Posts Tagged 'Win32'

The hidden danger of forgetting to specify %SystemRoot% in a custom environment block

When spawning a process using CreateProcess and friends, the child process usually inherits the environment (i.e. all environment variables) of the spawning process. Of course, this behavior can be overridden by creating a custom environment block and passing it to the lpEnvironment parameter of CreateProcess.

While the MSDN documentation on CreateProcess does contain a remark saying that current directory information (=C: and friends) should be included in such a custom environment block, it does not mention the importance of SystemRoot.

The SystemRoot environment variable usually contains the path c:\windows — the path that is also accessible using the GetWindowsDirectory function. This environment variable, as it turns out, is not only handy for scripting purposes — it is, in fact, essential for the proper operation of many libraries.

For very simple programs, forgetting to include SystemRoot in a custom environment block usually goes unnoticed — even an empty environment block works just fine. In case of more complex applications, however, the omission of this variable can quickly lead to errors — on Vista, the most common error that can be tracked back to a missing SystemRoot variable is SXS failing to find/load basic system libraries.

Now that we have Windows 7, SystemRoot seems to have become even more important: Now it is not only SXS that requires SystemRoot to be specified properly, but also CryptoAPI.

In my particular case, I was experiencing a 0x80090006 (“Invalid Signature”, NTE_BAD_SIGNATURE) error whenever the child process attempted to call CoGetObject to retrieve a pointer to a DCOM object. While this error occured on Windows 7, the same code worked fine on Windows Vista and XP.

Given this more than general error message, it seemed anything but clear to me what the problem was, so I attached a debugger to the child process (using gflags/Image File Execution Options). Once I did that, I got the following messages in my debug output output:

CryptAcquireContext: CheckSignatureInFile failed at cryptapi.c line 5198
CryptAcquireContext: Failed to read registry signature value at cryptapi.c line 873

I set a breakpoint on CryptAcquireContextW and looked at the stack trace:

0:000> k
ChildEBP RetAddr  
0008f8a4 75760a4f ole32!CRandomNumberGenerator::Initialize+0x2e
0008f8b0 75760769 ole32!CRandomNumberGenerator::GenerateRandomNumber+0xd
0008f8e8 757609cf ole32!CStdMarshal::AddIPIDEntry+0x48
0008f93c 75766aae ole32!CStdMarshal::MarshalServerIPID+0x5a
0008f994 75767519 ole32!CStdMarshal::MarshalObjRef+0xb9
0008f9c8 7576778e ole32!MarshalInternalObjRef+0x8c
0008fa4c 757676ba ole32!CRemoteUnknown::CRemoteUnknown+0x3b
0008fa8c 7576754a ole32!CComApartment::InitRemoting+0x19c
0008fa98 7586d83e ole32!CComApartment::StartServer+0x13
0008faa8 757652b3 ole32!InitChannelIfNecessary+0x1e
0008fb20 757fc046 ole32!CoUnmarshalInterface+0x38
0008fb34 757fd3d5 ole32!CObjrefMoniker::Load+0x26
0008fb70 7573cb7f ole32!CObjrefMonikerFactory::ParseDisplayName+0x16f
0008fbbc 7573caae ole32!FindClassMoniker+0x8b
0008fbf4 75789dc7 ole32!MkParseDisplayName+0xbb
0008fc3c 6954ce84 ole32!CoGetObject+0x82

Quite obviously, COM, trying to unmarshal an interface, needed a random number and attempted to use CryptoAPI for this purpose. Looking at the paramters of CryptAcquireContext, I saw that the Microsoft Strong Cryptographic Provider was attempted to be loaded — one of the standard Windows CSPs — so everything seemed normal.

Guided by the message Failed to read registry signature, I switched to Process Monitor to see which registry key was being queried: HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Wow6432Node\Microsoft\Cryptography\Defaults\Provider\Microsoft Strong Cryptographic Provider.

Taking a look at this key in regedit, it did not take long before spotting SystemRoot as the culprit:

Looking at file system activity in Process Monitor proved this:

Process Monitor

Interestingly, on Windows Vista, all Image Path values in the CSP registry keys do not use SystemRoot — they just contain the file name and rely on the library path in order to locate the libraries at runtime. This explains why my code worked fine on Vista.

(While making this change, the developer seemed to forget to change the value’s type from REG_SZ to REG_EXPAND_SZ though :) )

Bottom Line 1: Always, always include SystemRoot when passing a custom environment block to CreateProcess.

Bottom Line 2: The case also shows how a seemingly trivial change in Windows (using an absolute path rather then just a file name in the CSP registry key) can lead to an application incompatibility.


Writing Data-Driven Custom Actions

Whenever Windows Installer’s built-in actions do not suffice to perform a specific task, a Custom Action needs to be written. Needless to say, Custom Actions, can be a bit tricky — not only can they be laborious to write and cumbersome to debug, they also run the risk of interfering with Windows Installer’s declarative, transactional way of performing installs.

It is not really surprising that Windows Installer therefore more or less discourages the use of Custom Actions unless it is absolutely necessary. Moreover, as a result of its declarative nature, it is understadable that Windows Installer prefers Custom Actions to be data-driven.

What this means in practice is that a Custom Action should not perform a hard-coded task — rather, it should query one or more (custom) tables containing the necessary information (in a declarative manner) about what is to be performed and should act accordingly.

Using WiX, creating custom tables turns out to be pretty easy. Let’s assume we create a Custom Action that, based on some condition, does something with a specific file. An appropriate table could look like this:

<CustomTable Id="MyCustomTable">
  <Column Id="Id" Type="string" PrimaryKey="yes"/>
  <Column Id="Path" Type="string"/>
  <Column Id="Condition" Type="string"/>

    <Data Column="Id">Foo</Data>
    <Data Column="Path">[INSTALLLOCATION]foo.txt</Data>
    <Data Column="Condition"><![CDATA[ &FeatureFoo=3 ]]></Data>
    <Data Column="Id">Bar</Data>
    <Data Column="Path">[INSTALLLOCATION]bar.txt</Data>
    <Data Column="Condition"><![CDATA[ &FeatureBar=3 ]]></Data>

To query this table, we have to open a view and fetch the records one by one:

PMSIHANDLE Database = MsiGetActiveDatabase( InstallHandle );
ASSERT( Database != NULL );

UINT Result = MsiDatabaseOpenView(
  L"SELECT `Condition`, `Path`, FROM `MyCustomTable`",
  &View );
if ( ERROR_SUCCESS != Result )

Result = MsiViewExecute( View, NULL );
if ( ERROR_SUCCESS != Result )

for ( ;; )
  Result = MsiViewFetch( View, &Record );
  if ( Result == ERROR_NO_MORE_ITEMS  )
  else if ( ERROR_SUCCESS != Result )

  // Read condition. 
  // N.B. Do not format -- this is done by 
  // MsiEvaluateCondition itself.

  WCHAR Condition[ 256 ];
  DWORD Length = _countof( Condition );
  Result = MsiRecordGetString(
    &Length );
  if ( ERROR_SUCCESS != Result )

  if ( MSICONDITION_TRUE != MsiEvaluateCondition(
    Condition ) )
    // This record can be skipped.

  // Read remaing fields.

  Length = _countof( VszPath );
  Result = GetFormattedRecord(
    &Length );
  if ( ERROR_SUCCESS != Result )


With GetFormattedRecord being the following utility routine:

static UINT GetFormattedRecord(
  __in MSIHANDLE InstallHandle,
  __in MSIHANDLE Record,
  __in UINT Field,
  __out PWSTR Value,
  __inout PDWORD Length
  DWORD RecLength = *Length;
  UINT Result = MsiRecordGetString(
    &RecLength );
  if ( ERROR_SUCCESS != Result )
    *Length = RecLength;
    return Result;

  PMSIHANDLE FormattingRecord = MsiCreateRecord( 1 );
  Result = MsiRecordSetString( FormattingRecord, 0, Value );
  if ( ERROR_SUCCESS != Result )
    return Result;

  return MsiFormatRecord(
    Length );

Some things are worth noting:

  • I use PMSIHANDLE, which, as you probably already know, is not a typedef for MSIHANDLE* but rather a smart-pointer like class that automatically closes the handle when it goes out of scope.
  • The use of backticks in the query.
  • It must have been a Visual Basic programmer implementing MsiRecordGetString: Field Indexes start with 1, not 0. To make matters worse, reading from index 0 does not fail but returns arbitrary data. Finally, to confuse people further, indexes are 0-based for MsiRecordSetString.
  • If the field contains formatted data, you have to MsiFormatRecord it yourself. For conditions, however, MsiEvaluateCondition handles that for you.

So far, so good. There is, however, one thing to notice: To access the installer database, the custom action must be a nondeferred action:

You cannot access the current installer session or all property data from a deferred execution custom action

The problem with nondeferred actions, however, is that they execute in user context — in contrast to deferred actions, which execute in system context. On pre-Vista platforms, a per-machine installer package can be expected to always be launched by an administrator (otherwise it will fail anyway) — in this case, the differences between user and system context may not be important — both, for example, have r/w access to files in %ProgramFiles%. On Vista and later OS, however, it is common to have a regular user launch an installation which causes an elevation prompt once it reaches the main install phase. In this case, the user context is significantly less privileged than system context.

For a hypothetical custom action that is intended to edit a file installed to %ProgramFiles%, this means that (disregarding rollback considerations and assuming proper scheduling) performing this action from within the nondeferred custom action will work fine on pre-Vista OS. When run on Vista, though, it is likely to fail due to lack of write access to %ProgramFiles%. In practice, this means that all system-changing tasks usually have to be performed by a deferred action.

To sum up: To be data-driven, you have to use nondeferred actions. To be able to perform any serious, system state-changing tasks, however, you have to use deferred actions.


As it turns out, however, there is a way to escape this catch-22, and it is carefully buried in the Windows Installer documentation:

[…] Actions that update the system, such as the InstallFiles and WriteRegistryValues actions, cannot be run by calling MsiDoAction. The exception to this rule is if MsiDoAction is called from a custom action that is scheduled in the InstallExecuteSequence table between the InstallInitialize and InstallFinalize actions. […]

[From the Remarks section of MsiDoAction]

In fact, the way I came across this solution was by looking at the source code of the WiX XmlFile action, which I knew manages to both be data-driven (uses a custom table) and alter system state (edits XML files). The way it does this, and the point where the above remark comes into play, is as follows: In the nondeferred action, you do not perform any actions changing system state. Rather, you collect the information from the installer tables and stuff it (yuck) into the CustomActionData property. Then, leveraging MsiDoAction and passing said CustomActionData, you schedule another custom action — this time a deferred one — which parses the CustomActioData (yuck) and, based on this data, finally performs the actual modifications — in system context.

It really could not be easier and more intuitive, right?

Embracing WinUnit

Around two years ago, in early 2007, after having read about, having tried, and finally having dismissed numerous existing unit testing frameworks for C, I resigned and started thinking about creating a new unit testing framework. Having been accustomed to NUnit and JUnit, I found most frameworks clumsy to use — some “frameworks” like MinUnit are a joke, some frameworks like CUnit require lots of boilerplate code to be written, some frameworks only support C++ but not C, and some manage to combine the worst properties of them all (CppUnit).

However, it was not before end of 2007 until I finally found the time to actually start working on what would later become cfix. About half way through the initial coding phase, in the February 2007 issue, MSDN magazine featured the article Simplified Unit Testing for Native C++ Applications, introducing WinUnit, a unit testing framework for unmanaged C++.

Enter WinUnit

On the one hand, it was nice to see someone thinking the same about current unit testing frameworks and coming up with a new solution. But given the effort that had already gone into cfix, I was not exactly amused about this article — after all, WinUnit implements one of the core ideas of cfix, namely, to separate the test runner (winunit.exe/cfix32.exe) from the actual tests (DLLs) and using PE file introspection to identify fixtures and test cases. So although WinUnit already generated significant positive feedback, I continued development of cfix — not only would cfix at least add the benefit of supporting C in addition to C++, after investigating WinUnit a bit, I still saw lots of room for improvement.

Now, one year later, the situation has changed. Contrary to what one might have expected, WinUnit has not evolved into a serious project — it has not gotten past the MSDN article and the accomanying download link: No new features, no fixes, no blog, no community — by now, WinUnit seems pretty much dead to me. Sure, nothing prevents you from keep using WinUnit, but using tools for which no further development seems to take place is somewhat dissatisfying to me.

Good News

Given this situation and the architectural simlarity of both testing frameworks, it therefore just makes sense to take the next logical step and have cfix embrace WinUnit!

That is, the upcoming cfix 1.3 release will be compatible to WinUnit by allowing developers to take existing test cases written against the WinUnit API and recompile them into cfix test cases without requiring any code to be changed.

With such compatibility in place, transitioning from WinUnit to cfix will thus become a snap. Better yet, because no code has to be changed, the option to switch back and forth between cfix and WinUnit is retained, giving existing WinUnit users maximum flexibility at minimal risk.

The 1.3 release of cfix is due in a couple of days. Once released, I will get a bit more into detail about WinUnit compatibility.

By the way…

today is the first anniversary of cfix :)

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 :)


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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