An Experience Report of Moving a Complicated Codebase to the CoreCLR

TL;DR – I like the CoreCLR, project.json project system, and the new dotnet CLI so far, but there are a lot of differences in API that could easily burn you when you try to port existing .Net code to the CoreCLR.

As I wrote about a couple weeks ago, I’ve been working to port my Storyteller project to the CoreCLR en route to it being cross platform and generally modernized. As of earlier this week I think I can declare that it’s (mostly) running correctly in the new world order. Moreover, I’ve been able to dogfood Storyteller’s documentation generation feature on Mac OSX today without much trouble so far.

As semi-promised, here’s my experience report of moving an existing codebase over to targeting the CoreCLR, the usage of the project.json project system, and the new dotnet CLI.

 

Random Differences

  • AppDomain is gone, and you’ll have to use a combination of AppContext or DependencyContext to replace some of the information you’ve gotten from AppDomain.CurrentDomain about the running process. This is probably an opportunity for polyfill’s
  • The Thread class is very different and a couple methods (Yield(), Abort()) were removed. This is causing me to eventually go down to pinvoke in Storyteller
  • A lot of convenience methods that were probably just syntactic sugar anyway have been removed. I’ve found differences with Xml support and Stream’s. Again, I’ve gotten around this by adding extension methods to the Netstandard/CoreCLR code to add back in some of these things

 

Project.json May be Just a Flash in the Pan, but it’s a Good One

Having one tiny file that controls how a library is compiled, Nuget dependencies, and how that library is packed up into a Nuget later has been a huge win. Even better yet, I really appreciate how the project.json system handles transitive dependencies so you don’t have to do so much bookkeeping within your downstream projects. I think at this point I even prefer the project.json + dotnet restore combination over the Nuget workflow we have been using with Paket (which I still think was much better than out of the box Nuget was).

I’m really enjoying having the wildcard file inclusions in project.json so you’re not constantly having all the aggravation from merging the Xml-based csproj files. It’s a little bit embarrassing that it’s taken Microsoft so long to address that problem, but I’ll take it now.

I really hope that the new, trimmed down csproj file format is as usable as project.json. Honestly, assuming that their promised automatic conversion works as advertised, I’d recommend going to project.json as an interim solution rather than waiting.

 

I Love the Dotnet CLI

I think the new dotnet CLI is going to be a huge win for .Net development and it’s maybe my favorite part of .Net’s new world order. I love being able to so quickly restore packages, build, run tests, and even pack up Nuget files without having to invest time in writing out build scripts to piece it altogether.

I’ve long been a fan of using Rake for automating build scripts and I’ve resisted the calls to move to an arbitrarily different Make clone. With some of my simpler OSS projects, I’m completely forgoing build scripts in favor of just depending on the dotnet cli commands. For example, I have a small project called Oakton using the dotnet CLI, and it’s entire CI build script is just:

rmdir artifacts
dotnet restore src
dotnet test src/Oakton.Testing
dotnet pack src/Oakton --output artifacts --version-suffix %build.number%

In Storyteller itself, I removed the Rake script altogether and just a small shell script that delegates to both NPM and dotnet to do everything that needs to be done.

I’m also a fan of the “dotnet test” command too, especially when you want to quickly run the support for one .Net framework version. I don’t know if this is the test adapter or the CoreCLR itself being highly optimized, but I’ve been seeing a dramatic improvement in test execution time since switching over to the dotnet cli. In Marten I think it cut the test execution time of the main testing suite down by 60-70% some how.

The best source I’ve found on the dotnet CLI has been Scott Hanselman’s blog posts on DotNetCore.

 

AppDomain No Longer Exists (For Now)

AppDomain’s getting ripped out of the CoreCLR (yes, I know they’re supposed to come back in Netstandard 2.0, but who knows when that’ll be) was the single biggest problem I had moving Storyteller over to the CoreCLR. I outlined the biggest problem in a previous post on how testing tools generally use AppDomain’s to isolate the system under test from the test harness itself.

I ended up having Storyteller spawn a separate process to run the system under test in a way so that users can rebuild that system without having to first shut down the Storyteller specification editor tool. The first step was to replace the little bit of Remoting I had been using between AppDomain’s with a different communication scheme that just shot JSON back and forth over sockets. Fortunately, I had already been doing something very similar through a remoting proxy, so it wasn’t that bad of a change.

The next step was to change Storyteller testing projects to be changed from a class library to an executable that could be invoked to start up the system under test and start listening on a supplied port for the JSON messages described in the previous paragraph.This was a lot of work, but it might end up being more usable. Instead of depending on something else to have pre-compiled the system under test, Storyteller can start up the system under test with a spawned call to “dotnet run” that does any necessary compilation for you. It also makes it pretty easy to direct Storyteller to run the system under test under different .Net versions.

Of course, the old System.IO.Process class behaves differently in the CoreCLR (and across platforms too), and that’s still causing me some grief.

 

Reflection Got Scrambled in the CoreCLR

So, that sucked…

Infrastructure or testing tools like Storyteller will frequently need to use a lot of reflection. Unfortunately, the System.Reflection namespace in the CoreCLR has a very different API than classic .Net and that has been consistently been a cause of friction as I’ve ported code to the CoreCLR. The challenge is even worse if you’re trying to target both classic .Net and the CoreCLR.

Here’s an example, in classic .Net I can check whether a Type is an enumeration type with “type.IsEnum.” In the CoreCLR, it’s “type.GetTypeInfo().IsEnum.” Not that big a change, but basically anything you need to do against a Type is now on the paired TypeInfo and you now have to bounce through Type.GetTypeInfo().

One way or another, if you want to multi-target both CoreCLR and .Net classic, you’ll be picking up the idea of “polyfills” you see all over the Javascript world. The “GetTypeInfo()” method doesn’t exist in .Net 4.6, so you might do:

public static Type GetTypeInfo(this Type type)
{
    return type;
}

to make your .Net 4.6 code look like the CoreCLR equivalent. Or in some cases, I’ve just built polyfill extension methods in the CoreCLR to make it look like the older .Net 4.6 API:

#if !NET45
        public static IEnumerable<Type> GetInterfaces(Type type)
        {
            return type.GetTypeInfo().GetInterfaces();
        }

#endif

Finally, you’re going to have to dip into conditional compilation fairly often like this sample from StructureMap’s codebase:

    public static class AssemblyLoader
    {
        public static Assembly ByName(string assemblyName)
        {
#if NET45
            // This method doesn't exist in the CoreCLR
            return Assembly.Load(assemblyName);
#else
            return Assembly.Load(new AssemblyName(assemblyName));
#endif
        }
    }

There are other random changes as well that I’ve bumped into, especially around generics and Assembly loading. Again, not something that the average codebase is going to get into, but if you try to do any kind of type scanning over the file system to auto-discover assemblies at runtime, expect some churn when you go to the CoreCLR.

If you’re thinking about porting some existing .Net code to the CoreCLR and it uses a lot of reflection, be aware that that’s potentially going to be a lot of work to convert over.

Definitely see Porting a .Net Framework Library to .Net Core from Michael Whelan.

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10 thoughts on “An Experience Report of Moving a Complicated Codebase to the CoreCLR

  1. Marko Lahma (@markolahma)

    To keep things interesting, they’re bringing back the net45 feel of reflection APIs (and others, like binary serialization): https://blogs.msdn.microsoft.com/dotnet/2016/09/26/introducing-net-standard/ . Due to versioning I guess we’re stuck with polyfills and preprocessor directives to run <= netstandard1.6 builds.

    Leaning towards making polyfills for net45 look-alikes looks right easiest for now. Pain of early adoption, 2.0 seems much more complete.

    Reply
    1. jeremydmiller Post author

      Forgot to say, it would be a lot easier if we already had Extension properties to do the polyfills, but yeah, netstandard 2 is probalby going to give you a much quicker path up.

      Reply
  2. Thomas Levesque

    The changes in reflection are hardly new, they’ve been there since WinRT and the beginnings of PCLs 😉
    Also, GetTypeInfo() is available as an extension method in .NET 4.5+, in a separate assembly (System.Reflection)

    Reply
    1. jeremydmiller Post author

      I’d challenge that a little bit. A.) WinRT is a pretty small niche, so I doubt many people felt the changes then. B.) We saw a lot of changes to Reflection in the StructureMap codebase going from .Net 4.6 & PCL to Netstandard.

      Reply
  3. Andrew Murphy

    Great article, thank you.

    In your AssemblyLoader example, which is the .NetCore version not sufficient in the full .Net framework? i.e why not replace both with the .Net core version?

    Reply
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