C# Classes and Structs Efficiency

C# class instances are always allocated on the heap and accessed via a pointer dereference. Passing them around is cheap because it is just a copy of the pointer (4 or 8 bytes), depending on the OS bitness.

Class has the following memory overheads:

  • 8 bytes for 32-bit processes and 16 bytes for 64-bit processes (pointer to the method table and a sync block field that is used for multiple purposes).

However, if you examine an object that had no fields in the debugger, you will see that the size is reported as 12 bytes (32-bit) or 24 bytes (64-bit), and that’s because .NET will align all objects in memory and these are the effective minimum object sizes.

A struct has no overhead at all and its memory usage is a sum of the size of all its fields. If a struct is declared as a local variable in a method, then the struct is allocated on the stack. If the struct is declared as part of a class, then the struct’s memory will be part of that class’s memory layout (and thus exist on the heap). When you pass a struct to a method it is copied byte for byte. Because it is not on the heap, allocating a struct will never cause a garbage collection. However, if you start allocating large structs all the time, you may start running into stack space limitations if you have very deep stacks (which is very possible with some frameworks).

There is thus a tradeoff here. You can find various pieces of advice about the maximum recommended size of a struct, but I would not get caught up on the exact number. In most cases, you will want to keep struct sizes very small, especially if they are passed around, but you can also pass structs by reference so the size may not be an important issue to you. The only way to know for sure whether it benefits you is to consider your usage pattern and do your own profiling.

There is a huge difference in efficiency in some cases. While the overhead of an object might not seem like very much, consider an array of objects and compare it to an array of structs. Assume the data structure contains 16 bytes of data, the array length is 1,000,000, and this is a 32-bit system.

For an array of objects the total space usage is:

(8 bytes array overhead) + ((4 byte pointer size) * 1000000) + ((8 bytes overhead + 16 bytes data) * 1000000) = 28 MB

For an array of structs, the results are dramatically different:

(8 bytes array overhead) + (16 bytes data * 1000000) = 16 MB

With a 64-bit process, the object array takes over 40 MB while the struct array still requires only 16 MB.

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