Why are certain DLLs required to be at the same base address system-wide?

There are several Windows DLLs that are, for various reasons, required to be at the same base address system-wide (though for several of these, a case could be made that alternate base addresses could be used in different Terminal Server sessions). Although not explicitly documented by Microsoft (as far as I know), a number of programs rely on these “fixed base” DLLs.

That is not to say that the base addresses of these DLLs cannot change, but that while the system is running, all processes will have these DLLs mapped at the same base address (if they are indeed mapped at all).

The current set of DLLs that require the same base address system-wide includes NTDLL, kernel32, and user32, though the reasons for this requirement vary a bit between each DLL.

NTDLL must be at the same address system wide because there are a number of routines it exports that are used by the kernel to arrange for (indirect) calls to user mode. For example, ntdll!LdrInitializeThunk is the true start address of every user mode thread, and ntdll!KiUserApcDispatcher is used to invoke a user mode APC if one is ready to be processed while a thread is in a user mode wait. The kernel resolves the address of these (and other) “special” exports at system initialization time, and then uses these addresses when it needs to arrange for user mode code execution. Because the kernel caches these resolved function pointers, NTDLL cannot typically be based at a different address from process to process, as the kernel will always reference the same address for these special exports across all processes.

Additionally, some special NTDLL exports are used by user mode code in such a way that they are assumed to be at the same base address cross-process. For example, ntdll!DbgUiRemoteBreakIn is used by the debugger to break in to a process, and the debugger assumes that the local address of DbgUiRemoteBreakIn matches the remote address of DbgUiRemoteBreakIn in the target process.

Kernel32 is required to be at the same base address because there are a number of internal kernel32 routines that, similar to ntdll!DbgUiRemoteBreakIn, are used in cross-process thread injection. One example of this used to be the console control event handler In the case of console events, during kernel32.dll initialization, the address of the Ctrl-C event dispatcher is passed to WinSrv.dll (in CSRSS space).

Originally, WinSrv simply cached the dispatcher pointer after the first process was created (thus requiring kernel32 to be at the same base address across all processes in the session). On modern systems, however, WinSrv now tracks the client’s kernel32 dispatcher pointer on a per-process basis to account for the fact that the dispatcher is at a different address in the 32-bit kernel32 (versus the 64-bit kernel32). Ironically, the developer who made this change to WinSrv actually forgot to add support for using the current process’s dispatcher pointer in several corner cases (such as kernel32!SetLastConsoleActiveEvent and the corresponding winsrv!SrvConsoleNotifyLastClose and winsrv!RemoveConsole CSRSS-side routines). In the cases where WinSrv still incorrectly passes the cached (64-bit) Ctrl-C dispatcher value to CreateRemoteThread, wow64.dll has a special hack (wow64!MapContextAddress64TO32) that cleans up after WinSrv and fixes the thread start address to refer to the 32-bit kernel32.dll.

By the time this change to WinSrv and Ctrl-C processing was made, though, the application compatibility impact of removing the kernel32 base address to be the same system-wide would have been too severe to eliminate the restriction (virtually all third party code injection code now relies heavily on this assumption). Thus, for this (and other) reasons, kernel32 still remains with the restriction that it may not be relocated to a different base address cross-process.

User32 is required to be at the same address cross-process because there is an array of user32 function addresses provided to win32k.sys for the built-in window class window procedures (among other things). This function pointer array is captured via a call to NtUserInitializeClientPfnArrays at session start up time, when WinSrv is initializing win32k during CSRSS initialization. Wow64win.dll, the NtUser/win32k Wow64 support library, provides support for mapping 32-bit to 64-bit (and vice versa) for these function addresses, as necessary for the support of 32-bit processes on 64-bit platforms.

The user32 and kernel32 requirements could arguably be relaxed to only apply within a Terminal Server session, although the Windows XP (and later) cross-session debugging support muddies the waters with respect to kernel32 due to a necessity to support debugger break-in with debuggers that utilize DebugBreak for their break-in threads. (The Wow64 layer provides translation assistance for mapping DebugBreak to a 32-bit address if a 64-bit thread is created at the address of the 64-bit kernel32 DebugBreak export.)

Note that the ASLR support in Windows Vista does not run afoul of these restrictions, as Vista’s ASLR always picks the same base address for a given DLL per operating system boot. Thus, even though, say, NTDLL can have its base address randomized at boot time under Windows Vista, the particular randomized base address that was chosen is still used by all processes until the operating system is restarted.

Update: skape points out that I (somehow) neglected to mention the most important restriction on kernel32 base addressing, that being on Windows Server 2003 and earlier operating systems, internal kernel32 routines are used as the start address of new threads by CreateRemoteThread and CreateProcess.


One Response to “Why are certain DLLs required to be at the same base address system-wide?”

  1. […] I previously mentioned, NTDLL maintains a set of special entrypoints that are used by the kernel to invoke certain […]

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