Memory in .NET - what goes where

Page 2 of 2
  1. Introduction
  2. So where are things stored?

So where are things stored?

So where are things stored?

The memory slot for a variable is stored on either the stack or the heap. It depends on the context in which it is declared:

  • Each local variable (ie one declared in a method) is stored on the stack. That includes reference type variables - the variable itself is on the stack, but remember that the value of a reference type variable is only a reference (or null ), not the object itself. Method parameters count as local variables too, but if they are declared with the ref modifier, they don't get their own slot, but share a slot with the variable used in the calling code. See my article on parameter passing for more details.
  • Instance variables for a reference type are always on the heap. That's where the object itself "lives".
  • Instance variables for a value type are stored in the same context as the variable that declares the value type. The memory slot for the instance effectively contains the slots for each field within the instance. That means (given the previous two points) that a struct variable declared within a method will always be on the stack, whereas a struct variable which is an instance field of a class will be on the heap.
  • Every static variable is stored on the heap, regardless of whether it's declared within a reference type or a value type. There is only one slot in total no matter how many instances are created. (There don't need to be any instances created for that one slot to exist though.) Note that this heap is separate from the normal garbage collected heap - it's known as a "high frequency heap", and there's one per application domain.

A worked example

The above may all sound a bit complicated, but a full example should make things a bit clearer. Here's a short program which does nothing useful, but should demonstrate the points raised above.

using System;
struct PairOfInts
{
    static int counter=0;
   
    public int a;
    public int b;
   
    internal PairOfInts (int x, int y)
    {
        a=x;
        b=y;
        counter++;
    }
}
class Test
{
    PairOfInts pair;
    string name;
   
    Test (PairOfInts p, string s, int x)
    {
        pair = p;
        name = s;
        pair.a += x;
    }
   
    static void Main()
    {
        PairOfInts z = new PairOfInts (1, 2);
        Test t1 = new Test(z, "first", 1);
        Test t2 = new Test(z, "second", 2);
        Test t3 = null;
        Test t4 = t1;
        // XXX
    }
}

Let's look at what's where in memory at the line marked with the comment "XXX". (Assume that nothing is being garbage collected.)

  • There's a PairOfInts instance on the stack, corresponding with variable z . Within that instance, a=1 and b=2 . (The 8 byte slot needed for z itself might then be represented in memory as 01 00 00 00 02 00 00 00 .)
  • There's a Test reference on the stack, corresponding with variable t1 . This reference refers to an instance on the heap, which occupies "something like" 20 bytes: 8 bytes of header information (which all heap objects have), 8 bytes for the PairOfInts instance, and 4 bytes for the string reference. (The "something like" is because the specification doesn't say how it has to be organised, or what size the header is, etc.) The value of the pair variable within that instance will have a=2 and b=2 (possibly represented in memory as 02 00 00 00 02 00 00 00 ). The value of the name variable within that instance will be a reference to a string object (which is also on the heap) and which (probably through other objects, such as a char array) represents the sequence of characters in the word "first".
  • There's a second Test reference on the stack, corresponding with variable t2 . This reference refers to a second instance on the heap, which is very similar to the one described above, but with a reference to a string representing "second" instead of "first", and with a value of pair where a=3 (as 2 has been added to the initial value 1). If PairOfInts were a reference type instead of a value type, there would only be one instance of it throughout the whole program, and just several references to the single instance, but as it is, there are several instances, each with different values inside.
  • There's a third Test reference on the stack, corresponding with variable t3 . This reference is null - it doesn't refer to any instance of Test . (There's some ambiguity about whether this counts as a Test reference or not - it doesn't make any difference though, really - I generally think of null as being a reference which doesn't refer to any object, rather than being an absence of a reference in the first place. The Java Language Specification gives quite nice terminology, saying that a reference is either null or a pointer to an object of the appropriate type.)
  • There's a fourth Test reference on the stack, corresponding with variable t4 . This reference refers to the same instance as t1 - ie the values of t1 and t4 are the same. Changing the value of one of these variables would not change the value of the other, but changing a value within the object they both refer to using one reference would make that change visible via the other reference. (For instance, if you set t1.name="third"; then examined t4.name , you'd find it referred to "third" as well.)

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Jon Skeet United Kingdom

C# MVP currently living in Reading and working for Google.

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