Reference assemblies

Reference assemblies are a special type of assembly that contain only the minimum amount of metadata required to represent the library's public API surface. They include declarations for all members that are significant when referencing an assembly in build tools, but exclude all member implementations and declarations of private members that have no observable impact on their API contract. In contrast, regular assemblies are called implementation assemblies.

Reference assemblies can't be loaded for execution, but they can be passed as compiler input in the same way as implementation assemblies. Reference assemblies are usually distributed with the Software Development Kit (SDK) of a particular platform or library.

Using a reference assembly enables developers to build programs that target a specific library version without having the full implementation assembly for that version. Suppose, you have only the latest version of some library on your machine, but you want to build a program that targets an earlier version of that library. If you compile directly against the implementation assembly, you might inadvertently use API members that aren't available in the earlier version. You'll only find this mistake when testing the program on the target machine. If you compile against the reference assembly for the earlier version, you'll immediately get a compile-time error.

A reference assembly can also represent a contract, that is, a set of APIs that don't correspond to the concrete implementation assembly. Such reference assemblies, called the contract assembly, can be used to target multiple platforms that support the same set of APIs. For example, .NET Standard provides the contract assembly, netstandard.dll, that represents the set of common APIs shared between different .NET platforms. The implementations of these APIs are contained in different assemblies on different platforms, such as mscorlib.dll on .NET Framework or System.Private.CoreLib.dll on .NET Core. A library that targets .NET Standard can run on all platforms that support .NET Standard.

Using reference assemblies

To use certain APIs from your project, you must add references to their assemblies. You can add references to either implementation assemblies or to reference assemblies. It's recommended you use reference assemblies whenever they're available. Doing so ensures that you're using only the supported API members in the target version, meant to be used by API designers. Using the reference assembly ensures you're not taking a dependency on implementation details.

Reference assemblies for the .NET Framework libraries are distributed with targeting packs. You can obtain them by downloading a standalone installer or by selecting a component in Visual Studio installer. For more information, see Install the .NET Framework for developers. For .NET Core and .NET Standard, reference assemblies are automatically downloaded as necessary (via NuGet) and referenced. For .NET Core 3.0 and higher, the reference assemblies for the core framework are in the Microsoft.NETCore.App.Ref package (the Microsoft.NETCore.App package is used instead for versions before 3.0).

When you add references to .NET Framework assemblies in Visual Studio using the Add reference dialog, you select an assembly from the list, and Visual Studio automatically finds reference assemblies that correspond to the target framework version selected in your project. The same applies to adding references directly into MSBuild project using the Reference project item: you only need to specify the assembly name, not the full file path. When you add references to these assemblies in the command line by using the -reference compiler option (in C# and in Visual Basic) or by using the Compilation.AddReferences method in the Roslyn API, you must manually specify reference assembly files for the correct target platform version. .NET Framework reference assembly files are located in the %ProgramFiles(x86)%\Reference Assemblies\Microsoft\Framework\.NETFramework directory. For .NET Core, you can force publish operation to copy reference assemblies for your target platform into the publish/refs subdirectory of your output directory by setting the PreserveCompilationContext project property to true. Then you can pass these reference assembly files to the compiler. Using DependencyContext from Microsoft.Extensions.DependencyModel package can help locate their paths.

Because they contain no implementation, reference assemblies can't be loaded for execution. Trying to do so results in a System.BadImageFormatException. If you want to examine the contents of a reference assembly, you can load it into the reflection-only context in .NET Framework (using the Assembly.ReflectionOnlyLoad method) or into the MetadataLoadContext in .NET and .NET Framework.

Generating reference assemblies

Generating reference assemblies for your libraries can be useful when your library consumers need to build their programs against many different versions of the library. Distributing implementation assemblies for all these versions might be impractical because of their large size. Reference assemblies are smaller in size, and distributing them as a part of your library's SDK reduces download size and saves disk space.

IDEs and build tools also can take advantage of reference assemblies to reduce build times in case of large solutions consisting of multiple class libraries. Usually, in incremental build scenarios a project is rebuilt when any of its input files are changed, including the assemblies it depends on. The implementation assembly changes whenever the programmer changes the implementation of any member. The reference assembly only changes when its public API is affected. So, using the reference assembly as an input file instead of the implementation assembly allows skipping the build of the dependent project in some cases.

You can generate reference assemblies:

If you want to distribute reference assemblies with NuGet packages, you must include them in the ref\ subdirectory under the package directory instead of in the lib\ subdirectory used for implementation assemblies.

Reference assemblies structure

Reference assemblies are an expansion of the related concept, metadata-only assemblies. Metadata-only assemblies have their method bodies replaced with a single throw null body, but include all members except anonymous types. The reason for using throw null bodies (as opposed to no bodies) is so that PEVerify can run and pass (thus validating the completeness of the metadata).

Reference assemblies further remove metadata (private members) from metadata-only assemblies:

  • A reference assembly only has references for what it needs in the API surface. The real assembly may have additional references related to specific implementations. For instance, the reference assembly for class C { private void M() { dynamic d = 1; ... } } doesn't reference any types required for dynamic.
  • Private function-members (methods, properties, and events) are removed in cases where their removal doesn't observably impact compilation. If there are no InternalsVisibleTo attributes, internal function members are also removed.

The metadata in reference assemblies continues to keep the following information:

  • All types, including private and nested types.
  • All attributes, even internal ones.
  • All virtual methods.
  • Explicit interface implementations.
  • Explicitly implemented properties and events, because their accessors are virtual.
  • All fields of structures.

Reference assemblies include an assembly-level ReferenceAssembly attribute. This attribute may be specified in source; then the compiler won't need to synthesize it. Because of this attribute, runtimes will refuse to load reference assemblies for execution (but they can be loaded in reflection-only mode).

Exact reference assembly structure details depend on the compiler version. Newer versions may choose to exclude more metadata if it's determined as not affecting the public API surface.


Information in this section is applicable only to reference assemblies generated by Roslyn compilers starting from C# version 7.1 or Visual Basic version 15.3. The structure of reference assemblies for .NET Framework and .NET Core libraries can differ in some details, because they use their own mechanism of generating reference assemblies. For example, they might have totally empty method bodies instead of the throw null body. But the general principle still applies: they don't have usable method implementations and contain metadata only for members that have an observable impact from a public API perspective.

See also