This is the first in a series on life in the managed world. Originally it started as a single post and has been growing tentacles ever since. To tame the beast, I’ll only write about a few tentacles at a time…

The performance characteristics of managed code have been an interest of mine for a long time. I love writing C# code because it’s so much easier to write, maintain, and debug compared to unmanaged C++ code. But let’s be honest, if managed code doesn’t truly perform compared to C++, then you’re left with a nice prototyping language. Any serious work will still have to be done in C++.

So let’s start by looking at Microsoft’s use of managed code in its own products. This should be suggestive of whether it’s possible to write performant managed applications. (If anyone can do it, it should be the creators of the managed environment!) Dan Fernandez, Lead Product Manager of Visual Studio Express, released some interesting stats:

Product Estimated Managed Code
Visual Studio 2005
7.50 million lines
SQL Server 2005
3.00 million lines
BizTalk Server
2.00 million lines
Visual Studio Team System
1.70 million lines
Windows Presentation Foundation
0.90 million lines
Windows Sharepoint Services
0.75 million lines
Expression Interactive Designer
0.25 million lines
Sharepoint Portal Server
0.20 million lines
Content Management Server
0.10 million lines

Take a closer look. Let’s look at the not-so-interesting ones first. WSS and SPS, though great products that both use .NET, are still very much unmanaged code bases at the core. (Read big C++ ISAPI filter that takes over IIS.) From what I’ve heard, this will be changing with WSS/SPS v3.0. (Bil, correct me if I’m wrong here.) Same goes for CMS, SQL Server, and VS 2005. Basically unmanaged applications/servers with .NET bolted on the side. Great for extensibility, but they really don’t tell us anything deep about the performance characteristics of managed code.

The interesting data points are BizTalk Server 2004, WPF, and Expression (aka Sparkle). These products are .NET from front-to-back.

BizTalk is a fantastic EAI tool and pivotal to Microsoft’s strategy in that space. Do you think Microsoft would “bet the farm” if .NET didn’t perform? They’ve got smart engineers. If managed code couldn’t perform up to its unmanaged counterpart, they’d write the core in unmanaged C++ and provide extensibility points by hosting the CLR. But they didn’t. They wrote the whole thing in .NET. That’s rather suggestive (though not conclusive) that managed code can perform well compared to C++.

Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) is the new windowing framework that is set to replace Win32-style windows. We’re going from a bitmap/HWND-based windowing environment to a composable, vector-based windowing environment. At its core, it uses DirectX technology for drawing. Vista is getting a full UI facelift in the form of Aero, which is built on top of WPF. As developers, we love to hate our end users who buy apps based solely on visual appearance. The actual code can be a dog’s breakfast, but as long as it looks pretty, users will love it. So this is another huge bet for Microsoft. If WPF doesn’t perform, it will be immediately noticible by end users.

Expression (codename Sparkle) is a new design tool for graphic designers to develop WPF applications. Developers will still work in Visual Studio, but graphic designers will author XAML using Expression. (You didn’t expect Microsoft to force VS onto the artist community, did you?) The nice thing is that the XAML will roundtrip between VS and Expression. Like it or hate it, what will drive most users to upgrade to Vista is a prettier interface. If applications are going to have nice Vista-style visuals, Expression better be fast, easy, and intuitive for graphic designers. (Interesting tidbit. Expression only makes one P/Invoke call. Everything else is pure .NET. The one call? To show Help. The managed wrapper to the Help subsystem is in System.Windows.Forms and it was deemed silly to take a dependency on Windows Forms solely for this reason.)

Microsoft is making some pretty serious bets on managed code and is baking it more and more deeply into Windows and its server products. From experience, managed code is just plain easier. Forget the machismo about whether you’re man (or woman) enough to handle pointers and pointer arithmetic. Pointers have a time and a place. Sure, break out the C, C++, and even assembly language when it is warranted, but only when warranted. Most of the time you should be living in a managed world.

Next time I’ll look at Developer Deathmatch: Rico “Managed” Mariani vs. Raymond “Unmanaged” Chen.