Sandboxing Is Dead Long Live Sandboxing

published 22 Dec 2014


Removed sandboxing, it was too slow.

Wait No Video?

No video this week, I spent most of my time chasing down a performance problem and solving it.

This Week

For a long time I’ve had a problem with performance in the Epimetheus Engine - in some rare circumstances performance would absolutely tank (down to less than 1 frame per second sometimes). This was caused by the way sandboxing was done.

What Is Sandboxing?

Epimetheus is an engine built for plugins - there is no game called “Heist”, just a plugin to the Epimetheus Engine. Without plugins there isn’t even a main menu! A problem with plugins is that they could be a security problem - after all anyone can write plugins. To fix this the plugins have always been loaded into a separate “AppDomain”, this is a .Net concept which is a bit like a separate process. The important thing with AppDomains is you can set permissions onto them, for example ban the entire scripting Domain from reading or writing any files on disk!

Sandboxing Is Awesome!

No, it’s not. I mean AppDomains are a nice idea but their implementation turns out to have some big drawbacks.

First up is garbage collection. In C# memory management is done through a garbage collector (GC) - to free up some memory you just get rid of all references to it and the GC will clean up that memory for you - this is a fundamental part of the language. Except in AppDomains. When you have an object in another AppDomain it’s no longer enough to hold a reference to it, instead you have to have some complex code to do with sponsoring the lifetime of the object. Basically this means that I occasionally got an error caused by having a reference to an object in the other AppDomain that has been garbaged collected. This is actually a programmer error, but when you mess around with something as fundamental as changing the entire memory management system that’s what you get!

Second is communicating across the AppDomain boundary. In C# (and basically every other language) there are two types of type: Value Types are passed by value, and Reference Types are passed by reference. This means that if I pass a value type to you then you simply get a copy of the value but if I pass a reference type to you then you actually get a pointer to the same object. Again, this is pretty fundamental to the language. When you pass objects across the AppDomain boundary they are almost always serialized (i.e. Value Type behaviour) even if they’re a reference type. This is confusing as hell to program with! Again, we’re messing around with something fundamental to the language and practically encouraging programmer errors!

Third is performance. It is possible to pass objects across the AppDomain boundary by reference rather then by value. What this actually does is pass a proxy value across the boundary (by value) and then when a method is called on the proxy it calls back to the real object in the other AppDomain. So here’s a simple bit of code:

//This class is instantiated in the engine, and passed by reference into the AppDomain
class MyClass
    int value;

    int GetInteger()
        return value++;

//This code runs in a plugin
MyClass instance = /* value by reference from engine */
int sum = 0;
for (int i = 0; i < 10000; i++) {
    sum += instance.GetInteger();

Pretty simple stuff - this is just looping 10,000 times and summing up the integers it gets. i.e. 10,000 integer additions and 10,000 method calls - this is really basic stuff and computers can do both of these things really fast. In fact this takes just 0.27ms to execute on my PC! Let’s include AppDomains; if I run exactly the same test except this time I run the loop inside another AppDomain this test takes 11.3ms - AppDomains are 37.7 times slower at method calls! This isn’t just breaking something fundamental to the C# programming model, this is breaking something fundamental to programming computers in general, this is begging for programmer errors.

Believe it or not these were just the primary problems with sandboxing, there were more but I don’t want to bore you with a huge list of problems!

Sandboxing Sucks.

There’s only one solution to this: remove AppDomain based sandboxing. Actually removing sandboxing didn’t take me very long, but once sandboxing was gone there were a whole lot of warts in the plugin API that I could fix.

  • Asynchronous tasks can now return a Task object (previously I could not send Task into the other AppDomain)
  • Asynchronous tasks can be cancelled (previously cancellation tokens could not be sent into the other AppDomain)
  • Referencing scripts (internal engine stuff) is more robust
  • Callbacks now just implemented as normal event handlers (previously I could not send event handlers to the other AppDomain, so I had to invent my own bastardized version)
  • No more horrible performance pitfalls for plugins!

What’s Next?

I did get a little work done on the aimbot (which I mentioned last week as my goal for this week), in fact it’s more or less done now. I’m going to go full steam ahead for a multiplayer test sometime in the next two weeks - I’d like to get it done this week but I hear there’s some little event going on mid week ;)

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