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Link an executable to a DLL

An executable file links to (or loads) a DLL in one of two ways:

  • Implicit linking, where the operating system loads the DLL at the same time as the executable that uses it. The client executable calls the exported functions of the DLL the same way as if the functions were statically linked and contained within the executable. Implicit linking is sometimes referred to as static load or load-time dynamic linking.

  • Explicit linking, where the operating system loads the DLL on demand at runtime. An executable that uses a DLL by explicit linking must explicitly load and unload the DLL. It must also set up a function pointer to access each function it uses from the DLL. Unlike calls to functions in a statically linked library or an implicitly linked DLL, the client executable must call the exported functions in an explicitly linked DLL through function pointers. Explicit linking is sometimes referred to as dynamic load or run-time dynamic linking.

An executable can use either linking method to link to the same DLL. Furthermore, these methods aren't mutually exclusive; one executable may implicitly link to a DLL, and another might attach to it explicitly.

Determine which linking method to use

Whether to use implicit linking or explicit linking is an architectural decision you must make for your application. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method.

Implicit Linking

Implicit linking occurs when an application's code calls an exported DLL function. When the source code for the calling executable is compiled or assembled, the DLL function call generates an external function reference in the object code. To resolve this external reference, the application must link with the import library (.lib file) provided by the maker of the DLL.

The import library only contains code to load the DLL and to implement calls to functions in the DLL. Finding an external function in an import library informs the linker that the code for that function is in a DLL. To resolve external references to DLLs, the linker simply adds information to the executable file that tells the system where to find the DLL code when the process starts up.

When the system starts a program that contains dynamically linked references, it uses the information in the program's executable file to locate the required DLLs. If it can't locate the DLL, the system terminates the process, and displays a dialog box that reports the error. Otherwise, the system maps the DLL modules into the process address space.

If any of the DLLs has an entry-point function for initialization and termination code such as DllMain, the operating system calls the function. One of the parameters passed to the entry-point function specifies a code that indicates the DLL is attaching to the process. If the entry-point function doesn't return TRUE, the system terminates the process and reports the error.

Finally, the system modifies the executable code of the process to provide starting addresses for the DLL functions.

Like the rest of a program's code, the loader maps DLL code into the address space of the process when the process starts up. The operating system loads it into memory only when needed. As a result, the PRELOAD and LOADONCALL code attributes used by .def files to control loading in previous versions of Windows no longer have meaning.

Explicit Linking

Most applications use implicit linking because it's the easiest linking method to use. However, there are times when explicit linking is necessary. Here are some common reasons to use explicit linking:

  • The application doesn't know the name of a DLL that it loads until run time. For example, the application might obtain the name of the DLL and the exported functions from a configuration file at startup.

  • A process that uses implicit linking is terminated by the operating system if the DLL isn't found at process startup. A process that uses explicit linking isn't terminated in this situation, and can attempt to recover from the error. For example, the process could notify the user of the error and have the user specify another path to the DLL.

  • A process that uses implicit linking is also terminated if any of the DLLs it's linked to have a DllMain function that fails. A process that uses explicit linking isn't terminated in this situation.

  • An application that implicitly links to many DLLs can be slow to start because Windows loads all the DLLs when the application loads. To improve startup performance, an application might only use implicit linking for DLLs required immediately after loading. It might use explicit linking to load other DLLs only when they're needed.

  • Explicit linking eliminates the need to link the application by using an import library. If changes in the DLL cause the export ordinals to change, applications don't have to relink if they call GetProcAddress using the name of a function and not an ordinal value. Applications that use implicit linking must still relink to the changed import library.

Here are two hazards of explicit linking to be aware of:

  • If the DLL has a DllMain entry point function, the operating system calls the function in the context of the thread that called LoadLibrary. The entry-point function isn't called if the DLL is already attached to the process because of a previous call to LoadLibrary that has had no corresponding call to the FreeLibrary function. Explicit linking can cause problems if the DLL uses a DllMain function to initialize each thread of a process, because any threads that already exist when LoadLibrary (or AfxLoadLibrary) is called aren't initialized.

  • If a DLL declares static-extent data as __declspec(thread), it can cause a protection fault if explicitly linked. After the DLL is loaded by a call to LoadLibrary, it causes a protection fault whenever the code references this data. (Static-extent data includes both global and local static items.) That's why, when you create a DLL, you should avoid using thread-local storage. If you can't, then inform your DLL users about the potential pitfalls of dynamically loading your DLL. For more information, see Using thread local storage in a dynamic-link library (Windows SDK).

How to use implicit linking

To use a DLL by implicit linking, client executables must obtain these files from the provider of the DLL:

  • One or more header files (.h files) that contain the declarations of the exported data, functions, and C++ classes in the DLL. The classes, functions, and data exported by the DLL must all be marked __declspec(dllimport) in the header file. For more information, see dllexport, dllimport.

  • An import library to link into your executable. The linker creates the import library when the DLL is built. For more information, see LIB files as linker input.

  • The actual DLL file.

To use the data, functions, and classes in a DLL by implicit linking, any client source file must include the header files that declare them. From a coding perspective, calls to the exported functions are just like any other function call.

To build the client executable file, you must link with the DLL's import library. If you use an external makefile or build system, specify the import library together with the other object files or libraries that you link.

The operating system must be able to locate the DLL file when it loads the calling executable. That means you must either deploy or verify the existence of the DLL when you install your application.

To use a DLL by explicit linking, applications must make a function call to explicitly load the DLL at run time. To explicitly link to a DLL, an application must:

  • Call LoadLibraryEx or a similar function to load the DLL and obtain a module handle.

  • Call GetProcAddress to obtain a function pointer to each exported function that the application calls. Because applications call the DLL functions through a pointer, the compiler doesn't generate external references, so there's no need to link with an import library. However, you must have a typedef or using statement that defines the call signature of the exported functions that you call.

  • Call FreeLibrary when done with the DLL.

For example, this sample function calls LoadLibrary to load a DLL named "MyDLL", calls GetProcAddress to obtain a pointer to a function named "DLLFunc1", calls the function and saves the result, and then calls FreeLibrary to unload the DLL.

#include "windows.h"


HRESULT LoadAndCallSomeFunction(DWORD dwParam1, UINT * puParam2)
    HINSTANCE hDLL;               // Handle to DLL
    LPFNDLLFUNC1 lpfnDllFunc1;    // Function pointer
    HRESULT hrReturnVal;

    hDLL = LoadLibrary("MyDLL");
    if (NULL != hDLL)
        lpfnDllFunc1 = (LPFNDLLFUNC1)GetProcAddress(hDLL, "DLLFunc1");
        if (NULL != lpfnDllFunc1)
            // call the function
            hrReturnVal = lpfnDllFunc1(dwParam1, puParam2);
            // report the error
            hrReturnVal = ERROR_DELAY_LOAD_FAILED;
        hrReturnVal = ERROR_DELAY_LOAD_FAILED;
    return hrReturnVal;

Unlike this example, in most cases you should call LoadLibrary and FreeLibrary only once in your application for a given DLL. It's especially true if you're going to call multiple functions in the DLL, or call DLL functions repeatedly.

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See also

Create C/C++ DLLs in Visual Studio