, at least not officialy. And this is the topic we will look at in the next blog post!

During our trip around managed pointers and structs, we get the last topic to discuss – readonly semantics. Thus, we touch today topics like readonly structs and readonly paremeters.

Readonly ref variables

Ref types are quite powerful, because we may change its target. Thus, readonly refs were introduced in C# 7.2 that controls the ability to mutate the storage of a ref variable.
Please note a subtle difference in such context between a managed pointer to a value type versus a reference type:

  • for value type target – it guarantees that the value will not be modified. As the value here is the whole object (memory region), in other words, it guarantees that all fields will not be changed.
  • for reference type target – it guarantees that the reference value will not be changed. As the value here is the reference itself (pointing to another object), it guarantees that we will not change it to point to another object. But we can still modify the properties of the referenced object.

Let’s use an example returning a readonly ref:

BookCollection may illustrate the difference between readonly ref in case of both value type and reference type.Continue reading