Windows Fundamentals in .NET

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Operating systems play a key role in reversing. That s because programs are tightly integrated with operating systems, and plenty of information can be gathered by probing this interface. Moreover, the eventual bottom line of every program is in its communication with the outside world (the program receives user input and outputs data on the screen, writes to a file, and so on), which means that identifying and understanding the bridging points between application programs and the operating system is critical. This chapter introduces the architecture of the latest generations of the Microsoft Windows operating system, which is the operating system used throughout this book. Some of this material is quite basic. If you feel perfectly comfortable with operating systems in general and with the Windows architecture in particular, feel free to skip this chapter. It is important to realize that this discussion is really a brief overview of information that could fill several thick books. I ve tried to make it as complete as possible and yet as focused on reversing as possible. If you feel as if you need additional information on certain subjects discussed in this chapter I ve listed a couple of additional sources at the end of this chapter.
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Before getting into the details of how Windows works, let s start by taking a quick look at how it evolved to its current architecture, and by listing its most fundamental features.
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Brief History
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As you probably know, there used to be two different operating systems called Windows: Windows and Windows NT. There was Windows, which was branded as Windows 95, Windows 98, and Windows Me and was a descendent of the old 16-bit versions of Windows. Windows NT was branded as Windows 2000 and more recently as Windows XP and Windows Server 2003. Windows NT is a more recent design that Microsoft initiated in the early 1990s. Windows NT was designed from the ground up as a 32-bit, virtual memory capable, multithreaded and multiprocessor-capable operating system, which makes it far more suited for use with modern-day hardware and software. Both operating systems were made compatible with the Win32 API, in order to make applications run on both operating systems. In 2001 Microsoft finally decided to eliminate the old Windows product (this should have happened much earlier in my opinion) and to only offer NT-based systems. The first general-public, consumer version of Windows NT was Windows XP, which offered a major improvement for Windows 9x users (and a far less significant improvement for users of its NT-based predecessor Windows 2000). The operating system described in this chapter is essentially Windows XP, but most of the discussion deals with fundamental concepts that have changed very little between Windows NT 4.0 (which was released in 1996), and Windows Server 2003. It should be safe to assume that the materials in this chapter will be equally relevant to the upcoming Windows release (currently codenamed Longhorn ).
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The following are the basic features of the Windows NT architecture. Pure 32-bit Architecture Now that the transition to 64-bit computing is already well on the way this may not sound like much, but Windows NT is a pure 32-bit computing environment, free of old 16-bit relics. Current versions of the operating system are also available in 64-bit versions. Supports Virtual-Memory Windows NT s memory manager employs a full-blown virtual-memory model. Virtual memory is discussed in detail later in this chapter.
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Portable Unlike the original Windows product, Windows NT was written in a combination of C and C++, which means that it can be recompiled to run on different processor platforms. Additionally, any physical hardware access goes through a special Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL), which isolates the system from the hardware and makes it easier to port the system to new hardware platforms. Multithreaded Windows NT is a fully preemptive, multithreaded system. While it is true that later versions of the original Windows product were also multithreaded, they still contained nonpreemptive components, such as the 16-bit implementations of USER and GDI (the Windows GUI components). These components had an adverse effect on those systems ability to achieve concurrency. Multiprocessor-Capable The Windows NT kernel is multiprocessorcapable, which means that it s better suited for high-performance computing environments such as large data-center servers and other CPU-intensive applications. Secure Unlike older versions of Windows, Windows NT was designed with security in mind. Every object in the system has an associated Access Control List (ACL) that determines which users are allowed to manipulate it. The Windows NT File System (NTFS) also supports an ACL for each individual file, and supports encryption of individual files or entire volumes. Compatible Windows NT is reasonably compatible with older applications and is capable of running 16-bit Windows applications and some DOS applications as well. Old applications are executed in a special isolated virtual machine where they cannot jeopardize the rest of the system.
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