Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Compiling Visual Basic, C# & F# Code Into A Single DLL Using msbuild

Recently I had a requirement in which a C# file had to be included in a VB.Net project. I knew I couldn't add the file directly to the project, so I cut over the C# file to VB.Net. At first this seemed pretty obvious since Visual Studio maps every project to a programming language and uses an appropriate compiler to compile the files in the project.

But giving it a deeper thought, I felt something didn't fit the picture. Every project, rather every file that we compile using the .NET Framework generates Common Intermediate Language which is used by the Common Language Runtime. It is because of this CIL that we have language interoperability in .NET. So theoretically speaking, code written in different languages should be able to exist in a single assembly.

Though I couldn't find a way to directly add a C# file into a VB.Net project, I found a way to create a DLL from compiled VB.Net and C# code through a concept of the .NET framework called Multi Module Assemblies.

In .NET, the minimum unit of deployment is an assembly; Dynamic Link Libraries (DLLs), Executables (.exe), etc. are all assemblies. An assembly can contain multiple files like resource files, the manifest, etc. It can contain files of another type called netmodules. A netmodule is a unit of compilation. It cannot be deployed directly but can be linked into an assembly. netmodules written in different .NET languages can be linked into a single assembly.

Unfortunately Visual Studio wasn't built for Multi Module Assemblies, hence there's no way to create a netmodule from a project in Visual Studio. However msbuild allows us to create a netmodule from the projects. There are typically three changes that have to be done to the .proj files (.fsproj, .vbproj, .csproj, etc.) for msbuild to generate a netmodule -

  1. Changing the OutputType to Module. Visual Studio doesn't recognize this output type, so even when you change this in the .proj files, Visual Studio won't be able to show it in the Project Properties
  2. Exclude the AssemblyInfo file from the project. netmodules aren't supposed to have an application manifest. If they do, the linker won't be able to resolve which application manifest should be used when we are building an assembly from multiple netmodules
  3. If one netmodule is dependent on another netmodule, a reference to the dependent module should be specified using the AddModules XML node in the .proj file. Similar to DLLs, netmodules cannot be circularly referenced

Once the .proj file has been modified, the project can be built using msbuild. If the project is a part of a solution, building the solution will create a netmodule for this project - msbuild solution_path

Once the netmodules are created using msbuild, a DLL can be created from them using the Assembly Linker of the .NET framework - al /t:library /out:"path_to_dll" path_to_netmodules

With this we have a DLL which contains all the netmodules bundled into one. To understand this better, let's consider an example - I have three projects, one in F#, VB.Net and in C# under a solution called MultiLanguage.

The .fsproj, .vbproj and .csproj have to be changed as mentioned above. From the netmodules obtained from msbuild, the DLL can be created using the assembly linker.

The sample solution and the build script can be downloaded from here. I automated the .proj changes using Microsoft's Build Engine API. You can give it a try here; it takes the .sln file as an input and modifies all the projects in the solution to generated netmodules.


sistla prasad said...

qite interesting for me and i know you are making a mop of good things
i appreciate
i came to your blog on visitng your comment box on your purchase of HCL tablet !
keep good things going and your hard work too

sistla prasad

Anonymous said...

Boy this information was hard to find. Everyone only talks about similar things, such as making an EXE using ILMerge. This was the only site that explained how to do what I needed, so thank you for sharing.

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