Tag Archives: C#

[C#] A simple implementation of the WeakEvent pattern

As you probably know, incorrect usage of events is one of the main causes for memory leaks in .NET applications : an event keeps references to its listener objects (through a delegate), which prevents the garbage collector from collecting them when they’re not used anymore. This is especially true of static events, because the references are kept for all the lifetime of the application. If the application often adds handlers to the event and never removes them, the memory usage will grow as long as the application runs, until no more memory is available.

The “obvious” solution, of course, is to unsubscribe from the event when you’re done with it. Unfortunately, it’s not always obvious to know when you can unsubscribe… an object that goes out of scope usually isn’t aware of it, so it doesn’t have a chance to unsubscribe from the event.

Another approach is to implement the WeakEvent pattern, which principle is to keep only weak references to the listeners. That way, unsubscribed listeners can be claimed by the garbage collector. Microsoft included in WPF a few types to deal with the WeakEvent pattern (WeakEventManager class and IWeakEventListener interface), and gives guidelines on how to implement your own weak event. However this technique is not very convenient, because you need to create dedicated classes to expose new events, and the listeners need to implement a specific interface.

So I thought about another implementation, which allows creating weak events almost the same way as normal events. My first idea was to use a list of WeakReferences to store the list of subscribed delegates. But this doesn’t work so well, because of the way we typically use delegates :

myObject.MyEvent += new EventHandler(myObject_MyEvent);

We create a delegate, subscribe it to the event, and… drop it. So the only accessible reference to the delegate is actually a weak reference, so there’s nothing to prevent its garbage collection… and that’s exactly what happens ! After a variable period of time (from my observations, no more than a few seconds), the delegate is garbage collected, and isn’t called anymore when the event is raised.

Rather than keeping a weak reference to the delegate itself, we should use a less transient object : the target object of the delegate (Delegate.Target) would be a better choice. So I created the WeakDelegate<TDelegate> class, which wraps a delegate by storing separately the method and a weak reference to the target :

    public class WeakDelegate<TDelegate> : IEquatable<TDelegate>
    {
        private WeakReference _targetReference;
        private MethodInfo _method;

        public WeakDelegate(Delegate realDelegate)
        {
            if (realDelegate.Target != null)
                _targetReference = new WeakReference(realDelegate.Target);
            else
                _targetReference = null;
            _method = realDelegate.Method;
        }

        public TDelegate GetDelegate()
        {
            return (TDelegate)(object)GetDelegateInternal();
        }

        private Delegate GetDelegateInternal()
        {
            if (_targetReference != null)
            {
                return Delegate.CreateDelegate(typeof(TDelegate), _targetReference.Target, _method);
            }
            else
            {
                return Delegate.CreateDelegate(typeof(TDelegate), _method);
            }
        }

        public bool IsAlive
        {
            get { return _targetReference == null || _targetReference.IsAlive; }
        }


        #region IEquatable<TDelegate> Members

        public bool Equals(TDelegate other)
        {
            Delegate d = (Delegate)(object)other;
            return d != null
                && d.Target == _targetReference.Target
                && d.Method.Equals(_method);
        }

        #endregion

        internal void Invoke(params object[] args)
        {
            Delegate handler = (Delegate)(object)GetDelegateInternal();
            handler.DynamicInvoke(args);
        }
    }

Now, we just need to manage a list of these WeakDelegate<TDelegate>. This is done by the WeakEvent<TDelegate> class :

    public class WeakEvent<TEventHandler>
    {
        private List<WeakDelegate<TEventHandler>> _handlers;

        public WeakEvent()
        {
            _handlers = new List<WeakDelegate<TEventHandler>>();
        }

        public virtual void AddHandler(TEventHandler handler)
        {
            Delegate d = (Delegate)(object)handler;
            _handlers.Add(new WeakDelegate<TEventHandler>(d));
        }

        public virtual void RemoveHandler(TEventHandler handler)
        {
            // also remove "dead" (garbage collected) handlers
            _handlers.RemoveAll(wd => !wd.IsAlive || wd.Equals(handler));
        }

        public virtual void Raise(object sender, EventArgs e)
        {
            var handlers = _handlers.ToArray();
            foreach (var weakDelegate in handlers)
            {
                if (weakDelegate.IsAlive)
                {
                    weakDelegate.Invoke(sender, e);
                }
                else
                {
                    _handlers.Remove(weakDelegate);
                }
            }
        }

        protected List<WeakDelegate<TEventHandler>> Handlers
        {
            get { return _handlers; }
        }
    }

This class automatically handles the removal of “dead” (garbage collected) handlers, and provides a Raise method to call the handlers. It can be used as follows :

        private WeakEvent<EventHandler> _myEvent = new WeakEvent<EventHandler>();
        public event EventHandler MyEvent
        {
            add { _myEvent.AddHandler(value); }
            remove { _myEvent.RemoveHandler(value); }
        }

        protected virtual void OnMyEvent()
        {
            _myEvent.Raise(this, EventArgs.Empty);
        }

This is a bit longer to write than a “regular” event, but considering the benefits, it’s very acceptable. Anyway, you can easily create a Visual Studio snippet to quickly create a weak event, with only 3 fields to fill in :

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8" ?>
<CodeSnippets  xmlns="http://schemas.microsoft.com/VisualStudio/2005/CodeSnippet">
  <CodeSnippet Format="1.0.0">
    <Header>
      <Title>wevt</Title>
      <Shortcut>wevt</Shortcut>
      <Description>Code snippet for a weak event</Description>
      <Author>Thomas Levesque</Author>
      <SnippetTypes>
        <SnippetType>Expansion</SnippetType>
      </SnippetTypes>
    </Header>
    <Snippet>
      <Declarations>
        <Literal>
          <ID>type</ID>
          <ToolTip>Event type</ToolTip>
          <Default>EventHandler</Default>
        </Literal>
        <Literal>
          <ID>event</ID>
          <ToolTip>Event name</ToolTip>
          <Default>MyEvent</Default>
        </Literal>
        <Literal>
          <ID>field</ID>
          <ToolTip>Name of the field holding the registered handlers</ToolTip>
          <Default>_myEvent</Default>
        </Literal>
      </Declarations>
      <Code Language="csharp">
        <![CDATA[private WeakEvent<$type$> $field$ = new WeakEvent<EventHandler>();
        public event $type$ $event$
        {
            add { $field$.AddHandler(value); }
            remove { $field$.RemoveHandler(value); }
        }

        protected virtual void On$event$()
        {
            $field$.Raise(this, EventArgs.Empty);
        }
	$end$]]>
      </Code>
    </Snippet>
  </CodeSnippet>
</CodeSnippets>

This snippet gives the following result in Visual Studio :

Code snippet pour implémenter un WeakEvent

Automating null checks with Linq expressions

The problem

Have you ever written code like the following ?

X xx = GetX();
string name = "Default";
if (xx != null && xx.Foo != null && xx.Foo.Bar != null && xx.Foo.Bar.Baz != null)
{
    name = xx.Foo.Bar.Baz.Name;
}

I bet you have ! You just need to get the value of xx.Foo.Bar.Baz.Name, but you have to test every intermediate object to ensure that it’s not null. It can quickly become annoying if the property you need is nested in a deep object graph….

A solution

Linq offers a very interesting feature which can help solve that problem : expressions. C# 3.0 makes it possible to retrieve the abstract syntax tree (AST) of a lambda expression, and perform all kinds of manipulations on it. It is also possible to dynamically generate an AST, compile it to obtain a delegate, and execute it.

How is this related to the problem described above ? Well, Linq makes it possible to analyse the AST for the expression that accesses the xx.Foo.Bar.Baz.Name property, and rewrite that AST to insert null checks where needed. So we’re going to create a NullSafeEval extension method, which takes as a parameter the lambda expression defining how to access a property, and the default value to return if a null object is encountered along the way.

That method will transform the expression xx.Foo.Bar.Baz.Name into that :

    (xx == null)
    ? defaultValue
    : (xx.Foo == null)
      ? defaultValue
      : (xx.Foo.Bar == null)
        ? defaultValue
        : (xx.Foo.Bar.Baz == null)
          ? defaultValue
          : xx.Foo.Bar.Baz.Name;

Here’s the implementation of the NullSafeEval method :

        public static TResult NullSafeEval<TSource, TResult>(this TSource source, Expression<Func<TSource, TResult>> expression, TResult defaultValue)
        {
            var safeExp = Expression.Lambda<Func<TSource, TResult>>(
                NullSafeEvalWrapper(expression.Body, Expression.Constant(defaultValue)),
                expression.Parameters[0]);

            var safeDelegate = safeExp.Compile();
            return safeDelegate(source);
        }

        private static Expression NullSafeEvalWrapper(Expression expr, Expression defaultValue)
        {
            Expression obj;
            Expression safe = expr;

            while (!IsNullSafe(expr, out obj))
            {
                var isNull = Expression.Equal(obj, Expression.Constant(null));

                safe =
                    Expression.Condition
                    (
                        isNull,
                        defaultValue,
                        safe
                    );

                expr = obj;
            }
            return safe;
        }

        private static bool IsNullSafe(Expression expr, out Expression nullableObject)
        {
            nullableObject = null;

            if (expr is MemberExpression || expr is MethodCallExpression)
            {
                Expression obj;
                MemberExpression memberExpr = expr as MemberExpression;
                MethodCallExpression callExpr = expr as MethodCallExpression;

                if (memberExpr != null)
                {
                    // Static fields don't require an instance
                    FieldInfo field = memberExpr.Member as FieldInfo;
                    if (field != null && field.IsStatic)
                        return true;

                    // Static properties don't require an instance
                    PropertyInfo property = memberExpr.Member as PropertyInfo;
                    if (property != null)
                    {
                        MethodInfo getter = property.GetGetMethod();
                        if (getter != null && getter.IsStatic)
                            return true;
                    }
                    obj = memberExpr.Expression;
                }
                else
                {
                    // Static methods don't require an instance
                    if (callExpr.Method.IsStatic)
                        return true;

                    obj = callExpr.Object;
                }

                // Value types can't be null
                if (obj.Type.IsValueType)
                    return true;

                // Instance member access or instance method call is not safe
                nullableObject = obj;
                return false;
            }
            return true;
        }

In short, this code walks up the lambda expression tree, and surrounds each property access or instance method call with a conditional expression (condition ? value if true : value if false).

And here’s how we can use this method :

string name = xx.NullSafeEval(x => x.Foo.Bar.Baz.Name, "Default");

Much clearer and concise than our initial code, isn’t it ? 🙂

Note that the proposed implementation handles not only properties, but also method calls, so we could write something like that :

string name = xx.NullSafeEval(x => x.Foo.GetBar(42).Baz.Name, "Default");

Indexers are not handled yet, but they could be added quite easily ; I will leave it to you to do it if you have the use for it 😉

Limitations

Even though that solution can seem very interesting at first sight, please read what follows before you integrate this code into a real world program…

  • First, the proposed code is just a proof of concept, and as such, hasn’t been thoroughly tested, so it’s probably not very reliable.
  • Secondly, keep in mind that dynamic code generation from an expression tree is tough work for the CLR, and will have a big impact on performance. A quick test shows that using the NullSafeEval method is about 10000 times slower than accessing the property directly…

    A possible approach to limit that issue would be to cache the delegates generated for each expression, to avoid regenerating them every time. Unfortunately, as far as I know there is no simple and reliable way to compare two Linq expressions, which makes it much harder to implement such a cache.

  • Last, you might have noticed that intermediate properties and methods are evaluated several times ; not only this is bad for performance, but more importantly, it could have side effects that are hard to predict, depending on how the properties and methods are implemented.

    A possible workaround would be to rewrite the conditional expression as follows :

    Foo foo = null;
    Bar bar = null;
    Baz baz = null;
    var name =
        (x == null)
        ? defaultValue
        : ((foo = x.Foo) == null)
          ? defaultValue
          : ((bar = foo.Bar) == null)
            ? defaultValue
            : ((baz = bar.Baz) == null)
              ? defaultValue
              : baz.Name;
    

    Unfortunately, this is not possible in .NET 3.5 : that version only supports simple expressions, so it’s not possible to declare variables, assign values to them, or write several distinct instructions. However, in .NET 4.0, support for Linq expressions has been largely improved, and makes it possible to generate that kind of code. I’m currently trying to improve the NullSafeEval method to take advantage of the new .NET 4.0 features, but it turns out to be much more difficult than I had anticipated… If I manage to work it out, I’ll let you know and post the code !

To conclude, I wouldn’t recommend using that technique in real programs, at least not in its current state. However, it gives an interesting insight on the possibilities offered by Linq expressions. If you’re new to this, you should know that Linq expressions are used (among other things) :

  • To generate SQL queries in ORMs like Linq to SQL or Entity Framework
  • To build complex predicates dynamically, like in the PredicateBuilder class by Joseph Albahari
  • To implement “static reflection”, which has generated a lot of buzz on technical blogs lately

[C#] Parent/child relationship and XML serialization

Today I’d like to present an idea that occurred to me recently. Nothing about WPF this time, this is all about C# class design !

The problem

It’s very common in C# programs to have an object that owns a collection of child items with a reference to their parent. For instance, this is the case for Windows Forms controls, which have a collection of child controls (Controls), and a reference to their parent control (Parent).

This kind of structure is quite easy to implement, it just requires a bit of plumbing to maintain the consistency of the parent/child relationship. However, if you want to serialize the parent object to XML, it can get tricky… Let’s take a simple, purely theoretical example :

    public class Parent
    {
        public Parent()
        {
            this.Children = new List<Child>();
        }

        public string Name { get; set; }

        public List<Child> Children { get; set; }

        public void AddChild(Child child)
        {
            child.ParentObject = this;
            this.Children.Add(child);
        }

        public void RemoveChild(Child child)
        {
            this.Children.Remove(child);
            child.ParentObject = null;
        }
    }
    public class Child
    {
        public string Name { get; set; }

        public Parent ParentObject { get; set; }
    }

Let’s create an instance of Parent with a few children, and try to serialize it to XML :

            Parent p = new Parent { Name = "The parent" };
            p.AddChild(new Child { Name = "First child" });
            p.AddChild(new Child { Name = "Second child" });

            string xml;
            XmlSerializer xs = new XmlSerializer(typeof(Parent));
            using (StringWriter wr = new StringWriter())
            {
                xs.Serialize(wr, p);
                xml = wr.ToString();
            }

            Console.WriteLine(xml);

When we try to serialize the Parent object, an InvalidOperationException occurs, saying that a circular reference was detected : indeed, the parent references the children, which in turn reference the parent, which references the children… and so on. The obvious solution to that issue is to suppress the serialization of the Child.ParentObject property, which can be done easily by using the XmlIgnore attribute. With that change the serialization works fine, but the problem is not solved yet : when we deserialize the object, the ParentObject property of the children is not set, since it wasn’t serialized… the consistency of the parent/child relationship is broken !

A simple and naive solution would be to loop through the Children collection after the deserialization, in order to set the ParentObject manually. But it’s definitely not an elegant approach… and since I really like elegant code, I thought of something else 😉

The solution

The idea I had to solve this problem consists of a specialized generic collection ChildItemCollection<P,T>, and a IChildItem<P> interface that must be implemented by children.

The IChildItem<P> interface just defines a Parent property of type P :

    /// <summary>
    /// Defines the contract for an object that has a parent object
    /// </summary>
    /// <typeparam name="P">Type of the parent object</typeparam>
    public interface IChildItem<P> where P : class
    {
        P Parent { get; set; }
    }

The ChildItemCollection<P,T> class implements IList<T> by delegating the implementation to a List<T> (or to a collection passed to the constructor), and maintains the parent/child relationship :

    /// <summary>
    /// Collection of child items. This collection automatically set the
    /// Parent property of the child items when they are added or removed
    /// </summary>
    /// <typeparam name="P">Type of the parent object</typeparam>
    /// <typeparam name="T">Type of the child items</typeparam>
    public class ChildItemCollection<P, T> : IList<T>
        where P : class
        where T : IChildItem<P>
    {
        private P _parent;
        private IList<T> _collection;

        public ChildItemCollection(P parent)
        {
            this._parent = parent;
            this._collection = new List<T>();
        }

        public ChildItemCollection(P parent, IList<T> collection)
        {
            this._parent = parent;
            this._collection = collection;
        }

        #region IList<T> Members

        public int IndexOf(T item)
        {
            return _collection.IndexOf(item);
        }

        public void Insert(int index, T item)
        {
            if (item != null)
                item.Parent = _parent;
            _collection.Insert(index, item);
        }

        public void RemoveAt(int index)
        {
            T oldItem = _collection[index];
            _collection.RemoveAt(index);
            if (oldItem != null)
                oldItem.Parent = null;
        }

        public T this[int index]
        {
            get
            {
                return _collection[index];
            }
            set
            {
                T oldItem = _collection[index];
                if (value != null)
                    value.Parent = _parent;
                _collection[index] = value;
                if (oldItem != null)
                    oldItem.Parent = null;
            }
        }

        #endregion

        #region ICollection<T> Members

        public void Add(T item)
        {
            if (item != null)
                item.Parent = _parent;
            _collection.Add(item);
        }

        public void Clear()
        {
            foreach (T item in _collection)
            {
                if (item != null)
                    item.Parent = null;
            }
            _collection.Clear();
        }

        public bool Contains(T item)
        {
            return _collection.Contains(item);
        }

        public void CopyTo(T[] array, int arrayIndex)
        {
            _collection.CopyTo(array, arrayIndex);
        }

        public int Count
        {
            get { return _collection.Count; }
        }

        public bool IsReadOnly
        {
            get { return _collection.IsReadOnly; }
        }

        public bool Remove(T item)
        {
            bool b = _collection.Remove(item);
            if (item != null)
                item.Parent = null;
            return b;
        }

        #endregion

        #region IEnumerable<T> Members

        public IEnumerator<T> GetEnumerator()
        {
            return _collection.GetEnumerator();
        }

        #endregion

        #region IEnumerable Members

        System.Collections.IEnumerator System.Collections.IEnumerable.GetEnumerator()
        {
            return (_collection as System.Collections.IEnumerable).GetEnumerator();
        }

        #endregion
    }

Now let’s see how this class can be used in the case of the above example… First let’s change the Child class so that it implements the IChildItem<Parent> interface :

    public class Child : IChildItem<Parent>
    {
        public string Name { get; set; }

        [XmlIgnore]
        public Parent ParentObject { get; internal set; }

        #region IChildItem<Parent> Members

        Parent IChildItem<Parent>.Parent
        {
            get
            {
                return this.ParentObject;
            }
            set
            {
                this.ParentObject = value;
            }
        }

        #endregion
    }

Note that here the IChildItem<Parent> interface is implemented explicitly : this is a way to “hide” the Parent property, that will only be accessible when manipulating the Child object through a variable of type IChildItem<Parent>. We also define the set accessor of the ParentObject property as internal, so that it can’t be modified from another assembly.

In the Parent class, the List<Child> just has to be replaced by a ChildItemCollection<Parent, Child>. We also remove the AddChild and RemoveChild methods, which are no more necessary since the ChildItemCollection<P,T> takes care of setting the Parent property.

    public class Parent
    {
        public Parent()
        {
            this.Children = new ChildItemCollection<Parent, Child>(this);
        }

        public string Name { get; set; }

        public ChildItemCollection<Parent, Child> Children { get; private set; }
    }

Note that we give the ChildItemCollection<Parent, Child> constructor a reference to the current object : this is how the collection will know what is the parent of its elements.

The code previously used to serialize a Parent now works fine. During the deserialization, the Child.ParentObject property is not assigned when the Child itself is deserialized (since it has the XmlIgnore attribute), but when the Child is added to the Parent.Children collection.

Eventually, we can see that this solution enables us to keep the parent/child relationship when the object graph is serialized to XML, without resorting to unelegant tricks… However, note that the consistency of the relation can still be broken, if the ParentObject is changed by code outside the ChildItemCollection<P,T> class. To prevent that, some logic must be added to the set accessor to maintain the consistency ; I only omitted that part for the sake of clarity and simplicity.