Debugging Windows Hotpatching

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Several years ago, with Windows Server 2003 SP1, Microsoft introduced a technology and infrastructure called Hotpatching. The basic intent of this infrastructure is to provide a means to apply hotfixes on the fly, i.e. without having to reboot the system – even if the hotfix contains changes on critical system components such as the kernel iteself, important drivers, or user mode libraries such as shell32.dll.

Trying to applying hotfixes on the fly introduces a variety of problems – the most important being:

  • Patching code that is currently in use
  • Atomically replacing files on disk that are currently in use and therefore locked
  • Making sure that all changes take effect for both, processes currently running and processes which are yet to be started (i.e. before the next reboot)
  • Allowing further hotfixes to be applied on system that has not been rebooted since the last hotfix has been applied in an on-the-fly fashion

The Windows Hotpatching infrastructure is capable of handling all these cases – it is, however, not applicable to all kinds of code fixes. Generally speaking, it can only be used for fixes that merely comprise smallish code changes but do not affect layout or semantics of data structures. A fix for a buffer overflow caused by an off-by-one error, however, is a perfect example for a fix that could certainly be applied using the Hotpatching infrastructure.

That all sounds good and nice, but reality is that we still reboot our machines for just about every update Microsoft provides us, right?

Right. The answer for this is threefold. First, as indicated, some hotfixes can be expected to make changes that cannot be safely applied using the Hotpatching system. Secondly, Hotpatching is used on an opt-in basis, so you will not benefit from it automatically: When a hotpatch-enabled hotfix is applied through Windows Update or by launching the corresponding exe file, it is not used and a reboot will be required. The user has to explicitly specify the /hotpatch:enable switch in order to have the hotfix to be applied on the fly.

In the months after the release of SP1, a certain fraction of the hotfixes issued by Microsoft were indeed hotpatch-enabled and could be applied without a reboot. Interestingly, however, I am not aware of a single hotfix issued since Server 2003 SP2 that supported hotpatching!

And thirdly: Whether Microsoft has lost faith in their hotpatching facility, whether the effort to test such hotfixes turned out to be too high or whether there were other reasons speaking against issueing hotpatch-enabled hotfixes – I do not know.

Notwithstanding this observation, Hotpatching is an interesting technology that deserves to be looked at in more detail. Although I will not cover the entire infrastructure, I will spend at least one more blog post on the mechanisms implemented in Windows that allow code modifications to be performed on the fly. That is, I will focus on the hotpatching part of the infrastructure and will ignore coldpatching and other, smaller aspects of the infrastructre.

Any opinions expressed on this blog are Johannes' own. Refer to the respective vendor’s product documentation for authoritative information.
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