All .NET compilers produce metadata about the types defined in the modules they produce. This metadata is packaged along with the module (modules in turn are packaged together in assemblies), and can be accessed by a mechanism called reflection. The System.Reflection namespace contains classes that can be used to interrogate the types for a module/assembly.
Using reflection to access .NET metadata is very similar to using ITypeLib/ITypeInfo to access type library data in COM, and it is used for similar purposes - e.g. determining data type sizes for marshaling data across context/process/machine boundaries.
Reflection can also be used to dynamically invoke methods (see System.Type.InvokeMember), or even create types dynamically at run-time (see System.Reflection.Emit.TypeBuilder).
An assembly is sometimes described as a logical .EXE or .DLL, and can be an application (with a main entry point) or a library. An assembly consists of one or more files (dlls, exes, html files etc), and represents a group of resources, type definitions, and implementations of those types. An assembly may also contain references to other assemblies. These resources, types and references are described in a block of data called a manifest. The manifest is part of the assembly, thus making the assembly self-describing.
An important aspect of assemblies is that they are part of the identity of a type. The identity of a type is the assembly that houses it combined with the type name. This means, for example, that if assembly A exports a type called T, and assembly B exports a type called T, the .NET runtime sees these as two completely different types. Furthermore, don't get confused between assemblies and namespaces - namespaces are merely a hierarchical way of organising type names. To the runtime, type names are type names, regardless of whether namespaces are used to organise the names. It's the assembly plus the typename (regardless of whether the type name belongs to a namespace) that uniquely indentifies a type to the runtime.
- Location and visibility: A private assembly is normally used by a single application, and is stored in the application's directory, or a subdirectory beneath. A shared assembly is normally stored in the global assembly cache, which is a repository of assemblies maintained by the .NET runtime. Shared assemblies are usually libraries of code which many applications will find useful, e.g. the .NET framework classes.
- Versioning: The runtime enforces versioning constraints only on shared assemblies, not on private assemblies.
By searching directory paths. There are several factors which can affect the path (such as the AppDomain host, and application configuration files), but for private assemblies the search path is normally the application's directory and its sub-directories. For shared assemblies, the search path is normally same as the private assembly path plus the shared assembly cache.
Yes. For an example of how to do this, take a look at the source for the dm.net moniker developed by Jason Whittington and Don Box. There is also a code sample in the .NET SDK called CorHost.