Posts Tagged 'i386'

Mixing 32 and 64-bit components in a single MSI

Definetely one my pet peeves about Windows Installer is how it deals with instruction set architectures (ISAs). Looking at Windows NT history, supported ISAs have come (amd64, IA-64) and gone (Alpha, PowerPC, MIPS) — yet most of the time, there was more than one ISA being officially supported. Having to ship binaries for multiple ISAs therefore always has been on the agenda for many ISVs.

Needless to say, supporting multiple ISAs requires special consideration when developing setup packages and providing separate packages — one for each ISA — has become common practice to approach this. This approach makes perfect sense: Given the incompatibility of most ISAs, nobody needs Alpha binaries on a MIPS system or amd64 binaries on a IA-64 machine, so there seems little reason to mix ISAs within a single package.

Unsurprisingly, Windows Installer, which was created somewhere around 2000, also goes this route and encourages developers to provide separate packages for each ISA.

However, with the advent of amd64/x64/IA-32e/Intel 64/whateveryoucallit, the situation has changed: Because i386 and amd64 are so closely related and compatible, there are now plenty of situations where combining binaries of differing ISAs (i.e. amd64 and i386) in a single installer package makes perfect sense. Examples for this include:

  • A package comprises a shell extension as well as a standalone App. For certain reasons (maybe the use of VB6), there only is a 32 bit version of the App. The shell extension, in contrast, is available for both, i386 and amd64. Whether you put everything into one package or provide separate packages for each ISA, one of them will comprise a mixture of ISAs.
  • SDKs for unmanaged code usually include .lib and .dll files for multiple architectures. Shipping separate packages for i386 and amd64 (containing different binaries but the same headers, docs, etc.) may please the Windows Installer gods, but seems redundant, a waste of disk space, and user-unfriendly.

Thanks to the msidbComponentAttributes64bit flag, mixing architectures in a single MSI package is technically possible: You mark the package as being 32 bit and set said flag for all 64-bit components. Rather than splitting your setup into multiple packages, you can conveniently combine everything into one.

When reading the documentation (and ICE requirements, more on this later) carefully though, it turns out that this is not quite what the Windows Installer team invented this flag for. Anyway, it works fine, problem solved.


If only there was not ICE80.

ICE80, alas, is critical if you intend to conform to the Requirements for the Windows Vista Logo Program for Software:

Applications must use the Windows Installer (MSI) or ClickOnce for installation. Windows Installation packages must not receive any errors from the Internal Consistency Evaluators (ICEs) listed here:

1-24, 27-31, 33-36, 38, 40-57, 59, 61-63, 65, 67-72, 74-84, 86-87, 89-94, 96-99

ICE80 mainly states that (1) you should not install 64 bit components to 32 bit directories (e.g. Program Files vs. Program Files (x86)) and (2) you should not use 64 bit components in a 32 bit package.

(1) is fair enough, although it raises the question where you should install your software to without splitting it in two or violating other ICE rules. Worse yet, (2) effectively means that said way to create multi-ISA packages, creating 32 bit packages with some components marked with msidbComponentAttributes64bit, is illegal alltogether.

So to be logo’ed, there seems to be no other way than providing separate packages, maybe along with (urgh!) a meta-package that installs the other two.

If there are more important things on your schedule than getting a Vista logo, ICE80 seems like something that can safely be ignored. Indeed, this is what I have done several times, including in case of the cfix installer.

Anyway, let’s ignore ICE80 once more and hold on to the plan of building a 32-bit package containing both, 32-bit and 64-bit components.


For an SDK that is installed on 64-bit Windows, it will usually make sense to install both, 32 and 64 bit .lib and .dll files etc. On 32-bit Windows, installing 64-bit components may seem odd, but due to the existence of amd64 compilers for i386, it still makes sense to install them or at least offer them as optional feature.

So far, so good. Things get interesting, though, when COM registration comes into play. Naturally, a 32 bit installer package sees the system like any other 32 bit application does. Most importantly, this means that Registry Reflection and File System Redirection applies.

Now consider a package that contains both a 32-bit and a 64-bit version of some COM server, each installed to a separate directory. COM Registration either be performed through the Class or the Registry table. Provided that the msidbComponentAttributes64bit flag has been used properly, such a package will work great on 64 bit systems thanks to Registry Reflection: The regsitry entries will be written to the proper (reflected) locations and both COM servers will work properly.

Now think what happens on 32-bit Windows: (1) There is no Registry Reflection and (2) Windows Installer silently ignores msidbComponentAttributes64bit flags. Result: The installation will run just as smooth as on the 64-bit system. However, while installing the files continues to works flawlessly, the registry will be left in a less-than-optimal state: Due to the nonexistence of Registry Reflection, the registration entries of both COM servers will have been written to the same location!

Needless to say, the server whose registration entries were written first will now be unusable.

In a way, Windows Installer has taken its revenge for breaking the rules.

Bottom line: Mixing 32 and 64-bit components in a single MSI works fine in many cases, but is against the MSI rules and can lead to further problems. And while I am still convinced that providing separate, ISA-specific packages is wrong or at least inconvenient in certain situations, it is definitely the safer and “right” way to go.

(Note: Windows Installer 4.5 introduced multi-package transactions, which allow reliable and transactional multi-package setups to be built so that splitting a setup into multiple packages can be implemented without much pain. However, very few users already have Windows Installer 4.5 installed and Windows 2000 is not even supported by this release. For many of us, relying on this feature therefore is not really an option.)


Reaching beyond the top of the stack — illegal or just bad style?

The stack pointer, esp on i386, denotes the top of the stack. All memory below the stack pointer (i.e. higher addresses) is occupied by parameters, variables and return addresses; memory above the stack pointer must be assumed to contain garbage.

When programming in assembly, it is equally easy to use memory below and above the stack pointer. Reading from or writing to addresses beyond the top of the stack is unusual and under normal circumstances, there is little reason to do so. There are, however, situations — rare situations — where it may tempting to temporarily use memory beyond the top of the stack.

That said, the question is whether it is really just a convention and good style not to grab beyond the stack of the stack or whether there are actually reasons why doing so could lead to problems.

When trying to answer this question, one first has to make a distinction between user mode and kernel mode. In user mode Windows, I am unable to come up with a single reason of why usage of memory beyond the top of the stack could lead to problems. So in this case, it is probably merely bad style.

However, things are different in kernel mode.

In one particular routine I recently wrote, I encountered a situation where temporarily violating the rule of not reaching beyond the top of the stack came in handy. The routine worked fine for quite a while. In certain situations, however, it suddenly started to fail due to memory corruption. Interestingly enough, the routine did not fail always, but still rather frequently.

Having identified the specific routine as being the cuplrit, I started single stepping the code. Everything was fine until I reached the point where the memory above the stack pointer was used. The window span only a single instruction. Yet, as soon as I had stepped over the two instructions, the system crashed. I tried it multiple times, and it was prefectly reproduceable when being single-stepped.

So I took a look at the stack contents after every single step I took. To my surprise, as soon as I reached the critical window, the contents of the memory location just beyond the current stack pointer suddenly became messed. Very weird.

After having been scratching my head for a while, that suddenly started to made sense: I was not the only one using the stack — in between the two instructions, an interrupt must have occured and been dispatched. As my thread happened to be the one currently running, it was my stack that has been used for dispatching it. This also explains why it did not happened always unless I was single-stepping the respective code.

When an interrupt occurs and no privilege-level change has to be performed, the CPU will push the EFLAGS, CS and EIP registers on the stack. That is, the stack of whatever kernel thread happens to be the one currently running on this CPU is reused and the memory locations beyond the stack pointer will be overwritten by these three values. So what I initially interpreted as garbage, actually were the contents of EFLAGS, CS and EIP.

On Windows NT, unlike some other operating systems (FreeBSD, IIRC), handling the interrupt, which involves runing the interrupt service routine (ISR) occurs on the same stack as well. The following stack trace, taken elsewhere, shows an ISR being executed on the stack of the interrupted thread:

f6bdab4c f99bf153 i8042prt!I8xQueueCurrentMouseInput+0x67
f6bdab78 80884289 i8042prt!I8042MouseInterruptService+0xa58
f6bdab78 f6dd501a nt!KiInterruptDispatch+0x49
f6bdac44 f6dd435f driver!Quux+0x11a 
f6bdac58 f6dd61db driver!Foobar+0x6f 

Morale of the story: Using memory beyond the current stack pointer is not only bad practice, it is actually illegal when done in kernel mode.


About me

Johannes Passing lives in Berlin, Germany and works as a Solutions Architect at Google Cloud.

While mostly focusing on Cloud-related stuff these days, Johannes still enjoys the occasional dose of Win32, COM, and NT kernel mode development.

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) hotmail com

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