Fast Deep Cloning

When you ask around how to implement deep cloning in .NET, the first, second and third recommendation you’ll hear will be to use the BinarySerializer to save your object tree to memory and then load it again, thereby creating a copy. While simple to implement, it’s incredibly slow, uses up several times the memory of the entire object tree and most implementations I’ve seen even required all cloned classes to be serializable.

With .NET’s reflection capabilities, it’s pretty easy to traverse an object tree and build a deep clone of it, so I wrote a small class that does just that. Then I got the idea to use Linq Expression Trees to compile the instructions required for cloning a type at runtime…

Notice

One word of advice before we continue:

Deep cloning is a bit of a double-edged sword: manually creating a deep clone requires a lot of tedious (and error-prone) coding work. But an automated process can never know all the details about your object model: singletons, services, GUI controls, pointers to unmanaged resources — all of these would be copied with consequences ranging from the unexpected to the fatal.

So be sure that deep cloning is what you actually want!

"Cloners"

I implemented three different "cloners", all doing the exact same thing via different means. The only requirements were:

  • A cloner needs to be able to clone any object, whether serializable or not
  • A cloner must be able to clone objects that do not have a default constructor
  • A cloner must be able to clone objects a) by their fields and b) by their properties
SerializationCloner

Uses the BinaryFormatter from the .NET Framework (equipped with a surrogate selector that forces it to always use a surrogate for serialization which serializes all of a type’s fields, similar to what is described A Generic Method for Deep Cloning in C# 3.0).

ReflectionCloner

A cloner that traverses an object tree via .NET’s reflection API, creating copies of any object it encounters. Accessing types via reflection is pretty slow, but still about an order of magnitude faster than the BinaryFormatter. It also has the advantage of having no setup time and working in Silverlight (and possibly the related .NET Compact Framework)

ExpressionTreeCloner

This is pretty advanced stuff. In C# 4.0, Linq Expression Trees can be used to represent any type of method or function as a tree of nodes. This cloner builds an expression tree to clone each type it encounters and then compiles it to a normal method which is kept in a cache. So once a type has been encountered by the cloner once, the cloning operation is as fast as assigning the fields in code by hand.

Results

As you can see, all of the cloners scale quite linearly and in a predictable manner. The expression tree cloner suffers a bit from the overhead of compiling expressions at runtime, but boy does it catch up once the number of clones exceeds 100. Given a large list (or deep object tree) with 10,000 objects to clone, the SerializationCloner would be busy for one and a half seconds whereas the ExpressionTreeCloner would hand you the finished clone after just 45 milliseconds.

The SerializationCloner is still useful because it works on Silverlight and possibly also on the .NET Compact Framework (I could only check it against Windows Phone 7 and the Xbox 360 via XNA). On the latter platforms, cloned objects need to supply a default constructor, though, because the required methods to pull new objects from thin air are only provided by the full framework.

Cloning via BinarySerializer is definitely out. It has a setup time and there is no case where the ReflectionCloner wouldn’t mop the floor with it. On average, the ReflectionCloner is 6 times faster, while the ExpressionTreeCloner is more than 60 times faster (once it gets over its higher cold start time).

Download

Nuclex.DeepCloner.Demo.7z (15 KiB)

(Contains the source code of all 3 deep clone implementations and an example application demonstrating their usage)

13 comments

  1. name says:

    Your reflection cloner fails on examples with circular references.

  2. Cygon says:

    That’s right. Thanks, I hadn’t thought of those. The expression tree cloner should be affected as well.

    I might update the code in the future, but at the moment I don’t have any circular references in the objects I’m using it with, so it’ll be a while until I get around to it.

  3. Livia says:

    Good post and comparations.
    But in my tests I’ve had same problem, circular references. Cygon, have you found a solution? I tried change the code and resulted in Stack Overflow Exception, as expected…

  4. Cygon says:

    It’s not as much looking for a solution than just me needing to sit down and write some boring code ;-)

    What needs to be done is simply to pass a dictionary (with ReferenceEquals based comparer) around and use it look keep track of which reference types have already been cloned (and therefore need to be simply assigned instead of traversed).

    The project I’ve written this component for currently has no circular references, but I’ll see if I can get around to adding support for them, I think it would be useful to have a fast and complete object cloning facility for C# instead of all those crutches out there :)

  5. Yasar says:

    i have tried to use ReflectionCloner in silverlight but its giving an error “FormatterServices inaccessible due to its protection level”
    can you please tell me any work around

  6. Cygon says:

    That error you’ve been getting has pointed you to the following 5 lines:

    #if (XBOX360 || WINDOWS_PHONE)
          object clone = Activator.CreateInstance(originalType);
    #else
          object clone = FormatterServices.GetUninitializedObject(originalType);
    #endif
    

    Have you tried the most obvious thing, aka just adding SILVERLIGHT to the #if? ;)

  7. Tim Herman says:

    I changed to the ReflectionCloner to handle circular references. It wasn’t much work really, maybe 45 mins of coding and testing. I’d like to tackle the expression tree cloner next, but the code is much harder to follow. I can post my change for the ReflectionCloner if you like.

  8. Mhd Denno says:

    Can you please add the implementation that solve circular references, by the way very good code ,thanks :)

  9. Yan Besidski says:

    Hi,

    Download link does not seem to work.

    Could you please email me the source code at yanik_bl@hotmail.com

    Thank you very much!

    Yan

  10. Cygon says:

    Hi, could you give it one more try?

    A recent PHP update caused segfaults when my download plugin looked up the mime type of files. I’ve added a workaround for that and downloads should be working normally again. Sorry!

  11. Jun says:

    Hi Cygon,

    I’ve taken the liberty to put a slightly tidied up version of this code up on GitHub (crediting you of course), and think it might be useful on NuGet too. I’ve created the nuspec and nuget packages in the repository as well. If you would like to upload it to the NuGet Gallery yourself please feel free to do so.

    p/s: I didn’t copy the BinarySerialization part of the project, and excluded the demo.

  12. Konstantin says:

    I would recommend to do the following change:

    Func cloner = getOrCreateDeepFieldBasedCloner(/*typeof(TCloned)*/ objectToClone.GetType());

    I commented out “typeof(TCloned)” and replaced it with “objectToClone.GetType()”
    so that the code does not choke when it is given something declared as object, but actually being some specific type.

    As a matter of fact current code blows up with NullReferenceException if it is given Object to clone, because
    GetFieldInfosIncludingBaseClasses checks for the parent of first parameter being Object, but does not check the first parameter itself for being Object.

  13. Ymris says:

    Hi,
    thx a lot for this great inspiration with the expression trees, this actually saved my day.
    I’ve modified the expression cloner and enabled
    - circular references
    - read only fields
    - maintaining reference equality (multiple references to same object)

    If you don’t mind I would like to publish that on CodePlex, with reference to you of course.

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