Interop 101 – Part 4


I apologize for the long delay for this section (although I suppose my average posting frequency is already pretty low), but I was on a much needed vacation. I finished the last chapter with a brief mention of what I would talk about now, which is the native support for interop that C++ provides. In a sense, I hope this is going to appear to be the simplest method even though I will introduce a few new concepts and use C++/CLI, which adds new language constructs to C++ in order to express .NET semantics (e.g. garbage collected types).


As always, let us reprise our original HelloWorld example. I’m going to include it again for sake of making this post depend as little as possible on the previous ones.



// HelloWorld.h


#pragma once


 


class __declspec(dllexport) HelloWorld


{


public:


      HelloWorld();


      ~HelloWorld();


 


      void SayThis(wchar_t *phrase);


};


// HelloWorld.cpp


void HelloWorld::SayThis(wchar_t *phrase)


{


      MessageBox(NULL, phrase, L“Hello World Says”, MB_OK);


}


Our goal is to access this type from .NET. As it stands, this piece of code already compiles into a native DLL. The question that stands before us first is what clients will access this code from now on. In other words, are we replacing all existing client code of this DLL with managed code or are we going to maintain some purely native clients. In the first case, we can write our wrapper code directly into the DLL and compile it into a managed assembly (with native code backing it). In the second case, we need to create a second DLL that will be a native client to this one while publishing a managed interface for .NET clients. It is the latter case that we are going to jump into now.


The first thing to do is to create a new CLR project, which we can do with a wizard (look under the Visual C++ > CLR node in the New Project dialog) or simply taking a blank slate and making the project compile with the /clr switch. This switch is the cornerstone of this entire scenario. If you remember the first part in this series, we showed how the C++ compiler is able to generate MSIL and furthermore, it can generate a process image with both a managed and a native section (the only compiler capable of doing so I might add). We have yet to really lay down the bricks for our wrapper so let’s make a naïve wrapper for HelloWorld now.



// cppcliwrapper.h


#pragma once


#include “..\interop101\helloworld.h”


 


namespace cppcliwrapper {


 


      class ManagedHelloWorld


      {


      private:


            HelloWorld hw;


      public:


            ManagedHelloWorld();


            ~ManagedHelloWorld();


 


            void SayThis(wchar_t *phrase);


      };


}


This piece of code is a native wrapper around our native type using traditional OO encapsulation. Even though this piece of code will compile into MSIL, it does not solve our original problem. Why is that? It’s because we’re still dealing with a native type. In other words, the ManagedHelloWorld class still obeys the rules of native semantics, namely the fact that it must live on the native heap. Managed languages like C# have no knowledge of the native heap and their new operator only instantiates objects into the CLR’s heap. We need to make this wrapper a managed type, which will have the same semantics as a class in C#. Enter C++/CLI. With these additions to the language, we can create two new types of classes: managed value and reference types (the difference is mainly in the way they are implicitly copied). For our wrapper, we simply need to change its declaration from class to ref class. Once we compile the resulting code, we get a pivotal error.



error C4368: cannot define ‘hw’ as a member of managed ‘ManagedHelloWorld’: mixed types are not supported


What could this possibly mean? This error is actually directly related to the problem we described just above. In order to be a proper managed reference type that C# and other managed languages can instantiate, we cannot encapsulate native members. Indeed, our wrapper cannot live on the CLR’s managed heap as it contains a member that can only live on the native heap. We can resolve this issue by encapsulating a pointer to our native type. Thus we have the following wrapper code.



ref class ManagedHelloWorld


{


private:


      HelloWorld *hw;


public:


      ManagedHelloWorld();


      ~ManagedHelloWorld();


 


      void SayThis(wchar_t *phrase);


};


Only three things remain in order to make this wrapper usable. The first is to make it public in accordance with .NET accessibility rules. The second is to change the interface of SayThis such that it uses a managed string. The third is to include the implementation! So here it goes.



// cppcliwrapper.cpp


#include “cppcliwrapper.h”


#include “marshal.h”


 


using namespace cppcliwrapper;


 


ManagedHelloWorld::ManagedHelloWorld() : hw(new HelloWorld())


{


}


 


ManagedHelloWorld::~ManagedHelloWorld()


{


      delete hw;


}


 


void ManagedHelloWorld::SayThis(System::String^ phrase)


{


      hw->SayThis(marshal::to<wchar_t*>(phrase));


}


There are two notable elements we have introduced in this final piece code, the managed handle and data marshalling. The handle or “hat” (or “accent circonflexe” even) is part of the C++/CLI language. It represents a pointer to a managed object. Other languages like Java, C# and VB don’t use anything like this as they no longer have native semantics. However C++ needs to differentiate between the stack, the native heap and the managed heap and it does so using * and ^. Data marshalling is a huge topic and can eventually become one of the more complex things you have to manage when working with interop. In this example, we need to convert a managed String into a native pointer to wchar_t. In order to do this, a great pattern is to create a library of static template functions, which thus remain stateless and help maintain a certain level of consistency. In this example, we created the following functions:



namespace marshal {


      template <typename T>


      static T to(System::String^ str)


      {


      }


 


      template<>


      static wchar_t* to(System::String^ str)


      {


            pin_ptr<const wchar_t> cpwc = PtrToStringChars(str);


            int len = str->Length + 1;


            wchar_t* pwc = new wchar_t[len];


            wcscpy_s(pwc, len, cpwc);


            return pwc;


      }


}


 


After this is all said and done, we compile our code into an assembly that 3rd party .NET clients can use as if it were written in C#. So here is our resulting client code, which is eerily similar to the COM example.


 


using System;


using System.Text;


using cppcliwrapper;


 


namespace CSharpDirectCaller


{


    class Program


    {


        static void Main(string[] args)


        {


            ManagedHelloWorld mhw = new ManagedHelloWorld();


            mhw.SayThis(“I’m a C# application calling native code via C++ interop!”);


        }


    }


}


 


I have a lot more to say about this, and I promised a performance comparison as well as a 5th part describing doing this in reverse. My next post should not be so long in the making.


 

Comments (9)

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this, I’ve tried on a few occasions to do this kind of thing but after spending hours looking through useless msdn articles I gave up. I look forward to future posts.

  2. borisj says:

    Mike, feel free to add some comments on what you’d like to see. I’m always amazed and saddened by how poorly we get the message across on the value of C++ interop…

  3. Anonymous says:

    Many thanks for a great series of articles. They’ve greatly assisted my work in wrapping our native libraries. The other resources on the internet seemed to be contradictory and it took me while to find a decent and clear explanation!

    Just one point that might help other reads; the code in this particular article is only compatible with VS 2005, not VS 2003 unless I’ve completely missed something!

  4. borisj says:

    Neil, you’re absolutely right. I should have given some history about the previous managed C++ extensions that are present in 2002 and 2003. Of course, C++/CLI and the interop functionality that goes with it is far more compelling 🙂

  5. Anonymous says:

    Isn’t this code leaking from this line:

               wchar_t* pwc = new wchar_t[len];

    ? Unless that’s a managed new somehow, but I doubt it.

    And talking about allocating memory: so this class can’t have any native mebers because it lives on the managed heap, but it (and that sort of classes in general) can allocate from the native heap and keep pointers to it, is that correct?

  6. Anonymous says:

    pagine piuttosto informative, piacevoli =)

  7. Anonymous says:

    luogo grande:) nessun osservazioni!

  8. Anonymous says:

    Great site! Good luck to it’s owner!