How does one retrieve the 32-bit context of a Wow64 program from a 64-bit process on Windows Server 2003 x64?

Recently, Jimmy asked me what the recommended way to retrieve the 32-bit context of a Wow64 application on Windows XP x64 / Windows Server 2003 x64 was.

I originally responded that the best way to do this was to use Wow64GetThreadContext, but Jimmy mentioned that this doesn’t exist on Windows XP x64 / Windows Server 2003 x64. Sure enough, I checked and it’s really not there, which is rather a bummer if one is trying to implement a 64-bit debugger process capable of debugging 32-bit processes on pre-Vista operating systems.

Normally, I don’t typically recommend using undocumented implementation details in production code, but in this case, there seems to be little choice as there’s no documented mechanism to perform this operation prior to Vista. Because Vista introduces a documented way to perform this task, going an undocumented route is at least slightly less questionable, as there’s an upper bound on what operating systems need to be supported, and major changes to the implementation of things on downlevel operating systems are rarer than with new operating system releases.

Clearly, this is not always the case; Windows XP Service Pack 2 changed an enormous amount of things, for instance. However, as a general rule, service packs tend to be relatively conservative with this sort of thing. That’s not that one has carte blanche with using undocumented implementation details on downlevel platforms, but perhaps one can sleep a bit easier at night knowing that things are less likely to break than in the next Windows release.

I had previously mentioned that the Wow64 layer takes a rather unexpected approach to how to implement GetThreadContext and SetThreadContext. While I mentioned at a high level what was going on, I didn’t really go into the details all that much.

The basic implementation of these routines is to determine whether the thread is running in 64-bit mode or not (determined by examining the SegCs value of the 64-bit context record for the thread as returned by NtGetContextThread). If the thread is running in 64-bit mode, and the thread is a Wow64 thread, then an assumption can be made that the thread is in the middle of a callout to the Wow64 layer (say, a system call).

In this case, the 32-bit context is saved at a well-known location by the process that translates from running in 32-bit mode to running in 64-bit mode for system calls and other voluntary, user mode “32-bit break out” events. Specifically, the Wow64 layer repurposes the second TLS slot of each 64-bit thread (that is, Teb->TlsSlots[ 1 ]) to point to a structure of the following layout:

typedef struct _WOW64_THREAD_INFO
   ULONG UnknownPrefix;
   WOW64_CONTEXT Wow64Context;
   ULONG UnknownSuffix;

(The real structure name is not known..)

Normally, system components do not use the TLS array, but the Wow64 layer is an exception. Because there is not normally any third party 64-bit code running in a Wow64 process, the Wow64 layer is free to do what it wants with the TlsSlots array of the 64-bit TEB for a Wow64 thread. (Each Wow64 thread has its own, separate 32-bit TEB, so this does not interfere with the operation of TLS by the 32-bit program that is currently executing.)

In the case where the requested Wow64 is in a 64-bit Wow64 callout, all one needs to do is to retrieve the base address of the 64-bit TEB of the thread in question, read the second entry in the TlsSlots array, and then read the WOW64_CONTEXT structure out of the memory block referred to by the second 64-bit TLS slot.

The other case that is significant is that where the Wow64 thread is running 32-bit code and is not in a Wow64 callout. In this case, because Wow64 runs x86 code natively, one simply needs to capture the 64-bit context of the desired thread and truncate all of the 64-bit registers to their 32-bit counterparts.

Setting the context of a Wow64 thread works exactly like retrieving the context of a Wow64 thread, except in reverse; one either modifies the 64-bit thread context if the thread is running 32-bit code, or one modifies the saved context record based off of the 64-bit TEB of the desired thread (which will be restored when the thread resumes execution).

I have posted a basic implementation of a version of Wow64­GetThreadContext that operates on pre-Windows-Vista platforms. Note that this implementation is incomplete; it does not translate floating point registers, nor does it only act on the subset of registers requested by the caller in CONTEXT::ContextFlags. The provided code also does not implement Wow64­SetThreadContext; implementing the “set” operation and extending the “get” operation to fully conform to GetThreadContext semantics are left as an exercise for the reader.

This code will operate on Vista x64 as well, although I would strongly recommend using the documented API on Vista and later platforms instead.

Note that the operation of Wow64 on IA64 platforms is completely different from that on x64. This information does not apply in any way to the IA64 version of Wow64.

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4 Responses to “How does one retrieve the 32-bit context of a Wow64 program from a 64-bit process on Windows Server 2003 x64?”

  1. Jimmy says:

    Thanks for giving this so much time :-)

    I asked Microsoft and this was their reply:
    Yes, this is a known issue and I’m afraid that there is no solution.”

    I will take a look at your code and see if I can do anything with it. Thanks again. You rock!

  2. Wayne Schroeder says:

    “Normally, I don’t typically recommend using undocumented implementation details in production code”

    ^ LIES

  3. Jimmy says:

    Sorry to be this pain in the ass but as I read your code I see that you use WOW64_CONTEXT struct and if I’m not reading wrong, this only exists in Vista aswell?

  4. Skywing says:

    The same structure is in use in downlevel platforms; it just isn’t defined in the SDK headers if _WIN32_WINNT is < 0x600. You could either make a local copy of the definition or just build with _WIN32_WINNT 0x600 and don't link to any Vista-specific functions. (WOW64_CONTEXT is just an x86 CONTEXT structure without any modifications, if memory serves; nothing special about it. The thing about it is that unlike CONTEXT, it is always x86 and not the current host / native architecture.)

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