# Path.Combine() isn't as cross-platform as you think it is

June 17, 2020

I started using .NET pretty close to the beginning, in either 2002 or 2003. It’s hard to accurately remember things that happened before I had kids.

Ever since that time, using Path.Combine() has been a best practice. You shouldn’t just concatenate paths together with \\ after all, one day it’s possible that .NET could be cross-platform and then all that Windows-specific code will be broken! With each passing year, I grew less and less convinced that cross-platform .NET would ever happen but dutifully continued using Path.Combine() anyway.

Well now with .NET Core, cross-platform .NET is a reality, but as it turns out, Path.Combine() isn’t quite the cross-platform panacea I feel I was promised.

In this article, I’ll tell you what to look out for when using Path.Combine() on multiple platforms so you won’t get burned the same way I was.

## Background

The point of Path.Combine() is pretty simple on the surface.

Let’s say you have a base path C:\base\path and you want to add the filename myfile.txt to it.

You could just concatenate the strings:

Or now that we have string interpolation you could concatenate it this way:

But that’s bad when we enter the realm of cross-platform because if I were executing this on macOS or Linux, or anything UNIX-like, my path separator would be different:

And so, using either of the concatenation options above, my result would be /Users/david\myfile.txt. That will not end the way you want it to.

That’s where Path.Combine() comes in. Instead of string concatenation, you call this instead:

So all we have to do is use Path.Combine() and our apps will be 100% ready to run cross-platform. Hooray!

If only it were that simple.

## Problem 1: Multi-segment paths

Turns out, a lot of people use Path.Combine() wrong and there’s no feedback to tell you it’s wrong.

At a basic level, Path.Combine(a,b) simply concatenates a and b with whatever the local path separator is, as determined by Path.DirectorySeparatorChar. You can kind of think of it like this:

There is absolutely zero checking for whether those two parameters contain existing directory separator characters for any platform. No sort of cross-platform normalization of directory separators going on there.

So what happens if you do this?

Keeping with our same basePath values for each platform above, for Windows you get C:\base\path\a\b\c which works great. But everywhere else, you get /Users/david/a\b\c which is not what you’re angling for.

But lots of developers do this, because there’s really no hint anywhere that a multi-segement path as one of those parameters is a bad idea. Let’s take a look at the method signature, with the xmldoc that defines what you get in Intellisense:

Now, the first parameter is usually an established path that’s known to exist, so I have no qualms about path1 here. But path2 is extremely misleading. The definition of a path is a potentially really long string containing multiple directory names. That’s clearly not what is expected. Perhaps path2 should be renamed to pathSegment or something else, but path2 and the totally unhelpful parameter description “The second path to combine” are the exact opposite of what the method implementation expects.

The only real clue that something could be amiss (short of looking at the source code and understanding what it does…or reading this post) is that the Combine method has additional overloads that accept more parameters…

…but really, these all continue the sins of the first.

…we should really be using this instead:

But unfortunately, it’s pretty common to see a lot more of the former than the latter.

## Problem 2: Windows is too forgiving

I’ve seen Path.Combine(…) used as sort of a low-rent version of Server.MapPath(string path) method, a staple of my (thankfully long-over) ASP.NET Web Forms days.

For those not familiar, Server.MapPath(string path) is part of the System.Web assembly and its purpose is to return a physical path that corresponds to a specific virtual path. So if you start out with a path from a web request, like /path/to/file.html, then Server.MapPath(…) understands what the root folder of the website is, as well as (if I recall correctly) any virtual directories set up in IIS as well. So then if your webroot is C:\inetpub\wwwroot and your virtual path is /path/to/my-file.txt, then Server.MapPath("/path/to/my-file.txt") will return that the file physically lives at C:\inetpub\wwwroot\path\to\my-file.txt.

All well and good, but living in HttpServerUtility in the monolithic System.Web assembly meant tight coupling to IIS. If you were building something with a different web framework, you didn’t have that.

So now, if you Google aspnetcore MapPath, what do you get? My first search result says what?

It says use Path.Combine(webRoot, "test.txt").

OK, that works. What if your controller action is a catch-all like this?

If you try accessing something a few directories deep, you’ll end up with effectively this:

And the result is: C:\root\virtual/path/to/file.html. That’s right, you’ll get mixed path separators.

But because Windows is too forgiving, File.Exists() on this path will return true, and you can happily return a FileResponse using that path. Maybe if it were a little more strict, people would get the memo that you aren’t supposed to have existing delimiters in Path.Combine() parameters.

For the record, the next few search results right at this moment:

1. A StackOverflow question where the top-rated and accepted answer points out IWebHostEnvironment to get the root directory but not how to safely combine paths. That answer links to a different answer on the same page which…uses Path.Combine().
2. Another StackOverflow question, same focus on how to get the web root and same use of Path.Combine().
3. Blog post that ignores the “combine” part entirely.
4. A DZone scrape of the article in #4.
5. Another blog post that ignores combining.
6. Anotehr blog post that uses Path.Combine().
7. An aspnetcore GitHub issue titled “Server.MapPath in AspNetCore” that ends with “We don’t have plans to implement this.”

You get the idea? How many developers would search farther than this? Maybe I’ll get lucky and this post will crack the top 5 and help somebody out. Maybe that person is you!

## Problem 3: Root paths

Consider these two examples:

The Path.Combine(…) method has some kinda-sorta nods to trying to maybe a little bit be cross-platform, but it doesn’t work out too well in practice. In an internal IsPathRooted() method, a check is made to see if the first character of the second parameter is a directory separator or volume separator character.

On Windows, \\ is considered the primary directory separator, while / is considered an alternate directory separator. So the result is this:

The beginning character was taken to represent the “root” of a filesystem, and so the first parameter wasn’t used at all. The answer in both cases was whatever the second path was.

Now here’s the result on my Mac:

Well, that’s interesting. On macOS (and I assume on Linux as well, though I did not check) the primary directory separator AND the alternate directory separator are both / and the character \\ is never considered, ever.

This is a bit of a corner-case, but still, drastically different results from code executing on different platforms. All the more reasons that Path.Combine() parameters should not be allowed to contain directory separators of any kind.

Perhaps one day I’ll get around to writing a Roslyn analyzer to make that a compile-time error.

## Summary

For a method that was created more than a decade before the framework was made cross-platform, it’s kind of amazing that Path.Combine(…) works at all. It does was it does, but you need to be aware of its idiosyncracies if you plan to use it in a cross-platform application or library.

There are really three basic, interrelated rules of thumb to keep in mind:

1. The first parameter of Path.Combine(…) should be thought of as a base path, and you should always be absolutely sure that path already exists on the system.
2. Every other parameter (because there are multiple overloads for different numbers of parameters) should not contain any path separator characters, from any platform.
3. When using Path.Combine(…) with user input, arbitrary inputs from a web request, or basically anything that isn’t a literal string, you should take care to split it apart based on all the different platform-specific directory separator characters (in practice, / and \\) and then feed the results of that into Path.Combine(params string[] paths).

One example of how to do #3 is this method:

Unfortunately, all the string splitting and then recombining allocates a lot more memory and will be quite a bit slower than Path.Combine(…) on a hot path, but more performant code will be inherently less readable and may need to re-implement some of the base assumptions that you take for granted in Path.Combine().