VB6 Types (Structs) with Fixed Length Strings

24. February 2013 12:06 by Mrojas in   //  Tags: , , , , , , , , ,   //   Comments (0)


In VB6 the communication with backend services usually involves the definition of Types (or Structs) using fixed length strings.

VB6 provided language support for defining these data types. 

For example:
Public Type HostData     
	UserName       As String * 8
	PassWord       As String * 8
	FullName       As String * 50
End Type
Figure 1 Example of VB6 Type with Fixed Length Strings
There are some ways to model this structures in .NET using the FixedLengthString defined in Microsoft.VisualBasic.Compatibity. Here I will present another approach. This approach uses character arrays (char[]) to model this structures. Ok. Let’s get down to business. To model a vb6 type like the one in Figure 1, we will use this approach:
struct HostData
        [MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.ByValArray, SizeConst=8)]
        public char[] UserName;

        [MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.ByValArray, SizeConst = 8)]
        char[] PassWord;

        [MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.ByValArray, SizeConst = 50)]
        public char[] FullName;
        /// This method is used to provide a better display of
	 /// character arrays as strings on the debugger.
        string s(char[] array) { return new string(array); }

        public byte[] toByteArray() {    
           return StructsHelper.StructToByteArray(this);

 public static explicit operator HostData(byte[] array)
            return (HostData)StructsHelper.ByteArrayToStructure(array,typeof(HostData));

        /// <summary>
        /// Constructor to initialize the char arrays that are used as fixed length strings
        /// Struct constructors must have at least one parameter.
        /// </summary>
        /// <param name="initFixedLengthStrings">if true will automatically init all fixed length char arrays according to the SizeConst property of the MarshalAs attribute</param>
        public HostData (bool initFixedLengthStrings=false)
            UserName = null; 
            PassWord = null;
            FullName = null;
            if (initFixedLengthStrings)
                StructsHelper.InitFixedStrings(GetType(), __makeref(this));
Figure 2: Code of Example 1 in C#
So several tricks are used here, I will describe them:


All fixed length strings are declared as char[]. A MarshalAs attribute is applied to each field. Like this:
[MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.ByValArray, SizeConst=n)]
Where n is the number of characters in the fixed length strings. Note that character arrays must be initialized. However structs do not allow field initializers. So they will need to be initialized on a constructor.


A DebuggerDisplay attribute 
is added to each field, just to make the developer experience. That makes that instead of showing this field as a character array it will be shown as a string.
This attribute uses a small helper function used s that just converts the character array to string.


A constructor is added. Structs do not accept parameter-less constructors.
This struct receives a Boolean indicating whether you want to initialize the character array fields.
As a requirement character arrays fields should at least be initialized to null. Character arrays could have been initialized here but I opted to create a helper function. Why? Well I think it is better if this arrays are initialized using the SizeConst attribute. So if I want to change their size I do not have to update both the SizeConst and the constructor.
public static void InitFixedStrings(Type type,TypedReference reference)  
            if (type.IsValueType && !type.IsPrimitive && !type.Namespace.StartsWith("System") && !type.IsEnum)
            {//This should be an struct
                foreach (var field in
                    type.GetFields(System.Reflection.BindingFlags.Instance |
                    System.Reflection.BindingFlags.Public | System.Reflection.BindingFlags.NonPublic))
                    if (field.FieldType.IsArray && field.FieldType == typeof(char[]))
                        var attr = field.GetCustomAttributes(typeof(MarshalAsAttribute),false);
                        if (attr != null && attr.Length > 0)
                            MarshalAsAttribute maa = (MarshalAsAttribute)attr[0];
                            var constSize = maa.SizeConst;
                            if (constSize != -1)
                                var newValue = new char[constSize];
                                field.SetValueDirect(reference, newValue);


In VB6 the common approach is to use the StrConv and CopyMemory functions to copy memory to and from structs and send them as strings or event to copy data between structs of different types. To solve that utility methods have been created:
/// <summary>
        /// Takes a bytearray and uses it to create a struct of the given type
        /// and populate it with the data of the byte array.
        /// NOTE: this method only works withs Structs which have a fixed size
        /// </summary>
        /// <param name="bytearray"> The data that will be used to initialize the struct</param>
        /// <param name="type">The type of the expected struct</param>
        /// <returns>A new struct instance with its fields initialized with the bytes from bytearray</returns>
        public static object ByteArrayToStructure(byte[] bytearray, Type type)
            int len = Marshal.SizeOf(type);
            IntPtr i = Marshal.AllocHGlobal(len);
            Marshal.Copy(bytearray, 0, i, len);
            var obj = Marshal.PtrToStructure(i,type);
            return obj;

/// <summary>
        /// Returns the contents of an struct as a byte array.
        /// It only works with fixed length structs.
        /// </summary>
        /// <param name="obj">the struct that holds the data that will be returned in the byte array</param>
        /// <returns>A byte array with the contents of the struct</returns>
        public static byte[] StructToByteArray(this object obj)

            int len = Marshal.SizeOf(obj);
            byte[] arr = new byte[len];
            IntPtr ptr = Marshal.AllocHGlobal(len);
            Marshal.StructureToPtr(obj, ptr, true);
            Marshal.Copy(ptr, arr, 0, len);
            return arr;

With these utility methods you can then use your structs like this:
var hostData = new HostData (true);
var byteArray = UnicodeEncoding.Unicode.GetBytes(new String(' ', Marshal.SizeOf(typeof(HostData))));
hostData = (HostData)byteArray;

var size = Marshal.SizeOf(HostData);
var test = "helloworld";
test = test.PadRight(size, '*');
byteArray = UnicodeEncoding.Unicode.GetBytes(test);
hostData = (HostData)byteArray;


And finally how to you easily get/set data from these structs? Very easy. We will add an extension method:
const string IF_VALUE_NOT_PROVIDED_THEN_RETURN_VALUE = "\0\0internal";
        /// <summary>
        /// This method is used to get/set the values of a char array as an string.
        /// It has been implemented in a way similar to that used in the jquery .val function.
        /// If called without parameters it will return the character array value as an string.
        /// If called with parameters will use the given string to set the character array value.
        /// If the given string is bigger that the character string the value is truncated
        /// </summary>
        /// <param name="array"></param>
        /// <param name="value"></param>
        /// <returns></returns>
        public static string val(this char[] array, String value = IF_VALUE_NOT_PROVIDED_THEN_RETURN_VALUE)
                return new string(array);
                var source = value.ToCharArray();
                Array.Copy(source, array, Math.Min(source.Length, array.Length));
                return value;
With that if you want to set a field you will do something like:
And if you want to get the contents of the field you will do something like:
String username = hostData.UserName.val();
Well that’s all. Hope this helps

StructsHelpers.cs (5.93 kb)

Interop Structures to UnManaged Dlls

For VB6 applications it is common to rely on OS or Kernel API Calls. Some of those APIs might
need you to send data back and for the native API.

Marshalling in .NET can be complicated and bothersome. I have published several posts about
interop. But it usually depends on adding several marshalling attributes and even tricks specially for
fixed strings.

So I decided to provide a more a simpler approach for conversion. In this approach you just need to things:

1. Your VB6 types or structs will be mapped to .NET classes
2. All VB6 type or struct fields will be mapped to public fields
3. An attribute must be used on those fields to indicate the field length, for arrays or strings.
4. Extension methods .AsString() .SetFromString and .GetClassLength will handle all the complexities of setting the struct fields.

Let’s see an example:

Type EmployeeRecord
    FirstName As String * 5
    LastName As String * 5
End Type

That vb6 type will be mapped in .NET following this approach to:

    public class EmployeeRecord 
        public string FirstName = "Mau";
        public string LastName = "Rojas";


You can then simple use that class in .NET

var emp = new EmployeeRecord {FirstName="Mauricio",LastName="Rojas"} ;
var str = emp.AsString();
//This str value will be "MauriRojas" the helper extension methods
// .AsString and .SetFromString will handle setting the internal class fields

All that is very good but how is this used in Marshalling?? Well very simple. Let’s say you have a Dll called foo.dll
with a function foo that receives an EmployeeRecord:

        public static extern int foo(IntPtr Struct);

Then if you want to call that function you will do something like:

            var emp = new EmployeeRecord { FirstName="Ann",LastName="Smith"};
            string str = emp.AsString();
            var ptr = IntPtr.Zero;
            ptr = Marshal.StringToBSTR(str);
            ptr = Marshal.StringToHGlobalAnsi(str);
            ptr = Marshal.StringToHGlobalAuto(str);
            ptr = Marshal.StringToHGlobalUni(str);

            //And call the native function

If the function modifies the structure and you want to reflect those changes then you will do something like:

str = Marshal.PtrToStringAnsi(ptr,typeof(EmployeeRecord).GetClassLength())

This solution can also be applied for more complex structures. For example:

    public class EmployeeRecord 
        public string FirstName = "Mau";
        public string LastName = "Rojas";


    public class Record1
        public int field1;
        public string field2 = "";
        public EmployeeRecord rec = new EmployeeRecord();

    public class GeneralInfo
        public int field1;
        public String[] countrycodes = { "cr","es","mx","pa","ni"};
        public EmployeeRecord[] employees;

If you want to try it out this is the link to the CODE

Set Fixed port for ASP.NET project. Good for Silverlight and Azure projects

11. November 2010 02:57 by Mrojas in General  //  Tags: , , , ,   //   Comments (0)

If you are doing Silverlight development, one thing that can be cumbersome is keeping in sync
your development and production settings. Specially if you are using WCF services because you have
to make sure that your ServiceClient.config file has the right values.

What I usually do is this.

1. First set fixed ports for my application. See http://blogs.msdn.com/b/webdevelopertips/archive/2008/11/07/tip-21-did-you-know-how-to-set-a-fixed-port-for-the-developer-web-server.aspx

2. Modify my hosts file in C:\Windows\System32\drivers\etc adding an entry like:

# This is a sample HOSTS file used by Microsoft TCP/IP for Windows.
# This file contains the mappings of IP addresses to host names. Each
# entry should be kept on an individual line. The IP address should
# be placed in the first column followed by the corresponding host name.
# The IP address and the host name should be separated by at least one
# space.
# Additionally, comments (such as these) may be inserted on individual
# lines or following the machine name denoted by a '#' symbol.
# For example:
#     rhino.acme.com          # source server
#     x.acme.com              # x client host

# localhost name resolution is handled within DNS itself.       localhost       productionserver.cloudapp.net  

 In this way all you have to change is your hosts file and you keep the same settings for development and for production