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What Are DLL Files?

In previous days of computers, every program was required to come bundled with their own copy of any libraries they needed. Although this was a reliable method (you never had to worry about if users had the .NET Framework, installed), it did have some compromises. Especially with early computers, the usage of extra disk space was an issue. Of course, now that is not as much of an issue, but even with modern computers there are good reasons to use this type of file.

DLLs (Dynamic Link Libraries) are shared libraries. They are able to be accessed by multiple programs at once and provide developers with the ability to share and reuse code. The majority of the Win32 API (the set of instructions used by programmers to make their programs interact with Windows) is implemented through DLLs. Additionally, Control Panel applets, device drivers, and ActiveX controlled are nothing more than renamed DLL files. In fact, much of Windows is built as a collection of DLL (and renamed) DLL files. They are scattered all over your computer.

As a shared library, DLL files are designed to be accessed by more than one program simultaneously. What does this mean for your computer? It means that no matter how many programs use these DLLs, they will not be loaded into memory more than once. Considering the majority of Windows is built using DLLs, this is a very significant fact. It means that your computer can run faster and more efficiently if programs properly utilize the DLLs that are available as part of the Windows operating system and other shared libraries such as the .NET Framework.

There are two ways that DLLs can be implemented into a program: load-time linking and run-time linking. In load-time linking most of the work is automatically done by the compiler. The developer is required to do little more than import the appropriate header file and call on the function embedded in the DLL. The compiler will do the linking necessary to make the program load the DLL when the program is loaded and, as far as the program is concerned, the functions available in the DLL file are now available for use. Although this decreases the initial runtime speed of the program, it is far simpler for developers.

Run-time dynamic linking requires more work for the developers, but it allows for more flexibility and a faster initial startup time. There are other times you may want to use run-time linking. For example, in multi-language programs you may find it necessary to load a different version of the DLL file based on the language selected by your user. With run-time dynamic linking this is easily possible. The implementation of run-time linking is more difficult for developers, but in many instances the added development time results in a faster and more flexible application.

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