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Overview of the .NET Framework

The .NET Framework is an integral Windows component that supports building and running the next generation of applications and XML Web services. The .NET Framework is designed to fulfill the following objectives:

  • To provide a consistent object-oriented programming environment whether object code is stored and executed locally, executed locally but Internet-distributed, or executed remotely.
  • To provide a code-execution environment that minimizes software deployment and versioning conflicts.
  • To provide a code-execution environment that promotes safe execution of code, including code created by an unknown or semi-trusted third party.
  • To provide a code-execution environment that eliminates the performance problems of scripted or interpreted environments.
  • To make the developer experience consistent across widely varying types of applications, such as Windows-based applications and Web-based applications.
  • To build all communication on industry standards to ensure that code based on the .NET Framework can integrate with any other code.

The .NET Framework has two main components: the common language runtime and the .NET Framework class library. The common language runtime is the foundation of the .NET Framework. You can think of the runtime as an agent that manages code at execution time, providing core services such as memory management, thread management, and remoting, while also enforcing strict type safety and other forms of code accuracy that promote security and robustness. In fact, the concept of code management is a fundamental principle of the runtime. Code that targets the runtime is known as managed code, while code that does not target the runtime is known as unmanaged code. The class library, the other main component of the .NET Framework, is a comprehensive, object-oriented collection of reusable types that you can use to develop applications ranging from traditional command-line or graphical user interface (GUI) applications to applications based on the latest innovations provided by ASP.NET, such as Web Forms and XML Web services.

The .NET Framework can be hosted by unmanaged components that load the common language runtime into their processes and initiate the execution of managed code, thereby creating a software environment that can exploit both managed and unmanaged features. The .NET Framework not only provides several runtime hosts, but also supports the development of third-party runtime hosts.

For example, ASP.NET hosts the runtime to provide a scalable, server-side environment for managed code. ASP.NET works directly with the runtime to enable ASP.NET applications and XML Web services, both of which are discussed later in this topic.

Internet Explorer is an example of an unmanaged application that hosts the runtime (in the form of a MIME type extension). Using Internet Explorer to host the runtime enables you to embed managed components or Windows Forms controls in HTML documents. Hosting the runtime in this way makes managed mobile code (similar to Microsoft® ActiveX® controls) possible, but with significant improvements that only managed code can offer, such as semi-trusted execution and isolated file storage.

The following illustration shows the relationship of the common language runtime and the class library to your applications and to the overall system. The illustration also shows how managed code operates within a larger architecture.

.NET Framework in context

The following sections describe the main components and features of the .NET Framework in greater detail.

Features of the Common Language Runtime

The common language runtime manages memory, thread execution, code execution, code safety verification, compilation, and other system services. These features are intrinsic to the managed code that runs on the common language runtime.

With regards to security, managed components are awarded varying degrees of trust, depending on a number of factors that include their origin (such as the Internet, enterprise network, or local computer). This means that a managed component might or might not be able to perform file-access operations, registry-access operations, or other sensitive functions, even if it is being used in the same active application.

The runtime enforces code access security. For example, users can trust that an executable embedded in a Web page can play an animation on screen or sing a song, but cannot access their personal data, file system, or network. The security features of the runtime thus enable legitimate Internet-deployed software to be exceptionally feature rich.

The runtime also enforces code robustness by implementing a strict type-and-code-verification infrastructure called the common type system (CTS). The CTS ensures that all managed code is self-describing. The various Microsoft and third-party language compilers generate managed code that conforms to the CTS. This means that managed code can consume other managed types and instances, while strictly enforcing type fidelity and type safety.

In addition, the managed environment of the runtime eliminates many common software issues. For example, the runtime automatically handles object layout and manages references to objects, releasing them when they are no longer being used. This automatic memory management resolves the two most common application errors, memory leaks and invalid memory references.

The runtime also accelerates developer productivity. For example, programmers can write applications in their development language of choice, yet take full advantage of the runtime, the class library, and components written in other languages by other developers. Any compiler vendor who chooses to target the runtime can do so. Language compilers that target the .NET Framework make the features of the .NET Framework available to existing code written in that language, greatly easing the migration process for existing applications.

While the runtime is designed for the software of the future, it also supports software of today and yesterday. Interoperability between managed and unmanaged code enables developers to continue to use necessary COM components and DLLs.

The runtime is designed to enhance performance. Although the common language runtime provides many standard runtime services, managed code is never interpreted. A feature called just-in-time (JIT) compiling enables all managed code to run in the native machine language of the system on which it is executing. Meanwhile, the memory manager removes the possibilities of fragmented memory and increases memory locality-of-reference to further increase performance.

Finally, the runtime can be hosted by high-performance, server-side applications, such as Microsoft® SQL Server™ and Internet Information Services (IIS). This infrastructure enables you to use managed code to write your business logic, while still enjoying the superior performance of the industry's best enterprise servers that support runtime hosting.

.NET Framework Class Library

The .NET Framework class library is a collection of reusable types that tightly integrate with the common language runtime. The class library is object oriented, providing types from which your own managed code can derive functionality. This not only makes the .NET Framework types easy to use, but also reduces the time associated with learning new features of the .NET Framework. In addition, third-party components can integrate seamlessly with classes in the .NET Framework.

For example, the .NET Framework collection classes implement a set of interfaces that you can use to develop your own collection classes. Your collection classes will blend seamlessly with the classes in the .NET Framework.

As you would expect from an object-oriented class library, the .NET Framework types enable you to accomplish a range of common programming tasks, including tasks such as string management, data collection, database connectivity, and file access. In addition to these common tasks, the class library includes types that support a variety of specialized development scenarios. For example, you can use the .NET Framework to develop the following types of applications and services:

  • Console applications.
  • Windows GUI applications (Windows Forms).
  • ASP.NET applications.
  • XML Web services.
  • Windows services.

For example, the Windows Forms classes are a comprehensive set of reusable types that vastly simplify Windows GUI development. If you write an ASP.NET Web Form application, you can use the Web Forms classes.

Client Application Development

Client applications are the closest to a traditional style of application in Windows-based programming. These are the types of applications that display windows or forms on the desktop, enabling a user to perform a task. Client applications include applications such as word processors and spreadsheets, as well as custom business applications such as data-entry tools, reporting tools, and so on. Client applications usually employ windows, menus, buttons, and other GUI elements, and they likely access local resources such as the file system and peripherals such as printers.

Another kind of client application is the traditional ActiveX control (now replaced by the managed Windows Forms control) deployed over the Internet as a Web page. This application is much like other client applications: it is executed natively, has access to local resources, and includes graphical elements.

In the past, developers created such applications using C/C++ in conjunction with the Microsoft Foundation Classes (MFC) or with a rapid application development (RAD) environment such as Microsoft® Visual Basic®. The .NET Framework incorporates aspects of these existing products into a single, consistent development environment that drastically simplifies the development of client applications.

The Windows Forms classes contained in the .NET Framework are designed to be used for GUI development. You can easily create command windows, buttons, menus, toolbars, and other screen elements with the flexibility necessary to accommodate shifting business needs.

For example, the .NET Framework provides simple properties to adjust visual attributes associated with forms. In some cases the underlying operating system does not support changing these attributes directly, and in these cases the .NET Framework automatically recreates the forms. This is one of many ways in which the .NET Framework integrates the developer interface, making coding simpler and more consistent.

Unlike ActiveX controls, Windows Forms controls have semi-trusted access to a user's computer. This means that binary or natively executing code can access some of the resources on the user's system (such as GUI elements and limited file access) without being able to access or compromise other resources. Because of code access security, many applications that once needed to be installed on a user's system can now be deployed through the Web. Your applications can implement the features of a local application while being deployed like a Web page.

Server Application Development

Server-side applications in the managed world are implemented through runtime hosts. Unmanaged applications host the common language runtime, which allows your custom managed code to control the behavior of the server. This model provides you with all the features of the common language runtime and class library while gaining the performance and scalability of the host server.

The following illustration shows a basic network schema with managed code running in different server environments. Servers such as IIS and SQL Server can perform standard operations while your application logic executes through the managed code.

Server-side managed code

ASP.NET is the hosting environment that enables developers to use the .NET Framework to target Web-based applications. However, ASP.NET is more than just a runtime host; it is a complete architecture for developing Web sites and Internet-distributed objects using managed code. Both Web Forms and XML Web services use IIS and ASP.NET as the publishing mechanism for applications, and both have a collection of supporting classes in the .NET Framework.

XML Web services, an important evolution in Web-based technology, are distributed, server-side application components similar to common Web sites. However, unlike Web-based applications, XML Web services components have no UI and are not targeted for browsers such as Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. Instead, XML Web services consist of reusable software components designed to be consumed by other applications, such as traditional client applications, Web-based applications, or even other XML Web services. As a result, XML Web services technology is rapidly moving application development and deployment into the highly distributed environment of the Internet.

If you have used earlier versions of ASP technology, you will immediately notice the improvements that ASP.NET and Web Forms offer. For example, you can develop Web Forms pages in any language that supports the .NET Framework. In addition, your code no longer needs to share the same file with your HTTP text (although it can continue to do so if you prefer). Web Forms pages execute in native machine language because, like any other managed application, they take full advantage of the runtime. In contrast, unmanaged ASP pages are always scripted and interpreted. ASP.NET pages are faster, more functional, and easier to develop than unmanaged ASP pages because they interact with the runtime like any managed application.

The .NET Framework also provides a collection of classes and tools to aid in development and consumption of XML Web services applications. XML Web services are built on standards such as SOAP (a remote procedure-call protocol), XML (an extensible data format), and WSDL ( the Web Services Description Language). The .NET Framework is built on these standards to promote interoperability with non-Microsoft solutions.

For example, the Web Services Description Language tool included with the .NET Framework SDK can query an XML Web service published on the Web, parse its WSDL description, and produce C# or Visual Basic source code that your application can use to become a client of the XML Web service. The source code can create classes derived from classes in the class library that handle all the underlying communication using SOAP and XML parsing. Although you can use the class library to consume XML Web services directly, the Web Services Description Language tool and the other tools contained in the SDK facilitate your development efforts with the .NET Framework.

If you develop and publish your own XML Web service, the .NET Framework provides a set of classes that conform to all the underlying communication standards, such as SOAP, WSDL, and XML. Using those classes enables you to focus on the logic of your service, without concerning yourself with the communications infrastructure required by distributed software development.

Finally, like Web Forms pages in the managed environment, your XML Web service will run with the speed of native machine language using the scalable communication of IIS.

See Also

Programming with the .NET Framework | QuickStarts | Samples | Tutorials

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