.NET FrameworkCustom Types


Typically a struct is used only when performance is very important. Since value types live on the stack, they can be accessed much quicker than classes. However, the stack has much less room than the heap, so structs should be kept small (Microsoft recommends structs take up no more than 16 bytes).

A class is the most-used type (of these three) in C#, and is generally what you should go with first.

An enum is used whenever you can have a clearly defined, distinct list of items that only need to be defined once (at compile time). Enums are helpful to programmers as a lightweight reference to some value: instead of defining a list of constant variables to compare to, you can use an enum, and get Intellisense support to make sure you don't accidentally use a wrong value.

Struct Definition

Structs inherit from System.ValueType, are value types, and live on the stack. When value types are passed as a parameter, they are passed by value.

Struct MyStruct
    public int x;
    public int y;

Passed by value means that the value of the parameter is copied for the method, and any changes made to the parameter in the method are not reflected outside of the method. For instance, consider the following code, which calls a method named AddNumbers, passing in the variables a and b, which are of type int, which is a Value type.

int a = 5;
int b = 6;


public AddNumbers(int x, int y)
    int z = x + y; // z becomes 11
    x = x + 5; // now we changed x to be 10
    z = x + y; // now z becomes 16

Even though we added 5 to x inside the method, the value of a remains unchanged, because it's a Value type, and that means x was a copy of a's value, but not actually a.

Remember, Value types live on the stack, and are passed by value.

Class Definition

Classes inherit from System.Object, are reference types, and live on the heap. When reference types are passed as a parameter, they are passed by reference.

public Class MyClass
    public int a;
    public int b;

Passed by reference means that a reference to the parameter is passed to the method, and any changes to the parameter will be reflected outside of the method when it returns, because the reference is to the exact same object in memory. Let's use the same example as before, but we'll "wrap" the ints in a class first.

MyClass instanceOfMyClass = new MyClass();
instanceOfMyClass.a = 5;
instanceOfMyClass.b = 6;


public AddNumbers(MyClass sample)
    int z = sample.a + sample.b; // z becomes 11
    sample.a = sample.a + 5; // now we changed a to be 10
    z = sample.a + sample.b; // now z becomes 16

This time, when we changed sample.a to 10, the value of instanceOfMyClass.a also changes, because it was passed by reference. Passed by reference means that a reference (also sometimes called a pointer) to the object was passed into the method, instead of a copy of the object itself.

Remember, Reference types live on the heap, and are passed by reference.

Enum Definition

An enum is a special type of class. The enum keyword tells the compiler that this class inherits from the abstract System.Enum class. Enums are used for distinct lists of items.

public enum MyEnum
    Monday = 1,

You can think of an enum as a convenient way of mapping constants to some underlying value. The enum defined above declares values for each day of the week, and starts with 1. Tuesday would then automatically become mapped to 2, Wednesday to 3, etc.

By default, enums use int as the underlying type and start at 0, but you can use any of the following integral types: byte, sbyte, short, ushort, int, uint, long, or ulong, and can specify explicit values for any item. If some items are explicitly specified, but some are not, each item after the last defined one will be incremented by 1.

We would use this example by casting some other value to a MyEnum like so:

MyEnum instance = (MyEnum)3; // the variable named 'instance' gets a 
                             //value of MyEnum.Wednesday, which maps to 3.

int x = 2;
instance = (MyEnum)x; // now 'instance' has a value of MyEnum.Tuesday

Another useful, although more complex, type of enum is called Flags. By decorating an enum with the Flags attribute, you can assign a variable more than one value at a time. Note that when doing this you must define values explicitly in base 2 representation.

public enum MyEnum
    Monday = 1,
    Tuesday = 2,
    Wednesday = 4,
    Thursday = 8,
    Friday = 16,
    Saturday = 32, 
    Sunday = 64

Now you can compare more than one value at a time, either using bitwise comparisons or, if you are using .NET 4.0 or later, the built-in Enum.HasFlag method.

MyEnum instance = MyEnum.Monday | MyEnum.Thursday; // instance now has a value of
                                                   // *both* Monday and Thursday,
                                                   // represented by (in binary) 0100. 

if (instance.HasFlag(MyEnum.Wednesday))
    // it doesn't, so this block is skipped
else if (instance.HasFlag(MyEnum.Thursday))
    // it does, so this block is executed

Since the Enum class is subclassed from System.ValueType, it is treated as a value type and passed by value, not by reference. The base object is created on the heap, but when you pass an enum value into a function call, a copy of the value using the underlying value type of the Enum (typically System.Int32) is pushed onto the stack. The compiler tracks the association between this value and the base object that was created on the stack. See ValueType Class (System) (MSDN) for more information.