Mysteries of the Registry

The Windows Registry is one of the most recognized aspects of Windows. It’s a hierarchical database, storing information on a machine-wide basis and on a per-user basis… mostly. In this post, I’d like to examine the major parts of the Registry, including the “real” Registry.

Looking at the Registry is typically done by launching the built-in RegEdit.exe tool, which shows the five “hives” that seem to comprise the Registry:

RegEdit showing the main hives

These so-called “hives” provide some abstracted view of the information in the Registry. I’m saying “abstracted”, because not all of these are true hives. A true hive is stored in a file. The full hive list can be found in the Registry itself – at HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\hivelist (I’ll abbreviate HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE as HKLM), mapping an internal key name to the file where it’s stored (more on these “internal” key names will be discussed soon):

The hive list

Let’s examine the so-called “hives” as seen in the root RegEdit’s view.

  • HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE is the simplest to understand. It contains machine-wide information, most of it stored in files (persistent). Some details related to hardware is built when the system initializes and is only kept in memory while the system is running. Such keys are volatile, since their contents disappear when the system is shut down.
    There are many interesting keys within HKLM, but my goal is not to go over every key (that would take a full book), but highlight a few useful pieces. HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Services is the key where all services and device drivers are installed. Note that “CurrentControlSet” is not a true key, but in fact is a link key, connecting it to something like HKLM\System\ControlSet001. The reason for this indirection is beyond the scope of this post. Regedit does not show this fact directly – there is no way to tell whether a key is a true key or just points to a different key. This is one reason I created Total Registry (formerly called Registry Explorer), that shows these kind of nuances:
TotalRegistry showing HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet

The liked key seems to have a weird name starting with \REGISTRY\MACHINE\. We’ll get to that shortly.

Other subkeys of note under HKLM include SOFTWARE, where installed applications store their system-level information; SAM and SECURITY, where local security policy and local accounts information are managed. These two subkeys contents is not not visible – even administrators don’t get access – only the SYSTEM account is granted access. One way to see what’s in these keys is to use psexec from Sysinternals to launch RegEdit or TotalRegistry under the SYSTEM account. Here is a command you can run in an elevated command window that will launch RegEdit under the SYSTEM account (if you’re using RegEdit, close it first):

psexec -s -i -d RegEdit

The -s switch indicates the SYSTEM account. -i is critical as to run the process in the interactive session (the default would run it in session 0, where no interactive user will ever see it). The -d switch is optional, and simply returns control to the console while the process is running, rather than waiting for the process to terminate.

The other way to gain access to the SAM and SECURITY subkeys is to use the “Take Ownership” privilege (easy to do when the Permissions dialog is open), and transfer the ownership to an admin user – the owner can specify who can do what with an object, and allow itself full access. Obviously, this is not a good idea in general, as it weakens security.

The BCD00000000 subkey contains the Boot Configuration Data (BCD), normally accessed using the bcdedit.exe tool.

  • HKEY_USERS – this is the other hive that truly stores data. Its subkeys contain user profiles for all users that ever logged in locally to this machine. Each subkey’s name is a Security ID (SID), in its string representation:
HKEY_USERS

There are 3 well-known SIDs, representing the SYSTEM (S-1-5-18), LocalService (S-1-5-19), and NetworkService (S-1-5-20) accounts. These are the typical accounts used for running Windows Services. “Normal” users get ugly SIDs, such as the one shown – that’s my user’s local SID. You may be wondering what is that “_Classes” suffix in the second key. We’ll get to that as well.

  • HKEY_CURRENT_USER is a link key, pointing to the user’s subkey under HKEY_USERS running the current process. Obviously, the meaning of “current user” changes based on the process access token looking at the Registry.
  • HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT is the most curious of the keys. It’s not a “real” key in the sense that it’s not a hive – not stored in a file. It’s not a link key, either. This key is a “combination” of two keys: HKLM\Software\Classes and HKCU\Software\Classes. In other words, the information in HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT is coming from the machine hive first, but can be overridden by the current user’s hive.
    What information is there anyway? The first thing is shell-related information, such as file extensions and associations, and all other information normally used by Explorer.exe. The second thing is information related to the Component Object Model (COM). For example, the CLSID subkey holds COM class registration (GUIDs you can pass to CoCreateInstance to (potentially) create a COM object of that class). Looking at the CLSID subkey under HKLM\Software\Classes shows there are 8160 subkeys, or roughly 8160 COM classes registered on my system from HKLM:
HKLM\Software\Classes

Looking at the same key under HKEY_CURRENT_USER tells a different story:

HKCU\Software\Classes

Only 46 COM classes provide extra or overridden registrations. HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT combines both, and uses HKCU in case of a conflict (same key name). This explains the extra “_Classes” subkey within the HKEY_USERS key – it stores the per user stuff (in the file UsrClasses.dat in something like c:\Users\<username>\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows).

  • HKEY_CURRENT_CONFIG is a link to HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Hardware\Profiles\Current

    The list of “standard” hives (the hives accessible by official Windows APIs such as RegOpenKeyEx contains some more that are not shown by Regedit. They can be viewed by TotalReg if the option “Extra Hives” is selected in the View menu. At this time, however, the tool needs to be restarted for this change to take effect (I just didn’t get around to implementing the change dynamically, as it was low on my priority list). Here are all the hives accessible with the official Windows API:
All hives

I’ll let the interested reader to dig further into these “extra” hives. On of these hives deserves special mentioning – HKEY_PERFORMANCE_DATA – it was used in the pre Windows 2000 days as a way to access Performance Counters. Registry APIs had to be used at the time. Fortunately, starting from Windows 2000, a new dedicated API is provided to access Performance Counters (functions starting with Pdh* in <pdh.h>).

Is this it? Is this the entire Registry? Not quite. As you can see in TotalReg, there is a node called “Registry”, that tells yet another story. Internally, all Registry keys are rooted in a single key called REGISTRY. This is the only named Registry key. You can see it in the root of the Object Manager’s namespace with WinObj from Sysinternals:

WinObj from Sysinternals showing the Registry key object

Here is the object details in a Local Kernel debugger:

lkd> !object \registry
Object: ffffe00c8564c860  Type: (ffff898a519922a0) Key
    ObjectHeader: ffffe00c8564c830 (new version)
    HandleCount: 1  PointerCount: 32770
    Directory Object: 00000000  Name: \REGISTRY
lkd> !trueref ffffe00c8564c860
ffffe00c8564c860: HandleCount: 1 PointerCount: 32770 RealPointerCount: 3

All other Registry keys are based off of that root key, the Configuration Manager (the kernel component in charge of the Registry) parses the remaining path as expected. This is the real Registry. The official Windows APIs cannot use this path format, but native APIs can. For example, using NtOpenKey (documented as ZwOpenKey in the Windows Driver Kit, as this is a system call) allows such access. This is how TotalReg is able to look at the real Registry.

Clearly, the normal user-mode APIs somehow map the “standard” hive path to the real Registry path. The simplest is the mapping of HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE to \REGISTRY\MACHINE. Another simple one is HKEY_USERS mapped to \REGISTRY\USER. HKEY_CURRENT_USER is a bit more complex, and needs to be mapped to the per-user hive under \REGISTRY\USER. The most complex is our friend HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT – there is no simple mapping – the APIs have to check if there is per-user override or not, etc.

Lastly, it seems there are keys in the real Registry that cannot be reached from the standard Registry at all:

The real Registry

There is a key named “A” which seems inaccessible. This key is used for private keys in processes, very common in Universal Windows Application (UWP) processes, but can be used in other processes as well. They are not accessible generally, not even with kernel code – the Configuration Manager prevents it. You can verify their existence by searching for \Registry\A in tools like Process Explorer or TotalReg itself (by choosing Scan Key Handles from the Tools menu). Here is TotalReg, followed by Process Explorer:

TotalReg key handles
Process Explorer key handles

Finally, the WC key is used for Windows Container, internally called Silos. A container (like the ones created by Docker) is an isolated instance of a user-mode OS, kind of like a lightweight virtual machine, but the kernel is not separate (as would be with a true VM), but is provided by the host. Silos are very interesting, but outside the scope of this post.

Briefly, there are two main Silo types: An Application Silo, which is not a true container, and mostly used with application based on the Desktop Bridge technology. A classic example is WinDbg Preview. The second type is Server Silo, which is a true container. A true container must have its file system, Registry, and Object Manager namespace virtualized. This is exactly the role of the WC subkeys – provide the private Registry keys for containers. The Configuration Manager (as well as other parts of the kernel) are Silo-aware, and will redirect Registry calls to the correct subkey, having no effect on the Host Registry or the private Registry of other Silos.

You can examine some aspects of silos with the kernel debugger !silo command. Here is an example from a server 2022 running a Server Silo and the Registry keys under WC:

lkd> !silo
		Address          Type       ProcessCount Identifier
		ffff800f2986c2e0 ServerSilo 15           {1d29488c-bccd-11ec-a503-d127529101e4} (0n732)
1 active Silo(s)
lkd> !silo ffff800f2986c2e0

Silo ffff800f2986c2e0:
		Job               : ffff800f2986c2e0
		Type              : ServerSilo
		Identifier        : {1d29488c-bccd-11ec-a503-d127529101e4} (0n732)
		Processes         : 15

Server silo globals ffff800f27e65a40:
		Default Error Port: ffff800f234ee080
		ServiceSessionId  : 217
		Root Directory    : 00007ffcad26b3e1 '\Silos\732'
		State             : Running
A Server Silo’s keys

There you have it. The relatively simple-looking Registry shown in RegEdit is viewed differently by the kernel. Device driver writers find this out relatively early – they cannot use the “abstractions” provided by user mode even if these are sometimes convenient.


Published by

Pavel Yosifovich

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

6 thoughts on “Mysteries of the Registry”

  1. The second type is Server Silo, which is a true container. A true container must have its file system, Registry, and Object Manager namespace virtualized.

    I think this was the most interesting part of your post. Containers excite me. Five years ago, when Microsoft announced containers, I thought we’d witness an era of generation-2 security, running each Windows app in its container. I thought Windows would allow us to do what Sandboxie, Turbo.net, and Docker do. Well, it didn’t happen.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree Windows Containers are cool, and could be utilized in interesting ways. I wish they could do more, like support GUI applications.

    Liked by 1 person

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