Application Specific Paths for DLL Loading

Configuring workstations to handle shared DLLs is difficult. In many
organizations, the PATH environment becomes a point of contention between project teams.
Configuring a PATH specific to your application can solve the problems associated with
using a common search PATH, and eliminate many configuration errors in your application as
well. This article first describes the current methods of application configuration
and the problems associated with them. Finally, the specific details of adding an
application specific path in the registry are described. The solution is compatible
with both NT and ’95.

As many of you already know, and as the Visual C++ documentation illustrates, the
operating system will use the following algorithm for locating a DLL. (Load Visual
C++ help on LoadLibrary()).

  1. The directory where the executable module for the current process is located.
  2. The current directory.
  3. The Windows system directory. The GetSystemDirectory function
    retrieves the path of this directory.
  4. The Windows directory. The GetWindowsDirectory function
    retrieves the path of this directory.
  5. The directories listed in the PATH environment variable.

Now, imagine the following situation in which two applications (ONE.EXE and TWO.EXE)
need to share a common DLL (COMMON.DLL). The applications install the files into the
following directories.

Application 1 Application 2
C:Program FilesONEONE.exe C:Program FilesTWOTWO.exe
C:Program FilesCommonCOMMON.DLL C:Program FilesCommonCOMMON.DLL

There are several ways to configure the machine using the above search algorithm.

1) Put all applications into a single directory

Hmm, one big directory. Sounds great until you need to remove one application,
and can’t figure out which files to delete. While your at it, why not just make one
big .EXE file?

2) Modify the current directory

Faced with the above problems, many programs were configured to be started with the
current directory pointing to the DLL. This is easily set in the short-cut which
starts the application. While this gives each program control of the DLLs that it
loads, it also has several side effects:

  1. Any documents written will be written to the DLL location.
  2. File Open dialogs start out in the DLL location.
  3. Programmatically changing the current directory may cause future DLL loads to fail.
  4. It’s difficult to control current directory if one program invokes another.

3) Put common files into the Windows or System directory

Many applications store DLLs in the Windows or System directory. This creates a
maintenance problem, particularly if the system files need to be replaced. Many
organizations have begun locking down the Windows and System directories, in an effort to
reduce maintenance costs.

4) Modify the PATH environment variable

Certainly the most straight forward approach is to have C:Program FilesCommon added
to the path. This was how things were done in the Win 3.1 days. There are
several problems:

  1. If the workstation includes several applications, the PATH becomes incredibly long.
  2. The order in which directories appear on the path becomes important.
  3. The system spends a great deal of time searching directories that are never used by the
    application.
  4. The program cannot determine which location is used to load a DLL.
  5. Installation programs require re-boots for the path changes to take effect.

Finally, Application Specific Paths!

Microsoft has offered a solution to all these problems. Each application can now
store it own path the registry under the following key:

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINESOFTWAREMicrosoftWindowsCurrentVersionApp
Paths

The use the application path, set a key for your application, using ONE.EXE from the
example above:

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE…CurrentVersionApp PathsONE.exe

Set the (Default) value to the full path of your executable, for example:

C:Program FilesONEONE.exe

Add a sub-key named Path, set it’s value to the full path of the DLL, for example:

C:Program FilesCommon

With an App Path registry entry, the system will load DLLs in the following order.

  1. The directories listed in the App Path registry key
  2. The directory where the executable module for the current process is located.
  3. The current directory.
  4. The Windows system directory. The GetSystemDirectory function
    retrieves the path of this directory.
  5. The Windows directory. The GetWindowsDirectory function
    retrieves the path of this directory.
  6. The directories listed in the PATH environment variable.

Run REGEDIT to see examples of other applications, and how they setup their App Path
keys.

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