PInvoke with Silverlight

Posted: February 22, 2012 in Silverlight
Tags: , , ,

PInvoke with Silverlight

As indicated in the previous blog post: PInvoke is the next best thing if you want to use native C++ code from Silverlight. And the first next thing that works.

What is PInvoke

PInvoke, or Platform Invoke is about the invocation from .Net code of dynamic link libraries (dll-s), often written in C++, and frequently part of existing systems like the Windows OS. The idea is that the library in the dll, exports a number of symbols representing methods (including properties) and hooks for callback functions (think: events).

Silverlight supports PInvoke and therefore also unsafe code. Unsafe code requires manually adding the “AllowUnsafeBlocks” tag to the Silverlight project file. Of course the use of PInvoke requires elevated trust, both in-browser and out-of-browser. The dll must be a file on the client computer. If you want to bring along your own dll with your Silverlight application, you will have to write your library to file somewhere, and then load it into memory for invocation. NESL provides an excellent example of this technique.

The hard part of PInvoke is Marshalling (found that out already). You also have to remember that the file location of the dll you want to invoke needs to be in the shell path, or explicitly stated in the dllimport attribute. In the context of Silverlight applications, the ‘current directory’ is not such a fantastic location to search for a dll.

What could you do with PInvoke

The driver for using PInvoke is that you can use resources already present on the client. If you bring your own dll, it can make use of other resources already present on the client. For instance, you could bring your own DirectX application, and have it use the DirectX runtime code present on the client. You can also bring along a dll that explicitly uses the spectacular parallel computing power of the GPU.

For me the reason is that PInvoke provides access to the DirectX and Media resources that a standard installation of Windows 7 brings along. I want to just write an application that may use anything the Windows SDK has to offer related to DirectX, other graphics, and audio & video and combine it with the goodies of Silverlight – notably its UI facilities, its software distribution facilities and its in-browser capabilities. Going directly to the Windows SDK keeps me independent of intermediate frameworks like XNA, SlimDX or SharpDX, so I can keep my software up-to-date myself, as opposed to e.g. XNA. It also seem to me that going this direction anticipates the release of Windows 8, the increasing emphasis on performance and smaller footprint that initiated the renaissance of C++(11), concurrent and asynchronous programming, and the openness of more platforms (form factors) to C++ development.

Of course, PInvoke requires the invoked dll to be present on the client. This may seem a drawback, but scenarios that motivate the use of dll-s for PInvoke (running software on the GPU, mainly) usually require (in practice) the Silverlight application to be installed as an OOB application with elevated trust anyhow. Saving a dll to disk will not make the difference.

Pro’s and Con’s of PInvoke

So, what are pro’s and con’s of PInvoke? Advantages of PInvoke are that it is supported by Silverlight – as opposed to C++ managed extensions mixed with native code, that it allows the use of C++ dll-s, and that these dll-s can be packaged and distributed along with a Silverlight application. Compared to the use of COM componentsthe advantages are the smaller overhead, and the fact that no formal installation is required, because no insertions in the registry are required.

Drawbacks of PInvoke are: well – it’s not as easy as a managed C++ dll that has native code mixed in, there is the marshalling overhead, implying restrictions on possibilities and performance, and PInvoke is not always that easy to use: there are some hard to find gotcha’s. And then there is this question: if I invest time to learn about PInvoke, what will this knowledge be worth when Windows 8 comes? Is PInvoke something of the PC, or will it be supported on other platforms as well?

Debugging PInvoke DLL-s from Managed Code

Many, many questions, and great despair can be found in the community forums concerning stepping through the native code – called from managed code- in debugging PInvoke scenarios.

Indeed, there seems to be no way to debug a PInvoke dll from Silverlight in Visual Studio 2010. The nearest thing is to create a Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) client and debug it from there (bring code from your Silverlight application). Then, stepping through the C++ code from the .Net client is easy.

In the Properties of the project:

  1. Enable unmanaged code debugging.
  2. If required, rebuild your code, both client and dll.

Set a breakpoint in the native code, and see that process execution stops right there.

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