Boxing and Unboxing in VB.NET


Boxing and unboxing is a essential concept in VB.NET's type system. With Boxing and unboxing one can link between value-types and reference-types by allowing any value of a value-type to be converted to and from type object. Boxing and unboxing enables a unified view of the type system wherein a value of any type can ultimately be treated as an object. Converting a value type to reference type is called Boxing.Unboxing is an explicit operation.

VB.NET provides a "unified type system". All types-including value types-derive from the type object. It is possible to call object methods on any value, even values of "primitive" types such as int.

The example

Imports System
Class Test
Shared Sub Main()
End Sub 'Main
End Class 'Test

calls the object-defined ToString method on an integer literal.

The example

Class Test
Shared Sub Main()
Dim i As Integer = 1
Dim o As Object = i ' boxing
Dim j As Integer = CInt(o) ' unboxing
End Sub 'Main
End Class 'Test

An int value can be converted to object and back again to int.

This example shows both boxing and unboxing. When a variable of a value type needs to be converted to a reference type, an object box is allocated to hold the value, and the value is copied into the box.

Unboxing is just the opposite. When an object box is cast back to its original value type, the value is copied out of the box and into the appropriate storage location.

Boxing conversions.

A boxing conversion permits any value-type to be implicitly converted to the type object or to any interface-type implemented by the value-type.

Boxing a value of a value-type consists of allocating an object instance and copying the value-type value into that instance.

For example any value-type G, the boxing class would be declared as follows:

Class vBox
Private value As G
Sub New(ByVal g As G)
value = g
End Sub 'New
End Class

BoxBoxing of a value v of type G now consists of executing the expression new G_Box(v), and returning the resulting instance as a value of type object.

Thus, the statements

Dim i As Integer = 12
Dim box As Object = i

conceptually correspond to

Dim i As Integer = 12
Dim box = New int_Box(i)

Boxing classes like G_Box and int_Box above don't actually exist and the dynamic type of a boxed value isn't actually a class type. Instead, a boxed value of type G has the dynamic type G, and a dynamic type check using the is operator can simply reference type G. For example,

Dim i As Integer = 12
Dim box As Object = i
If TypeOf box Is Integer Then
Console.Write("Box contains an int")
End If

will output the string "Box contains an integer" on the console.

A boxing conversion implies making a copy of the value being boxed. This is different from a conversion of a reference-type to type object, in which the value continues to reference the same instance and simply is regarded as the less derived type object.

For example, given the declaration.


Public x, y As Integer
Sub New(ByVal x As Integer, ByVal y As Integer)
Me.x = x
Me.y = y
End Sub 'New
End Structure 'Point

the following statements


p As New Point(10, 10)
Dim box As Object = p
p.x = 20
Console.Write(CType(box, Point).x)

will output the value 10 on the console because the implicit boxing operation that occurs in the assignment of p to box causes the value of p to be copied. Had Point instead been declared a class, the value 20 would be output because p and box would reference the same instance.

Unboxing conversions.

An unboxing conversion permits an explicit conversion from type object to any value-type or from any interface-type to any value-type that implements the interface-type. An unboxing operation consists of first checking that the object instance is a boxed value of the given value-type, and then copying the value out of the instance.

Unboxing conversion of an object box to a value-type G consists of executing the expression ((G_Box)box).value.

Thus, the statements

Dim box As Object = 12
Dim i As Integer = CInt(box)

conceptually correspond to

Dim box = New int_Box(12)
Dim i As Integer = CType(box, int_Box).value.

For an unboxing conversion to a given value-type to succeed at run-time, the value of the source argument must be a reference to an object that was previously created by boxing a value of that value-type. If the source argument is null or a reference to an incompatible object, an InvalidCastException is thrown.


This type system unification provides value types with the benefits of object-ness without introducing unnecessary overhead. For programs that don't need int values to act like objects, int values are simply 32-bit values. For programs that need int values to behave like objects, this capability is available on demand. This ability to treat value types as objects bridges the gap between value types and reference types that exists in most languages.


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