Caller Info Attributes vs. Stack Walking

People sometimes wonder why C# 5 needs to add caller info attributes, when this information is already available by using the StackTrace class.  In reality, caller info attributes behave rather differently from the StackTrace class, for a number of reasons.

Advantages to Caller Info Attributes

The primary reason to use caller info attributes is that they’re much faster.  Stack walking is one of the slowest internal (as opposed to network IO) things you can do in .Net (disclaimer: I haven’t measured).  By contrast, caller info attributes have exactly 0 performance penalty.  Caller info is resolved at compile-time; the callsite is compiled to pass a string or int literal that was determined by the compiler.  Incidentally, this is why C# 5 doesn’t have [CallerType] or [CallerMemberInfo] attributes; the compiler team wasn’t happy with the performance of the result IL and didn’t have time to implement proper caching to make it faster.

Caller info attributes are also more reliable than stack walking.  Stack walking will give incorrect results if the JITter decides to inline either your method or its caller.  Since caller info attributes are resolved at compile-time, they are immune to inlining.  Also, stack walking can only give line number and filename info if the calling assembly’s PDB file is present at runtime, whereas [CallerFileName] and [CallerLineNumber] will always work. 

Caller info attributes are also unaffected by compiler transformations.  If you do a stack walk from inside a lambda expression, iterator, or async method, you’ll see the compiler-generated method; there is no good way to retrieve the name of the original method.  Since caller info attributes are processed by the compiler, [CallerMemberName] should correctly pass the name of the containing method (although I cannot verify this).  Note that stack walking will retrieve the correct line number even inside lambda expressions (assuming there is a PDB file)

Advantages To Stack Walking

There are still a couple of reasons to use the StackTrace class.  Obviously, if you want to see more than one frame (if you want your caller’s caller), you need to use StackTrace.  Also, if you want to support clients in languages that don’t feature caller info attributes, such as C# 4 or F#, you should walk the stack instead.

Stack walking is the only way to find the caller’s type or assembly (or a MemberInfo object), since caller info attributes do not provide this information.

Stack walking is also the only choice for security-related scenarios.  It should be obvious that caller info attributes can trivially be spoofed; nothing prevents the caller from passing arbitrary values as the optional parameter.  Stack walking, by contrast, happens within the CLR and cannot be spoofed. 

Note that there are some other concerns with stack walking for security purposes.

  • Filename and line number information can be spoofed by providing a modified PDB file
  • Class and function names are meaningless; your enemy can name his function whatever he wants to.  All you should rely on is the assembly name.
  • There are various ways for an attacker to cause your code to be called indirectly (eg, DynamicInvoking a delegate) so that his assembly isn’t the direct caller.  In fact, if the attacker invokes your delegate on a UI thread (by calling BeginInvoke), his assembly won’t show up on the callstack at all.  The attacker can also compile a dynamic assembly that calls your function and call into that assembly.
  • As always, beware of inlining

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