Friday, 13 July 2012

Some internals of protobuf-net

This post is a bit of background explanation for my next, much more interesting (IMO) post. But in order for that one to make sense without being too long, I wanted to talk about the “what?” and “why?” first, and then discuss the “how?” after. Make sense?

First, I’ll whet your appetite with this:

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This is protobuf-net running nice and fast (much faster than XmlSerializer or DataContractSerializer) on .NET for Metro style apps. Which is a pretty neat trick, because Metro doesn’t allow any of the usual tricks that protobuf-net uses.

So what does it use?

A walkthrough of protobuf-net

imageThe first piece of protobuf-net is the core – this is basically the fundamental reader/writer API (think: XmlReader/XmlWriter), and some utility methods. Every build of protobuf-net includes the core, although many parts may have different implementations on a per-platform basis.

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Next we have the model; this is where the user defines the types that are going to be serialized by the model. In many cases, the model is populated automatically as you serialize items (it figures out what is needed). The model doesn’t know how to do anything – it only knows the configuration.

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Next comes the strategy; a series of decorators and other structures that turn that configuration into something resembling a sensible way to handle, each configuration, building from simpler steps.

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And then given a strategy, we need some mechanism to implement that strategy. A simple option is reflection, which is convenient and available on most platforms, but comparatively slow.

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A much more elegant approach is to use meta-programming to turn a strategy into regular IL code. This is pretty complex, but leads to very fast results. Unfortunately, a lot of light-weight platforms do not allow this.

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Which is a shame, because once you have a working compiler, you can go so far as to generate (via a utility exe at build time) a standalone serialization assembly, which then doesn’t need to do any thinking at runtime.

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In fact, if you do this you don’t even need anything else – just the core and a serialization assembly. This technique allows you to generate, with a little voodoo, a pair of small assemblies that can be used on platforms such as MonoTouch, as described here.

So you just did that, right? Doesn’t sound too bad…

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Unfortunately, there’s a stumbling block. Generating a standalone assembly is … complex. It only works on full .NET for starters, but also: Reflection.Emit only works with full .NET assemblies. You can’t load your Metro DTO into regular .NET, spin up a TypeBuilder, and run with it; a: you won’t be able to load the types correctly (since your Metro DTO targets an entirely different framework), and b: what you generate won’t be convincing as a Metro dll. We get away with it for MonoTouch, but that is just because the Xamarin folks are evil geniuses.

What we need, then, is some way of generating a Metro serialization dll, after inspecting a Metro DTO dll, but presumably as a build tool running on regular .NET. That, as they say, gets tricky. And that is for next time.

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