C# 7.2 added the ability to mark a struct declaration as readonly. This has the effect of guaranteeing that no member of the struct can mutate its contents as it ensures every field is marked as readonly. This guarantee is imporant because it allows the compiler to avoid defensive copies of struct values in cases where the underlying location is considered readonly. For example when invoking members of a struct which is stored in a readonly field.

class Operation { 
    readonly string Name;
    readonly DateTimeOffset Started;

    public override string ToString() => Name + Started.ToString();

When calling Started.ToString here the compiler first creates a defensive copy of Started on the stack. The ToString operation is then invoked on that copy. The reason for this is the compiler must assume the worst case which is ToString mutates the contents of the struct and hence violates the readonly contract on the field.

Starting with netcoreapp2.1 though DateTime, and many other types, are now marked as readonly struct. Invocations like the ToString above now occur directly on the field, avoiding the wasteful copy it had before.

These defense copies are small when looked at individually but can quickly add up to a significant performance issue. Particularly in high performance scenarios which make heavy use of readonly and tend to use larger sized struct declarations. Before the readonly struct feature these code bases often had to sacrifice correctness by avoiding readonly to improve perforamnce by avoiding defensive copies. Now though the same code bases can have performance and without sacrificing correctness.

One question that frequently comes up with readonly struct though is whether or not this is a breaking change? The short answer is no. This is a very safe change to make. Adding readonly is not a source breaking change for consumers: it is still recognized by older compilers, it doesn’t cause overload resolution changes, it can be used in other struct types, etc … The only effect it has is that it allows the compiler to elide defensive copies in a number of cases.

That being said there is one scenario to be careful of when applying this feature. One of the requirements is that every field of the type be explicitly marked as readonly. Adding readonly to a field as a part of making the containing type readonly can cause observable behavior changes. When the field type is a non-readonly struct defensive copies will now be made for invocations and this can cause changes to be dropped where previously they were persisted. This has nothing to do with readonly struct but instead is a direct result of making the field readonly.

The CoreFX team ran into exactly this problem when making Nullable<T> into a readonly struct. The T value field was marked as readonly as a part of that process. This turned out to be a breaking change because it meant operations like value.ToString now caused a defensive copy to occur which caused all mutations inside value to be discarded. Eventually this lead to the change being reverted because of the high impact of Nullable<T>.

struct Nullable<T> { 
    readonly T value;
    bool hasValue;

    public override string ToString() {
        // Oops: value.ToString now creates a defensive copy
        return  hasValue ? value.ToString() : "";

Again though, this is about marking fields readonly, not the containing type. This type of problem is fairly rare though. Even in code bases where compat is of incredibly high value there have been sweeping changes to mark large blocks of struct declarations as readonly.

The other case where behavior changes can occur has to do with aliasing. This is extremely rare though, only showing up in hypotheticals vs. actual code bases. It is best demonstrated by example:

struct S { 
    static S StaticField = new S(0);
    public static ref readonly S Get() => ref StaticField;

    public readonly int Field;
    public S(int field) {
        Field = field;

    public int M(int value) {
        StaticField = new S(value);
        return Field;

    static void Main() {

This code will print 0. The invocation of M(42) here occurs on a ref readonly S which means the receiver location is conisdered readonly. This is the ref equivalent of invoking M when the receiver is contained in a static readonly field. The location itself is readonly, the member is not and hence the compiler creates a defensive copy.

When the declaration is changed to readonly struct S the code will print 42. The reason is that there is no longer a defensive copy during the invocation of M. Defensive copies are all about ensuring the target method does not directly mutate the contents of the receiver. But it is still possible for other aliases to the same location to indirectly mutate the contents by assigning into the location.

This is a fairly contrived example though and not one that is likely to occur in many code bases. It is listed here not as a warning against using readonly struct but quite the opposite. It’s meant to demonstrate the level of complication needed to observe the difference.

The take away here is readonly struct is a beneficial annotation, both for performance and correctness, that is very safe to add to your code base.

Share Post


comments powered by Disqus