Fun with low level SEH

Most code that uses Structured Exception Handling does this with the help of the compiler, e.g. by using __try/__except/__finally. Still, it is possible to do everything by hand, i.e. to provide your own exception handlers and set up the exception registration records manually. However, as this entire topic is not documented very well, doing so opens room for all kind of surprises…

Although more than 10 years old, the best article on this topic still seems to be Matt Pirtrek’s A Crash Course on the Depths of Win32™ Structured Exception Handling, which I assume you have read. However, note that this article as well as this post refer to i386 only, albeit both to user and kernel mode.

Exception Registration Record Validation

On the i386, SEH uses a linked list of exception registration records. The first record is pointed to by the first member of the TIB. In user mode, the TIB is part of the TEB, in kernel mode it is part of the KPCR — in any case, it is at fs:[0]. Each record, besides containing a pointer to the next lower record, stores a pointer to an exception handler routine.

Installing an exception registration record is thus straightforward and merely requires adjusting the TIB pointer and having the new record point to next lower record. So I set up my custom exception registration record, registered it properly, verified that all pointers are correct and tried using it. However, I was unpleasently surprised that exeption handling totally failed as soon as my exception registration got involved. !exchain reported an “Invalid exception stack”, although checking the pointers manually again seemed to show that the chain of exception registration records was fine and my record seemed ok.

Digging a little deeper I found the reason for that — and in fact I cannot remember ever having heard or read about this requirement before: Windows requires all EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION_RECORDs to be located on the stack. Both RtlDispatchException and RtlUnwind check the location of each EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION_RECORD against the stack limits and abort exception handling as soon as a record is found to be not stack-located. Aborting exception handling in this case means that RaiseException/ExRaiseStatus will just return and execution will be resumed at the caller site as if nothing happened.

This requirement is fair enough, actually, but in my case it totally wrecked my design. I did not have the 8 spare bytes to store this record and thus therefore put the record on some dedicated place on the heap. Urgh. Anyway…

As an interesting side note, Windows Server 2003 performs this stack check against both limits — minimum and maximum address of the stack. Vista, however, only checks against the maximum address (i.e. bottom of the stack) and does not care whether the minimum address (i.e. top of stack) has been exceeded.

Moreover, there is another restriction on exception records that only applies to user mode: The handler routine pointed to by the exception record is verified to not point into the stack. This is obviously another security measure to avoid SEH records to point into some overflown buffers.


It is worth pointing out that all these checks are unrelated to SafeSEH and are performed regardless of whether your module is SafeSEH compatible or not. Not before these checks have all passed, the exception handler has to undergo the SafeSEH validation: The image base is calculated, the table listing the trusted SEH handlers is looked up and it is checked whether the handler routine pointed to by the current exception record is located in this table.

SafeSEH Handler Registration

Using SafeSEH is a good thing and I link all my modules with /SafeSEH. So when you use low level SEH, i.e. without using the __try/__except compiler support, the obvious question is how to get your SEH handler to be recognized as a trusted handler and be included in the SafeSEH table. After all, the compiler will not be able to recognize that the routine you have just written will in fact be used as an exception handler. The C compiler does not seem to offer support for that — luckily however, ml does by providing the .SAFESEH directive.

If you like writing your exception handler in assmbler, this is all you need. If, however, you prefer C, this is somewhat unsatisfying. The documentation of .SAFESEH states that it can be used with an extrn proc, but that does not seem to work. My solution was thus to write the actual routine in C and write a little thunk in assembler, which I was then able to register using the .SAFESEH directive:

.model flat, stdcall
option casemap :none

extrn RealExceptionHandlerWrittenInC@16


ExceptionHandlerThunk proto
.SAFESEH ExceptionHandlerThunk



ExceptionHandlerThunk proc
	jmp RealExceptionHandlerWrittenInC@16
ExceptionHandlerThunk endp

Stupid things you should not do

Finally, there is another little quirk that bit me: Do not use EXCEPTION_CONTINUE_SEARCH where ExceptionContinueSearch would have been appropriate. The EXCEPTION_* constants are for use by exception filters as used for __except statements, whereas the Exception* values have to be used for low level exception handlers. Should be obvious, right? :)

Having chosen the wrong group of constants, I returned EXCEPTION_CONTINUE_SEARCH from my exception handler to indicate that the handler is unable to handle certain exceptions. However, as it turns out, EXCEPTION_CONTINUE_SEARCH has the value 0 and is thus interpreted as ExceptionContinueExecution. Now, returning ExceptionContinueExecution when being requested to handle an exception raised by ExRaiseStatus is obviously a bad idea and in this case led to a STATUS_NONCONTINUABLE_EXCEPTION. After a few of those had stacked up (in kernel mode), VirtualPC crashed with an unrecoverable CPU error. Nice :)


2 Responses to “Fun with low level SEH”

  1. 1 andrewl May 6, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    Thanks so much for posting this. I too was allocating the SEH node on the heap and there is NO clue given by windows as to why my handler was being ignored. I spent so much time enabling/disabling/modifying safe seh lists in the load config directories of the exe and its loaded DLL’s. Never heard of !exchain (failed to find it in windbg help, was searching for “seh”). How did you find the rule about the stack/not stack? Anyways, yea, node on the stack, and my handler is called :) Thanks thanks thanks!


  1. 1 How GUI Thread Conversion on Svr03 Damages the SEH Chain « JP’s Blog Trackback on October 25, 2008 at 12:54 pm
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About me

Johannes Passing, M.Sc., living in Berlin, Germany.

Besides his consulting work, Johannes mainly focusses on Win32, COM, and NT kernel mode development, along with Java and .Net. He also is the author of cfix, a C/C++ unit testing framework for Win32 and NT kernel mode, Visual Assert, a Visual Studio Unit Testing-AddIn, and NTrace, a dynamic function boundary tracing toolkit for Windows NT/x86 kernel/user mode code.

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