Inside Native Applications

Mark Russinovich Published: November 1, 2006


If you have some familiarity with NT's architecture you are probably aware that the API that Win32 applications use isn't the "real" NT API. NT's operating environments, which include POSIX, OS/2 and Win32, talk to their client applications via their own APIs, but talk to NT using the NT "native" API. The native API is mostly undocumented, with only about 25 of its 250 functions described in the Windows NT Device Driver Kit.

What most people don't know, however, is that "native" applications exist on NT that are not clients of any of the operating environments. These programs speak the native NT API and can't use operating environment APIs like Win32. Why would such programs be needed" Any program that must run before the Win32 subsystem is started (around the time the logon box appears) must be a native application. The most visible example of a native application is the "autochk" program that runs chkdsk during the initialization Blue Screen (its the program that prints the "."'s on the screen). Naturally, the Win32 operating environment server, CSRSS.EXE (Client-Server Runtime Subsystem), must also be a native application.

In this article I'm going to describe how native applications are built and how they work.

How Does Autochk Get Executed

Autochk runs in between the time that NT's boot and system start drivers are loaded, and when paging is turned on. At this point in the boot sequence Session Manager (smss.exe) is getting NT's user-mode environment off-the-ground and no other programs are active. The HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\Session Manager\BootExecute value, a MULTI_SZ, contains the names and arguments of programs that are executed by Session Manager, and is where Autochk is specified. Here is what you'll typically find if you look at this value, where "Autochk" is passed "*" as an argument:

Autocheck Autochk *

Session Manager looks in the <winnt>\system32 directory for the executables listed in this value. When Autochk runs there are no files open so Autochk can open any volume in raw-mode, including the boot drive, and manipulate its on-disk data structures. This wouldn't be possible at any later point.

Building Native Applications

Microsoft doesn't document it, but the NT DDK Build utility knows how to make native applications (and its probably used to compile Autochk). You specify information in a SOURCES file that defines the application, the same as would be done for device drivers. However, instead of indicating to Build that you want a driver, you tell it you want a native applicationin the SOURCES file like this:


The Build utility uses a standard makefile to guide it, \ddk\inc\makefile.def, which looks for a run-time library named nt.lib when compiling native applications. Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn't ship this file with the DDK (its included in the Server 2003 DDK, but I suspect that if you link with that version your native application won't run on XP or Windows 2000). However, you can work around this problem by including a line in makefile.def that overrides the selection of nt.lib by specifying Visual C++'s runtime library, msvcrt.lib

If you run Build under the DDK's "Checked Build" environment it will produce a native application with full debug information under %BASEDIR%\lib%CPU%\Checked (e.g. c:\ddk\lib\i386\checked\native.exe), and if you invoke it in the "Free Build" environment a release version of the program will end up in %BASEDIR%\lib%CPU%\Free. These are the same places device driver images are placed by Build.

Native applications have ".exe" file extensions but you cannot run them like Win32 .exe's. If you try you'll get the message:

The application cannot be run in Windows NT mode.

Inside a Native Application

Instead of winmain or main, the entry point for native applications is NtProcessStartup. Also unlike the other Win32 entry points, native applications must reach into a data structure passed as its sole parameter to locate command-line arguments.

The majority of a native application's runtime environment is provided by NTDLL.DLL, NT's native API export library. Native applications must create their own heap from which to allocate storage by using RtlCreateHeap, a NTDLL function. Memory is allocated from a heap with RtlAllocateHeap and freed with RtlFreeHeap. If a native application wishes to print something to the screen it must use the function NtDisplayString, which will output to the initialization Blue Screen.

Native applications don't simply return from their startup function like Win32 programs, since there is no runtime code to return to. Instead, they must terminate themselves by calling NtProcessTerminate.

The NTDLL runtime consists of hundreds of functions that allow native applications to perform file I/O, interact with device drivers, and perform interprocess communications. Unfortunately, as I stated earlier, the vast majority of these functions are undocumented.