Posts Tagged 'c'

Runtime Code Modification Explained, Part 1: Dealing With Memory

Runtime code modification, of self modifying code as it is often referred to, has been used for decades — to implement JITters, writing highly optimized algorithms, or to do all kinds of interesting stuff. Using runtime code modification code has never been really easy — it requires a solid understanding of machine code and it is straightforward to screw up. What’s not so well known, however, is that writing such code has actually become harder over the last years, at least on the IA-32 platform: Comparing the 486 and current Core architectures, it becomes obvious that Intel, in order to allow more advanced CPU-interal optimizations, has actually lessened certain gauarantees made by the CPU, which in turn requires the programmer to pay more attection to certain details.

Looking around on the web, there are plenty of code snippets and example projects that make use of self-modifying code. Without finger-pointing specific resources, it is, however, safe to assume that a significant (and I mean significant!) fraction of these examples fail to address all potential problems related to runtime code modification. As I have shown a while ago, even Detours, which is a well-done and widely recognized and used library relying on runtime code modification has its issues:

Adopting the nomenclature suggested by the Intel processor manuals, code writing data to memory with the intent of having the same processor execute this data as code is referred to as self-modifying code. On SMP machines, it is possible for one processor to write data to memory with the intent of having a different processor execute this data as code. This process if referred to as cross-modifying code. I will jointly refer to both practices as runtime code modification.

Memory Model

The easiest part of runtime code modification is dealing with the memory model. In order to implement self-modifying or cross-modifying code, a program must be able to address the regions of memory containing the code to be modified. Moreover, due to memory protection mechanisms, overwriting code may not be trivially possible.

The IA-32 architecture offers three memory models — the flat, segmented and real mode memory model. Current OS like Windows and Linux rely on the flat memory model, so I will ignore the other two.

Whenever the CPU fetches code, it addresses memory relative to the segment mapped by the CS segment register. In the flat memory model, the CS segment register, which refers to the current code segment, is always set up to map to linear address 0. In the same manner, the data and stack segment registers (DS, SS) are set up to refer to linear address 0.

It is worth mentioning that AMD64 has retired the use of segmentation and the segment bases for code and data segment are therefore always treated as 0.

Given this setup, code can be accessed and modified on IA-32 as well as on AMD64 in the same manner as data. Easy-peasy.

Memory Protection

One of the features enabled by the use of paging is the ability to enforce memory protection. Each page can specify restrictions to which operations are allowed to be performed on memory of the respective page.

In the context of runtime code modification, memory protection is of special importance as memory containing code usually does not permit write access, but rather read and execute access only. A prospective solution thus has to provide a means to either circumvent such write protection or to temporarily grant write access to the required memory areas.

As other parts of the image are write-protected as well, memory protection equally applies to approaches that modify non-code parts of the image such as the Import Address Table. That’s why the call to VirtualProtect is neccessary when Patching the IAT. Programs using runtime code modification often do not restrict themselves to changing existing code but rather generate additional code. Assuming Data Execution Prevention has been enabled, it is thus vital for such approaches to work properly that any code generated is placed into memory regions that grant execute access. While user mode implementations can rely on a feature of the RTL heap (i.e. using the HEAP_CREATE_ENABLE_EXECUTE when calling RtlCreateHeap) for allocating executable memory, no comparable facility for kernel mode exist — a potential instrumentation solution thus has to come up with a custom allocation strategy.

Jump distances

Whenever code is being generated, odds are that there are branching instructions involved. Depending on where memory for the new code has been allocated and where the branch targets falls, the offset between the branching instruction itself and the jump target may be of significant size. In such cases, the software has to make sure that the branch instruction chosen does in fact support offsets at least as large as required for the individual purpose. This sounds trivial, but it is not: Software that overwrites existing code with a branch may face severe limitation w.r.t. how many bytes the branch instruction may occupy — if, for example, there is less than 5 bytes of space (assuming IA-32), a far jump cannot be used. To use a near jump, however, the newly allocated code better be near.

Further safety concerns will be discussed in Part 2 of this series of posts.

Visual Assert hits RTM, now available for free

Visual Assert, the unit testing Add-In for Visual Studio/Visual C++ has finally left its beta status and — better yet — is now available for free, both for commercial and non-commercial use.

Visual Assert, based on the cfix 1.6 unit testing framework, allows you to easily write, manage, run, and debug your C/C++ unit tests -– without ever leaving the Visual Studio® IDE. No fiddling with command line tools, no complex configuration, and no boilerplate code required.

Sounds good? Then go straight to the Visual Assert homepage and download the installer!

Visual Assert Beta 3 released

A third beta release of Visual Assert is now available for download on

Visual Assert, in case you have not tried it yet, is an Add-In for Visual Studio that adds unit testing capabilities to the Visual C++ IDE: Based on the cfix unit testing framework, Visual Assert allows unit tests to be written, run, and debugged from within the IDE. Pretty much like Junit/Eclipse, TestDriven.Net or MSTest, but for real, native code — code written in C or C++.

Bugs, bugs, bugs, bugs

Alas, there were still a few of them in the previous two beta releases. Luckily though, almost all I received from users or found by internal testing were relatively minor in nature. Still, I want Visual Assert to be as high quality as possible and decided to add this third beta release into the schedule and take the time to focus on — you guessed it — bugfixing, bugfixing, bugfixing, and bugfixing.

Speaking of bug reports, I have to thank all users of Visual Assert and cfix who reported bugs, suggested new features or provided general feedback. Your input has been, and still is highly appreciated. Although I had to postpone any feature suggestions to a later release, I tried hard to resolve all bugs and have them fixed in this new release.

Download, Try it, Share Your Opinion

Of course, using the new Beta version is free. So whether you have already used the previous beta or not, whether you are a unit testing newbie or write unit tests on a daily basis, be sure to give the new version a try. And of course, do not forget to let me know about your feedback, suggestions, found bugs, etc.!

cfix 1.3.0 Released, Introducing WinUnit Compatibility

cfix 1.3, the latest version of the unit testing framework for C/C++ on Windows, has just been released. As announced in the last blog post, the major new feature of this release is WinUnit compatibility, i.e. the ability to recompile existing WinUnit test suites into cfix test suites without having to change a single line of code.

To demonstrate that this compatibility indeed works, consider the following simple example:

#include "WinUnit.h"

  WIN_ASSERT_STRING_EQUAL( "foo", "bar" "Descriptive message");

Compile it:

cl /I %CFIX_HOME%\include /LD /EHa /Zi winunittest.cpp /link /LIBPATH:%CFIX_HOME%\lib\i386

Or, in case %INCLUDE% and %LIB% already happen to be set properly:

cl /LD /EHa winunittest.cpp

Note that the only difference to compiling the test for WinUnit ist that a different include path is used — rather than the original winunit.h, cfix’ own winunit.h is used, which in turn implements the WinUnit API on top of the existing API.

The resulting DLL is a valid cfix DLL and its tests can be run in the usual manner. As the example contains a failing test, cfix will print the stack trace and error description to the console:

D:\sample>cfix32 -ts -z winunittest.dll
cfix version (fre)
(C) 2008-2009 - Johannes Passing -
[Failure]      winunittest.DummyTest.DummyTest
      winunittest.cpp(5): DummyTest

      Expression: Descriptive message: [foo] == [bar] (Expression: "foo" == "bar")
      Last Error: 0 (The operation completed successfully. )

      cfix!CfixpCaptureStackTrace +0x40
      cfix!CfixPeReportFailedAssertion +0xd2
      winunittest!cfixcc::Assertion::Relate ...
      winunittest!DummyTest +0x9c
      cfix!CfixsRunTestRoutine +0x33
      cfix!CfixsRunTestCaseMethod +0x27
      cfix!CfixsRunTestCase +0x25

Of course, cfix also supports WinUnit fixtures, as the following example, taken from the original WinUnit article on MSDN demonstrates:

#include "WinUnit.h"
#include <windows.h>

// Fixture must be declared.

  TCHAR s_tempFileName[MAX_PATH] = _T("");
  bool IsFileValid(TCHAR* fileName);

// Both SETUP and TEARDOWN must be present. 
  // This is the maximum size of the directory passed to GetTempFileName.
  const unsigned int maxTempPath = MAX_PATH - 14; 
  TCHAR tempPath[maxTempPath + 1] = _T("");
  DWORD charsWritten = GetTempPath(maxTempPath + 1, tempPath);
  // (charsWritten does not include null character)
  WIN_ASSERT_TRUE(charsWritten  0, 
    _T("GetTempPath failed."));

  // Create a temporary file
  UINT tempFileNumber = GetTempFileName(tempPath, _T("WUT"), 
    0, // This means the file will get created and closed.

  // Make sure that the file actually exists
    _T("File %s is invalid or does not exist."), s_tempFileName);

// TEARDOWN does the inverse of SETUP, as well as undoing 
// any side effects the tests could have caused.
  // Delete the temp file if it still exists.
  if (IsFileValid(s_tempFileName))
    // Ensure file is not read-only
    DWORD fileAttributes = GetFileAttributes(s_tempFileName);
    if (fileAttributes & FILE_ATTRIBUTE_READONLY)
          fileAttributes ^ FILE_ATTRIBUTE_READONLY),
          _T("Unable to undo read-only attribute of file %s."),

    // Since I'm testing DeleteFile, I use the alternative CRT file
    // deletion function in my cleanup.
      _T("Unable to delete file %s."), s_tempFileName);

  // Clear the temp file name.
    ARRAYSIZE(s_tempFileName) * sizeof(s_tempFileName[0]));

BEGIN_TESTF(DeleteFileShouldDeleteFileIfNotReadOnly, DeleteFileFixture)
    _T("DeleteFile did not delete %s correctly."),

BEGIN_TESTF(DeleteFileShouldFailIfFileIsReadOnly, DeleteFileFixture)
  // Set file to read-only
  DWORD fileAttributes = GetFileAttributes(s_tempFileName);
    fileAttributes | FILE_ATTRIBUTE_READONLY));

  // Verify that DeleteFile fails with ERROR_ACCESS_DENIED
  // (according to spec)

  bool IsFileValid(TCHAR* fileName)
    return (GetFileAttributes(fileName) != INVALID_FILE_ATTRIBUTES);

Compiling and running this test yields the expected output:

d:\sample>cl /I %CFIX_HOME%\include /LD /EHa /Zi fixture.cpp /link /LIBPATH:%CFIX_HOME%\lib\i386
d:\sample>cfix32 -ts -z fixture.dll
cfix version (fre)
(C) 2008-2009 - Johannes Passing -
[Success]      fixture.DeleteFileFixture.DeleteFileShouldDeleteFileIfNotReadOnly
[Success]      fixture.DeleteFileFixture.DeleteFileShouldFailIfFileIsReadOnly

       1 Fixtures
       2 Test cases
           2 succeeded
           0 failed
           0 inconclusive


All compatibility has its limitations — although cfix supports all major WinUnit constructs and assertions, there are a small number of known limitations, which are listed in the documentation. And although I am confident that most WinUnit code should compile and run just fine, it is, of course, possible, that further limitations pop up. In such cases, I would welcome an appropriate bug report and will try to fix cfix accordingly.


In order to have cfix be a fully adequate replacement for cfix, the cfix documentation has additionally been augmented to include a documentation of the entire WinUnit API.

Technical background

Technically, implementing the compatibility layer went rather smoothly. On the one hand, WinUnit and cfix have similar architectures, which makes many things easier. On the other hand, WinUnit has a clean, single public header file (contrast that to CppUnit!), which also simplified things. And as WinUnit is limited to C++, I was able to use C++ templates (in combination with some preprocessor macros) to implement the entire WinUnit compatibility layer without having to change a single line of cfix itself. Rather, the WinUnit macros/classes are all mapped onto the existing cfix C++ API, which already includes most of what was neccessary to implement the WinUnit functionality.


In case have been using WinUnit the past and have a set of existing WinUnit-based test suites, give cfix a try — Not only should it be a full-featured replacement for WinUnit, you can also expect to see, and benefit from new features in upcoming releases!

Last but not least, the release contains a number of minor bugfixes. So upgrading is recommended even if you do not intend to use the new WinUnit compatibility feature.

cfix can be downloaded here.

cfix 1.0.1 adds support for Windows 2000

Despite the fact that mainstream support for Windows 2000 has ended in 2005 and the system is well on its way to retirement, Windows 2000 is still in wide use today. As such, it remains being an important target platform for many software packages.

The fact that cfix has not provided support for Windows 2000 was thus unfortunate — after all, if Windows 2000 is among the target platforms of your software, you should be able to run your tests on this platform.

cfix 1.0.1 remedies this shortcoming and adds Windows 2000 i386 SP4 as an supported platform.

The updated packages are available for download on Sourceforge.


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.

Contact Johannes: jpassing (at) acm org

Johannes' GPG fingerprint is BBB1 1769 B82D CD07 D90A 57E8 9FE1 D441 F7A0 1BB1.

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