Thursday, May 31, 2007

.Net XmlSerializer and InvalidCastException

Many of our applications work via a plugin architecture, which allows us to be flexible in a lot of ways. A while back I ran into a problem with XML serialization and our plugin system. The error was confusing and the solution was non-obvious. The exception I recieved was the following:
System.InvalidOperationException: There was an error generating the XML document.
---System.InvalidCastException: Unable to cast object
of type 'MyNamespace.Settings' to type 'MyNamespace.Settings'. at
Microsoft.Xml.Serialization.GeneratedAssembly.
XmlSerializationWriterSettings.Write3_Settings(Object o)
I've made bold the confusing (and vexing!) part of the error. Apparently the XmlSerializer could not cast a type to itself? Worse still, the MSDN documentation does not list InvalidCastException as a common exception (which normally lists the boneheaded mistake your program made).

After a large amount of googling, I came across a snippet--which if you place in App.Config--makes the error disappear (but is not meant to remove any errors):
<system.diagnostics>
<switches>
<add name="XmlSerialization.Compilation" value="4" />
</switches>
</system.diagnostics>
What the "4" means, I could not tell you, but this magical block of code solved my problem. However, I am never satisfied with hacks like this, so I dug deeper. The root cause apparently is due to how I load my plugin and where the assembly is that called the XmlSerializer.

In .Net there are 3 assembly load contexts (plus assemblies can be loaded without context), each causes your types to be slightly different. If your plugin is loaded in the Load-From context (as mine was), the type MyNamespace.Settings is "branded" (so to speak) with the context it was resolved in. If your plugin uses an XmlSerializer, the temporary assemblies generated to speed (de)serialization are part of the Load context (or perhaps are without context, I haven't found out for sure). Therefore the type the XmlSerializer attempts to create is different in context from the type in your plugin.

I found the most effective strategy to combat this interesting error is to always use the Load context. This requires your plugin DLLs lie under the ApplicationBase or PrivateBinBase paths. All in all this is the best solution, considering Side-by-Side is the new Microsoft way of deploying applications and DLLs (to avoid DLL Hell).

Here is a short snippet of what the plugins may look like in your App.Config:
<plugins>
<plugin
name="My Plugin"
assemblyName="MyPlugin, Version=1.0.0.0,
Culture=neutral, PublicKeyToken=deadbeefbaadf00d" />
</plugins>
You could then load this plugin (after reading in the appropriate ConfigurationSection) like so, to ensure XmlSerializer works in your plugin:
PluginsSection pluginsSection =
config.GetSection("plugins") as PluginsSection;
foreach(PluginElement elt in pluginsSection.Plugins)
{
Assembly pluginAsm = Assembly.Load(elt.AssemblyName);
/* Reflect across the assembly looking for types with
* [MyAppPluginAttribute] or those that implement
* IMyAppPlugin, so an assembly can contain more than
* one plugin.
*/
}
The .Net world has many intricacies and most seem to stem from this notion of Assemblies and satellite assemblies and manifests and ligers and unicorns, so don't be discouraged if you have a hard time working it all out.

1 comment:

Helder said...

Thank you very much, Christopher. This post resolved an issue I've been having for the past 2 days now.