Boxing and unboxing with generics
The .NET 1.0 way of creating collection of integers (for example) was: ArrayList list = new ArrayList(); list.Add(i); /* boxing */ int j = (int)list; /* unboxing */ The penalty of using this is the lack of type safety and performance due to boxing and unboxing. The .NET 2.0 way is to use generics: List
list = new List (); list.Add(i); int j = list; The price of boxing (to my understanding) is the need to create an object on the heap, copy the stack allocated integer to the new object and vice-versa for unboxing. How does the use of generics overcome this? Does the stack-allocated integer stays on the stack and being pointed to from the heap (I guess this is not the case because of what will happen when it will get out of scope)? It seems like there is still a need of copying it somewhere else out of the stack. What is really going on?
When it comes to collections, generics make it possible to avoid boxing/unboxing by utilizing actual
T arrays internally.
List<T> for example uses a
T array to store its contents.
The array, of course, is a reference type and is therefore (in the current version of the CLR, yada yada) stored on the heap. But since it’s a
T and not an
object, the array’s elements can be stored “directly”: that is, they’re still on the heap, but they’re on the heap in the array instead of being boxed and having the array contain references to the boxes.
So for a
List<int>, for example, what you’d have in the array would “look” like this:
[ 1 2 3 ]
Compare this to an
ArrayList, which uses an
object and would therefore “look” something like this:
[ *a *b *c ]
*a, etc. are references to objects (boxed integers):
*a -> 1 *b -> 2 *c -> 3
Excuse those crude illustrations; hopefully you know what I mean.
Your confusion is a result of misunderstanding what the relationship is between the stack, the heap, and variables. Here’s the correct way to think about it.
- A variable is a storage location that has a type.
- The lifetime of a variable can either be short or long. By “short” we mean “until the current function returns or throws” and by “long” we mean “possibly longer than that”.
- If the type of a variable is a reference type then the contents of the variable is a reference to a long-lived storage location. If the type of a variable is a value type then the contents of the variable is a value.
As an implementation detail, a storage location which is guaranteed to be short-lived can be allocated on the stack. A storage location which might be long-lived is allocated on the heap. Notice that this says nothing about “value types are always allocated on the stack.” Value types are not always allocated on the stack:
int x = new int; x = 123;
x is a storage location. It is long-lived; it might live longer than this method. Therefore it must be on the heap. The fact that it contains an int is irrelevant.
You correctly say why a boxed int is expensive:
The price of boxing is the need to create an object on the heap, copy the stack allocated integer to the new object and vice-versa for unboxing.
Where you go wrong is to say “the stack allocated integer”. It doesn’t matter where the integer was allocated. What matters was that its storage contained the integer, instead of containing a reference to a heap location. The price is the need to create the object and do the copy; that’s the only cost that is relevant.
So why isn’t a generic variable costly? If you have a variable of type T, and T is constructed to be int, then you have a variable of type int, period. A variable of type int is a storage location, and it contains an int. Whether that storage location is on the stack or the heap is completely irrelevant. What is relevant is that the storage location contains an int, instead of containing a reference to something on the heap. Since the storage location contains an int, you do not have to take on the costs of boxing and unboxing: allocating new storage on the heap and copying the int to the new storage.
Is that now clear?
Generics allows the list’s internal array to be typed
int instead of effectively
object, which would require boxing.
Here’s what happens without generics:
- You call
- The integer
1is boxed into an object, which requires a new object to be constructed on the heap.
- This object is passed to
- The boxed object is stuffed into an
There are three levels of indirection here:
- You call
- The int 1 is passed to
- The int is stuffed into an
So there are only two levels of indirection:
A few other differences:
- The non-generic method will require a sum of 8 or 12 bytes (one pointer, one int) to store the value, 4/8 in one allocation and 4 in the other. And this will probably be more due to alignment and padding. The generic method will require only 4 bytes of space in the array.
- The non-generic method requires allocating a boxed int; the generic method does not. This is faster and reduces GC churn.
- The non-generic method requires casts to extract values. This is not typesafe and it’s a bit slower.
An ArrayList only handles the type
object so to use this class requires casting to and from
object. In the case of value types, this casting involves boxing and unboxing.
When you use a generic list the compiler outputs specialized code for that value type so that the actual values are stored in the list rather than a reference to objects that contain the values. Therefore no boxing is required.
The price of boxing (to my understanding) is the need to create an object on the heap, copy the stack allocated integer to the new object and vice-versa for unboxing.
I think you are assuming that value types are always instantiated on the stack. This is not the case – they can be created either on the heap, on the stack or in registers. For more information about this please see Eric Lippert’s article: The Truth About Value Types.
In .NET 1, when the
Add method is called:
- Space is allocated on the heap; a new reference is made
- The contents of the
ivariable is copied into the reference
- A copy of the reference is put at the end of the list
In .NET 2:
- A copy of the variable
iis passed to the
- A copy of that copy is put at the end of the list
i variable is still copied (after all, it’s a value type, and value types are always copied – even if they’re just method parameters). But there’s no redundant copy made on the heap.
Why are you thinking in terms of
WHERE the values\objects are stored? In C# value types can be stored on stack as well as heap depending upon what the CLR chooses.
Where generics make a difference is
WHAT is stored in the collection. In case of
ArrayList the collection contains references to boxed objects where as the
List<int> contains int values themselves.
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