What’s the difference between the Wow64 and native x86 versions of a DLL?

Wow64 includes a complete set of 32-bit system DLLs implementing the Win32 API (for use by Wow64 programs). So, what’s the difference between the native 32-bit DLLs and their Wow64 versions?

On Windows x64, not much, actually. Most of the DLLs are actually the 32-bit copies from the 32-bit version of the operating system (not even recompiled). For example, the Wow64 ws2_32.dll on Vista x64 is the same file as the native 32-bit ws2_32.dll on Vista x86. If I compare the wow64 version of ws2_32.dll on Vista with the x86 native version, they are clearly identical:

32-bit Vista:

C:\\Windows\\System32>md5sum ws2_32.dll
d99a071c1018bb3d4abaad4b62048ac2 *ws2_32.dll

64-bit Vista (Wow64):

C:\\Windows\\SysWOW64>md5sum ws2_32.dll
d99a071c1018bb3d4abaad4b62048ac2 *ws2_32.dll

Some DLLs, however, are not identical. For instance, ntdll is very different across native x86 and Wow64 versions, due to the way that Wow64 system calls are translated to the 64-bit user mode portion of the Wow64 layer. Instead of calling kernel mode directly, Wow64 system services go through a translation layer in user mode (so that the kernel does not need to implement 32-bit and 64-bit versions of each system service, or stubs thereof in kernel mode). This difference can clearly be seen when comparing the Wow64 ntdll with the native x64 ntdll, with respect to a system service:

If we look at the native x86 ntdll, we see the expected call through the SystemCallStub pointers in SharedUserData:

0:000> u ntdll!NtClose
mov     eax,30h
mov     edx,offset SharedUserData!SystemCallStub
call    dword ptr [edx]
ret     4

However, an examination of the Wow64 ntdll shows something different; a call is made through a field at offset +C0 in the 32-bit TEB:

0:000> u ntdll!NtClose
mov     eax,0Ch
xor     ecx,ecx
lea     edx,[esp+4]
call    dword ptr fs:[0C0h]
ret     4

If we examine the 32-bit TEB, this field as marked as “WOW32Reserved” (kind of a misnomer, since it’s actually reserved for the 32-bit portion of Wow64):

0:000> dt ntdll!_TEB
   +0x000 NtTib            : _NT_TIB
   +0x0c0 WOW32Reserved    : Ptr32 Void

As I had previously mentioned, this all leads up to a transition to 64-bit mode in user mode in the Wow64 case. From there, the 64-bit portion of the Wow64 layer reformats the request into a 64-bit system call, makes the actual kernel transition, then repackages the results into what a 32-bit system call would return.

Thus, one case where a Wow64 DLL will necessarily differ is when that DLL contains a system call stub. The most common case of this is ntdll, of course, but there are a couple of other modules with inline system call stubs (user32.dll and gdi32.dll are the most common other modules, though winsrv.dll (part of CSRSS) also contains stubs, however it has no Wow64 version).

There are other cases, however, where Wow64 DLLs differ from their native x86 counterparts. Usually, a DLL that makes an LPC (“Local Procedure Call”) call to another component also has a differing version in the Wow64 layer. This is because most of the LPC interfaces in 64-bit Windows have been “widened” to 64-bits, where they included pointers (most notably, this includes the LSA LPC interface for use in implementing code that talks to LSA, such as LogonUser or calls to authentication packages). As a result, modules like advapi32 or secur32 differ on Wow64.

This has, in fact, been the source of some rather insidious bugs where mistakes have been made in the translation layer. For instance, if you call LsaGetLogonSessionData on Windows Server 2003 x64, from a Wow64 process, you may unhappily find out that if your program accesses any fields beyond “LogonTime” in the SECURITY_LOGON_SESSION_DATA structure returned by LsaGetLogonSessionData, it will crash. This is the result of a bug in the Wow64 version of Secur32.dll (on Windows Server 2003 x64 / Windows XP x64), where part of the structure was not properly converted to its 32-bit counterpart after the 64-bit version is read “off the wire” from an LSA LPC call. This particular problem has been fixed in Windows Vista x64 (and can be worked around with some clever hackery if you take a look at how the conversion layer in Secur32 works for Srv03 x64). Note that as far as I know from having spoken to PSS, Microsoft has no plans to fix the bug for pre-Vista platforms (and it is still broken in Srv03 x64 SP2), so if you are affected by that problem then you’ll have to live with implementing a hackish workaround if you can’t rebuild your app as native 64-bit (the problem only occurs for 32-bit processes on Srv03 x64, not 32-bit processes on Srv03 32-bit, or 64-bit processes on Srv03 x64).

There are a couple of other corner cases which result in necessary differences between Wow64 modules and their native 32-bit counterparts, though these are typically few and far between. Most notably absent in the list of things that require code changes for a Wow64 DLL are modules that directly talk to 64-bit drivers via IOCTLs. For example, even “low-level” modules such as mswsock.dll (the AFD Winsock2 Tcpip service provider which implements the user mode to kernel mode translation layer from Winsock2 service provider calls to AFD networking calls in kernel mode) that communicate heavily with drivers via IOCTLs are unchanged in Wow64. This is due to direct support for Wow64 processes in the kernel IOCTL interface (requiring changes to drivers to be aware of 32-bit callers via IoIs32bitProcess), such that 32-bit and 64-bit processes can share the same IOCTL codes even though such structures are typically “widened” to 64-bits for 64-bit processes.

Due to this approach to Wow64, most of the code that implements the 32-bit Win32 API on x64 computers is identical to their 32-bit counterparts (the same binary in the vast majority of cases). For DLLs that do require a rebuild, typically only small portions (system call stubs and LPC stubs in most cases) require any code changes. The major benefits to this design are savings with respect to QA and development time for the Wow64 layer, as most of the code implementing the Win32 API (at least in user mode) did not need to be re-engineered. That’s not to say that Microsoft hasn’t tested it, but it’s a far cry from having to modify every single module in a non-trivial way.

Additionally, this approach has the added benefit of preserving the vast majority of implementation details that have slowly sept into the Win32 programming model, as much as Microsoft has tried to prevent such from happening. Even programs that use undocumented system calls from NTDLL should generally work on the 64-bit version of that operating system via the Wow64 layer, for instance.

In a future posting later on down the line, I’ll be expanding on this high level overview of Wow64 and taking a more in depth look at the guts of Wow64 (of course, subject to change between OS releases without warning, as usual).

2 Responses to “What’s the difference between the Wow64 and native x86 versions of a DLL?”

  1. dispensa says:

    Have you run across any other implementation bugs like the one you mention above? It’d be interesting to play with something that round-trips every struct in the headers somehow.

  2. marcelo says:

    “most of the LPC interfaces in 64-bit Windows have been “widened” to 64-bits”
    So thats why my lpc server and client doesnt work on wow64. But now how do i fixit?

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