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O'Reilly Book Excerpts: C# in a Nutshell

This is the first of a three-part excerpt from O'Reilly's C# in a Nutshell. This installment offers an overview of C# and where it improves upon Java.

Introducing C# and the .NET Framework, Part 1

C# is a new programming language from Microsoft designed specifically to target the .NET Framework. Microsoft's .NET Framework is a runtime environment and class library that dramatically simplifies the development and deployment of modern, component-based applications.

When the .NET Framework and C# language compiler were shipped in final form in January 2002, both platform and programming language had already garnered much industry attention and widespread use among Microsoft-centric early adopters. Why this level of success? Certainly, the C# language and the .NET Framework address many of the technical challenges facing modern developers as they strive to develop increasingly complex distributed systems with ever-shrinking schedules and team sizes.

However, in addition to its technical merits, one of the main reasons for the success that the language and platform has enjoyed thus far is the unprecedented degree of openness that Microsoft has shown. From July 2000 to January 2002, the .NET Framework underwent an extensive public beta that allowed tens of thousands of developers to "kick the tires" of the programming environment. This allowed Microsoft to both solicit and react to developer community feedback before finalizing the new platform.

Additionally, the key specifications for both the language and the platform have been published, reviewed, and ratified by an international standards organization called the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA). These standardization efforts have led to multiple third-party initiatives that bring the C# language and the .NET platform to non-Microsoft environments. They have also prompted renewed interest among academics in the use of Microsoft technologies as teaching and research vehicles.

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C# in a Nutshell: Introducing C# and the .NET Framework, Part 3
One of the most encouraging aspects about the .NET Framework is the degree of openness that Microsoft has shown during its development. This excerpt from C# in a Nutshell details how C# became an ECMA standard.

C# in a Nutshell: Introducing C# and the .NET Framework, Part 2
In the second part of our excerpt from O'Reilly's C# in a Nutshell, the authors introduce the Common Language Runtime and the Framework Class Library.

Lastly, although the language and platform are shiny and new, the foundations for the C# language and the .NET Framework have been years in the making, reaching back more than half a decade. Understanding where the language and platform have come from gives us a better understanding of where they are headed.

The C# Language

Reports of a new language from Microsoft first started surfacing in 1998. At that time the language was called COOL, and was said to be very similar to Java. Although Microsoft consistently denied the reports of the new language, rumors persisted.

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In June 2000, Microsoft ended the speculation by releasing the specifications for a new language called C# (pronounced "see-sharp"). This was rapidly followed by the release of a preview version of the .NET Framework SDK (which included a C# compiler) at the July 2000 Professional Developer's Conference (PDC) in Orlando, Florida.

The new language was designed by Anders Hejlsberg (creator of Turbo Pascal and architect of Delphi), Scott Wiltamuth, and Peter Golde. Described in the C# Language Specification as a "...simple, modern, object-oriented, and type-safe programming language derived from C and C++," C# bears many syntactic similarities to C++ and Java.

However, focusing on the syntactic similarities between C# and Java does the C# language a disservice. Semantically, C# pushes the language-design envelope substantially beyond where the Java language was circa 2001, and could rightfully be viewed as the next step in the evolution of component-oriented programming languages. While it is outside the scope of this book to perform a detailed comparison between C# and Java, we urge interested readers to read the widely cited article "A Comparative Overview of C# and Java," by co-author Ben Albahari, available at http://genamics.com/developer/csharp_comparative.htm.

Enabling Component-Based Development

Over the last 10 years, programming techniques such as object-oriented design, interface-based programming, and component-based software have become ubiquitous. However, programming language support for these constructs has always lagged behind the current state-of-the-art best practices. As a result, developers tend to either depend on programming conventions and custom code rather than direct compiler and runtime support, or to not take advantage of the techniques at all.

As an example, consider that C++ supported object orientation, but had no formal concept of interfaces. C++ developers resorted to abstract base classes and mix-in interfaces to simulate interface-based programming, and relied on external component programming models such as COM or CORBA to provide the benefits of component-based software.

While Java extended C++ to add language-level support for interfaces and packages (among other things), it too had very little language-level support for building long-lived component-based systems (in which one needs to develop, interconnect, deploy, and version components from various sources over an extended period of time). This is not to say that the Java community hasn't built many such systems, but rather that these needs were addressed by programming conventions and custom code: relying on naming conventions to identify common design patterns such as properties and events, requiring external metadata for deployment information, and developing custom class loaders to provide stronger component versioning semantics.

By comparison, the C# language was designed from the ground up around the assumption that modern systems are built using components. Consequently, C# provides direct language support for common component constructs such as properties, methods, and events (used by RAD tools to build applications out of components, setting properties, responding to events, and wiring components together via method calls). C# also allows developers to directly annotate and extend a component's type information to provide deployment, design or runtime support, integrate component versioning directly into the programming model, integrate XML-based documentation directly into C# source files. C# also discards the C++ and COM approach of spreading source artifacts across header files, implementation files, and type libraries in favor of a much simpler source organization and component reuse model.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, the enhancements in C# over Java and C++ qualify it as the next major step in the evolution of component-based development languages.

A Modern Object-Oriented Language

In addition to deeply integrated support for building component-based systems, C# is also a fully capable object-oriented language, supporting all the common concepts and abstractions that exist in languages such as C++ and Java.

As is expected of any modern object-oriented language, C# supports concepts such as inheritance, encapsulation, polymorphism, and interface-based programming. C# supports common C, C++, and Java language constructs such as classes, structs, interfaces, and enums, as well as more novel constructs such as delegates, which provide a type-safe equivalent to C/C++ function pointers, and custom attributes, which allow annotation of code elements with additional information.

In addition, C# incorporates features from C++ such as operator overloading, user-defined conversions, true rectangular arrays, and pass-by-reference semantics that are currently missing from Java.

Unlike most programming languages, C# has no runtime library of its own. Instead, C# relies on the vast class library in the .NET Framework for all its needs, including console I/O, network and file handling, collection data structures, and many other facilities. Implemented primarily in C# and spanning more than a million lines of code, this class library served as an excellent torture-test during the development cycle for both the C# language and the C# compiler.

The C# language strives to balance the need for consistency and efficiency. Some object-oriented languages (such as Smalltalk) take the viewpoint that "everything is an object." This approach has the advantage that instances of primitive types (such as integers) are first-class objects. However, it has the disadvantage of being very inefficient. To avoid this overhead, other languages (such as Java) choose to bifurcate the type system into primitives and everything else, leading to less overhead, but also to a schism between primitive and user-defined types.

C# balances these two conflicting viewpoints by presenting a unified type system in which all types (including primitive types) are derived from a common base type, while simultaneously allowing for performance optimizations that allow primitive types and simple user-defined types to be treated as raw memory, with minimal overhead and increased efficiency.

Building Robust and Durable Software

In a world of always-on connectivity and distributed systems, software robustness takes on new significance. Servers need to stay up and running 24×7 to service clients, and clients need to be able to download code off the network and run it locally with some guarantee that it will not misbehave. The C# language (in concert with the .NET Framework) promotes software robustness in a number of different ways.

First and foremost, C# is a type-safe language, meaning that programs are prevented from accessing objects in inappropriate ways. All code and data is associated with a type, all objects have an associated type, and only operations defined by the associated type can be performed on an object. Type-safety eliminates an entire category of errors in C and C++ programs stemming from invalid casts, bad pointer arithmetic, and even malicious code.

C# also provides automatic memory management in the form of a high-performance tracing generational garbage collector. This frees programmers from performing manual memory management or reference counting, and eliminates an entire category of errors, such as dangling pointers, memory leaks, and circular references.

Even good programs can have bad things happen to them, and it is important to have a consistent mechanism for detecting errors. Over the years, Windows developers have had to contend with numerous error reporting mechanisms, such as simple failure return codes, Win32 structured exceptions, C++ exceptions, COM error HResults, and OLE automation IErrorInfo objects. This proliferation of approaches breeds complexity and makes it difficult for designers to create standardized error-handling strategies. The .NET Framework eliminates this complexity by standardizing on a single exception-handling mechanism that is used throughout the framework, and exposed in all .NET languages including C#.

The C# language design also includes numerous other features that promote robustness, such as language-level support for independently versioning base classes (without changing derived class semantics or mandating recompilation of derived classes), detection of attempts to use uninitialized variables, array bounds checking, and support for checked arithmetic.

A Pragmatic World View

Many of the design decisions in the C# language represent a pragmatic world view on the part of the designers. For example, the syntax was selected to be familiar to C, C++, and Java developers, making it easier to learn C# and aiding source code porting.

While C# provides many useful, high-level object-oriented features, it recognizes that in certain limited cases these features can work against raw performance. Rather than dismiss these concerns as unimportant, C# includes explicit support for features such as direct pointer manipulation, unsafe type casts, declarative pinning of garbage-collected objects, and direct memory allocation on the stack. Naturally, these features come at a cost, both in terms of the complexity they add and the elevated security privileges required to use them. However, the existence of these features gives C# programmers much more headroom than other, more restrictive languages do.

Lastly, the interop facilities in the .NET Framework make it easy to leverage existing DLLs and COM components from C# code, and to use C# components in classic COM applications. Although not strictly a function of the C# language, this capability reflects a similarly pragmatic world view, in which new functionality coexists peacefully with legacy code for as long as needed.

Next, learn the the .NET Framework

C# in a Nutshell

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C# in a Nutshell
By Peter Drayton, Ben Albahari, Ted Neward

Copyright © 2009 O'Reilly Media, Inc.