Exploring the .NET Core Runtime (in which I set myself a challenge)

It seems like this time of year anyone with a blog is doing some sort of ‘advent calendar’, i.e. 24 posts leading up to Christmas. For instance there’s a F# one which inspired a C# one (C# copying from F#, that never happens 😉)

However, that’s a bit of a problem for me, I struggled to write 24 posts in my most productive year, let alone a single month! Also, I mostly blog about ‘.NET Internals’, a subject which doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the more ‘light-hearted’ posts you get in these ‘advent calendar’ blogs.

Until now!

Recently I’ve been giving a talk titled from ‘dotnet run’ to ‘hello world’, which attempts to explain everything that the .NET Runtime does from the point you launch your application till “Hello World” is printed on the screen:

From 'dotnet run' to 'hello world' from Matt Warren

But as I was researching and presenting this talk, it made me think about the .NET Runtime as a whole, what does it contain and most importantly what can you do with it?

Note: this is mostly for informational purposes, for the recommended way of achieving the same thing, take a look at this excellent Deep-dive into .NET Core primitives by Nate McMaster.

In this post I will explore what you can do using only the code in the dotnet/coreclr repository and along the way we’ll find out more about how the runtime interacts with the wider .NET Ecosystem.

To makes things clearer, there are 3 challenges that will need to be solved before a simple “Hello World” application can be run. That’s because in the dotnet/coreclr repository there is:

  1. No compiler, that lives in dotnet/Roslyn
  2. No Framework Class Library (FCL) a.k.a. ‘dotnet/CoreFX
  3. No dotnet run as it’s implemented in the dotnet/CLI repository

Building the CoreCLR

But before we even work through these ‘challenges’, we need to build the CoreCLR itself. Helpfully there is really nice guide available in ‘Building the Repository’:

The build depends on Git, CMake, Python and of course a C++ compiler. Once these prerequisites are installed the build is simply a matter of invoking the ‘build’ script (build.cmd or build.sh) at the base of the repository.

The details of installing the components differ depending on the operating system. See the following pages based on your OS. There is no cross-building across OS (only for ARM, which is built on X64). You have to be on the particular platform to build that platform.

If you follow these steps successfully, you’ll end up with the following files (at least on Windows, other OSes may produce something slightly different):

CoreCLR Build Artifacts

No Compiler

First up, how do we get around the fact that we don’t have a compiler? After all we need some way of turing our simple “Hello World” code into a .exe?

namespace Hello_World
    class Program
        static void Main(string[] args)
            Console.WriteLine("Hello World!");

Fortunately we do have access to the ILASM tool (IL Assembler), which can turn Common Intermediate Language (CIL) into an .exe file. But how do we get the correct IL code? Well, one way is to write it from scratch, maybe after reading Inside NET IL Assembler and Expert .NET 2.0 IL Assembler by Serge Lidin (yes, amazingly, 2 books have been written about IL!)

Another, much easier way, is to use the amazing SharpLab.io site to do it for us! If you paste the C# code from above into it, you’ll get the following IL code:

.class private auto ansi '<Module>'
} // end of class <Module>

.class private auto ansi beforefieldinit Hello_World.Program
    extends [mscorlib]System.Object
    // Methods
    .method private hidebysig static 
        void Main (
            string[] args
        ) cil managed 
        // Method begins at RVA 0x2050
        // Code size 11 (0xb)
        .maxstack 8

        IL_0000: ldstr "Hello World!"
        IL_0005: call void [mscorlib]System.Console::WriteLine(string)
        IL_000a: ret
    } // end of method Program::Main

    .method public hidebysig specialname rtspecialname 
        instance void .ctor () cil managed 
        // Method begins at RVA 0x205c
        // Code size 7 (0x7)
        .maxstack 8

        IL_0000: ldarg.0
        IL_0001: call instance void [mscorlib]System.Object::.ctor()
        IL_0006: ret
    } // end of method Program::.ctor

} // end of class Hello_World.Program

Then, if we save this to a file called ‘HelloWorld.il’ and run the cmd ilasm HelloWorld.il /out=HelloWorld.exe, we get the following output:

Microsoft (R) .NET Framework IL Assembler.  Version 4.5.30319.0
Copyright (c) Microsoft Corporation.  All rights reserved.
Assembling 'HelloWorld.il'  to EXE --> 'HelloWorld.exe'
Source file is ANSI

HelloWorld.il(38) : warning : Reference to undeclared extern assembly 'mscorlib'. Attempting autodetect
Assembled method Hello_World.Program::Main
Assembled method Hello_World.Program::.ctor
Creating PE file

Emitting classes:
Class 1:        Hello_World.Program

Emitting fields and methods:
Class 1 Methods: 2;

Emitting events and properties:
Class 1
Writing PE file
Operation completed successfully

Nice, so part 1 is done, we now have our HelloWorld.exe file!

No Base Class Library

Well, not exactly, one problem is that System.Console lives in dotnet/corefx, in there you can see the different files that make up the implementation, such as Console.cs, ConsolePal.Unix.cs, ConsolePal.Windows.cs, etc.

Fortunately, the nice CoreCLR developers included a simple Console implementation in System.Private.CoreLib.dll, the managed part of the CoreCLR, which was previously known as ‘mscorlib’ (before it was renamed). This internal version of Console is pretty small and basic, but it provides enough for what we need.

To use this ‘workaround’ we need to edit our HelloWorld.il to look like this (note the change from mscorlib to System.Private.CoreLib)

.class public auto ansi beforefieldinit C
       extends [System.Private.CoreLib]System.Object
    .method public hidebysig static void M () cil managed 
        // Code size 11 (0xb)
        .maxstack 8

        IL_0000: ldstr "Hello World!"
        IL_0005: call void [System.Private.CoreLib]Internal.Console::WriteLine(string)
        IL_000a: ret
    } // end of method C::M

Note: You can achieve the same thing with C# code instead of raw IL, by invoking the C# compiler with the following cmd-line:

csc -optimize+ -nostdlib -reference:System.Private.Corelib.dll -out:HelloWorld.exe HelloWorld.cs

So we’ve completed part 2, we are able to at least print “Hello World” to the screen without using the CoreFX repository!

Now this is a nice little trick, but I wouldn’t ever recommend writing real code like this. Compiling against System.Private.CoreLib isn’t the right way of doing things. What the compiler normally does is compile against the publicly exposed surface area that lives in dotnet/corefx, but then at run-time a process called ‘Type-Forwarding’ is used to make that ‘reference’ implementation in CoreFX map to the ‘real’ implementation in the CoreCLR. For more on this entire process see The Rough History of Referenced Assemblies.

However, only a small amount of managed code (i.e. C#) actually exists in the CoreCLR, to show this, the directory tree for /dotnet/coreclr/src/System.Private.CoreLib is available here and the tree with all ~1280 .cs files included is here.

As a concrete example, if you look in CoreFX, you’ll see that the System.Reflection implementation is pretty empty! That’s because it’s a ‘partial facade’ that is eventually ‘type-forwarded’ to System.Private.CoreLib.

If you’re interested, the entire API that is exposed in CoreFX (but actually lives in CoreCLR) is contained in System.Runtime.cs. But back to our example, here is the code that describes all the GetMethod(..) functions in the ‘System.Reflection’ API.

To learn more about ‘type forwarding’, I recommend watching ‘.NET Standard - Under the Hood’ (slides) by Immo Landwerth and there is also some more in-depth information in ‘Evolution of design time assemblies’.

But why is this code split useful, from the CoreFX README:

Runtime-specific library code (mscorlib) lives in the CoreCLR repo. It needs to be built and versioned in tandem with the runtime. The rest of CoreFX is agnostic of runtime-implementation and can be run on any compatible .NET runtime (e.g. CoreRT).

And from the other point-of-view, in the CoreCLR README:

By itself, the Microsoft.NETCore.Runtime.CoreCLR package is actually not enough to do much. One reason for this is that the CoreCLR package tries to minimize the amount of the class library that it implements. Only types that have a strong dependency on the internal workings of the runtime are included (e.g, System.Object, System.String, System.Threading.Thread, System.Threading.Tasks.Task and most foundational interfaces).

Instead most of the class library is implemented as independent NuGet packages that simply use the .NET Core runtime as a dependency. Many of the most familiar classes (System.Collections, System.IO, System.Xml and so on), live in packages defined in the dotnet/corefx repository.

One huge benefit of this approach is that Mono can share large amounts of the CoreFX code, as shown in this tweet:

No Launcher

So far we’ve ‘compiled’ our code (well technically ‘assembled’ it) and we’ve been able to access a simple version of System.Console, but how do we actually run our .exe? Remember we can’t use the dotnet run command because that lives in the dotnet/CLI repository (and that would be breaking the rules of this slightly contrived challenge!!).

Again, fortunately those clever runtime engineers have thought of this exact scenario and they built the very helpful corerun application. You can read more about in Using corerun To Run .NET Core Application, but the td;dr is that it will only look for dependencies in the same folder as your .exe.

So, to complete the challenge, we can now run CoreRun HelloWorld.exe:

# CoreRun HelloWorld.exe
Hello World!

Yay, the least impressive demo you’ll see this year!!

For more information on how you can ‘host’ the CLR in your application I recommend this excellent tutorial Write a custom .NET Core host to control the .NET runtime from your native code. In addition, the docs page on ‘Runtime Hosts’ gives a nice overview of the different hosts that are available:

The .NET Framework ships with a number of different runtime hosts, including the hosts listed in the following table.

Runtime Host Description
ASP.NET Loads the runtime into the process that is to handle the Web request. ASP.NET also creates an application domain for each Web application that will run on a Web server.
Microsoft Internet Explorer Creates application domains in which to run managed controls. The .NET Framework supports the download and execution of browser-based controls. The runtime interfaces with the extensibility mechanism of Microsoft Internet Explorer through a mime filter to create application domains in which to run the managed controls. By default, one application domain is created for each Web site.
Shell executables Invokes runtime hosting code to transfer control to the runtime each time an executable is launched from the shell.