Get your Visual Studio extensions ready for 64-bit

Microsoft is finally releasing a 64-bit version of Visual Studio, but you have to rebuild your VSIX extensions for the new IDE.

Get your Visual Studio extensions ready for 64-bit
metamorworks / Roberto / Getty Images

Visual Studio has been at the heart of Microsoft’s developer platform for more than 20 years. Initially only a software bundle with a common look and feel, it’s evolved over the years into a single development environment that supports most development tasks. The next version, Visual Studio 2022, is possibly the biggest release for some time, with a public preview now available.

There are three versions of Visual Studio: a free community edition for personal, educational, and open-source projects; a professional edition for small teams; and an enterprise edition for large development teams and large projects, with cross-platform support. The two higher editions are available as subscriptions, with professional pricing at $45 per user per month and enterprise at $250 per user per month.

Preview versions of all three editions are available using your existing license to enable the appropriate one. If you’re using Community, you’re licensed for a Visual Studio 2022 Community preview, and so on for Professional and Enterprise.

You don’t have to reserve a whole PC to try out the preview. An important change a few years back was the development of a new installer that allows you to run multiple releases of Visual Studio side by side. This way you can keep a production build to work with current language versions while still testing out preview releases. The process works well: I am running a set of the Visual Studio 2017 build tools for Visual Studio Code, the current Visual Studio 2019 release, and preview builds of both Visual Studio 2019 and 2022. All four installations are managed with the same installation app, allowing me to pick and choose different workloads for different releases.

A 64-bit Visual Studio at last

One of the biggest changes to Visual Studio 2022 is the shift to a 64-bit platform. It’s not a visible change but affects everything in the platform, from how it works with large data sources to how extensions work with the new architecture. As development hardware becomes more capable (my main development system is a Xeon-E NUC workstation with 32GB of RAM that’s still got plenty of expansion space), using all the available system resources makes a lot of sense, reducing compile times and supporting larger data sets for machine learning. A 64-bit Visual Studio should improve developer productivity, as you won’t have to wait so long for operations to complete.

There have been two preview releases so far. The first didn’t add many new features beyond 64-bit support (and in fact missed some Visual Studio 2019 features). Getting a preliminary build out the door quickly allowed Microsoft and partners to start the process of migrating extensions to the new architecture, with only updated extensions in the Visual Studio marketplace. Visual Studio 2022 includes extension development tools, with support for the new SDKs in Visual Studio 2019. If you’re shipping a Visual Studio extension it’s important to download the preview and update your extensions in advance of an anticipated Fall 2021 release.

Updating VSIX extensions for Visual Studio 2022

Microsoft has published the procedure for updating existing extensions. First download the new version of the Visual Studio SDK from NuGet. This comes in two packages: a meta-package with most of the required assemblies needed to build an updated Visual Studio extension and a set of build tools needed to create the appropriate VSIX files for your extension. There’s a requirement to compile for “Any CPU” or for “x64,” as 32-bit extensions will not load in Visual Studio 2022. However, that’s not the only way to ensure compatibility with older releases and work with the new extension APIs.

Start by modernizing the underlying project by changing and updating package references. You must now use PackageReference Include statements rather than Reference Include, with many older references now replaced by the meta-package. Where you may have taken a dependency on Visual Studio’s build tools to automatically load assemblies in its search path, you’re now going to need to use a PackageReference to explicitly load the assembly in question. Because this moves your dependencies to NuGet rather than local files, you may need to do more work to ensure builds complete without warnings.

Use shared projects for compatibility with older versions

The changes in Visual Studio 2022 do mean that extensions built for the new IDE won’t work on older versions, so if you want to keep compatibility with Visual Studio 2019 or earlier, you need to build your VSIX extension as a shared project. This way you can keep much of the same code by ensuring that each target has references to the appropriate version of the Visual Studio SDKs. When you build your code, you get two separate VSIX files: a 64-bit version for Visual Studio 2022 and a 32-bit version for older releases.

Once you’ve created a shared project based on an existing VSIX, add a new Visual Studio 2022 targeted project that contains references to the new SDK. You don’t need Visual Studio 2022 to do this; it’s all possible in Visual Studio 2019. All you then need to do is set the appropriate compilation target to 64-bit (either amd64 for C++ code or x64 for C#). Once your code has compiled, use a preview copy of Visual Studio 2022 to test it out.

Watch out for breaking changes to APIs

It’s important to remember that any modules your code uses will have to be compiled for 64-bit. If they’re your own code, then all you should need to do is set the appropriate target; otherwise, work with your vendors to get updated versions. Other issues may need to be addressed about changes to the API that can break your code. One of the more common issues is likely to be code that used 32-bit integers to hold pointers. All you need to do is change the type to an IntPtr, which will set the appropriate size for the variable and prevent conversion errors.

Some APIs have been removed as well. This can be more of an issue, although there are recommended updates for most of the APIs. For example, if your extension uses tool tips via IToolTipProvider, you should switch to the new IToolTipService API. At a higher-level Microsoft is completely replacing Visual Studio’s XAML Designer with a new extensibility model for controls based on that used in .NET 5 and .NET Core. This will require significant rework, but it should result in a design extension that’s ready for .NET 5 and .NET 6 and new cross-platform technologies like MAUI.

Getting your extension code ready for Visual Studio 2022 shouldn’t be hard if you follow Microsoft’s directions. With side-by-side installs, the process should be even easier as you can make the necessary changes in Visual Studio 2019, build your VSIX, and then test in Visual Studio 2022 without changing development PCs.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.