Saturday 14 July 2012

Enter the IKVM

aka Meta-programming and Metro for .NET

In my previous blog entry I gave an overview of how protobuf-net is arranged internally, and hinted that it all falls apart for Metro. So: what goes wrong? Currently, protobuf-net has a lot (and I do mean a lot) of code built on top of ILGenerator, the reflection class that underpins meta-programming. This class is great for hardcore library builders: you can build individual methods (via DynamicMethod) or entire assemblies (via AssemblyBuilder). It is very low level, since you are writing raw IL – but I’m not completely crazy, so I wrap that up in some utility methods. There are a few problem., though:

  • ILGenerator usually expects be be working on the current framework
  • Even though you can use a “reflection only load”, this still fails horribly for System.Runtime.dll (aka Metro for .NET)
  • In early versions of .NET (and I try to support .NET 2 and upwards), the ability to properly inspect attribute data against reflection-only types/members (GetCustomAttributesData) is simply missing

So… basically, it all falls to pieces for generating as assembly targeting Metro for .NET, based on a Metro for .NET input assembly.

What I would need is some kind of utility that is:

  • Broadly similar to Reflection.Emit, so I don’t have to rewrite a few thousand lines of code (since I want to keep that code for the runtime meta-programming on full .NET)
  • Able to load and work with alternative frameworks without getting confused
  • Able to give full attribute information, even on .NET 2
  • Inbuilt or free, to match the existing license

Who would go to the trouble of writing such a thing?

Maybe somebody who is already writing compiler-like tools that aren’t tied to a specific framework, and who has run into the existing limitations of Reflection.Emit? Maybe somebody writing a Java/.NET bridge? Like IKVM.NET ?

Actually, for my purposes I don’t need most of IKVM. I just need one tiny piece of it: IKVM.Reflection. This library was specifically written to mimic the existing Reflection.Emit API, but without all the problems. In particular, it has a Universe class that is a bit like an AppDomain; you load assemblies into a Universe, and that is what is used for resolution etc after that. Here’s a simple example – which will immediately make sense to anyone used to Reflection.Emit – or another example specifically targeting Metro for .NET. The nice thing about the API is that mostly I can change between IKVM and Reflection.Emit via a simple:

using Type = IKVM.Reflection.Type;
using IKVM.Reflection;
using System.Reflection;

OK, I would be grossly exaggerating if I claimed that was the only change I had to make, but that’s the most demonstrable bit. What this means is that just for my cross-platform compiler, everything in the Model, Strategy and Compiler modules (see previous blog) switches to IKVM terminology. The Core still uses System terminology, and the Runtime doesn’t apply (I obviously can’t instantiate/execute types/methods from another framework, even if I can inspect them).

With this technique, I can now successfully load a Metro for .NET assembly (such as a DTO), and generate a fully static-compiled assembly (“Standalone” on the diagram) targeting Metro for .NET. No reflection at runtime, no nasty hacks – just: an assembly that wasn’t generated by the MS tools.

I’m still working on turning this into a slicker tool (comparable to, say, SGEN), but a working illustration is in the repo; in particular, see MetroDTO (some sample DTOs), TestIkvm (my proof-of-concept compiler hard-coded to MetroDTO), and Metro_DevRig (which shows the generated assembly working in a Metro for .NET application, including performance comparisons to XmlSerializer and DataContractSerializer).

Additionally, it seems extremely likely that the same tool should be able to write platform-targeted assemblies for Silverlight, Phone 7, XNA, CF, etc. Which is nice.

Thanks and Acknowledgements

I’m hugely indebted to Jeroen Frijters in all of this; both for providing IKVM.Reflection, and for his direct and very prompt assistance when playing with all the above. Mainly for correcting my own brain-dead mistakes, but also for a very quick bug-fix when needed. The library is awesome, thanks.

(as a small caveat, note that protobuf-net is currently exposing a locally built version of IKVM.Reflection; this will be rectified after the next dev build of IKVM)