Memory Anti-Patterns in C#

Christophe Nasarre
Jul 1 · 10 min read

In the context of helping the teams at Criteo to clean up our code base, I gathered and documented a few C# anti-patterns similar to Kevin’s publication about performance code smell. Here is an extract related to good/bad memory patterns.

Even though the garbage collector is doing its works out of the control of the developers, the less allocations are done, the less the GC will impact an application. So the main goal is to avoid writing code that allocates unnecessary objects or references them too long.

Finalizer and IDisposable usage

Let’s start with a hidden way to referencing an object: implementing a “finalizer”. In C#, you write a method whose name is the name of the class prefixed by ~. The compiler generates an override for the virtual Object.Finalize method. An instance of such a type is treated in a particular way by the Garbage Collector:

As Konrad Kokosa details in one of his free GC Internals video, instances of a type implementing a finalizer stay much longer in memory than needed; waiting for the next collection of the generation in which the previous collection left it (i.e. gen1 if it was in gen0 or even worse, gen2 if it was in gen1).

So the first question people are usually asking is: do you really need to implement a finalizer? Most of the time, the answer should be no. The code of a finalizer is responsible for cleaning up ONLY resources that are NOT managed. It usually means “stuff” received from COM interop or P/Invoke calls to native functions such as handles, native memory or memory allocated via Marshal helpers. If your class has IntPtr fields, it is a good sign that their lifetime finishes in a finalizer via Marsal helpers or P/Invoke cleanup calls. Look for SafeHandle-derived class if you need to manipulate kernel object handles instead of raw IntPtr and avoiding finalizers. So in 99.9% of the cases, you don’t need a finalizer.

The second question is how implementing a finalizer relates to implementing IDisposable? Unlike a finalizer, implementing the unique Dispose() method of IDisposable interface in a class means nothing for the Garbage Collector. So there is no side effect to extend the lifetime of its instances. This is only a way to allow the users of instances of this class to explicitly cleanup such an instance at a certain point in time instead of waiting for a garbage collection to be triggered.

Let’s take an example: when you want to write to a file, behind the scene, .NET will call native APIs that operate on real file (via kernel object handles on Windows) with limited concurrent access (i.e. two processes can’t corrupt a file by writing different things at the same time — this is a very high level view of the situation but valid enough for this discussion). Another class would allow access to databases via a limited number of connections that should be released as soon as possible. In all these scenarios, as a user of these classes, you want to be able to “release” the resources used behind the scene as quickly as possible when you don’t need to access them anymore. This translates into the well known using pattern in C#:

that is transformed by the C# compiler into:

So when should you implement IDisposable? My answer is simple: when the class owns fields of classes that implement IDisposable and if it implements a finalizer (for the good reasons already explained). Don’t use IDisposable.Dispose for other reasons such as logging (like what we used to do in C++ destructor): prefer to implement another explicit interface dedicated to that purpose.

In term of implementation, I have to say that I never understood why Microsoft decided to provide such a confusing implementation in its documentation. You have to implement the following method to “free” unmanaged and managed resources. It should be called by both the finalizer and IDisposable.Dispose():

You also need to have a _disposed field to allow IDisposable.Dispose() to be called more than once without problem. In all methods and properties of the class, don’t forget to throw an ObjectDisposedException if _disposed is true to catch usage of already disposed objects.

Ask a group of developers when disposing should be true or false: half will say when called from the finalizer and the other half from Dispose (and I’m not counting those who are not sure). Why giving the same name to the method that already exists in IDisposable? Why picking “disposing” as parameter name? I don’t think it could been possible to find a more confusing solution: too many “dispose” kills the pattern…

Here is my own implementation that does exactly the same thing but with much less confusion:

I also rename Dispose(bool disposing) into Cleanup(bool from GC):

The rules you have to keep in mind are simple:

The _disposed boolean field is used to cleanup resources only once. In this implementation, it is set to true even if an exception happens because I’m assuming that if it just happened, it will also happen if called another time.

Last but not least, the call to GC.SuppressFinalize(this) simply tells the GC to remove the disposed object from the Finalization internal queue:

The rest of the post describes typical anti-patterns. However, as usual with performance related topic, remember that the impact might not be noticeable if it does not run in a hot path. Always balance between readability/ease of maintenance/understanding and performance gain.

Provide list capacity when possible

It is recommended to provide a capacity when creating a List or a collection instance. The .NET implementation of such classes usually stores the values in an array that need to be resized when new elements are added: it means that:

In the following example, the capacity of resultList is otherList.Count

Prefer StringBuilder to +/+= for string concatenation

Creating temporary objects will increase the number of garbage collections and impact performances. Since the string class is immutable, each time you need to get an updated version of a string of characters, the .NET framework ends up creating a new string.

For string concatenation, avoid using Concat, + or +=. This is especially important in loop or methods called very often. For example in the following code, a StringBuilder should be used:

Again in loops, avoid creating temporary string such as in the following code where SearchValue.ToUpper() do not change in the loop:

The effect is even worse due to the Where() clause that create a new temporary upper string for each element of the sequence!

This recommendation also applies to types that provides string-based direct access to characters such as in the following code:

where ToString() is not needed because it is possible to directly access the last character:

Caching strings and interning

Prefer static cache of read-only objects to recreating them in each call such as in the following example:

(Replace by a static list since the enumeration elements won’t change)

Last but not least, when string keys (with only a few different values) are used, you could “intern” them (i.e. ask the CLR to cache a value and always return the same reference). Read the corresponding Microsoft Docs for more details.

Don’t (re)create objects

The first pattern to use is the static classes with static methods to avoid the creation of temporary objects just to call fields-less methods. It is also recommended to pre-compute read-only list instead of re-creating it each time a method gets called like in the following example :

This list could have been computed once as a static field of the class because the enumeration will not change during the application lifetime.

Avoid repeated calls and keep values in local variables when used in a loop; this is particularly easy to forget when dealing with string ToLower() and ToUpper().

(a new temporary string will be created by key.ToLower() by each test)

Prefer String.Compare(…, StringComparison.OrdinalIgnoreCase) to avoid calling ToLower()/ToUpper() just for string comparison such as in the following example:

becomes:

Best practices with LINQ

The LINQ syntax is used extensively all over the source code. However, several patterns are found very often and might impact overall performance.

Prefer IEnumerable<T> to IList<T>

Most of the methods are iterating on sequences represented by IEnumerable<T> either via foreach() or thanks to System.Linq.Enumerable extension methods. IList<T> should be used only when sequence modification is required:

It is also recommended to use IEnumerable<T> instead of IList<T> as method parameters if there is no need to add/remove elements to the sequence. That way, the client code don’t have to use ToList() before calling the method. The same comment applies to return types that should be IEnumerable<T> rather than IList<T> because most of the time, the sequence will simply be iterated via a foreach statement.

FirstOrDefault and Any are your friends… but might not be needed

First, there is no need to call Any (or even worse ToList().Count > 0) before foreach such as in the following code:

Avoid unnecessary ToList()/ToArray() calls

LINQ queries are supposed to defer their execution until the corresponding sequence is iterated such as with a foreach statement. This is also the case when ToList() or ToArray() are called on such a query:

The ToList() method builds a List<> instance that contains all elements of the given sequence. It should be used carefully because the cost of creating a list from a large sequence of objects could be high both in term of memory and performance due to the implementation of element addition in List<>.

The only recommended usages are:

However, most of the times, you don’t need to call ToList() to iterate on a IEnumerable<T>. If you do so, you hurt the runtime execution both in term of memory consumption (because of the unneeded List<T> that is just temporary) and in term of performance because the sequence gets iterated twice.

The base of LINQ to Object is the IEnumerable interface used to iterate on a sequence of objects. All LINQ extension methods are taking IEnumerable instances as parameter in addition to foreach constructs. It is also not needed to call ToList() when an IEnumerable is expected (this is a good reason to prefer IEnumerable to IList/List/[] in method signatures)

Some methods are calling ToList() before Where clauses are applied to an IEnumerable sequence: it is more efficient to stack the Where clauses and call ToList() at the end.

Last but not least, it is not needed to call ToList() to get the number of elements in a sequence such as in the following code sample:

becomes:

Prefer IEnumerable<>.Any to List<>.Exists

When manipulating IEnumerable, it is recommended to use Any instead of ToList().Exists() such as in the following code:

becomes:

Prefer Any to Count when checking for emptiness

The Any extension methods should be preferred to count computation on IEnumerable because the iteration on the sequence stops as soon as the condition (if any) is fulfilled without allocating any temporary list:

becomes:

Note that it is also valid to use if (!campaigns.Any(filter))

Order in extension methods might matter

When operators are applied to sequences (i.e. IEnumerable), their order might have an impact on the performance of the resulting code. One important rule is to always filter first so the resulting sequences get smaller and smaller to iterate. This is why it is recommended to start a LINQ query by Where filters.

With LINQ, the code you write to define a query might be misleading in term of execution. For example, what is the difference between:

and:

It depends on the query executor. For LINQ for Objects, it seems that there is no difference in term of the filters execution: the first and second filters will be executed the same number of times as shown by the following code:

When you run it, you get the exact same lines in the console:

IsEven(1)
IsEven(2)
IsMultipleOf3(2)
IsEven(3)
IsEven(4)
IsMultipleOf3(4)
IsEven(5)
IsEven(6)
IsMultipleOf3(6)
--> 6
--------------------------------
IsEven(1)
IsEven(2)
IsMultipleOf3(2)
IsEven(3)
IsEven(4)
IsMultipleOf3(4)
IsEven(5)
IsEven(6)
IsMultipleOf3(6)
--> 6

However, when you run it under Benchmark.NET,

the results are significantly better for the single “merged” Where clause:

After looking at the implementation in the .NET Framework with my colleague Jean-Philippe, the additional cost seems to be related to the underlying IEnumerator corresponding to the first Where.

Remember to never assume and always measure.

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