Application Modernization: What Is It and How to Get Started
Environment: Microsoft Windows NT/2000/XP
This article describes the customization of existing applications through the use of custom Dynamic-Link Libraries (DLLs) and the process of, what I have titled, Remote Library Loading. It also presents a small utility I developed to make this process easier; I titled it the Remote Library Loader.
There is one major problem that arises when it comes to customizing existing applications: virtual address spaces. In 32-bit Windows environments, each application has its own virtual address space that only its components can see. This means that one application cannot freely modify another without some additional work. This is the problem that is overcome with the Remote Library Loader and the use of custom DLLs. With the architecture described below, developers can work around this problem fairly easily, and accomplish their intended tasks.
The architecture developed to solve the problem above can be broken down into three discrete components. These components are as follows:
- An existing target application that is to be customized
- A created "plugin" DLL for customizing the target application
- A loader application that is responsible for starting the target application and mapping the plugin DLL into its address space
We will now examine the second two components in detail. The target application will not be discussed here because its functionality is only pertinent to the plugin DLL developer, and could be one of many different things.
The loader component is provided to you as the Remote Library Loader. This executable acts as a controller and error-reporter for the entire architecture, and covers the basic tasks. Its tasks are as follows:
- Start the target executable (using CreateProcess())
- Allocate memory in target process address space (using VirtualAllocEx())
- Copy the plugin DLL filename into remotely allocated memory (using WriteProcessMemory())
- Create a thread in the target process which will call LoadLibrary() passing the plugin DLL filename stored earlier (using CreateRemoteThread())
- Wait for this thread to finish (using WaitForSingleObject())
- Free allocated memory in target process (using VirtualFreeEx())
If an error occurs during any one of the preceding steps, a message box is presented to the user, informing them of the error. This includes if the remote LoadLibrary() call fails to load the plugin DLL.
Please read the Readme.txt in the download package for specific information about loader installation/usage.
When the plugin DLL is loaded into the target process address space during the LoadLibrary() call, its entry-point function will be called. At this point, the DLL can perform initialization tasks and do whatever it wants to customize the application. The following model is recommended, for reasons I will explain:
- Catch the DLL_PROCESS_ATTACH notification in the entry-point function.
- On this notification, create a new thread (using CreateThread()).
- Perform any and all customizations in this newly created thread.
It is important to follow this model for one main reason: Access to the entry-point function is serialized, meaning that it can be called only once at a time. Performing a lengthy operation in the DLL_PROCESS_ATTACH notification may force other threads attempting to call the entry-point function to wait, including threads within the target process (see Footnote #1). For this reason, use the model above for best performance.
Once in the newly created thread, customizations can be performed, such as subclassing one of the applications windows, and so forth, and other things that you can do in the context of the target process.
Remote Library Loader Package zip file - 18Kb
This download includes an installation/usage Readme.txt, the Remote Library Loader source code and executable, and a sample plugin DLL source code and executable. The loader was written directly in Assembly for small size and fast speed. The sample plugin DLL was written in C for more clarity.
I hope this article will help people interested in this topic! Thank you for taking the time to read it.