Understanding Application Domains

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An application domain is a unit of isolation for executing managed code. For a better understanding, let’s make a comparison with the Win32 world. In Win32 you have processes. Each process is isolated from other processes by the system so that a process cannot interfere with other processes and with resources required by such processes. This prevents process corruption and unexpected crashes. In .NET Framework architecture the idea of isolation is provided by application domains, so an application domain is the place where an assembly runs isolated from other assemblies; when an application is started, the CLR creates one application domain for it. Although a Win32 process can host multiple application domains, when an assembly is executing within an application domain, it cannot interfere with other assemblies within different application domains, although application domains can communicate with each other. One assembly can create multiple application domains (which are handled by the CLR) and run separate assemblies within such domains, as I will explain in next section.

Creating Application Domains and Executing Assemblies

You have basically two ways for executing assemblies inside application domains: getting the instance of the default application domain for the running assembly (that is, your application) and creating a new application domain. The System.AppDomain class provides a shared property named CurrentDomain, of type System.AppDomain, which represents the instance of the current application domain. You get the instance and then execute the assembly as follows:

Dim currentDomain As AppDomain = AppDomain.CurrentDomain

The AppDomain class exposes an instance ExecuteAssembly method that enables executing the specified assembly within an application domain. Generally executing an assembly in the current application domain is not a good idea, because you cannot unload the assembly when the execution has completed. Because of this, a better approach is to create a new application domain. For now let’s see how you can get information on application domains:

'Shows the AppDomain friendly name
'Shows the AppDomain id within the process
'Shows the working directory for the running
'assembly within the AppDomain
'Returns True if the code is classified as

Notice how you can interrogate some properties for retrieving application domain information. The AppDomain class offers a number of other advanced properties that are not covered here. A useful resource for finding information related to AppDomain properties is the MSDN Library: Now it’s time to understand how it is possible to create new application domains and execute assemblies. Basically you invoke the AppDomain.CreateDomain static method and then you invoke ExecuteAssembly.


The AppDomain class exposes a Load method that also enables loading an assembly. According to the official MSDN documentation, usage of this method should be always restricted to COM interoperability scenarios. So always prefer ExecuteAssembly instead.

Also remember to unload the application domain after loaded assemblies have completed their work. The following code provides an example:

Dim secondDomain As AppDomain = AppDomain.

Catch ex As AppDomainUnloadedException
Console.WriteLine("The AppDomain was already unloaded")
Catch ex As Exception
Catch ex As CannotUnloadAppDomainException
Console.Write("Unable to unload the AppDomain")
End Try
End Try

The CLR throws an AppDomainUnloadedException if the code attempts to access an already unloaded application domain. As you can see from the code, you unload an application domain by invoking the AppDomain.Unload shared method that takes the application domain instance as an argument. It is worth mentioning that, if the application domain cannot be unloaded, a CannotUnloadAppDomainException is thrown. The AppDomain.CreateDomain method offers several overloads. One of them allows taking an argument of type AppDomainSetup that is a special object that gives you the opportunity to set some application domain properties. The following code provides an example:

Dim domainSetup As New AppDomainSetup
With domainSetup
'Sets the current directory for the AppDomain
.ApplicationBase = Environment.CurrentDirectory
'Sets the application name
.ApplicationName = "App domain demo"
'Allows assembly binding redirection
.DisallowBindingRedirects = False
'Disallows code download from assemblies
'via http
.DisallowCodeDownload = True
'Assigns a config file to the new app domain,
'in this case the app.config of the current domain
.ConfigurationFile = AppDomain.CurrentDomain.
End With

Dim thirdDomain As AppDomain = AppDomain.
CreateDomain("thirdDomain", Nothing, domainSetup)

Notice that the second argument is of type System.Security.Policy.Evidence and is useful if you want to assign specific security policies to the application domain. In this demonstrative code this is not accomplished. For this particular topic, notice that application domains are important for security policies that you apply to your code. In the next section you learn about changes introduced in the .NET Framework 4 to the managed security model.

Creating and Executing Dynamic Code at Runtime

In next chapter you learn about Reflection, and you see how you can create assemblies and code at runtime. When you have a dynamically created assembly with custom code, you can execute the assembly within an application domain with the same techniques shown in this section.

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