How to inspect assemblies with reflection before including them in your application

If you application supports plugins or extensions in some cases it might be useful to scan a packages assemblies before importing them in to your app. Some reasons for this might be:

  • Checking if the package has missing assembly references
  • Checking if the assembly references obsolete types that might make the package unstable
  • Checking the .Net targeted framework of the assembly
  • Any other assembly inspection to determine it is compatible with your app

To do this you can load assemblies using Assembly.ReflectionOnlyLoadFrom and Assembly.ReflectionOnlyLoad methods which load assemblies into a special assembly load context called “reflection-only context” which will safely let you inspect these assemblies.

Further reading:

A great article on Reflection Only Assembly Loading and if you want to know more about assembly load contexts, here’s an explanation.

Loading in assemblies

For this example, we’ll assume that all of the assemblies for a package are in some folder outside of the normal /bin folder (not loaded in to the current app) and each assembly for the package will need to be inspected for type references that are not supported.

A common mistake when loading in assemblies with reflection (especially in the LoadFrom context) is to load them in one at a time, whereas they generally will need to be all loaded in before inspecting them since they probably have references to each other. Another thing that generally must be done is adding an event listener on AppDomain.ReflectionOnlyAssemblyResolve because even though all known referenced assemblies are loading into the context some assemblies might not be explicitly referenced but are need to load the assembly. This handler provides a way to resolve those missing references.

The first thing to do is setup the event handler

AppDomain.CurrentDomain.ReflectionOnlyAssemblyResolve += (s, e) =>
    var a = Assembly.ReflectionOnlyLoad(e.Name);
    if (a == null) throw new TypeLoadException("Could not load assembly " + e.Name);
    return a;

Next we need to load all of the assembly files in the folder

foreach (var f in files) Assembly.ReflectionOnlyLoadFrom(f);

Then load all of their referenced assemblies in to the reflection context

//Then load each referenced assembly into the context
var assembliesWithErrors = new List<string>();
foreach (var f in files)
    var reflectedAssembly = Assembly.ReflectionOnlyLoadFrom(f);
    foreach (var assemblyName in reflectedAssembly.GetReferencedAssemblies())
        catch (FileNotFoundException)
            //if an exception occurs it means that a referenced assembly could not be found                        
                string.Concat("This package references the assembly '",
                    "' which was not found, this package may have problems running"));

In the catch, I’m detecting assembly reference errors and adding an error message to the outgoing method response and also adding that assembly to the assembliesWithErrors list which is used later to ensure we’re not inspecting assemblies that couldn’t be loaded.

Now that all the assemblies are loaded we can inspect them (ignoring ones with errors). This example is looking for any assemblies that have types implementing ‘MyType’. If they do implement this type, add the assembly to a list to return from the current method.

//now that we have all referenced types into the context we can look up stuff
foreach (var f in files.Except(assembliesWithErrors))
    //now we need to see if they contain any type 'MyType'
    var reflectedAssembly = Assembly.ReflectionOnlyLoadFrom(f);
    var found = reflectedAssembly.GetExportedTypes()
    if (found.Any())

Separate AppDomain

It’s best to execute all of this logic in a separate AppDomain because once assemblies are loaded in to a context, they cannot be unloaded and since we are loading in from files, those files will remain locked until the AppDomain is shutdown. Explaining how to create a separate AppDomain is outside the scope of this article but the code is included in the source below.

Source Code

Here’s a class the encapsulates all of this logic and of course if you can do much more when inspecting assemblies for various types.


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