How my C# Object.Extend implementation works

I’ve had a few people ask me to explain how my C# Object.Extend implementation works – so here I am, going into more detail than I expected people would be interested in.

Making Object.Extend work seemed straight-forward at first. You can read my initial code in my original ObjectExtend post. The problem started when I tried to chain two calls together: I immediately got a RuntimeBinderException. Unfortunately, for a really good reason (the difficulty of discovering the right namespaces to search), the code responsible for runtime method binding doesn’t look for extension methods. That means that when the first call to .Extend returns something marked as dynamic (regardless of what actual type it returns), you can’t use any extension methods on the result. Attempting to call either .Extend again or .Dump (another common extension method in LINQPad) results in the dreaded RuntimeBinderException.

The usual usage of the dynamic keyword is to let us return something like the ExpandoObject type, like this:

dynamic ReturnSomething() {
	return new ExpandoObject();
}

Fortunately, the dynamic keyword in C# essentially just tells the compiler to engage duck-typing mode – it doesn’t actually tell the run-time anything. So there’s nothing stopping us from doing this:

dynamic ReturnSomething() {
	return new List<string>();
}

The compiler (and your IDE) will allow you to try to call anything at all on the return value of ReturnSomething, and hand everything off to the runtime binder. This means that you can’t use extension methods on anything returned by a method marked dynamic, even if you actually return a regular non-dynamic type.

dynamic ReturnSomething() {
	return new object();
}
ReturnSomething().Dump();

Nope. Instant RuntimeBinderException.

There’s one situation which will give us exactly what we want – if we mark the .Extend function as dynamic, but the type we return has our Extend method built right in to it. This means our IDE (LINQPad, in my case) will allow us to access any of the dynamic properties we build up on our types over successive calls to Extend, and the runtime binder will be able to find the methods because they’re right on the type we return – we’re not relying on extension methods!

I initially thought I could create a subclass of ExpandoObject with calls for Extend and Dump, but it turns out that not only is ExpandoObject a sealed class, it’s also a bit special in other ways – so that was a no-go.

So now the only problem we have is that we need to create types on the fly which contain functions for Extend (and Dump, for convenience), and also whatever properties we want to dynamically add – the union of all of the properties on the original object and the objects we want to extend it with. I looked into a few alternatives, and a good compromise was the Microsoft.CSharp.CSharpCodeProvider – it allows me to dynamically assemble a syntax tree and get the framework to generate in-memory assemblies on-the-fly. The details are a little tedious, but it’s very possible to use this to create types on the fly – containing both the method calls we want for Dump and Extend as well as all of the properties we need. We can then instantiate our dynamically-created type and copy all of the values onto it. Our IDE will let us access our runtime-created properties and methods without compile-time errors, because our function is marked as dynamic – and the runtime binder can find all of the properties, as well as our .Extend and .Dump methods, because they’re actually on the type the runtime binder is looking at.

The minimum viable code to do something useful with CSharpCodeProvider looks something like this (note that this requires a couple of helpers you can find in the class linked below):

var compileUnit = new CodeCompileUnit();
var nameSpace = new CodeNamespace("MyDynamicNamespace");
var classType = new CodeTypeDeclaration("MyNewType");
classType.Attributes = MemberAttributes.Public;
compileUnit.Namespaces.Add(nameSpace);
nameSpace.Types.Add(classType);
var returnThree = new CodeMemberMethod { 
	Name = "ReturnThree", 
	Attributes = MemberAttributes.Public,
	ReturnType = new CodeTypeReference(typeof(int))
};
returnThree.Statements.Add(new CodeMethodReturnStatement(new CodePrimitiveExpression(3)));
classType.Members.Add(returnThree);
var result = _cSharpCodeProvider.Value.CompileAssemblyFromDom(_compilerParameters.Value, compileUnit);
var compiledType = result.CompiledAssembly.GetTypes().Single();
LINQPad.Extensions.Dump(((dynamic)Activator.CreateInstance(compiledType)).ReturnThree());

This is a very round-about way to output the number 3, but it works!
PrintThree

I won’t reproduce the code here, but you can find all the details of the Object.Extend dynamic type creation in the CreateTypeUncached function in ObjectExtend.cs.

You might notice the word ‘Uncached’ there. When I first tried this approach, it was horrifyingly slow – I was using Object.Extend in a Select statement against a large IEnumerable, and generating many identical types. Throwing a quick cache into the mix based on the name and type of all properties of the type we need vastly reduces the number of calls to the compiler service and brings performance up to a tolerable level.

While I have glossed over some details, hopefully this explanation will give readers some background information to aid in reading the code. Please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter and let me know if parts of my explanation are hard to follow.

Object.Extend in C# for exploratory coding

LINQPad is great for exploratory coding. I use it all the time while I’m poking at APIs, and it’s completely replaced other scripting languages for me. I often find myself gradually building up result sets as I grope my way towards the result I’m looking for – and then I go back and re-factor it into something more presentable.

Unfortunately, building up these result sets can mean copying all the members of an old dynamic object into a new dynamic object.

var sites = siteData.Select(s => new { SiteName = s[0], SiteLink = s[1] });
var siteInfo = sites.Select(s => new {
    SiteName = s.SiteName, SiteLink = s.SiteLink, SiteInfo = SiteInformation[s.SiteName]
});
var siteContent = siteInfo.Select(s => {
    var details = GenerateDetailsSomehow(s);
    return new {
        SiteName = s.SiteName,
        SiteInfo = s.SiteInfo,
        SiteLink = s.SiteLink,
        SiteDetails = details
    }
});
// ... more of the same

That gets tedious fast. Wouldn’t it be great if C# had something similar to JavaScript’s Object.Extend? Well, maybe it can. I jumped into the “My Extensions” file in LINQPad and put together the following extension method:

public static dynamic Extend(this object firstObj, params object[] objs) {
    var result = new ExpandoObject();
    foreach (var o in new[] { firstObj }.Union(objs)) {
        foreach (var p in o.GetType().GetProperties().Select(p => new { Name = p.Name, Value = p.GetValue(o) })) {
            var props = ((IDictionary<string, object>)result);
            if (props.ContainsKey(p.Name)) props[p.Name] = p.Value;
            else props.Add(p.Name, p.Value);
        }
    }
    return result;
}

Now you can just call .Extend(...) on any object! So instead of having to create new objects all the time, you can do this:

var sites = siteData.Select(s => new { SiteName = s[0], SiteLink = s[1] });
var siteInfo = sites.Select(s => s.Extend(new {SiteInfo = SiteInformation[s.SiteName]}));
var siteContent = siteInfo.Select(s =>s.Extend(new { SiteDetails = GenerateDetailsSomehow(s) }));

That’s much easier to read (and quicker to write) than the first snippet! Unfortunately, it doesn’t work – the first call to our object.Extend(...) extension method is just fine, but the second call fails. Sadly, the way the runtime binder works means that our extension method won’t be available on the dynamics we create, so we can’t chain multiple calls using this approach.
RuntimeBinderException

I have solved that (and a number of other minor annoyances) and put it all together in a Nuget package called ObjectExtend. Sadly, if you don’t have a license for LINQPad you may have to download the package and reference it manually, but if you do have a license you can use the Nuget client built right in to LINQPad.

After adding ObjectExtend to our script, the chained script above works as expected:
ObjectExtendScreenshot

There you have it! Object.Extend in C#.

Please note this is a package focused on tinkering in LINQPad. It’s not the kind of thing you should be using while building maintainable, production-quality software.

Update: I had a few requests for source code, and it’s up on github now, but rather than making people who want to understand it dig through code I wrote up an explanation.