Versioning Issues With Optional Arguments

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One nice new feature introduced in C# 4 is support for named and optional arguments. While these two features are often discussed together, they really are orthogonal concepts.

Let’s look at a quick example of these two concepts at work. Suppose we have a class with one method having the following signature.

  // v1
  public static void Redirect(string url, string protocol = "http");

This hypothetical library contains a single method that takes in two parameters, a required string url and an optional string protocol.

The following shows the six possible ways this method can be called.

HttpHelpers.Redirect(url: "");
HttpHelpers.Redirect("", "https");
HttpHelpers.Redirect("", protocol: "https");
HttpHelpers.Redirect(url: "", protocol: "https");
HttpHelpers.Redirect(protocol: "https", url: "");

Notice that whether or not a parameter is optional, you can choose to refer to the parameter by name or not. In the last case, notice that the parameters are specified out of order. In this case, using named parameters is required.

The Next Version

One apparent benefit of using optional parameters is that you can reduce the number of overloads your API has. However, relying on optional parameters does have its quirks you need to be aware of when it comes to versioning.

Let’s suppose we’re ready to make version two of our awesome HttpHelpers library and we add an optional parameter to the existing method.

// v2
public static void Redirect(string url, string protocol = "http",   bool permanent = false);

What happens when we try to execute the client without recompiling the client application?

We get a the following exception message.

Unhandled Exception: System.MissingMethodException: Method not found: 'Void HttpLib.HttpHelpers.Redirect(System.String, System.String)'....

Whoops! By changing the method signature, we caused a runtime breaking change to occur. That’s not good.

Let’s try to avoid a runtime breaking change by adding an overload instead of changing the existing method.

// v2.1
public static void Redirect(string url, string protocol = "http");
public static void Redirect(string url, string protocol = "http",   bool permanent = false);

Now, when we run our client application, it works fine. It’s still calling the two parameter version of the method. Adding overloads is never a runtime breaking change.

But let’s suppose we’re now ready to update the client application and we attempt to recompile it. Uh oh!

The call is ambiguous between the following methods or properties: 'HttpLib.HttpHelpers.Redirect(string, string)' and 'HttpLib.HttpHelpers.Redirect(string, string, bool)'

While adding an overload is not a runtime breaking change, it can result in a compile time breaking change. Doh!

Talk about a catch-22! If we add an overload, we break in one way. If we instead add an argument to the existing method, we’re broken in another way.

Why Is This Happening?

When I first heard about optional parameter support, I falsely assumed it was implemented as a feature of the CLR which might allow dynamic dispatch to the method. This was perhaps very naive of me.

My co-worker Levi (no blog still) broke it down for me as follows. Keep in mind, he’s glossing over a lot of details, but at a high level, this is roughly what’s going on.

When optional parameters are in use, the C# compiler follows a simple algorithm to determine which overload of a method you actually meant to call. It considers as a candidate *every* overload of the method, then one by one it eliminates overloads that can’t possibly work for the particular parameters you’re passing in.

Consider these overloads:

public static void Blah(int i);
public static void Blah(int i, int j = 5);
public static void Blah(string i = "Hello"); 

Suppose you make the following method call: Blah(0).

The last candidate is eliminated since the parameter types are incorrect, which leaves us with the first two.

public static void Blah(int i);
public static void Blah(int i, int j = 5);
public static void Blah(string i = "Hello"); 

At this point, the compiler needs to perform a conflict resolution. The conflict resolution is very simple: if one of the candidates has the same number of parameters as the call site, it wins. Otherwise the compiler bombs with an error.

In the case of Blah(0), the first overload is chosen since the number of parameters is exactly one.

public static void Blah(int i); //WINNER!!!
public static void Blah(int i, int j = 5);
public static void Blah(string i = "Hello"); 

This allows you to take an existing method that doesn’t have optional parameters and add overloads that have optional parameters without breaking anybody (except in Visual Basic which has a slightly different algorithm).

But what happens if you need to version an API that already has optional parameters?  Consider this example:

public static void Helper(int i = 2, int j = 3);            // v1
public static void Helper(int i = 2, int j = 3, int k = 4); // added in v2

And say that the call site is Helper(j: 10). Both candidates still exist after the elimination process, but since neither candidate has exactly one argument, the compiler will not prefer one over another. This leads to the compilation error we saw earlier about the call being ambiguous.


The reason that optional parameters were introduced to C# 4 in the first place was to support COM interop. That’s it. And now, we’re learning about the full implications of this fact.

If you have a method with optional parameters, you can never add an overload with additional optional parameters out of fear of causing a compile-time breaking change. And you can never remove an existing overload, as this has always been a runtime breaking change.

You pretty much need to treat it like an interface. Your only recourse in this case is to write a new method with a new name.

So be aware of this if you plan to use optional arguments in your APIs.

UPDATE: By the way, you can add overloads that have additional required parameters. So in this way, you are in the same boat as before. However, this can lead to other subtle versioning issues as my follow-up post describes.