What Singleton Pattern is in C# and its implementation

In another post I discussed how to implement Inversion of Control Pattern in C#. In this post I should explain what a singleton is.

The singleton pattern is one of the best-known patterns in software engineering. Essentially, a singleton is a class which only allows a single instance of itself to be created and usually gives simple access to that instance. Most commonly, singletons don't allow any parameters to be specified when creating the instance - as otherwise, a second request for an instance but with a different parameter could be problematic.

There are various different ways of implementing the singleton pattern in C#. I shall present them here in reverse order of elegance, starting with the most commonly seen, which is not thread-safe, and working up to a fully lazily-loaded, thread-safe, simple and highly performant version.

All these implementations share four common characteristics, however:

  • A single constructor, which is private and parameterless. This prevents other classes from instantiating it (which would be a violation of the pattern). Note that it also prevents subclassing - if a singleton can be subclassed once, it can be subclassed twice, and if each of those subclasses can create an instance, the pattern is violated. The factory pattern can be used if you need a single instance of a base type, but the exact type isn't known until runtime.
  • The class is sealed. This is unnecessary, strictly speaking, due to the above point, but may help the JIT to optimise things more.
  • A static variable which holds a reference to the single created instance, if any.
  • A public static means of getting the reference to the single created instance, creating one if necessary.

First version - not thread-safe

// Bad code! Do not use!
public sealed class Singleton
{
    private static Singleton instance=null;

    private Singleton()
    {
    }

    public static Singleton Instance
    {
        get
        {
            if (instance==null)
            {
                instance = new Singleton();
            }
            return instance;
        }
    }
}

As hinted at before, the above is not thread-safe. Two different threads could both have evaluated the test if (instance==null) and found it to be true, then both create instances, which violates the singleton pattern. Note that in fact the instance may already have been created before the expression is evaluated, but the memory model doesn't guarantee that the new value of instance will be seen by other threads unless suitable memory barriers have been passed.

Second version - simple thread-safety

public sealed class Singleton
{
    private static Singleton instance = null;
    private static readonly object padlock = new object();

    Singleton()
    {
    }

    public static Singleton Instance
    {
        get
        {
            lock (padlock)
            {
                if (instance == null)
                {
                    instance = new Singleton();
                }
                return instance;
            }
        }
    }
}

This implementation is thread-safe. The thread takes out a lock on a shared object and then checks whether or not the instance has been created before creating the instance. This takes care of the memory barrier issue (as locking makes sure that all reads occur logically after the lock acquire, and unlocking makes sure that all writes occur logically before the lock release) and ensures that only one thread will create an instance (as only one thread can be in that part of the code at a time - by the time the second thread enters it, the first thread will have created the instance, so the expression will evaluate to false). Unfortunately, performance suffers as a lock is acquired every time the instance is requested.

Note that instead of locking on typeof(Singleton) as some versions of this implementation do, I lock on the value of a static variable which is private to the class. Locking on objects which other classes can access and lock on (such as the type) risks performance issues and even deadlocks. This is a general style preference of mine - wherever possible, only lock on objects specifically created for the purpose of locking, or which document that they are to be locked on for specific purposes (e.g. for waiting/pulsing a queue). Usually, such objects should be private to the class they are used in. This helps to make writing thread-safe applications significantly easier.

Third version - attempted thread-safety using double-check locking

// Bad code! Do not use!
public sealed class Singleton
{
    private static Singleton instance = null;
    private static readonly object padlock = new object();

    Singleton()
    {
    }

    public static Singleton Instance
    {
        get
        {
            if (instance == null)
            {
                lock (padlock)
                {
                    if (instance == null)
                    {
                        instance = new Singleton();
                    }
                }
            }
            return instance;
        }
    }
}

This implementation attempts to be thread-safe without the necessity of taking out a lock every time. Unfortunately, there are four downsides to the pattern:

  • It doesn't work in Java. This may seem an odd thing to comment on, but it's worth knowing if you ever need the singleton pattern in Java, and C# programmers may well also be Java programmers. The Java memory model doesn't ensure that the constructor completes before the reference to the new object is assigned to the instance. The Java memory model underwent a reworking for version 1.5, but double-check locking is still broken after this without a volatile variable (as in C#).
  • Without any memory barriers, it's broken in the ECMA CLI specification too. It's possible that under the .NET 2.0 memory model (which is stronger than the ECMA spec) it's safe, but I'd rather not rely on that stronger semantics, especially if there's any doubt as to the safety. Making the instance variable volatile can make it work, as would explicit memory barrier calls, although in the latter case even experts can't agree exactly which barriers are required. I tend to try to avoid situations where experts don't agree what's right and what's wrong!
  • It's easy to get wrong. The pattern needs to be pretty much exactly as above - any significant changes are likely to impact either performance or correctness.
  • It still doesn't perform as well as the later implementations.

Fourth version - not quite as lazy, but thread-safe without using locks

public sealed class Singleton
{
    private static readonly Singleton instance = new Singleton();

    // Explicit static constructor to tell C# compiler
    // not to mark type as beforefieldinit
    static Singleton()
    {
    }

    private Singleton()
    {
    }

    public static Singleton Instance
    {
        get
        {
            return instance;
        }
    }
}

As you can see, this is really is extremely simple - but why is it thread-safe and how lazy is it? Static constructors in C# are specified to execute only when an instance of the class is created or a static member is referenced, and to execute only once per AppDomain. Given that this check for the type being newly constructed needs to be executed whatever else happens, it will be faster than adding extra checking as in the previous examples. There are a couple of wrinkles, however:

  • It's not as lazy as the other implementations. In particular, if you have static members other than Instance, the first reference to those members will involve creating the instance. This is corrected in the next implementation.
  • There are complications if one static constructor invokes another which invokes the first again. Look in the .NET specifications for more details about the exact nature of type initializers - they're unlikely to bite you, but it's worth being aware of the consequences of static constructors which refer to each other in a cycle.
  • The laziness of type initializers is only guaranteed by .NET when the type isn't marked with a special flag called beforefieldinit. Unfortunately, the C# compiler (as provided in the .NET 1.1 runtime, at least) marks all types which don't have a static constructor (i.e. a block which looks like a constructor but is marked static) as beforefieldinit.

One shortcut you can take with this implementation (and only this one) is to just make instance a public static readonly variable, and get rid of the property entirely. This makes the basic skeleton code absolutely tiny! Many people, however, prefer to have a property in case further action is needed in future, and JIT inlining is likely to make the performance identical.

Fifth version - fully lazy instantiation

public sealed class Singleton
{
    private Singleton()
    {
    }

    public static Singleton Instance { get { return Nested.instance; } }
        
    private class Nested
    {
        // Explicit static constructor to tell C# compiler
        // not to mark type as beforefieldinit
        static Nested()
        {
        }

        internal static readonly Singleton instance = new Singleton();
    }
}

Here, instantiation is triggered by the first reference to the static member of the nested class, which only occurs in Instance. This means the implementation is fully lazy but has all the performance benefits of the previous ones. Note that although nested classes have access to the enclosing class's private members, the reverse is not true, hence the need for instance to be internal here. That doesn't raise any other problems, though, as the class itself is private. The code is a bit more complicated in order to make the instantiation lazy, however.

Sixth version - using .NET 4's Lazy<T> type

If you're using .NET 4 (or higher), you can use the System.Lazy type to make the laziness really simple. All you need to do is pass a delegate to the constructor which calls the Singleton constructor - which is done most easily with a lambda expression.

public sealed class Singleton
{
    private static readonly Lazy<Singleton> lazy =
        new Lazy<Singleton>(() => new Singleton());
    
    public static Singleton Instance { get { return lazy.Value; } }

    private Singleton()
    {
    }
}

It's simple and performs well. It also allows you to check whether or not the instance has been created yet with the IsValueCreated property if you need that.

Structural code in C#

This structural code demonstrates the Singleton pattern which assures only a single instance (the singleton) of the class can be created.

using System;

namespace PSC.Singleton
{
    class Program
    {
        /// <summary>
        /// MainApp startup class for Structural
        /// Singleton Design Pattern.
        /// </summary>
        static void Main(string[] args)
        {
            // Constructor is protected -- cannot use new
            Singleton s1 = Singleton.Instance();
            Singleton s2 = Singleton.Instance();

            // Test for same instance
            if (s1 == s2)
            {
                Console.WriteLine("Objects are the same instance");
            }

            // Wait for user
            Console.ReadKey();
        }

        /// <summary>
        /// The 'Singleton' class
        /// </summary>
        class Singleton
        {
            private static Singleton _instance;

            // Constructor is 'protected'
            protected Singleton()
            {
            }

            public static Singleton Instance()
            {
                // Uses lazy initialization.
                // Note: this is not thread safe.
                if (_instance == null)
                {
                    _instance = new Singleton();
                }

                return _instance;
            }
        }
    }
}

Real-world code in C#

This real-world code demonstrates the Singleton pattern as a LoadBalancing object. Only a single instance (the singleton) of the class can be created because servers may dynamically come on- or off-line and every request must go through the one object that has knowledge about the state of the (web) farm.

using System;
using System.Collections.Generic;

namespace PSC.Singleton
{
    class Program
    {
        /// <summary>
        /// MainApp startup class for Structural
        /// Singleton Design Pattern.
        /// </summary>
        static void Main(string[] args)
        {
            LoadBalancer b1 = LoadBalancer.GetLoadBalancer();
            LoadBalancer b2 = LoadBalancer.GetLoadBalancer();
            LoadBalancer b3 = LoadBalancer.GetLoadBalancer();
            LoadBalancer b4 = LoadBalancer.GetLoadBalancer();

            // Same instance?
            if (b1 == b2 && b2 == b3 && b3 == b4)
            {
                Console.WriteLine("Same instance\n");
            }

            // Load balance 15 server requests
            LoadBalancer balancer = LoadBalancer.GetLoadBalancer();
            for (int i = 0; i < 15; i++)
            {
                string server = balancer.Server;
                Console.WriteLine("Dispatch Request to: " + server);
            }

            // Wait for user
            Console.ReadKey();
        }

        /// <summary>
        /// The 'Singleton' class
        /// </summary>
        class LoadBalancer
        {
            private static LoadBalancer _instance;
            private List<string> _servers = new Listlt;string>();
            private Random _random = new Random();

            // Lock synchronization object
            private static object syncLock = new object();

            // Constructor (protected)
            protected LoadBalancer()
            {
                // List of available servers
                _servers.Add("ServerI");
                _servers.Add("ServerII");
                _servers.Add("ServerIII");
                _servers.Add("ServerIV");
                _servers.Add("ServerV");
            }

            public static LoadBalancer GetLoadBalancer()
            {
                // Support multithreaded applications through
                // 'Double checked locking' pattern which (once
                // the instance exists) avoids locking each
                // time the method is invoked
                if (_instance == null)
                {
                    lock (syncLock)
                    {
                        if (_instance == null)
                        {
                            _instance = new LoadBalancer();
                        }
                    }
                }

                return _instance;
            }

            // Simple, but effective random load balancer
            public string Server
            {
                get
                {
                    int r = _random.Next(_servers.Count);
                    return _servers[r].ToString();
                }
            }
        }
    }
}

Singleton real-world output

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