How to use and debug assembly unloadability in .NET Core

Starting with .NET Core 3.0, the ability to load and later unload a set of assemblies is supported. In .NET Framework, custom app domains were used for this purpose, but .NET Core only supports a single default app domain.

.NET Core 3.0 and later versions support unloadability through AssemblyLoadContext. You can load a set of assemblies into a collectible AssemblyLoadContext, execute methods in them or just inspect them using reflection, and finally unload the AssemblyLoadContext. That unloads the assemblies loaded into that AssemblyLoadContext.

There's one noteworthy difference between the unloading using AssemblyLoadContext and using AppDomains. With AppDomains, the unloading is forced. At the unload time, all threads running in the target AppDomain are aborted, managed COM objects created in the target AppDomain are destroyed, etc. With AssemblyLoadContext, the unload is "cooperative". Calling the AssemblyLoadContext.Unload method just initiates the unloading. The unloading finishes after:

  • No threads have methods from the assemblies loaded into the AssemblyLoadContext on their call stacks.
  • None of the types from the assemblies loaded into the AssemblyLoadContext, instances of those types and the assemblies themselves outside of the AssemblyLoadContext are referenced by:

Using collectible AssemblyLoadContext

This section contains a detailed step-by-step tutorial that shows a simple way to load a .NET Core application into a collectible AssemblyLoadContext, execute its entry point, and then unload it. You can find a complete sample at https://github.com/dotnet/samples/tree/master/core/tutorials/Unloading.

Create a collectible AssemblyLoadContext

You need to derive your class from the AssemblyLoadContext and overload its AssemblyLoadContext.Load method. That method resolves references to all assemblies that are dependencies of assemblies loaded into that AssemblyLoadContext. The following code is an example of the simplest custom AssemblyLoadContext:

class TestAssemblyLoadContext : AssemblyLoadContext
{
    public TestAssemblyLoadContext() : base(isCollectible: true)
    {
    }

    protected override Assembly Load(AssemblyName name)
    {
        return null;
    }
}

As you can see, the Load method returns null. That means that all the dependency assemblies are loaded into the default context, and the new context contains only the assemblies explicitly loaded into it.

If you want to load some or all of the dependencies into the AssemblyLoadContext too, you can use the AssemblyDependencyResolver in the Load method. The AssemblyDependencyResolver resolves the assembly names to absolute assembly file paths using the .deps.json file contained in the directory of the main assembly loaded into the context and using assembly files in that directory.

class TestAssemblyLoadContext : AssemblyLoadContext
{
    private AssemblyDependencyResolver _resolver;

    public TestAssemblyLoadContext(string mainAssemblyToLoadPath) : base(isCollectible: true)
    {
        _resolver = new AssemblyDependencyResolver(mainAssemblyToLoadPath);
    }

    protected override Assembly Load(AssemblyName name)
    {
        string assemblyPath = _resolver.ResolveAssemblyToPath(name);
        if (assemblyPath != null)
        {
            return LoadFromAssemblyPath(assemblyPath);
        }

        return null;
    }
}

Use a custom collectible AssemblyLoadContext

This section assumes the simpler version of the TestAssemblyLoadContext is being used.

You can create an instance of the custom AssemblyLoadContext and load an assembly into it as follows:

var alc = new TestAssemblyLoadContext();
Assembly a = alc.LoadFromAssemblyPath(assemblyPath);

For each of the assemblies referenced by the loaded assembly, the TestAssemblyLoadContext.Load method is called so that the TestAssemblyLoadContext can decide where to get the assembly from. In our case, it returns null to indicate that it should be loaded into the default context from locations that the runtime uses to load assemblies by default.

Now that an assembly was loaded, you can execute a method from it. Run the Main method:

var args = new object[1] { new string[] {"Hello"}};
int result = (int)a.EntryPoint.Invoke(null, args);

After the Main method returns, you can initiate unloading by either calling the Unload method on the custom AssemblyLoadContext or getting rid of the reference you have to the AssemblyLoadContext:

alc.Unload();

This is sufficient to unload the test assembly. Let's actually put all of this into a separate non-inlineable method to ensure that the TestAssemblyLoadContext, Assembly, and MethodInfo (the Assembly.EntryPoint) can't be kept alive by stack slot references (real- or JIT-introduced locals). That could keep the TestAssemblyLoadContext alive and prevent the unload.

Also, return a weak reference to the AssemblyLoadContext so that you can use it later to detect unload completion.

[MethodImpl(MethodImplOptions.NoInlining)]
static int ExecuteAndUnload(string assemblyPath, out WeakReference alcWeakRef)
{
    var alc = new TestAssemblyLoadContext();
    Assembly a = alc.LoadFromAssemblyPath(assemblyPath);

    alcWeakRef = new WeakReference(alc, trackResurrection: true);

    var args = new object[1] { new string[] {"Hello"}};
    int result = (int)a.EntryPoint.Invoke(null, args);

    alc.Unload();

    return result;
}

Now you can run this function to load, execute, and unload the assembly.

WeakReference testAlcWeakRef;
int result = ExecuteAndUnload("absolute/path/to/your/assembly", out testAlcWeakRef);

However, the unload doesn't complete immediately. As previously mentioned, it relies on the GC to collect all the objects from the test assembly. In many cases, it isn't necessary to wait for the unload completion. However, there are cases where it's useful to know that the unload has finished. For example, you may want to delete the assembly file that was loaded into the custom AssemblyLoadContext from disk. In such a case, the following code snippet can be used. It triggers a GC and waits for pending finalizers in a loop until the weak reference to the custom AssemblyLoadContext is set to null, indicating the target object was collected. Note that in most cases, just one pass through the loop is required. However, for more complex cases where objects created by the code running in the AssemblyLoadContext have finalizers, more passes may be needed.

for (int i = 0; testAlcWeakRef.IsAlive && (i < 10); i++)
{
    GC.Collect();
    GC.WaitForPendingFinalizers();
}

The Unloading event

In some cases, it may be necessary for the code loaded into a custom AssemblyLoadContext to perform some cleanup when the unloading is initiated. For example, it may need to stop threads, clean up some strong GC handles, etc. The Unloading event can be used in such cases. A handler that performs the necessary cleanup can be hooked to this event.

Troubleshoot unloadability issues

Due to the cooperative nature of the unloading, it's easy to forget about references keeping the stuff in a collectible AssemblyLoadContext alive and preventing unload. Here is a summary of things (some of them non-obvious) that can hold the references:

  • Regular references held from outside of the collectible AssemblyLoadContext, stored in a stack slot or a processor register (method locals, either explicitly created by the user code or implicitly by the JIT), a static variable or a strong / pinning GC handle, and transitively pointing to:
    • An assembly loaded into the collectible AssemblyLoadContext.
    • A type from such an assembly.
    • An instance of a type from such an assembly.
  • Threads running code from an assembly loaded into the collectible AssemblyLoadContext.
  • Instances of custom non-collectible AssemblyLoadContext types created inside of the collectible AssemblyLoadContext
  • Pending RegisteredWaitHandle instances with callbacks set to methods in the custom AssemblyLoadContext

Hints to find stack slot / processor register rooting an object:

  • Passing function call results directly to another function may create a root even though there is no user-created local variable.
  • If a reference to an object was available at any point in a method, the JIT might have decided to keep the reference in a stack slot / processor register for as long as it wants in the current function.

Debug unloading issues

Debugging issues with unloading can be tedious. You can get into situations where you don't know what can be holding an AssemblyLoadContext alive, but the unload fails. The best weapon to help with that is WinDbg (LLDB on Unix) with the SOS plugin. You need to find what's keeping a LoaderAllocator belonging to the specific AssemblyLoadContext alive. This plugin allows you to look at GC heap objects, their hierarchies, and roots. To load the plugin into the debugger, enter the following command in the debugger command line:

In WinDbg (it seems WinDbg does that automatically when breaking into .NET Core application):

.loadby sos coreclr

In LLDB:

plugin load /path/to/libsosplugin.so

Let's try to debug an example program that has problems with unloading. Source code is included below. When you run it under WinDbg, the program breaks into the debugger right after attempting to check for the unload success. You can then start looking for the culprits.

Note that if you debug using LLDB on Unix, the SOS commands in the following examples don't have the ! in front of them.

!dumpheap -type LoaderAllocator

This command dumps all objects with a type name containing LoaderAllocator that are in the GC heap. Here is an example:

         Address               MT     Size
000002b78000ce40 00007ffadc93a288       48     
000002b78000ceb0 00007ffadc93a218       24     

Statistics:
              MT    Count    TotalSize Class Name
00007ffadc93a218        1           24 System.Reflection.LoaderAllocatorScout
00007ffadc93a288        1           48 System.Reflection.LoaderAllocator
Total 2 objects

In the "Statistics:" part below, check the MT (MethodTable) belonging to the System.Reflection.LoaderAllocator, which is the object we care about. Then in the list at the beginning, find the entry with MT matching that one and get the address of the object itself. In our case, it is "000002b78000ce40"

Now that we know the address of the LoaderAllocator object, we can use another command to find its GC roots

!gcroot -all 0x000002b78000ce40 

This command dumps the chain of object references that lead to the LoaderAllocator instance. The list starts with the root, which is the entity that keeps our LoaderAllocator alive and thus is the core of the problem you're debugging. The root can be a stack slot, a processor register, a GC handle, or a static variable.

Here is an example of the output of the gcroot command:

Thread 4ac:
    000000cf9499dd20 00007ffa7d0236bc example.Program.Main(System.String[]) [E:\unloadability\example\Program.cs @ 70]
        rbp-20: 000000cf9499dd90
            ->  000002b78000d328 System.Reflection.RuntimeMethodInfo
            ->  000002b78000d1f8 System.RuntimeType+RuntimeTypeCache
            ->  000002b78000d1d0 System.RuntimeType
            ->  000002b78000ce40 System.Reflection.LoaderAllocator

HandleTable:
    000002b7f8a81198 (strong handle)
    -> 000002b78000d948 test.Test
    -> 000002b78000ce40 System.Reflection.LoaderAllocator

    000002b7f8a815f8 (pinned handle)
    -> 000002b790001038 System.Object[]
    -> 000002b78000d390 example.TestInfo
    -> 000002b78000d328 System.Reflection.RuntimeMethodInfo
    -> 000002b78000d1f8 System.RuntimeType+RuntimeTypeCache
    -> 000002b78000d1d0 System.RuntimeType
    -> 000002b78000ce40 System.Reflection.LoaderAllocator

Found 3 roots.

Now you need to figure out where the root is located so you can fix it. The easiest case is when the root is a stack slot or a processor register. In that case, the gcroot shows you the name of the function whose frame contains the root and the thread executing that function. The difficult case is when the root is a static variable or a GC handle.

In the previous example, the first root is a local of type System.Reflection.RuntimeMethodInfo stored in the frame of the function example.Program.Main(System.String[]) at address rbp-20 (rbp is the processor register rbp and -20 is a hexadecimal offset from that register).

The second root is a normal (strong) GCHandle that holds a reference to an instance of the test.Test class.

The third root is a pinned GCHandle. This one is actually a static variable. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell. Statics for reference types are stored in a managed object array in internal runtime structures.

Another case that can prevent unloading of an AssemblyLoadContext is when a thread has a frame of a method from an assembly loaded into the AssemblyLoadContext on its stack. You can check that by dumping managed call stacks of all threads:

~*e !clrstack

The command means "apply to all threads the !clrstack command". The following is the output of that command for the example. Unfortunately, LLDB on Unix doesn't have any way to apply a command to all threads, so you'll need to resort to manually switching threads and repeating the clrstack command. Ignore all threads where the debugger says "Unable to walk the managed stack."

OS Thread Id: 0x6ba8 (0)
        Child SP               IP Call Site
0000001fc697d5c8 00007ffb50d9de12 [HelperMethodFrame: 0000001fc697d5c8] System.Diagnostics.Debugger.BreakInternal()
0000001fc697d6d0 00007ffa864765fa System.Diagnostics.Debugger.Break()
0000001fc697d700 00007ffa864736bc example.Program.Main(System.String[]) [E:\unloadability\example\Program.cs @ 70]
0000001fc697d998 00007ffae5fdc1e3 [GCFrame: 0000001fc697d998] 
0000001fc697df28 00007ffae5fdc1e3 [GCFrame: 0000001fc697df28] 
OS Thread Id: 0x2ae4 (1)
Unable to walk the managed stack. The current thread is likely not a 
managed thread. You can run !threads to get a list of managed threads in
the process
Failed to start stack walk: 80070057
OS Thread Id: 0x61a4 (2)
Unable to walk the managed stack. The current thread is likely not a 
managed thread. You can run !threads to get a list of managed threads in
the process
Failed to start stack walk: 80070057
OS Thread Id: 0x7fdc (3)
Unable to walk the managed stack. The current thread is likely not a 
managed thread. You can run !threads to get a list of managed threads in
the process
Failed to start stack walk: 80070057
OS Thread Id: 0x5390 (4)
Unable to walk the managed stack. The current thread is likely not a 
managed thread. You can run !threads to get a list of managed threads in
the process
Failed to start stack walk: 80070057
OS Thread Id: 0x5ec8 (5)
        Child SP               IP Call Site
0000001fc70ff6e0 00007ffb5437f6e4 [DebuggerU2MCatchHandlerFrame: 0000001fc70ff6e0] 
OS Thread Id: 0x4624 (6)
        Child SP               IP Call Site
GetFrameContext failed: 1
0000000000000000 0000000000000000 
OS Thread Id: 0x60bc (7)
        Child SP               IP Call Site
0000001fc727f158 00007ffb5437fce4 [HelperMethodFrame: 0000001fc727f158] System.Threading.Thread.SleepInternal(Int32)
0000001fc727f260 00007ffb37ea7c2b System.Threading.Thread.Sleep(Int32)
0000001fc727f290 00007ffa865005b3 test.Program.ThreadProc() [E:\unloadability\test\Program.cs @ 17]
0000001fc727f2c0 00007ffb37ea6a5b System.Threading.Thread.ThreadMain_ThreadStart()
0000001fc727f2f0 00007ffadbc4cbe3 System.Threading.ExecutionContext.RunInternal(System.Threading.ExecutionContext, System.Threading.ContextCallback, System.Object)
0000001fc727f568 00007ffae5fdc1e3 [GCFrame: 0000001fc727f568] 
0000001fc727f7f0 00007ffae5fdc1e3 [DebuggerU2MCatchHandlerFrame: 0000001fc727f7f0] 

As you can see, the last thread has test.Program.ThreadProc(). This is a function from the assembly loaded into the AssemblyLoadContext, and so it keeps the AssemblyLoadContext alive.

Example source with unloadability issues

The following code is used in the previous debugging example.

Main testing program

using System;
using System.Reflection;
using System.Runtime.CompilerServices;
using System.Runtime.Loader;

namespace example
{
    class TestAssemblyLoadContext : AssemblyLoadContext
    {
        public TestAssemblyLoadContext() : base(true)
        {
        }
        protected override Assembly Load(AssemblyName name)
        {
            return null;
        }
    }

    class TestInfo
    {
        public TestInfo(MethodInfo mi)
        {
            entryPoint = mi;
        }
        MethodInfo entryPoint;
    }

    class Program
    {
        static TestInfo entryPoint;

        [MethodImpl(MethodImplOptions.NoInlining)]
        static int ExecuteAndUnload(string assemblyPath, out WeakReference testAlcWeakRef, out MethodInfo testEntryPoint)
        {
            var alc = new TestAssemblyLoadContext();
            testAlcWeakRef = new WeakReference(alc);

            Assembly a = alc.LoadFromAssemblyPath(assemblyPath);
            if (a == null)
            {
                testEntryPoint = null;
                Console.WriteLine("Loading the test assembly failed");
                return -1;
            }

            var args = new object[1] {new string[] {"Hello"}};

            // Issue preventing unloading #1 - we keep MethodInfo of a method for an assembly loaded into the TestAssemblyLoadContext in a static variable
            entryPoint = new TestInfo(a.EntryPoint);
            testEntryPoint = a.EntryPoint;

            int result = (int)a.EntryPoint.Invoke(null, args);
            alc.Unload();

            return result;
        }

        static void Main(string[] args)
        {
            WeakReference testAlcWeakRef;
            // Issue preventing unloading #2 - we keep MethodInfo of a method for an assembly loaded into the TestAssemblyLoadContext in a local variable
            MethodInfo testEntryPoint;
            int result = ExecuteAndUnload(@"absolute/path/to/test.dll", out testAlcWeakRef, out testEntryPoint);

            for (int i = 0; testAlcWeakRef.IsAlive && (i < 10); i++)
            {
                GC.Collect();
                GC.WaitForPendingFinalizers();
            }

            System.Diagnostics.Debugger.Break();

            Console.WriteLine($"Test completed, result={result}, entryPoint: {testEntryPoint} unload success: {!testAlcWeakRef.IsAlive}");
        }
    }
}

Program loaded into the TestAssemblyLoadContext

The following code represents the test.dll passed to the ExecuteAndUnload method in the main testing program.

using System;
using System.Runtime.InteropServices;

namespace test
{
    class Test
    {
        string message = "Hello";
    }

    class Program
    {
        public static void ThreadProc()
        {
            // Issue preventing unlopading #4 - a thread running method inside of the TestAssemblyLoadContext at the unload time
            Thread.Sleep(Timeout.Infinite);
        }

        static GCHandle handle;
        static int Main(string[] args)
        {
            // Issue preventing unloading #3 - normal GC handle
            handle = GCHandle.Alloc(new Test());
            Thread t = new Thread(new ThreadStart(ThreadProc));
            t.IsBackground = true;
            t.Start();
            Console.WriteLine($"Hello from the test: args[0] = {args[0]}");

            return 1;
        }
    }
}