Processes, Threads, and Windows

The relationship between processes and threads is fairly well known – a process contains one or more threads, running within the process, using process wide resources, like handles and address space.

Where do windows (those usually-rectangular elements, not the OS) come into the picture?

The relationship between a process, its threads, and windows, along with desktop and Window Stations, can be summarized in the following figure:

A process, threads, windows, desktops and a Window Station

A window is created by a thread, and that thread is designated as the owner of the window. The creating thread becomes a UI thread (if it’s the first User/GDI call it makes), getting a message queue (provided internally by Win32k.sys in the kernel). Every occurrence in the created window causes a message to be placed in the message queue of the owner thread. This means that if a thread creates 100 windows, it’s responsible for all these windows.

“Responsible” here means that the thread must perform something known as “message pumping” – pulling messages from its message queue and processing them. Failure to do that processing would lead to the infamous “Not Responding” scenario, where all the windows created by that thread become non-responsive. Normally, a thread can read its own message queue only – other threads can’t do it for that thread – this is a single threaded UI scheme used by the Windows OS by default. The simplest message pump would look something like this:

MSG msg;
while(::GetMessage(&msg, nullptr, 0, 0)) {
    ::TranslateMessage(&msg);
    ::DispatchMessage(&msg);
}

The call to GetMessage does not return until there is a message in the queue (filling up the MSG structure), or the WM_QUIT message has been retrieved, causing GetMessage to return FALSE and the loop exited. WM_QUIT is the message typically used to signal an application to close. Here is the MSG structure definition:

typedef struct tagMSG {
  HWND   hwnd;
  UINT   message;
  WPARAM wParam;
  LPARAM lParam;
  DWORD  time;
  POINT  pt;
} MSG, *PMSG;

Once a message has been retrieved, the important call is to DispatchMessage, that looks at the window handle in the message (hwnd) and looks up the window class that this window instance is a member of, and there, finally, the window procedure – the callback to invoke for messages destined to these kinds of windows – is invoked, handling the message as appropriate or passing it along to default processing by calling DefWindowProc. (I may expand on that if there is interest in a separate post).

You can enumerate the windows owned by a thread by calling EnumThreadWindows. Let’s see an example that uses the Toolhelp API to enumerate all processes and threads in the system, and lists the windows created (owned) by each thread (if any).

We’ll start by creating a snapshot of all processes and threads (error handling mostly omitted for clarity):

#include <Windows.h>
#include <TlHelp32.h>
#include <unordered_map>
#include <string>

int main() {
	auto hSnapshot = ::CreateToolhelp32Snapshot(
        TH32CS_SNAPPROCESS | TH32CS_SNAPTHREAD, 0);

We’ll build a map of process IDs to names for easy lookup later on when we show details of a process:

PROCESSENTRY32 pe;
pe.dwSize = sizeof(pe);

// we can skip the idle process
::Process32First(hSnapshot, &pe);

std::unordered_map<DWORD, std::wstring> processes;
processes.reserve(500);

while (::Process32Next(hSnapshot, &pe)) {
	processes.insert({ pe.th32ProcessID, pe.szExeFile });
}

Now we loop through all the threads, calling EnumThreadWindows and showing the results:

THREADENTRY32 te;
te.dwSize = sizeof(te);
::Thread32First(hSnapshot, &te);

static int count = 0;

struct Data {
	DWORD Tid;
	DWORD Pid;
	PCWSTR Name;
};
do {
	if (te.th32OwnerProcessID <= 4) {
		// idle and system processes have no windows
		continue;
	}
	Data d{ 
        te.th32ThreadID, te.th32OwnerProcessID, 
        processes.at(te.th32OwnerProcessID).c_str() 
    };
	::EnumThreadWindows(te.th32ThreadID, [](auto hWnd, auto param) {
		count++;
		WCHAR text[128], className[32];
		auto data = reinterpret_cast<Data*>(param);
		int textLen = ::GetWindowText(hWnd, text, _countof(text));
		int classLen = ::GetClassName(hWnd, className, _countof(className));
		printf("TID: %6u PID: %6u (%ws) HWND: 0x%p [%ws] %ws\n",
			data->Tid, data->Pid, data->Name, hWnd,
			classLen == 0 ? L"" : className,
			textLen == 0 ? L"" : text);
		return TRUE;	// bring in the next window
		}, reinterpret_cast<LPARAM>(&d));
} while (::Thread32Next(hSnapshot, &te));
printf("Total windows: %d\n", count);

EnumThreadWindows requires the thread ID to look at, and a callback that receives a window handle and whatever was passed in as the last argument. Returning TRUE causes the callback to be invoked with the next window until the window list for that thread is complete. It’s possible to return FALSE to terminate the enumeration early.

I’m using a lambda function here, but only a non-capturing lambda can be converted to a C function pointer, so the param value is used to provide context for the lambda, with a Data instance having the thread ID, its process ID, and the process name.

The call to GetClassName returns the name of the window class, or type of window, if you will. This is similar to the relationship between objects and classes in object orientation. For example, all buttons have the class name “button”. Of course, the windows enumerated are only top level windows (have no parent) – child windows are not included. It is possible to enumerate child windows by calling EnumChildWindows.

Going the other way around – from a window handle to its owner thread and *its* owner process is possible with GetWindowThreadProcessId.

Desktops

A window is placed on a desktop, and is bound to it. More precisely, a thread is bound to a desktop once it creates its first window (or has any hook installed with SetWindowsHookEx). Before that happens, a thread can attach itself to a desktop by calling SetThreadDesktop.

Normally, a thread will use the “default” desktop, which is where a logged in user sees his or her windows appearing. It is possible to create additional desktops using the CreateDesktop API. A classic example is the desktops Sysinternals tool. See my post on desktops and windows stations for more information.

It’s possible to redirect a new process to use a different desktop (and optionally a window station) as part of the CreateProcess call. The STARTUPINFO structure has a member named lpDesktop that can be set to a string with the format “WindowStationName\DesktopName” or simply “DesktopName” to keep the parent’s window station. This could look something like this:

STARTUPINFO si = { sizeof(si) };
// WinSta0 is the interactive window station
WCHAR desktop[] = L"Winsta0\\MyOtherDesktop";
si.lpDesktop = desktop;
PROCESS_INFORMATION pi;
::CreateProcess(..., &si, &pi);

“WinSta0” is always the name of the interactive Window Station (one of its desktops can be visible to the user).

The following example creates 3 desktops and launches notepad in the default desktop and the other desktops:

void LaunchInDesktops() {
	HDESK hDesktop[4] = { ::GetThreadDesktop(::GetCurrentThreadId()) };
	for (int i = 1; i <= 3; i++) {
		hDesktop[i] = ::CreateDesktop(
			(L"Desktop" + std::to_wstring(i)).c_str(),
			nullptr, nullptr, 0, GENERIC_ALL, nullptr);
	}
	STARTUPINFO si = { sizeof(si) };
	WCHAR name[32];
	si.lpDesktop = name;
	DWORD len;
	PROCESS_INFORMATION pi;
	for (auto h : hDesktop) {
		::GetUserObjectInformation(h, UOI_NAME, name, sizeof(name), &len);
		WCHAR pname[] = L"notepad";
		if (::CreateProcess(nullptr, pname, nullptr, nullptr, FALSE,
			0, nullptr, nullptr, &si, &pi)) {
			printf("Process created: %u\n", pi.dwProcessId);
			::CloseHandle(pi.hProcess);
			::CloseHandle(pi.hThread);
		}
	}
}

If yoy run the above function, you’ll see one Notepad window on your desktop. If you dig deeper, you’ll find 4 notepad.exe processes in Task Manager. The other three have created their windows in different desktops. Task Manager gives no indication of that, nor does the process list in Process Explorer. However, we see a hint in the list of handles of these “other” notepad processes. Here is one:

Handle named \Desktop1

Curiously enough, desktop objects are not stored as part of the kernel’s Object Manager namespace. If you double-click the handle, copy its address, and look it up in the kernel debugger, this is the result:

lkd> !object 0xFFFFAC8C12035530
Object: ffffac8c12035530  Type: (ffffac8c0f2fdbc0) Desktop
    ObjectHeader: ffffac8c12035500 (new version)
    HandleCount: 1  PointerCount: 32701
    Directory Object: 00000000  Name: Desktop1

Notice the directory object address is zero – it’s not part of any directory. It has meaning in the context of its containing Window Station.

You might think that we can use the EnumThreadWindows as demonstrated at the beginning of this post to locate the other notepad windows. Unfortunately, access is restricted and those notepad windows are not listed (more on that possibly in a future post).

We can try a different approach by using yet another enumration function – EnumDesktopWindows. Given a powerful enough desktop handle, we can enumerate all top level windows in that desktop:

void ListDesktopWindows(HDESK hDesktop) {
	::EnumDesktopWindows(hDesktop, [](auto hWnd, auto) {
		WCHAR text[128], className[32];
		int textLen = ::GetWindowText(hWnd, text, _countof(text));
		int classLen = ::GetClassName(hWnd, className, _countof(className));
		DWORD pid;
		auto tid = ::GetWindowThreadProcessId(hWnd, &pid);
		printf("TID: %6u PID: %6u HWND: 0x%p [%ws] %ws\n",
			tid, pid, hWnd, 
			classLen == 0 ? L"" : className,
			textLen == 0 ? L"" : text);
		return TRUE;
		}, 0);
}

The lambda body is very similar to the one we’ve seen earlier. The difference is that we start with a window handle with no thread ID. But it’s fairly easy to get the owner thread and process with GetWindowThreadProcessId. Here is one way to invoke this function:

auto hDesktop = ::OpenDesktop(L"Desktop1", 0, FALSE, DESKTOP_ENUMERATE);
ListDesktopWindows(hDesktop);

Here is the resulting output:

TID:   3716 PID:  23048 HWND: 0x0000000000192B26 [Touch Tooltip Window] Tooltip
TID:   3716 PID:  23048 HWND: 0x0000000001971B1A [UAC_InputIndicatorOverlayWnd]
TID:   3716 PID:  23048 HWND: 0x00000000002827F2 [UAC Input Indicator]
TID:   3716 PID:  23048 HWND: 0x0000000000142B82 [CiceroUIWndFrame] CiceroUIWndFrame
TID:   3716 PID:  23048 HWND: 0x0000000000032C7A [CiceroUIWndFrame] TF_FloatingLangBar_WndTitle
TID:  51360 PID:  23048 HWND: 0x0000000000032CD4 [Notepad] Untitled - Notepad
TID:   3716 PID:  23048 HWND: 0x0000000000032C8E [CicLoaderWndClass]
TID:  51360 PID:  23048 HWND: 0x0000000000202C62 [IME] Default IME
TID:  51360 PID:  23048 HWND: 0x0000000000032C96 [MSCTFIME UI] MSCTFIME UI

A Notepad window is clearly there. We can repeat the same exercise with the other two desktops, which I have named “Desktop2” and “Desktop3”.

Can we view and interact with these “other” notepads? The SwitchDesktop API exists for that purpose. Given a desktop handle with the DESKTOP_SWITCHDESKTOP access, SwitchDesktop changes the input desktop to the requested desktop, so that input devices redirect to that desktop. This is exactly how the Sysinternals Desktops tool works. I’ll leave the interested reader to try this out.

Window Stations

The last piece of the puzzle is a Window Station. I assume you’ve read my earlier post and understand the basics of Window Stations.

A Thread can be associated with a desktop. A process is associated with a window station, with the constraint being that any desktop used by a thread must be within the process’ window station. In other words, a process cannot use one window station and any one of its threads using a desktop that belongs to a different window station.

A process is associated with a window station upon creation – the one specified in the STARTUPINFO structure or the creator’s window station if not specified. Still, a process can associate itself with a different window station by calling SetProcessWindowStation. The constraint is that the provided window station must be part of the current session. There is one window station per session named “WinSta0”, called the interactive window station. One of its desktop can be the input desktop and have user interaction. All other window stations are non-interactive by definition, which is perfectly fine for processes that don’t require any user interface. In return, they get better isolation, because a window station contains its own set of desktops, its own clipboard and its own atom table. Windows handles, by the way, have Window Station scope.

Just like desktops, window stations can be created by calling CreateWindowStation. Window stations can be enumerated as well (in the current session) with EnumerateWindowStations.

Summary

This discussion of threads, processes, desktops, and window stations is not complete, but hopefully gives you a good idea of how things work. I may elaborate on some advanced aspects of Windows UI system in future posts.

Published by

Pavel Yosifovich

Developer, trainer, author and speaker. Loves all things software

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