Zombie Processes

The term “Zombie Process” in Windows is not an official one, as far as I know. Regardless, I’ll define zombie process to be a process that has exited (for whatever reason), but at least one reference remains to the kernel process object (EPROCESS), so that the process object cannot be destroyed.

How can we recognize zombie processes? Is this even important? Let’s find out.

All kernel objects are reference counted. The reference count includes the handle count (the number of open handles to the object), and a “pointer count”, the number of kernel clients to the object that have incremented its reference count explicitly so the object is not destroyed prematurely if all handles to it are closed.

Process objects are managed within the kernel by the EPROCESS (undocumented) structure, that contains or points to everything about the process – its handle table, image name, access token, job (if any), threads, address space, etc. When a process is done executing, some aspects of the process get destroyed immediately. For example, all handles in its handle table are closed; its address space is destroyed. General properties of the process remain, however, some of which only have true meaning once a process dies, such as its exit code.

Process enumeration tools such as Task Manager or Process Explorer don’t show zombie processes, simply because the process enumeration APIs (EnumProcesses, Process32First/Process32Next, the native NtQuerySystemInformation, and WTSEnumerateProcesses) don’t return these – they only return processes that can still run code. The kernel debugger, on the other hand, shows all processes, zombie or not when you type something like !process 0 0. Identifying zombie processes is easy – their handle table and handle count is shown as zero. Here is one example:

kd> !process ffffc986a505a080 0
PROCESS ffffc986a505a080
    SessionId: 1  Cid: 1010    Peb: 37648ff000  ParentCid: 0588
    DirBase: 16484cd000  ObjectTable: 00000000  HandleCount:   0.
    Image: smartscreen.exe

Any kernel object referenced by the process object remains alive as well – such as a job (if the process is part of a job), and the process primary token (access token object). We can get more details about the process by passing the detail level “1” in the !process command:

lkd> !process ffffc986a505a080 1
PROCESS ffffc986a505a080
    SessionId: 1  Cid: 1010    Peb: 37648ff000  ParentCid: 0588
    DirBase: 16495cd000  ObjectTable: 00000000  HandleCount:   0.
    Image: smartscreen.exe
    VadRoot 0000000000000000 Vads 0 Clone 0 Private 16. Modified 7. Locked 0.
    DeviceMap ffffa2013f24aea0
    Token                             ffffa20147ded060
    ElapsedTime                       1 Day 15:11:50.174
    UserTime                          00:00:00.000
    KernelTime                        00:00:00.015
    QuotaPoolUsage[PagedPool]         0
    QuotaPoolUsage[NonPagedPool]      0
    Working Set Sizes (now,min,max)  (17, 50, 345) (68KB, 200KB, 1380KB)
    PeakWorkingSetSize                2325
    VirtualSize                       0 Mb
    PeakVirtualSize                   2101341 Mb
    PageFaultCount                    2500
    MemoryPriority                    BACKGROUND
    BasePriority                      8
    CommitCharge                      20
    Job                               ffffc98672eea060

Notice the address space does not exist anymore (VadRoot is zero). The VAD (Virtual Address Descriptors) is a data structure managed as a balanced binary search tree that describes the address space of a process – which parts are committed, which parts are reserved, etc. No address space exists anymore. Other details of the process are still there as they are direct members of the EPROCESS structure, such as the kernel and user time the process has used, its start and exit times (not shown in the debugger’s output above).

We can ask the debugger to show the reference count of any kernel object by using the generic !object command, to be followed by !trueref if there are handles open to the object:

lkd> !object ffffc986a505a080
Object: ffffc986a505a080  Type: (ffffc986478ce380) Process
    ObjectHeader: ffffc986a505a050 (new version)
    HandleCount: 1  PointerCount: 32768
lkd> !trueref ffffc986a505a080
ffffc986a505a080: HandleCount: 1 PointerCount: 32768 RealPointerCount: 1

Clearly, there is a single handle open to the process and that’s the only thing keeping it alive.

One other thing that remains is the unique process ID (shown as Cid in the above output). Process and thread IDs are generated by using a private handle table just for this purpose. This explains why process and thread IDs are always multiples of four, just like handles. In fact, the kernel treats PIDs and TIDs with the HANDLE type, rather with something like ULONG. Since there is a limit to the number of handles in a process (16711680, the reason is not described here), that’s also the limit for the number of process and threads that could exist on a system. This is a rather large number, so probably not an issue from a practical perspective, but zombie processes still keep their PIDs “taken”, so it cannot be reused. This means that in theory, some code can create millions of processes, terminate them all, but not close the handles it receives back, and eventually new processes could not be created anymore because PIDs (and TIDs) run out. I don’t know what would happen then 🙂

Here is a simple loop to do something like that by creating and destroying Notepad processes but keeping handles open:

WCHAR name[] = L"notepad";
STARTUPINFO si{ sizeof(si) };
PROCESS_INFORMATION pi;
int i = 0;
for (; i < 1000000; i++) {	// use 1 million as an example
	auto created = ::CreateProcess(nullptr, name, nullptr, nullptr,
        FALSE, 0, nullptr, nullptr, &si, &pi);
	if (!created)
		break;
	::TerminateProcess(pi.hProcess, 100);
	printf("Index: %6d PID: %u\n", i + 1, pi.dwProcessId);
	::CloseHandle(pi.hThread);
}
printf("Total: %d\n", i);

The code closes the handle to the first thread in the process, as keeping it alive would create “Zombie Threads”, much like zombie processes – threads that can no longer run any code, but still exist because at least one handle is keeping them alive.

How can we get a list of zombie processes on a system given that the “normal” tools for process enumeration don’t show them? One way of doing this is to enumerate all the process handles in the system, and check if the process pointed by that handle is truly alive by calling WaitForSingleObject on the handle (of course the handle must first be duplicated into our process so it’s valid to use) with a timeout of zero – we don’t want to wait really. If the result is WAIT_OBJECT_0, this means the process object is signaled, meaning it exited – it’s no longer capable of running any code. I have incorporated that into my Object Explorer (ObjExp.exe) tool. Here is the basic code to get details for zombie processes (the code for enumerating handles is not shown but is available in the source code):

m_Items.clear();
m_Items.reserve(128);
std::unordered_map<DWORD, size_t> processes;
for (auto const& h : ObjectManager::EnumHandles2(L"Process")) {
	auto hDup = ObjectManager::DupHandle(
        (HANDLE)(ULONG_PTR)h->HandleValue , h->ProcessId, 
        SYNCHRONIZE | PROCESS_QUERY_LIMITED_INFORMATION);
	if (hDup && WAIT_OBJECT_0 == ::WaitForSingleObject(hDup, 0)) {
		//
		// zombie process
		//
		auto pid = ::GetProcessId(hDup);
		if (pid) {
			auto it = processes.find(pid);
			ZombieProcess zp;
			auto& z = it == processes.end() ? zp : m_Items[it->second];
			z.Pid = pid;
			z.Handles.push_back({ h->HandleValue, h->ProcessId });
			WCHAR name[MAX_PATH];
			if (::GetProcessImageFileName(hDup, 
                name, _countof(name))) {
				z.FullPath = 
                    ProcessHelper::GetDosNameFromNtName(name);
				z.Name = wcsrchr(name, L'\\') + 1;
			}
			::GetProcessTimes(hDup, 
                (PFILETIME)&z.CreateTime, (PFILETIME)&z.ExitTime, 
                (PFILETIME)&z.KernelTime, (PFILETIME)&z.UserTime);
			::GetExitCodeProcess(hDup, &z.ExitCode);
			if (it == processes.end()) {
				m_Items.push_back(std::move(z));
				processes.insert({ pid, m_Items.size() - 1 });
			}
		}
	}
	if (hDup)
		::CloseHandle(hDup);
}

The data structure built for each process and stored in the m_Items vector is the following:

struct HandleEntry {
	ULONG Handle;
	DWORD Pid;
};
struct ZombieProcess {
	DWORD Pid;
	DWORD ExitCode{ 0 };
	std::wstring Name, FullPath;
	std::vector<HandleEntry> Handles;
	DWORD64 CreateTime, ExitTime, KernelTime, UserTime;
};

The ObjectManager::DupHandle function is not shown, but it basically calls DuplicateHandle for the process handle identified in some process. if that works, and the returned PID is non-zero, we can go do the work. Getting the process image name is done with GetProcessImageFileName – seems simple enough, but this function gets the NT name format of the executable (something like \Device\harddiskVolume3\Windows\System32\Notepad.exe), which is good enough if only the “short” final image name component is desired. if the full image path is needed in Win32 format (e.g. “c:\Windows\System32\notepad.exe”), it must be converted (ProcessHelper::GetDosNameFromNtName). You might be thinking that it would be far simpler to call QueryFullProcessImageName and get the Win32 name directly – but this does not work, and the function fails. Internally, the NtQueryInformationProcess native API is called with ProcessImageFileNameWin32 in the latter case, which fails if the process is a zombie one.

Running Object Explorer and selecting Zombie Processes from the System menu shows a list of all zombie processes (you should run it elevated for best results):

Object Explorer showing zombie processes

The above screenshot shows that many of the zombie processes are kept alive by GameManagerService.exe. This executable is from Razer running on my system. It definitely has a bug that keeps process handle alive way longer than needed. I’m not sure it would ever close these handles. Terminating this process will resolve the issue as the kernel closes all handles in a process handle table once the process terminates. This will allow all those processes that are held by that single handle to be freed from memory.

I plan to add Zombie Threads to Object Explorer – I wonder how many threads are being kept “alive” without good reason.

Next COM Programming Class

Update: the class is cancelled. I guess there weren’t that many people interested in COM this time around.

Today I’m opening registration for the COM Programming class to be held in April. The syllabus for the 3 day class can be found here. The course will be delivered in 6 half-days (4 hours each).

Dates: April (25, 26, 27, 28), May (2, 3).
Times: 2pm to 6pm, London time
Cost: 700 USD (if paid by an individual), 1300 USD (if paid by a company).

The class will be conducted remotely using Microsoft Teams or a similar platform.

What you need to know before the class: You should be comfortable using Windows on a Power User level. Concepts such as processes, threads, DLLs, and virtual memory should be understood fairly well. You should have experience writing code in C and some C++. You don’t have to be an expert, but you must know C and basic C++ to get the most out of this class. In case you have doubts, talk to me.

Participants in my Windows Internals and Windows System Programming classes have the required knowledge for the class.

We’ll start by looking at why COM was created in the first place, and then build clients and servers, digging into various mechanisms COM provides. See the syllabus for more details.

Previous students in my classes get 10% off. Multiple participants from the same company get a discount (email me for the details).

To register, send an email to zodiacon@live.com with the title “COM Training”, and write the name(s), email(s) and time zone(s) of the participants.

Icon Handler with ATL

One of the exercises I gave at the recent COM Programming class was to build an Icon Handler that integrates with the Windows Shell, where DLLs should have an icon based on their “bitness” – whether they’re 64-bit or 32-bit Portable Executable (PE).

The Shell provides many opportunities for extensibility. An Icon Handler is one of the simplest, but still requires writing a full-fledged COM component that implements certain interfaces that the shell expects. Here is the result of using the Icon Handler DLL, showing the folders c:\Windows\System32 and c:\Windows\SysWow64 (large icons for easier visibility).

C:\Windows\System32
C:\Windows\SysWow64

Let’s see how to build such an icon handler. The full code is at zodiacon/DllIconHandler.

The first step is to create a new ATL project in Visual Studio. I’ll be using Visual Studio 2022, but any recent version would work essentially the same way (e.g. VS 2019, or 2017). Locate the ATL project type by searching in the terrible new project dialog introduced in VS 2019 and still horrible in VS 2022.

ATL (Active Template Library) is certainly not the only way to build COM components. “Pure” C++ would work as well, but ATL provides all the COM boilerplate such as the required exported functions, class factories, IUnknown implementations, etc. Since ATL is fairly “old”, it lacks the elegance of other libraries such as WRL and WinRT, as it doesn’t take advantage of C++11 and later features. Still, ATL has withstood the test of time, is robust, and full featured when it comes to COM, something I can’t say for these other alternatives.

If you can’t locate the ATL project, you may not have ATL installed propertly. Make sure the C++ Desktop development workload is installed using the Visual Studio Installer.

Click Next and select a project name and location:

Click Create to launch the ATL project wizard. Leave all defaults (Dynamic Link Library) and click OK. Shell extensions of all kinds must be DLLs, as these are loaded by Explorer.exe. It’s not ideal in terms of Explorer’s stability, as aun unhandled exception can bring down the entire process, but this is necessary to get good performance, as no inter-process calls are made.

Two projects are created, named DllIconHandler and DllIconHandlerPS. The latter is a proxy/stub DLL that maybe useful if cross-apartment COM calls are made. This is not needed for shell extensions, so the PS project should simply be removed from the solution.


A detailed discussion of COM is way beyond the scope of this post.


The remaining project contains the COM DLL required code, such as the mandatory exported function, DllGetClassObject, and the other optional but recommended exports (DllRegisterServer, DllUnregisterServer, DllCanUnloadNow and DllInstall). This is one of the nice benefits of working with ATL project for COM component development: all the COM boilerplate is implemented by ATL.

The next step is to add a COM class that will implement our icon handler. Again, we’ll turn to a wizard provided by Visual Studio that provides the fundamentals. Right-click the project and select Add Item… (don’t select Add Class as it’s not good enough). Select the ATL node on the left and ATL Simple Object on the right. Set the name to something like IconHandler:

Click Add. The ATL New Object wizard opens up. The name typed in the Add New Item dialog is used as a basis for generating names for source code elements (like the C++ class) and COM elements (that would be written into the IDL file and the resulting type library). Since we’re not going to define a new interface (we need to implement explorer-defined interfaces), there is no real need to tweak anything. You can click Finish to generate the class.

Three files are added with this last step: IconHandler.h, IconHandler.cpp and IconHandler.rgs. The C++ source files role is obvious – implementing the Icon Handler. The rgs file contains a script in an ATL-provided “language” indicating what information to write to the Registry when this DLL is registered (and what to remove if it’s unregistered).

The IDL (Interface Definition Language) file has also been modified, adding the definitions of the wizard generated interface (which we don’t need) and the coclass. We’ll leave the IDL alone, as we do need it to generate the type library of our component because the ATL registration code uses it internally.

If you look in IconHandler.h, you’ll see that the class implements the IIconHandler empty interface generated by the wizard that we don’t need. It even derives from IDispatch:

class ATL_NO_VTABLE CIconHandler :
	public CComObjectRootEx<CComSingleThreadModel>,
	public CComCoClass<CIconHandler, &CLSID_IconHandler>,
	public IDispatchImpl<IIconHandler, &IID_IIconHandler, &LIBID_DLLIconHandlerLib, /*wMajor =*/ 1, /*wMinor =*/ 0> {

We can leave the IDispatchImpl-inheritance, since it’s harmless. But it’s useless as well, so let’s delete it and also delete the interfaces IIconHandler and IDispatch from the interface map located further down:

class ATL_NO_VTABLE CIconHandler :
	public CComObjectRootEx<CComSingleThreadModel>,
	public CComCoClass<CIconHandler, &CLSID_IconHandler> {
public:
	BEGIN_COM_MAP(CIconHandler)
	END_COM_MAP()

(I have rearranged the code a bit). Now we need to add the interfaces we truly have to implement for an icon handler: IPersistFile and IExtractIcon. To get their definitions, we’ll add an #include for <shlobj_core.h> (this is documented in MSDN). We add the interfaces to the inheritance hierarchy, the COM interface map, and use the Visual Studio feature to add the interface members for us by right-clicking the class name (CIconHandler), pressing Ctrl+. (dot) and selecting Implement all pure virtuals of CIconHandler. The resulting class header looks something like this (some parts omitted for clarity) (I have removed the virtual keyword as it’s inherited and doesn’t have to be specified in derived types):

class ATL_NO_VTABLE CIconHandler :
	public CComObjectRootEx<CComSingleThreadModel>,
	public CComCoClass<CIconHandler, &CLSID_IconHandler>,
	public IPersistFile,
	public IExtractIcon {
public:
	BEGIN_COM_MAP(CIconHandler)
		COM_INTERFACE_ENTRY(IPersistFile)
		COM_INTERFACE_ENTRY(IExtractIcon)
	END_COM_MAP()

//...
	// Inherited via IPersistFile
	HRESULT __stdcall GetClassID(CLSID* pClassID) override;
	HRESULT __stdcall IsDirty(void) override;
	HRESULT __stdcall Load(LPCOLESTR pszFileName, DWORD dwMode) override;
	HRESULT __stdcall Save(LPCOLESTR pszFileName, BOOL fRemember) override;
	HRESULT __stdcall SaveCompleted(LPCOLESTR pszFileName) override;
	HRESULT __stdcall GetCurFile(LPOLESTR* ppszFileName) override;

	// Inherited via IExtractIconW
	HRESULT __stdcall GetIconLocation(UINT uFlags, PWSTR pszIconFile, UINT cchMax, int* piIndex, UINT* pwFlags) override;
	HRESULT __stdcall Extract(PCWSTR pszFile, UINT nIconIndex, HICON* phiconLarge, HICON* phiconSmall, UINT nIconSize) override;
};

Now for the implementation. The IPersistFile interface seems non-trivial, but fortunately we just need to implement the Load method for an icon handler. This is where we get the file name we need to inspect. To check whether a DLL is 64 or 32 bit, we’ll add a simple enumeration and a helper function to the CIconHandler class:

	enum class ModuleBitness {
		Unknown,
		Bit32,
		Bit64
	};
	static ModuleBitness GetModuleBitness(PCWSTR path);

The implementation of IPersistFile::Load looks something like this:

HRESULT __stdcall CIconHandler::Load(LPCOLESTR pszFileName, DWORD dwMode) {
    ATLTRACE(L"CIconHandler::Load %s\n", pszFileName);

    m_Bitness = GetModuleBitness(pszFileName);
    return S_OK;
}

The method receives the full path of the DLL we need to examine. How do we know that only DLL files will be delivered? This has to do with the registration we’ll make for the icon handler. We’ll register it for DLL file extensions only, so that other file types will not be provided. Calling GetModuleBitness (shown later) performs the real work of determining the DLL’s bitness and stores the result in m_Bitness (a data member of type ModuleBitness).

All that’s left to do is tell explorer which icon to use. This is the role of IExtractIcon. The Extract method can be used to provide an icon handle directly, which is useful if the icon is “dynamic” – perhaps generated by different means in each case. In this example, we just need to return one of two icons which have been added as resources to the project (you can find those in the project source code. This is also an opportunity to provide your own icons).

For our case, it’s enough to return S_FALSE from Extract that causes explorer to use the information returned from GetIconLocation. Here is its implementation:

HRESULT __stdcall CIconHandler::GetIconLocation(UINT uFlags, PWSTR pszIconFile, UINT cchMax, int* piIndex, UINT* pwFlags) {
    if (s_ModulePath[0] == 0) {
        ::GetModuleFileName(_AtlBaseModule.GetModuleInstance(), 
            s_ModulePath, _countof(s_ModulePath));
        ATLTRACE(L"Module path: %s\n", s_ModulePath);
    }
    if (s_ModulePath[0] == 0)
        return S_FALSE;

    if (m_Bitness == ModuleBitness::Unknown)
        return S_FALSE;

    wcscpy_s(pszIconFile, wcslen(s_ModulePath) + 1, s_ModulePath);
    ATLTRACE(L"CIconHandler::GetIconLocation: %s bitness: %d\n", 
        pszIconFile, m_Bitness);
    *piIndex = m_Bitness == ModuleBitness::Bit32 ? 0 : 1;
    *pwFlags = GIL_PERINSTANCE;

    return S_OK;
}

The method’s purpose is to return the current (our icon handler DLL) module’s path and the icon index to use. This information is enough for explorer to load the icon itself from the resources. First, we get the module path to where our DLL has been installed. Since this doesn’t change, it’s only retrieved once (with GetModuleFileName) and stored in a static variable (s_ModulePath).

If this fails (unlikely) or the bitness could not be determined (maybe the file was not a PE at all, but just had such an extension), then we return S_FALSE. This tells explorer to use the default icon for the file type (DLL). Otherwise, we store 0 or 1 in piIndex, based on the IDs of the icons (0 corresponds to the lower of the IDs).

Finally, we need to set a flag inside pwFlags to indicate to explorer that this icon extraction is required for every file (GIL_PERINSTANCE). Otherwise, explorer calls IExtractIcon just once for any DLL file, which is the opposite of what we want.

The final piece of the puzzle (in terms of code) is how to determine whether a PE is 64 or 32 bit. This is not the point of this post, as any custom algorithm can be used to provide different icons for different files of the same type. For completeness, here is the code with comments:

CIconHandler::ModuleBitness CIconHandler::GetModuleBitness(PCWSTR path) {
    auto bitness = ModuleBitness::Unknown;
    //
    // open the DLL as a data file
    //
    auto hFile = ::CreateFile(path, GENERIC_READ, FILE_SHARE_READ, 
        nullptr, OPEN_EXISTING, 0, nullptr);
    if (hFile == INVALID_HANDLE_VALUE)
        return bitness;

    //
    // create a memory mapped file to read the PE header
    //
    auto hMemMap = ::CreateFileMapping(hFile, nullptr, PAGE_READONLY, 0, 0, nullptr);
    ::CloseHandle(hFile);
    if (!hMemMap)
        return bitness;

    //
    // map the first page (where the header is located)
    //
    auto p = ::MapViewOfFile(hMemMap, FILE_MAP_READ, 0, 0, 1 << 12);
    if (p) {
        auto header = ::ImageNtHeader(p);
        if (header) {
            auto machine = header->FileHeader.Machine;
            bitness = header->Signature == IMAGE_NT_OPTIONAL_HDR64_MAGIC ||
                machine == IMAGE_FILE_MACHINE_AMD64 || machine == IMAGE_FILE_MACHINE_ARM64 ?
                ModuleBitness::Bit64 : ModuleBitness::Bit32;
        }
        ::UnmapViewOfFile(p);
    }
    ::CloseHandle(hMemMap);
    
    return bitness;
}

To make all this work, there is still one more concern: registration. Normal COM registration is necessary (so that the call to CoCreateInstance issued by explorer has a chance to succeed), but not enough. Another registration is needed to let explorer know that this icon handler exists, and is to be used for files with the extension “DLL”.

Fortunately, ATL provides a convenient mechanism to add Registry settings using a simple script-like configuration, which does not require any code. The added keys/values have been placed in DllIconHandler.rgs like so:

HKCR
{
	NoRemove DllFile
	{
		NoRemove ShellEx
		{
			IconHandler = s '{d913f592-08f1-418a-9428-cc33db97ed60}'
		}
	}
}

This sets an icon handler in HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\DllFile\ShellEx, where the IconHandler value specifies the CLSID of our component. You can find the CLSID in the IDL file where the coclass element is defined:

[
	uuid(d913f592-08f1-418a-9428-cc33db97ed60)
]
coclass IconHandler {

Replace your own CLSID if you’re building this project from scratch. Registration itself is done with the RegSvr32 built-in tool. With an ATL project, a successful build also causes RegSvr32 to be invoked on the resulting DLL, thus performing registration. The default behavior is to register in HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT which uses HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE behind the covers. This requires running Visual Studio elevated (or an elevated command window if called from outside VS). It will register the icon handler for all users on the machine. If you prefer to register for the current user only (which uses HKEY_CURRENT_USER and does not require running elevated), you can set the per-user registration in VS by going to project properties, clinking on the Linker element and setting per-user redirection:

If you’re registering from outside VS, the per-user registration is achieved with:

regsvr32 /n /i:user <dllpath>

This is it! The full source code is available here.

New Class: COM Programming

Today I’m announcing a new training – COM (Component Object Model) Programming, to be held in November.

COM is a well established technology, debuted back in 1993, and is still very much in use. In fact, the Windows Runtime is based on an enhanced version of COM. There is quite a bit of confusion and misconceptions about COM, which is one reason I decided to offer this class.

The syllabus for the 3 day class can be found here. This is the first time I will be offering this class, and also will try a new format: 6 half-days instead of 3 full days.

When: November: 8, 9, 10, 11, 15, 16. 2pm to 6pm, UT. (Technically it’s more than 3 days, as with a full day there is a lunch break not present in half days). The class will be conducted remotely using Microsoft Teams or a similar platform.

What you need to know before the class: You should be comfortable using Windows on a Power User level. Concepts such as processes, threads, DLLs, and virtual memory should be understood fairly well. You should have experience writing code in C and some C++. You don’t have to be an expert, but you must know C and basic C++ to get the most out of the class. In case you have doubts, talk to me.

Obviously, participants in my Windows Internals and (especially) Windows System Programming classes have the required knowledge for the class.

We’ll start by looking at why COM was created in the first place, and then build clients and servers, digging into various mechanisms COM provides. See the syllabus for more details.

Registration will be different than previous classes:
Early bird (paid by September 30th): 500 USD (if paid by an individual), 1100 USD (if paid by a company).
Normal (paid after September 30th): 700 USD (if paid by an individual), 1300 USD (if paid by a company).

To register, send an email to zodiacon@live.com with the title “COM Training”, and write the name(s), email(s) and time zone(s) of the participants. Multiple participants from the same company get a discount. Previous participants (individuals) of my classes get 10% off. I will reply with further instructions.

I hope to see you in November!

Next Windows Kernel Programming Training

Today I’m announcing the next public remote Windows Kernel Programming training. This is a 5-day training scheduled for October: 4, 5, 7, 11, 13. Times: 12pm to 8pm, London Time.

The syllabus can be found here. It may be slightly modified by the time the class starts, but not by much. This is a development-heavy course, so be prepared to write lots of code!

Cost: 800 USD if paid by an individual, 1500 USD if paid by a company. Previous participants of the my classes get 10% discount. Multiple participants from the same company are entitled to a discount (email me for the details).

To register, send an email to zodiacon@live.com and specify “Windows Kernel Programming Training” in the title. The email should include your name, preferred email for communication, and company name (if any).

The training sessions will be recorded and provided to the participants.

Please read carefully the pre-requisites for this class. You should especially be comfortable coding in C (any C++ used in the class will be explained). In case of any doubt, talk to me.
If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email, or DM me on twitter (@zodiacon) or Linkedin (https://www.linkedin.com/in/pavely/).

Dynamic Symbolic Links

While teaching a Windows Internals class recently, I came across a situation which looked like a bug to me, but turned out to be something I didn’t know about – dynamic symbolic links.

Symbolic links are Windows kernel objects that point to another object. The weird situation in question was when running WinObj from Sysinternals and navigating to the KenrelObjects object manager directory.

WinObj from Sysinternals

You’ll notice some symbolic link objects that look weird: MemoryErrors, PhysicalMemoryChange, HighMemoryCondition, LowMemoryCondition and a few others. The weird thing that is fairly obvious is that these symbolic link objects have empty targets. Double-clicking any one of them confirms no target, and also shows a curious zero handles, as well as quota change of zero:

Symbolic link properties

To add to the confusion, searching for any of them with Process Explorer yields something like this:

It seems these objects are events, and not symbolic links!

My first instinct was that there is a bug in WinObj (I rewrote it recently for Sysinternals, so was certain I introduced a bug). I ran an old WinObj version, but the result was the same. I tried other tools with similar functionality, and still got the same results. Maybe a bug in Process Explorer? Let’s see in the kernel debugger:

lkd> !object 0xFFFF988110EC0C20
Object: ffff988110ec0c20  Type: (ffff988110efb400) Event
    ObjectHeader: ffff988110ec0bf0 (new version)
    HandleCount: 4  PointerCount: 117418
    Directory Object: ffff828b10689530  Name: HighCommitCondition

Definitely an event and not a symbolic link. What’s going on? I debugged it in WinObj, and indeed the reported object type is a symbolic link. Maybe it’s a bug in the NtQueryDirectoryObject used to query a directory object for an object.

I asked Mark Russinovich, could there be a bug in Windows? Mark remembered that this is not a bug, but a feature of symbolic links, where objects can be created/resolved dynamically when accessing the symbolic link. Let’s see if we can see something in the debugger:

lkd> !object \kernelobjects\highmemorycondition
Object: ffff828b10659510  Type: (ffff988110e9ba60) SymbolicLink
    ObjectHeader: ffff828b106594e0 (new version)
    HandleCount: 0  PointerCount: 1
    Directory Object: ffff828b10656ce0  Name: HighMemoryCondition
    Flags: 0x000010 ( Local )
    Target String is '*** target string unavailable ***'

Clearly, there is target, but notice the flags value 0x10. This is the flag indicating the symbolic link is a dynamic one. To get further information, we need to look at the object with a “symbolic link lenses” by using the data structure the kernel uses to represent symbolic links:

lkd> dt nt!_OBJECT_SYMBOLIC_LINK ffff828b10659510

   +0x000 CreationTime     : _LARGE_INTEGER 0x01d73d87`21bd21e5
   +0x008 LinkTarget       : _UNICODE_STRING "--- memory read error at address 0x00000000`00000005 ---"
   +0x008 Callback         : 0xfffff802`08512250     long  nt!MiResolveMemoryEvent+0

   +0x010 CallbackContext  : 0x00000000`00000005 Void
   +0x018 DosDeviceDriveIndex : 0
   +0x01c Flags            : 0x10
   +0x020 AccessMask       : 0x24

The Callback member shows the function that is being called (MiResolveMemoryEvent) that “resolves” the symbolic link to the relevant event. There are currently 11 such events, their names visible with the following:

lkd> dx (nt!_UNICODE_STRING*)&nt!MiMemoryEventNames,11
(nt!_UNICODE_STRING*)&nt!MiMemoryEventNames,11                 : 0xfffff80207e02e90 [Type: _UNICODE_STRING *]
    [0]              : "\KernelObjects\LowPagedPoolCondition" [Type: _UNICODE_STRING]
    [1]              : "\KernelObjects\HighPagedPoolCondition" [Type: _UNICODE_STRING]
    [2]              : "\KernelObjects\LowNonPagedPoolCondition" [Type: _UNICODE_STRING]
    [3]              : "\KernelObjects\HighNonPagedPoolCondition" [Type: _UNICODE_STRING]
    [4]              : "\KernelObjects\LowMemoryCondition" [Type: _UNICODE_STRING]
    [5]              : "\KernelObjects\HighMemoryCondition" [Type: _UNICODE_STRING]
    [6]              : "\KernelObjects\LowCommitCondition" [Type: _UNICODE_STRING]
    [7]              : "\KernelObjects\HighCommitCondition" [Type: _UNICODE_STRING]
    [8]              : "\KernelObjects\MaximumCommitCondition" [Type: _UNICODE_STRING]
    [9]              : "\KernelObjects\MemoryErrors" [Type: _UNICODE_STRING]
    [10]             : "\KernelObjects\PhysicalMemoryChange" [Type: _UNICODE_STRING]

Creating dynamic symbolic links is only possible from kernel mode, of course, and is undocumented anyway.

At least the conundrum is solved.

Next Public Windows Internals training

I am announcing the next Windows Internals remote training to be held in July 2021 on the 12, 14, 15, 19, 21. Times: 11am to 7pm, London time.

The syllabus can be found here (slight changes are possible if new important topics come up).

Cost and Registration

I’m keeping the cost of these training classes relatively low. This is to make these classes accessible to more people, especially in these unusual and challenging times.

Cost: 800 USD if paid by an individual, 1500 USD if paid by a company. Multiple participants from the same company are entitled to a discount (email me for the details). Previous students of my classes are entitled to a 10% discount.

To register, send an email to zodiacon@live.com and specify “Windows Internals Training” in the title. The email should include your name, contact email, and company name (if any).

Later this year I plan a Windows Kernel Programming class. Stay tuned!

As usual, if you have any questions, feel free to send me an email, or DM me on twitter (@zodiacon) or Linkedin (https://www.linkedin.com/in/pavely/).

Parent Process vs. Creator Process

Normally, a process created by another process in Windows establishes a parent-child relationship between them. This relationship can be viewed in tools such as Process Explorer. Here is an example showing FoxitReader as a child process of Explorer, implying Explorer created FoxitReader. That must be the case, right?

First, it’s important to emphasize that there is no dependency between a child and a parent process in any way. For example, if the parent process terminates, the child is unaffected. The parent is used for inheriting many properties of the child process, such as current directory and environment variables (if not specified explicitly).

Windows stores the parent process ID in the process management object of the child in the kernel for posterity. This also means that the process ID, although correct, could point to a “wrong” process. This can happen if the parent dies, and the process ID is reused.

Process Explorer does not get confused in such a case, and left-justifies the process in its tree view. It knows to check the process creation time. If the “parent” was created after the child, there is no way it could be the real parent. The parent process ID can still be viewed in the process properties:

Notice the “<Non-existent Parent>” indication. Although the parent process ID is known (13636 in this case), there is no other information on that process, as it does not exist anymore, and its ID may or may not have been reused.

By the way, don’t be alarmed that Explorer has no living parent. This is expected, as it’s normally created by a process running the image UserInit.exe, that exits normally after finishing its duties.

Returning to the question raised earlier – is the parent process always the actual creator? Not necessarily.

The canonical example is when a process is launched elevated (for example, by right-clicking it in Explorer and selecting “Run as Administrator”. Here is a diagram showing the major components in an elevation procedure:

First, the user right-clicks in Explorer and asks to run some App.Exe elevated. Explorer calls ShellExecute(Ex) with the verb “runas” that requests this elevation. Next, The AppInfo service is contacted to perform the operation if possible. It launches consent.exe, which shows the Yes/No message box (for true administrators) or a username/password dialog to get an admin’s approval for the elevation. Assuming this is granted, the AppInfo service calls CreateProcessAsUser to launch the App.exe elevated. To maintain the illusion that Explorer created App.exe, it stores the parent ID of Explorer into App.exe‘s new process management block. This makes it look as if Explorer had created App.exe, but is not really what happened. However, that “re-parenting” is probably a good idea in this case, giving the user the expected result.

Is it possible to specify a different parent when creating a process with CreateProcess?

It is indeed possible by using a process attribute. Here is a function that does just that (with minimal error handling):

bool CreateProcessWithParent(DWORD parentId, PWSTR commandline) {
    auto hProcess = ::OpenProcess(PROCESS_CREATE_PROCESS, FALSE, parentId);
    if (!hProcess)
        return false;

    SIZE_T size;
    //
    // call InitializeProcThreadAttributeList twice
    // first, get required size
    //
    ::InitializeProcThreadAttributeList(nullptr, 1, 0, &size);

    //
    // now allocate a buffer with the required size and call again
    //
    auto buffer = std::make_unique<BYTE[]>(size);
    auto attributes = reinterpret_cast<PPROC_THREAD_ATTRIBUTE_LIST>(buffer.get());
    ::InitializeProcThreadAttributeList(attributes, 1, 0, &size);

    //
    // add the parent attribute
    //
    ::UpdateProcThreadAttribute(attributes, 0, 
        PROC_THREAD_ATTRIBUTE_PARENT_PROCESS, 
        &hProcess, sizeof(hProcess), nullptr, nullptr);

    STARTUPINFOEX si = { sizeof(si) };
    //
    // set the attribute list
    //
    si.lpAttributeList = attributes;
    PROCESS_INFORMATION pi;

    //
    // create the process
    //
    BOOL created = ::CreateProcess(nullptr, commandline, nullptr, nullptr, 
        FALSE, EXTENDED_STARTUPINFO_PRESENT, nullptr, nullptr, 
        (STARTUPINFO*)&si, &pi);

    //
    // cleanup
    //
    ::CloseHandle(hProcess);
    ::DeleteProcThreadAttributeList(attributes);

    return created;
}

The first step is to open a handle to the “prospected” parent by calling OpenProcess with the PROCESS_CREATE_PROCESS access mask. This means you cannot choose an arbitrary process, you must have at least that access to the process. Protected (and protected light) processes, for example, cannot be used as parents in this way, as PROCESS_CREATE_PROCESS cannot be obtained for such processes.

Next, an attribute list is created with a single attribute of type PROC_THREAD_ATTRIBUTE_PARENT_PROCESS by calling InitializeProcThreadAttributeList followed by UpdateProcThreadAttribute to set up the parent handle. Finally, CreateProcess is called with the extended STARTUPINFOEX structure where the attribute list is stored. CreateProcess must know about the extended version by specifying EXTENDED_STARTUPINFO_PRESENT in its flags argument.

Here is an example where Excel supposedly created Notepad (it really didn’t). The “real” process creator is nowhere to be found.

The obvious question perhaps is whether there is any way to know which process was the real creator?

The only way that seems to be available is for kernel drivers that register for process creation notifications with PsSetCreateProcessNotifyRoutineEx (or one of its variants). When such a notification is invoked in the driver, the following structure is provided:

typedef struct _PS_CREATE_NOTIFY_INFO {
  SIZE_T              Size;
  union {
    ULONG Flags;
    struct {
      ULONG FileOpenNameAvailable : 1;
      ULONG IsSubsystemProcess : 1;
      ULONG Reserved : 30;
    };
  };
  HANDLE              ParentProcessId;
  CLIENT_ID           CreatingThreadId;
  struct _FILE_OBJECT *FileObject;
  PCUNICODE_STRING    ImageFileName;
  PCUNICODE_STRING    CommandLine;
  NTSTATUS            CreationStatus;
} PS_CREATE_NOTIFY_INFO, *PPS_CREATE_NOTIFY_INFO;

On the one hand, there is the ParentProcessId member (although it’s typed as HANDLE, it actually the parent process ID). This is the parent process as set by CreateProcess based on the code snippet in CreateProcessWithParent.

However, there is also the CreatingThreadId member of type CLIENT_ID, which is a small structure containing a process and thread IDs. This is the real creator. In most cases it’s going to have the same process ID as ParentProcessId, but not in the case where a different parent has been specified.

After this point, that information goes away, leaving only the parent ID, as it’s the one stored in the EPROCESS kernel structure of the child process.

Update: (thanks to @jdu2600)

The creator is available by listening to the process create ETW event, where the creator is the one raising the event. Here is a snapshot from my own ProcMonXv2:

Next Public (Remote) Training Classes

I am announcing the next Windows Internals remote training to be held in January 2021 on the 19, 21, 25, 27, 28. Times: 11am to 7pm, London time.

The syllabus can be found here.

I am also announcing a new training, requested by quite a few people, Windows System Programming. The dates are in February 2021: 8, 9, 11, 15, 17. Times: 12pm to 8pm, London time.

The syllabus can be found here.

Cost and Registration

I’m keeping the cost of these training classes relatively low. This is to make these classes accessible to more people, especially in these challenging times. If you register for both classes, you get 10% off the second class. Previous students of my classes get 10% off as well.

Cost: 750 USD if paid by an individual, 1500 USD if paid by a company. Multiple participants from the same company are entitled to a discount (email me for the details).

To register, send an email to zodiacon@live.com and specify “Training” in the title. The email should include the training(s) you’re interested in, your name, contact email, company name (if any) and preferred time zone. The training times have already been selected, but it’s still good to know which time zone you live in.

As usual, if you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email, or DM me on twitter (@zodiacon) or Linkedin (https://www.linkedin.com/in/pavely/).

Upcoming Public Remote Training

I have recently completed another successful iteration of the Windows Internals training – thank you those who participated!

I am announcing two upcoming training classes, Windows Internals and Windows Kernel Programming.

Windows Internals (5 days)

I promised some folks that the next Internals training would be convenient to US-based time zones. That said, all time zones are welcome!

Dates: Sep 29, Oct 1, 5, 7, 8
Times: 8am to 4pm Pacific time (11am to 7pm Eastern)

The syllabus can be found here. I may make small changes in the final topics, but the major topics remain the same.

Windows Kernel Programming (4 days)

Dates: Oct 13, 15, 19, 21
Times: TBA

The syllabus can be found here. Again, slight changes are possible. This is a development-heavy course, so be prepared to write lots of code!

The selected time zone will be based on the majority of participants’ preference.

Cost and Registration

The cost for each class is kept relatively low (as opposed to other, perhaps similar offerings), as I’ve done in the past year or so. This is to make these classes accessible to more people, especially in these challenging times. If you register for both classes, you get 10% off the second class. Previous students of my classes get 10% off as well.

Cost: 750 USD if paid by an individual, 1500 USD if paid by a company. Multiple participants from the same company are entitled to a discount (email me for the details).

To register, send an email to zodiacon@live.com and specify “Training” in the title. The email should include your name, company name (if any) and preferred time zone.

Please read carefully the pre-requisites of each class, especially for Windows Kernel Programming. In case of doubt, talk to me.

If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email, or DM me on twitter (@zodiacon) or Linkedin (https://www.linkedin.com/in/pavely/).

For Companies

Companies that are interested in such (or other) training classes receive special prices. Topics can also be customized according to specific needs.

Other classes I provide include: Modern C++ Programming, Windows System Programming, COM Programming, C#/.NET Programming (Basic and Advanced), Advanced Windows Debugging, and more. Contact me for detailed syllabi if interested.