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Common Type System Overview

This section describes concepts and defines terms that will help you understand and work with your language's implementation of the common type system.

The common type system supports two general categories of types, each of which is further divided into subcategories:

  • Value types

    Value types directly contain their data, and instances of value types are either allocated on the stack or allocated inline in a structure. Value types can be built-in (implemented by the runtime), user-defined, or enumerations. For a list of built-in value types, see the .NET Framework Class Library.

  • Reference types

    Reference types store a reference to the value's memory address, and are allocated on the heap. Reference types can be self-describing types, pointer types, or interface types. The type of a reference type can be determined from values of self-describing types. Self-describing types are further split into arrays and class types. The class types are user-defined classes, boxed value types, and delegates.

Variables that are value types each have their own copy of the data, and therefore operations on one variable do not affect other variables. Variables that are reference types can refer to the same object; therefore, operations on one variable can affect the same object referred to by another variable.

All types derive from the System.Object base type.

The following example shows the difference between reference types and value types.

using System;
class Class1
{
public int Value = 0;
}
class Test
{
    static void Main() {
        int val1 = 0;
        int val2 = val1;
        val2 = 123;
        Class1 ref1 = new Class1();
        Class1 ref2 = ref1;
        ref2.Value = 123;
        Console.WriteLine("Values: {0}, {1}", val1, val2);
        Console.WriteLine("Refs: {0}, {1}", ref1.Value, ref2.Value);
    }
}

The output from this program is as follows.

Values: 0, 123
Refs: 123, 123

The following diagram illustrates how these various types are related. Note that instances of types can be simply value types or self-describing types, even though there are subcategories of these types.

Type classification

Common type system

For more information about each type, see value types, enumerations, classes, delegates, arrays, interfaces, and pointers.

Values are binary representations of data, and types provide a way of interpreting this data. A value type is stored directly as a binary representation of the type's data. The value of a reference type is the location of the sequence of bits that represent the type's data.

Every value has an exact type that completely defines the value's representation and the operations that are defined on the value. Values of self-describing types are called objects. While it is always possible to determine the exact type of an object by examining its value, you cannot do so with a value type or pointer type. A value can have more than one type. A value of a type that implements an interface is also a value of that interface type. Likewise, a value of a type that derives from a base type is also a value of that base type.

The runtime uses assemblies to locate and load types. The assembly manifest contains the information that the runtime uses to resolve all type references made within the scope of the assembly.

A type name in the runtime has two logical parts: the assembly name and the name of the type within the assembly. Two types with the same name but in different assemblies are defined as two distinct types.

Assemblies provide consistency between the scope of names seen by the developer and the scope of names seen by the runtime system. Developers author types in the context of an assembly. The content of the assembly a developer is building establishes the scope of names that will be available at run time.

From the viewpoint of the runtime, a namespace is just a collection of type names. Particular languages might have constructs and corresponding syntax that help developers form logical groups of types, but these constructs are not used by the runtime when binding types. Thus, both the Object and String classes are part of the System namespace, but the runtime only recognizes the full names of each type, which are System.Object and System.String, respectively.

You can build a single assembly that exposes types that look like they come from two different hierarchical namespaces, such as System.Collections and System.Windows.Forms. You can also build two assemblies that both export types whose names contain MyDll.MyClass.

If you create a tool to represent types in an assembly as belonging to a hierarchical namespace, the tool must enumerate the types in an assembly or group of assemblies and parse the type names to derive a hierarchical relationship.

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