Assemblies


The assembly is an important element of .NET programming. On the .NET platform, an assembly is a unit of reuse, versioning, security and deployment. In order to package and deploy our types, they must be placed into modules that are part of an assembly. Every managed application in .NET is deployed as an assembly. It means that the entire .NET code on compilation gets converted into an Intermediate Language (IL) code and gets stored as an assembly. In addition to the IL code, an assembly also contains Assembly metadata (Manifest), Type metadata and Resources. Assemblies are hence self-describing. Let us peep into the structure of an assembly.

Structure of an assembly
If an assembly is to be made up of several programs, the programs can be stored in separate modules. Suppose there are two source files ‘a.cs’ and ‘b.cs’ of which, ‘a.cs’ is stored in a module, whereas, ‘b.cs’ is stored in the assembly itself. Both comprise an assembly named ‘mydll.dll’. The structure of the assembly ‘mydll.dll’ would look as shown in the following figure.

The PE file ‘a.dll’ is said to be stored in a module of the ‘mydll.dll’ assembly. Had ‘mydll.dll’ contained resources, they would also get added in the structure with the type metadata and manifest. The ‘assembly description’ shown in manifest contains the identity of the assembly, consisting of its name, version and culture. An assembly has a four part version number e.g. 1.0.1.1. The parts are <Major> . <Minor> . <Build> . <Revision>. Other contents are the names of all the files in the assembly, information regarding whether all the types defined in the assembly are visible to other assemblies or private to one, a hash of all files in the assembly and details of any security permissions that clients need to have in order to be able to run the assembly.

Private and shared assemblies
We can create two types of assemblies—private assemblies and shared assemblies. A private assembly is used by only one application while a shared assembly is shared amongst different applications.

By default, when a C# program is compiled, the assembly produced will be a private assembly. This assembly (DLL/EXE) should be placed in the same folder as the calling application. With a private assembly it’s not necessary to think about naming conflicts with other classes or versioning problems because each application has its own copy of the assembly. In shared assemblies we have to ensure that the assembly is unique, and therefore, give it a unique name (called strong name).

In this article we would see how to build and use a shared assembly.

Let us write a class library consisting of a function called display( ). We will call this function from a client program, which we will create later. Here is code of the display( ) method, which is defined in the mytext class.

public class mytext
{
   public void display ( Form fr, string s, Color c, string fname,
   int size, Point pt )
   {
     Graphics g = fr.CreateGraphics();
     Font myfont = new Font(fname, size);
     SolidBrush mybrush = new SolidBrush(c);
     g.DrawString(s, myfont, mybrush, pt);
   }
}

The display() method simply draws text with the specified Font and Brush. On building the project a ‘fontassembly.dll’ file would get created in the ‘fontassembly\bin\Debug’ subfolder.

A shared assembly is always unique. To be uniquely identified, a shared assembly has a strong name. The combination of a file name, a public key, a version number and culture (locale details) gives an assembly a strong name, which is guaranteed to be unique. Now let’s first see what are public and private keys and then see how to build them.

Public keys, private keys and encryption
Encryption is the act of encoding files/programs so that others not privy to the decryption mechanism cannot understand the content of the text. Thus encryption is the process of hiding our data from anyone we feel should not be allowed to read it. Under the .NET platform this has special significance since here we distribute our IL code embedded in assemblies, instead of the executable machine code, which can potentially be deciphered without too much difficulty. .NET has a strong inbuilt mechanism to maintain the privacy of code. If this had not been the case, any one with the ILDASM.EXE utility would have an access to your code. Not only that, he or she would also have the opportunity to distribute it under his name. .NET achieves this security by public key encryption.

The public key and private keys are complementary entities; one is meaningless without the other. The creation of public and private keys is carried out by complicated mathematical algorithms. A document encrypted with one key can be decrypted only by using the other key. Not even the key with which the data was encrypted can be used to decrypt it back. The public key can be distributed freely without any fear of it being misused.

Building the keys
To build public and private keys we have to use the sn (short for strong name) utility. This utility generates a public/private key pair. The public key created using this utility will be used to define a strong name. To create the key pair we must type the following at command prompt:

C:\CSharp\fontassembly>sn –k mykey.snk

On executing the utility a file called mykey.snk gets created. This file contains the public and private keys.

To create a strong name, the compiler uses the public key from the mykey.snk file, hence we must provide this file to the compiler. To do so we would have to open the AssemblyInfo.cs file of the project. In this file we would have to set the AssemblyKeyFile attribute to the ‘.snk’ file path. The attribute must be either set to an absolute path to the key file or if the file is copied to the local directory of the project, only the file name must be mentioned. We need to add the following to the ‘AssemblyInfo.cs’ file.

[assembly: AssemblyKeyFile(“mykey.snk”)]

We should also change the version number of our assembly as shown below.

[assembly: AssemblyVersion(“1.0.1.1”)]

On rebuilding the program, the assembly would now use the public key from the mykey.snk file along with the name of the assembly, the version number and the culture to build a strong name. Culture is a combination of a two-letter word indicating the language and a two-letter word indicating the country code. The strong name never contains the private key. This ensures that the private key is not written in the manifest and hence is not made available to everybody. This strong name is written in the manifest of the assembly.

Along with the strong name, the compiler also generates a cryptographic hash from the names and contents of the files in the assembly. The compiler then encrypts the cryptographic hash for the assembly using the private key (available in mykey.snk). It places the encrypted hash in the manifest of the assembly. This hash would be used by the client to check the authenticity of the assembly.

So, in all, two things are written inside the manifest—the strong name and the encrypted hash of the names and contents of the files. The process of writing the encrypted hash value in the manifest is called ‘Signing of an assembly’. Now our shared assembly is ready. To make it available to all the clients we would have to install it in the Global Assembly Cache. All the shared assemblies available on a system are stored in the Global Assembly Cache. This store is located in the <drive>:\Windows\Assembly folder.

Installing the shared assembly
To install a shared assembly in the global cache we would have to use the Global Assembly Cache utility tool called gacutil along with the /i option. Here /i stands for install. This is what we must type at the command prompt to install the
assembly.

C:\CSharp\fontassembly\bin\Debug>gacutil                /i fontassembly.dll

If the assembly is successfully installed, the following message would appear:

Assembly successfully added to the cache

Building the client
Let us now build a client that would use the assembly that we created above. To create the client select a ‘Windows Application’ project and name it as fontclient

When we click on the form, some text should be displayed at the position where we click. This can be achieved by calling the display( ) method from ‘fontassembly.dll’ in the Form1_MouseDown( ) handler. To have access to this method we have added a reference of the mytext class as a data member of the Form1 class. The Form1_MouseDown( ) handler is shown below.

private void myform_MouseDown ( object sender, 
System.Windows.Forms.MouseEventArgs e)
{
  if(e.Button == MouseButtons.Left)
  {
    Point pt = new Point ( e.X, e.Y ) ;
    t.display ( this, “Hello”, Color.Red, “Comic Sans MS”, 30, pt );
  }
}

Here we have first checked whether the left mouse button has been clicked. If so then we have called the display( ) method of the mytext class from the fontassembly assembly.

For the mytext class to become available we have added the statement using fontassembly ;. However this is not enough. We also need to add a reference to the library. To do this we should right click on ‘References’ in the Solution Explorer window and select ‘Add References’. On doing so the ‘Add References’ window would appear.

Execute the program and click on the form, a string “Hello” would appear at the point where mouse is clicked. The entire process of creation of a shared assembly is illustrated in the following figure.

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