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1.1 .NET Platform Fundamentals

At the core of Microsoft's .NET platform initiative is a new set of technologies known collectively as the .NET Framework, which we'll refer to commonly as the Framework. The Framework provides a platform for simplified rapid development of both web-based and Windows-based applications. The Framework has two primary components, the Common Language Runtime (CLR) and the Framework Class Library (FCL).

As with many new technologies, there are a host of new terms and acronyms to understand, so we'll introduce and explain the most important ones in the Framework over the next several sections.

1.1.1 The Common Language Runtime (CLR)

The CLR is the execution environment for code written for the .NET Framework. The CLR manages the execution of .NET code, including memory allocation and garbage collection (which helps avoid memory leaks), security (including applying differing trust levels to code from different sources), thread management, enforcing type-safety, and many other tasks.

The CLR works with every language available for the .NET Framework, so there is no need to have a separate runtime for each language. Code developed in a .NET language is compiled by the individual language compiler (such as the Visual Basic .NET compiler) into an intermediate format called (appropriately enough) Intermediate Language (IL). At runtime, this IL code generated by the compiler is just-in-time (JIT) compiled by the CLR into native code for the processor type the CLR is running on. This compilation provides the flexibility of being able to develop with multiple languages and target multiple processor types while still retaining the performance of native code at execution time.

While there is some up-front cost on first execution to the JIT compilation model, the Framework also offers the ability to pregenerate native code at install time through a utility called NGen.exe. This utility eliminates the startup cost of JIT compiling the code, at the expense of some of the optimizations that are available with JIT compiling.

1.1.2 The .NET Framework Class Library (FCL)

The FCL is a set of reusable object-oriented classes that provide basic platform functionality, from the data access classes of ADO.NET, to filesystem utility classes (including file, directory, and stream classes), to networking classes that allow easy implementation of DNS resolution, WHOIS lookups, and other network-related functionality. Developers can use the base classes directly or derive from these classes to provide customized functionality.

The FCL also contains all classes that make up ASP.NET. These include classes that implement all of the functionality of the ASP intrinsic objects, as well as classes that provide additional functionality, from a rich engine for caching output and data to the ASP.NET Server Control model. This functionality brings to ASP.NET the simplicity of control-based development that has long been available to Visual Basic developers.

In addition to classes that support Web application development, the FCL provides classes for developing console applications, Windows applications, and Windows NT or Windows 2000 Services.

1.1.3 The Common Type System (CTS)

The CTS describes the set of types that are supported by the CLR. This includes both value types, which include primitive data types such as Byte, Int16, Double, and Boolean, and reference types, which include arrays, classes, and the Object and String types.

Value types are types that store their values directly in memory and are accessed directly by name, as shown in the following code fragment:

'VB.NET
Dim myFloat As Single
myFloat = 3.1415
  
// C#
float myFloat;
myFloat = 3.1415;

In addition to these built-in data types, value types also include user-defined value types (types derived from the System.ValueType class) as well as enumerations.

Reference types are types that store a reference to the location of their values, rather than storing the value directly. Frequently, the value is stored as part of a defined class and is referenced through a class member on an instance of the class, as shown here:

'VB.NET
'Define class
Class myFloatClass
   Public myFloat As Single
End Class
  
'Create class instance and assign value
Dim myInstance As New myFloatClass( )
myInstance.myFloat = 3.1415
  
// C#
// Define class
class myFloatClass
{
   float myFloat;
}
  
// Create class instance and assign value
myFloatClass myInstance = new myFloatClass( );
myFloatClass.myFloat = 3.1415;

Individual language compilers may implement types using their own terminology. For example, while the .NET representation of a 32-bit integer is referred to as Int32, in Visual Basic .NET it is referred to as Integer and in C# as int. Internally, however, both Visual Basic's Integer and C#'s int are implemented as the .NET Int32 type.

1.1.3.1 Boxing and unboxing

Converting to and from value and reference types is accomplished through a process called boxing and unboxing. Boxing refers to the implicit conversion of a value type, such as a C# int, to a reference type (usually Object). For this conversion to take place, an instance of type Object is created and the value type's value and type is copied into it—in this case, int. Unboxing refers to the explicit conversion of an Object type into a specific value type. The code example shown here demonstrates boxing and unboxing:

// C#
int myInt = 123; // declare an int and set its value to 123
object myObj = myInt; // value of myInt is boxed into myObject
int myOtherInt = (int)myObject; // unbox myObject into myOtherInt

1.1.4 The Common Language Infrastructure (CLI)

The CLI is a subset of the .NET Framework that has been submitted for standardization through the ECMA standards body. The CLI includes the functionality of the Common Language Runtime, as well as specifications for the Common Type System, type safety rules, Metadata, and Intermediate Language. It also includes a subset of the Framework Class Library that includes a Base Class Library (for built-in types and basic runtime functionality), a Network Library (for simple networking services and access to network ports), a Reflection Library (for examining types and retrieving information about types at runtime), an XML Library (for parsing XML), and Floating Point and Extended Array Libraries.

Microsoft has also committed to providing what they refer to as a "shared- source" implementation of the CLI, which will be available for both the FreeBSD and Windows operating systems. You can find out more about the shared-source CLI implementation at http://msdn.microsoft.com/library/en-us/dndotnet/html/mssharsourcecli2.asp.

There is also a group working on an open source implementation of the CLI, based on the ECMA specifications, called Mono. You can find out more about Mono at http://www.go-mono.org/.

Information on the ECMA standardization process, including documentation of the proposed standards, is available at http://msdn.microsoft.com/net/ecma/.

1.1.5 The Common Language Specification (CLS)

The CLS is a subset of the types supported by the CLR, as well as a set of rules that language and compiler designers must follow. The purpose of the CLS is to provide robust interoperability between .NET languages, including the ability to inherit classes written in one .NET language in any other .NET language and cross-language debugging.

The rules defined by the CLS apply only to publicly exposed features of a class. For example, the internal implementation of a class can use non-CLS-compliant types (such as the unsigned integer types), but as long as only CLS-compliant members are exposed publicly, the class can still take full advantage of the interoperability features enabled by the CLS.

1.1.6 Classes

While not a term specific to the .NET platform, the term class may be new to many ASP developers. A class is essentially the blueprint for an object. It contains the definition for how a particular object will be instantiated at runtime, such as the properties and methods that will be exposed publicly by the object and any internal storage structures.

Developers work with classes by creating instances of the class at runtime using the new keyword, as shown here:

// Instantiate the .NET StreamReader class in C#
System.IO.StreamReader sr;
sr = new System.IO.StreamReader("C:\\Test.txt");
string Line;
  
while(sr.Peek( ) != -1)
{
   Line = sr.ReadLine( );
   Response.Write(Server.HtmlEncode(Line) + "<br/>");
}

We preface the name of the class, StreamReader, with its namespace name, System.IO, to prevent naming collisions with other classes in different assemblies that might have the same name and to ensure that we get the StreamReader class we expect. We'll discuss namespaces and assemblies later in this section.

In C#, the lowercase new keyword is used to instantiate classes. In Visual Basic .NET, the New keyword is uppercase, but since the Visual Basic language is not case-sensitive, this is a standard practice, rather than a requirement enforced by the compiler. C#, on the other hand, is case-sensitive, so keep this in mind when switching between C# and VB.NET.

1.1.7 Namespaces

Namespaces, a key part of the .NET Framework, provide scope to both preinstalled framework classes and custom-developed classes. Namespaces are declared for a given set of classes (types) by enclosing those classes in one of the following declarations:

// C#
namespace myNamespace
{
   class myClass
   {
      // class implementation code
   }
}
  
' VB.NET
Namespace myNamespace
   Class myCls
      ' class implementation code
   End Class
End Namespace

Namespaces may also be nested, as shown here:

' VB.NET
Namespace myFirstNamespace
   Public Class myCls
      ' class implementation code
   End Class
   Namespace mySecondNamespace
      Public Class myCls
         ' class implementation code
      End Class
      Public Class myCls2
         ' class implementation code
      End Class
   End Namespace
End Namespace

This code is perfectly valid because we've declared the second myCls in the nested namespace mySecondNamespace. If we tried to declare two identically named classes within the same namespace, we would get a compiler error informing us that there was a naming conflict, because each class name must be unique within its namespace. To use the classes we just declared, we can do something like the following:

' VB.NET
Imports System
Imports myFirstNamespace
Imports myFirstNamespace.mySecondNamespace
  
Module namespaces_client_vb
  
   Sub Main( )
      Dim newClass As New myFirstNamespace.myCls
      Dim newClass2 As New myCls2
      Console.WriteLine("Object creation succeeded!")
   End Sub
  
End Module

We use the Imports keyword in Visual Basic .NET to enable the use of member names from these namespaces without explicitly using the namespace name. However, because we used the class name myCls in both the myFirstNamespace and mySecondNamespace namespaces, we need to use the fully qualified name for this class, while we are able to instantiate myCls2 with only the class name. We can just as easily use these classes from C#, as shown here:

using System;
using myFirstNamespace;
using myFirstNamespace.mySecondNamespace;
  
class namespaces_client
{
   public static void Main( )
   {
      myFirstNamespace.myCls newClass = new myFirstNamespace.myCls( );
      myCls2 newClass2 = new myCls2( );
      Console.WriteLine("Object creation succeeded!");
   }
}

C# uses the using keyword for importing namespaces. Notice that in both cases, in addition to importing the namespaces we defined, we've also imported the System namespace. This is what allows us to use the Console class defined in the System namespace to write to a console window without referring explicitly to System.Console.

Classes that are part of the .NET Framework are organized by functionality into namespaces that make them easier to locate and use. All classes that are a part of the .NET Framework begin with either "System" or "Microsoft." Examples include:

System

Contains all the .NET primitive data types as well as utility classes such as Console and Math that are apt to be widely used in .NET applications.

System.Collections

Contains classes used to implement various kinds of collections in .NET, including ArrayList, Dictionary, and Hashtable.

System.Data

Contains classes used to access and manipulate data, as well as child namespaces such as System.Data.SqlClient, which contain data access classes specific to a particular data provider.

System.Web

Contains classes used to process web requests, as well as child namespaces such as System.Web.UI, which contains such classes as the Page class, the basis for all ASP.NET pages.

1.1.8 Assemblies

Also known as Managed DLLs, assemblies are the fundamental unit of deployment for the .NET platform. The .NET Framework itself is made up of a number of assemblies, including mscorlib.dll, among others. The assembly boundary is also where versioning and security are applied.

An assembly contains Intermediate Language generated by a specific language compiler, an assembly manifest (containing information about the assembly), type metadata, and resources. We'll discuss IL, manifests, and metadata later in this section.

Assemblies can be either private, residing in the directory of the client application from which they are used (or, in the case of ASP.NET, in the / bin subdirectory of the Web application), or shared. Shared assemblies are stored in a common location called the Global Assembly Cache (GAC). Assemblies that are to be installed in the GAC must be strongly named, which means that they must have a cryptographic key associated with them. Strong naming can be accomplished either through Visual Studio .NET, or you can use the sn.exe tool supplied with the .NET Framework SDK to generate a key pair for signing the assembly, and then use the al.exe tool to create the signed assembly based on the generated key. We'll demonstrate creating and sharing strongly named assemblies in Chapter 6.

Assemblies are self-describing, thanks to the manifest contained within them. One advantage of their self-describing nature is that it makes it possible for different versions of the same assembly to be run side by side. Clients can then specify the version of the assembly that they require, and the CLR will make sure that the correct version of the assembly is loaded for that client at runtime.

1.1.9 Intermediate Language (IL)

IL, also known as MSIL (for Microsoft Intermediate Language), is a processor-independent representation of executable code. IL is similar in some ways to assembly code, but it is not specific to a particular CPU; rather, it is specific to the CLR. IL is generated by each of the language compilers that target the CLR. As mentioned above, .NET assemblies contain IL that is to be executed by the CLR.

At runtime, the CLR just-in-time (JIT) compiles the IL to native code, which is then executed. There is also a tool called ngen.exe, which is supplied with the .NET Framework SDK and allows you to precompile assemblies to native code at install time and cache the precompiled code to disk. However, while precompiling an assembly to native code will improve the startup time of an assembly, the JIT process used by the CLR performs optimizations that may allow JITed code to perform better than precompiled code, the difference in performance will depend on the code being executed, and how subject to these optimizations it is.

1.1.10 Managed Execution

Managed execution refers to code whose execution is managed by the CLR. This execution includes memory management, access security, cross-language integration for debugging and/or exception handling, and many other features. Managed assemblies are required to supply metadata that describes the types and members of the code contained within the assembly. This information allows the CLR to manage the execution of the code.

Note that not all languages in Visual Studio .NET are managed. While Visual C++ offers what are called the "Managed Extensions for Visual C++," it is still possible to write unmanaged code in Visual C++.

1.1.11 Manifests, Metadata, and Attributes

Metadata and manifests are key pieces of the managed execution world. Manifests are the portion of an assembly that contains descriptive information about the types contained in the assembly, the members exposed by the assembly, and the resources required by the assembly. The manifest contains metadata, which, simply put, is data that describes the assembly. Some metadata is generated by the language compiler at compile time. The developer may add other metadata at design time through the use of attributes. Attributes are declarations added to code that describe some aspect of the code or modify the code's behavior at runtime.

Attributes are stored with an assembly as metadata and are used for many purposes in the .NET Framework—from the <webMethod( )> attribute used to turn a normal method into a web service to attributes used to define how custom controls interact with the Visual Studio .NET environment.

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