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Call function in unmanaged DLL from C# and pass custom data types [Marshal]

gabbersepp profile image Josef Biehler ・6 min read

Note: Get the full runnable example here: Marshal example

During my last doings I needed to call a unmanaged library from .NET. That mechanism is called Platform Invoke (P/Invoke) can easily be done by using the DllImport attribute:

[DllImport("Dll1.dll")]
public static extern void Test();

But what if we want to pass some parameters? Let's say you have this C++ function definition:

void __stdcall Test(intptr_t pointer)

Well, this one is easy:

[DllImport("Dll1.dll")]
 public static extern void Test(IntPtr pointer);

No work must be done by you to get this running. The transition from IntPtr to intptr_t is done by .NET using Marshaling. This is somehow like sending data to a web server. In the client code you have a Date object but the server expects a DateTimeOffset. The transisition is done by using e.g. JSON representation and a JSON serializer that is capable of converting a string into the DateTimeOffset structure. There are many types that can be marshaled out of the box.

Sending custom datatypes

But what can we do, if we have a C++ signature like this:

struct TestFnParams {
    int A;
    char* B;
};

void __stdcall TestFunction(TestFnParams* p)

And a C# object like this:

public class TestFnParams
{
    public int PropertyA { get; set; }
    public string PropertyB { get; set; }
}

For this case .NET provides us with the capability to write an own Marshaler. In the following sections we are going to write a very simple one.

The C++ code

We just print both, the number and the string, that were passed in the struct. TestFunction expects a pointer to a TestFnParams struct:

// ./code/DLL1/dllmain.cpp#L20-L29

struct TestFnParams {
    int A;
    char* B;
};

void __stdcall TestFunction(TestFnParams* p) {
    std::cout << "Number: " << p->A << "\r\n";
    std::cout << "String: " << p->B << "\r\n";
    std::cout << "Hello from dll";
}

The C# code

First we define the class:

// ./code/ConsoleApp1/Program.cs#L70-L74

public class TestFnParams
{
  public int PropertyA { get; set; }
  public string PropertyB { get; set; }
}

And the main function:

// ./code/ConsoleApp1/Program.cs#L58-L67

static void Main(string[] args)
{
  var obj = new TestFnParams
  {
    PropertyA = 100,
    PropertyB = "Hello from managed object"
  };
  TestFunction(obj);
  Console.Read();
}

Now specify the DllImport attribute with a small difference to the normal usage:

// ./code/ConsoleApp1/Program.cs#L55-L56

[DllImport("Dll1.dll", CallingConvention = CallingConvention.StdCall)]
public static extern void TestFunction([MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.CustomMarshaler, MarshalTypeRef = typeof(CustomMarshaler))] TestFnParams p);

By using the MarshalAs attribute we can easily tell .NET to use our own marshaler.

Implementing the CustomMarshaler

Just create a new class and implement ICustomMarshaler. It has following methods:

  • object MarshalNativeToManaged (IntPtr pNativeData)

This method must be implemented if you are dealing with return values of custom types or out parameters. I don't use both so I skip it.

  • public IntPtr MarshalManagedToNative (object ManagedObj);

Used to convert the method parameter into the native representation.

  • public int GetNativeDataSize ();

From what I've understand, we can safely return -1 here because MarshalManagedToNative returns a pointer that always have a fixed size. In my test this method was not called at all.

  • public void CleanUpNativeData (IntPtr pNativeData);

Here we have to do the memory cleanup. Always remember, native data structures are unmanaged and thus you are responsible for the garbage collection.

  • public void CleanUpManagedData (object ManagedObj);

The cleanup hook for the managed objects. In our simple case we don't need it.

Also there is one constraint that must be fulfilled by the implementing class. It must provide a static method named GetInstance:

static ICustomMarshaler GetInstance(string pstrCookie);  

The CLR is calling it in order to get an instance of the marshaler. This is necessary because the CLR will call that method once per application lifetime for every pstrCookie. So if you use the same function with different cookies, you can provide the CLR different instances. It is meant to be a singleton and thus should not hold any state.

Use different instances

The cookie can be specified within the MarshalAs attribute. Following code will call the same function but use another instance of the marshaler:

[DllImport("Dll1.dll", CallingConvention = CallingConvention.StdCall, EntryPoint = "TestFunction")]
public static extern void TestFunctionOtherCookie([MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.CustomMarshaler, MarshalTypeRef = typeof(CustomMarshaler), MarshalCookie = "OtherCookie")]TestFnParams p);

Until now, our implementation looks like this:

public class CustomMarshaler : ICustomMarshaler
{
    void ICustomMarshaler.CleanUpManagedData(object ManagedObj)
    {
    }

    void ICustomMarshaler.CleanUpNativeData(IntPtr pNativeData)
    {
        // to be defined
    }

    int ICustomMarshaler.GetNativeDataSize()
    {
        return -1;
    }

    IntPtr ICustomMarshaler.MarshalManagedToNative(object ManagedObj)
    {
        // to be defined
    }

    object ICustomMarshaler.MarshalNativeToManaged(IntPtr pNativeData)
    {
        throw new NotImplementedException();
    }

    public static ICustomMarshaler GetInstance(string cookie)
    {
        return new CustomMarshaler();
    }
}

Implement MarshalManagedToNative

First you have to know what kind of data the native function expects. In this case it is a pointer to a struct. How does the struct look like?

struct TestFnParams {
    int A;
    char* B;
};

In the memory you just have 8 bytes (in a 32bit process) somewherre in the memory where the first four bytes represent the integer A and the subsequent four bytes represent the pointer to the string B. To provide native data you have to allocate memory and write into it. Fortunatelly there is the Marshal class that provides a few functions to us:

  • AllocHGlobal(size): requests a memory block with the specified size in bytes
  • Write*: functions to write into that memory block

So let's start by casting the function parameter:

// ./code/ConsoleApp1/Program.cs#L24-L30

IntPtr ICustomMarshaler.MarshalManagedToNative(object ManagedObj)
{
  var casted = ManagedObj as TestFnParams;
  if (casted == null)
  {
    return IntPtr.Zero;
  }

Now we must use AllocHGlobal. But how many bytes do we need? Of course we need the mentioned 8 bytes to represent the struct. To support both, 32bit and 64 bit, use sizeof:

var ptr = Marshal.AllocHGlobal(sizeof(int) + Marshal.SizeOf(typeof(IntPtr)));

The next step is to write the integer PropertyA into that memory block:

Marshal.WriteInt32(ptr, casted.PropertyA);

To write the string PropertyB into the native memory, following steps are required:

  • allocate a memory block with the size: PropertyB.Length + 1. Mind the +1 which is for holding the terminating \0 byte.
  • write that pointer to [ptr + 4]
  • write the char bytes to the newly allocated memory

And this is the code:

// ./code/ConsoleApp1/Program.cs#L34-L39

var bytes = Encoding.UTF8.GetBytes(casted.PropertyB);
var strPtr = Marshal.AllocHGlobal(bytes.Length + 1);
Marshal.Copy(bytes, 0, strPtr, bytes.Length);
Marshal.WriteByte(strPtr + bytes.Length, 0);
Marshal.WriteIntPtr(ptr + sizeof(int), strPtr);
return ptr;

That's all. You just marshaled a managed object successfully to a native function. The last step is to return the pointer to your manually created struct: return ptr;. This will be the function parameter which is received by the native function.

Conclusion

I didn't expect this being so easy to implement (of course I don't have choosen the most complexe example here). The whole code (including reading documentation and troubleshooting) was written in under two hours if I remember correctly. One mistake that costs very much time was that I tried to copy the char bytes to [ptr + 4] what was completeley wrong of course:

var ptr = Marshal.AllocHGlobal(sizeof(int) + casted.PropertyB.Length);
Marshal.WriteInt32(ptr, casted.PropertyA);
var bytes = Encoding.UTF8.GetBytes(casted.PropertyB);
Marshal.Copy(bytes, 0, ptr + 4, bytes.Length);

Additional links

ICustomMarshaler
Long Marshaler
Understanding Custom Marshaling
More examples using marhsal cookie
Types


Found a typo?

As I am not a native English speaker, it is very likely that you will find an error. In this case, feel free to create a pull request here: https://github.com/gabbersepp/dev.to-posts . Also please open a PR for all other kind of errors.

Do not worry about merge conflicts. I will resolve them on my own.

Posted on Jun 6 by:

gabbersepp profile

Josef Biehler

@gabbersepp

I am a tall (1,95m) coding & drawing enthusiast that likes all type of coding and drawing cartoons. I like to work (coding & drawing) on the go with my surface #cypress #js #csharp

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