Expression Tree

You have learned about the Expression in the previous section. Now, let's learn about the Expresion tree here.

Expression tree as name suggests is nothing but expressions arranged in a tree-like data structure. Each node in an expression tree is an expression. For example, an expression tree can be used to represent mathematical formula x < y where x, < and y will be represented as an expression and arranged in the tree like structure.

Expression tree is an in-memory representation of a lambda expression. It holds the actual elements of the query, not the result of the query.

The expression tree makes the structure of the lambda expression transparent and explicit. You can interact with the data in the expression tree just as you can with any other data structure.

For example, consider the following isTeenAgerExpr expression:

Example: Expression in C#
Expression<Func<Student, bool>> isTeenAgerExpr = s => s.age > 12 && s.age < 20;

The compiler will translate the above expression into the following expression tree:

Example: Expression Tree in C#
Expression.Lambda<Func<Student, bool>>(
                    Expression.GreaterThan(Expression.Property(pe, "Age"), Expression.Constant(12, typeof(int))),
                    Expression.LessThan(Expression.Property(pe, "Age"), Expression.Constant(20, typeof(int)))),
                        new[] { pe });

You can also build an expression tree manually. Let's see how to build an expression tree for the following simple lambda expression:

Example: Func delegate in C#:
Func<Student, bool> isAdult = s => s.age >= 18;

This Func type delegate will be treated like the following method:

public bool function(Student s)
  return s.Age > 18;

To create the expression tree, first of all, create a parameter expression where Student is the type of the parameter and 's' is the name of the parameter as below:

Step 1: Create Parameter Expression in C#
ParameterExpression pe = Expression.Parameter(typeof(Student), "s");

Now, use Expression.Property() to create s.Age expression where s is the parameter and Age is the property name of Student. (Expression is an abstract class that contains static helper methods to create the Expression tree manually.)

Step 2: Create Property Expression in C#
MemberExpression me = Expression.Property(pe, "Age");

Now, create a constant expression for 18:

Step 3: Create Constant Expression in C#
ConstantExpression constant = Expression.Constant(18, typeof(int));

Till now, we have built expression trees for s.Age (member expression) and 18 (constant expression). We now need to check whether a member expression is greater than a constant expression or not. For that, use the Expression.GreaterThanOrEqual() method and pass the member expression and constant expression as parameters:

Step 4: Create Binary Expression in C#
BinaryExpression body = Expression.GreaterThanOrEqual(me, constant);

Thus, we have built an expression tree for a lambda expression body s.Age >= 18. We now need to join the parameter and body expressions. Use Expression.Lambda(body, parameters array) to join the body and parameter part of the lambda expression s => s.age >= 18:

Step 5: Create Lambda Expression in C#
var isAdultExprTree = Expression.Lambda<Func<Student, bool>>(body, new[] { pe });

This way you can build an expression tree for simple Func delegates with a lambda expression.

Example: Expression Tree in C#
ParameterExpression pe = Expression.Parameter(typeof(Student), "s");

MemberExpression me = Expression.Property(pe, "Age");

ConstantExpression constant = Expression.Constant(18, typeof(int));

BinaryExpression body = Expression.GreaterThanOrEqual(me, constant);

var ExpressionTree = Expression.Lambda<Func<Student, bool>>(body, new[] { pe });

Console.WriteLine("Expression Tree: {0}", ExpressionTree);
Console.WriteLine("Expression Tree Body: {0}", ExpressionTree.Body);
Console.WriteLine("Number of Parameters in Expression Tree: {0}", 
Console.WriteLine("Parameters in Expression Tree: {0}", ExpressionTree.Parameters[0]);
Example: Expression Tree in VB.Net
Dim pe As ParameterExpression = Expression.Parameter(GetType(Student), "s")

Dim mexp As MemberExpression = Expression.Property(pe, "Age")

Dim constant As ConstantExpression = Expression.Constant(18, GetType(Integer))

Dim body As BinaryExpression = Expression.GreaterThanOrEqual(mexp, constant)

Dim ExpressionTree As Expression(Of Func(Of Student, Boolean)) = 
    Expression.Lambda(Of Func(Of Student, Boolean))(body, New ParameterExpression() {pe})

Console.WriteLine("Expression Tree: {0}", ExpressionTree)

Console.WriteLine("Expression Tree Body: {0}", ExpressionTree.Body)
Console.WriteLine("Number of Parameters in Expression Tree: {0}", 
Console.WriteLine("Parameters in Expression Tree: {0}", ExpressionTree.Parameters(0))
Expression Tree: s => (s.Age >= 18)
Expression Tree Body: (s.Age >= 18)
Number of Parameters in Expression Tree: 1
Parameters in Expression Tree: s

The following image illustrates the whole process of creating an expression tree:

linq construct expression tree.
Construct Expression Tree

Why Expression Tree?

We have seen in the previous section that the lambda expression assigned to Func<T> compiles into executable code and the lambda expression assigned to Expression<TDelegate> type compiles into Expression tree.

Executable code excutes in the same application domain to process over in-memory collection. Enumerable static classes contain extension methods for in-memory collections that implements IEnumerable<T> interface e.g. List<T>, Dictionary<T>, etc. The Extension methods in an Enumerable class accept a predicate parameter of Func type delegate. For example, the Where extension method accepts Func<TSource, bool> predicate. It then compiles it into IL (Intermediate Language) to process over in-memory collections that are in the same AppDomain.

The following image shows Where extension method in Enumerable class includes Func delegate as a parameter:

Func delegate in Where

Func delegate is a raw executable code, so if you debug the code, you will find that the Func delegate will be represented as opaque code. You cannot see its parameters, return type and body:

Func delegate in debug mode
Func delegate in debug mode

Func delegate is for in-memory collections because it will be processed in the same AppDomain, but what about remote LINQ query providers like LINQ-to-SQL, EntityFramework or other third party products that provides LINQ capabilities? How would they parse lambda expression that has been compiled into raw executable code to know about the parameters, return type of lambda expression and build runtime query to process further? The answer is Expression tree.

Expression<TDelegate> is compiled into a data structure called an expression tree.

If you debug the code, Expression delegate will be represented as shown below:

ExpressionTree in debug mode
Expression Tree in debug mode

Now you can see the difference between a normal delegate and an Expression. An expression tree is transparent. You can retrieve a parameter, return type and body expression information from the expression, as below:

Example: Expression Tree in C#
Expression<Func<Student, bool>> isTeenAgerExpr = s => s.Age > 12 && s.Age < 20;

Console.WriteLine("Expression: {0}", isTeenAgerExpr );
Console.WriteLine("Expression Type: {0}", isTeenAgerExpr.NodeType);

var parameters = isTeenAgerExpr.Parameters;

foreach (var param in parameters)
    Console.WriteLine("Parameter Name: {0}", param.Name);
    Console.WriteLine("Parameter Type: {0}", param.Type.Name );
var bodyExpr = isTeenAgerExpr.Body as BinaryExpression;

Console.WriteLine("Left side of body expression: {0}", bodyExpr.Left);
Console.WriteLine("Binary Expression Type: {0}", bodyExpr.NodeType);
Console.WriteLine("Right side of body expression: {0}", bodyExpr.Right);
Console.WriteLine("Return Type: {0}", isTeenAgerExpr.ReturnType);
Expression: s => ((s.Age > 12) AndAlso (s.Age < 20))
Expression Type: Lambda
Parameter Name: s
Parameter Type: Student
Left side of body expression: (s.Age > 12)
Binary Expression Type: AndAlso
Right side of body expression: (s.Age < 20)
Return Type: System.Boolean

LINQ query for LINQ-to-SQL or Entity Framework is not executed in the same app domain. For example, the following LINQ query for Entity Framework is never actually executed inside your program:

Example: LINQ Query in C#
var query = from s in dbContext.Students
            where s.Age >= 18
            select s;

It is first translated into an SQL statement and then executed on the database server.

The code found in a query expression has to be translated into an SQL query that can be sent to another process as a string. For LINQ-to-SQL or Entity Frameworks, that process happens to be an SQL server database. It is obviously going to be much easier to translate a data structure such as an expression tree into SQL than it is to translate raw IL or executable code into SQL because, as you have seen, it is easy to retrieve information from an expression.

Expression trees were created for the task of converting code such as a query expression into a string that can be passed to some other process and executed there.

Queryable static class includes extension methods that accept a predicate parameter of Expression type. This predicate expression will be converted into an Expression Tree and then will be passed to the remote LINQ provider as a data structure so that the provider can build an appropriate query from the expression tree and execute the query.

ExpressionTree Process
Expression Tree Process