Secrets of the Application Compatilibity Database (SDB) – Part 1

For the last few days, I’ve been intimately becoming aquainted with a piece of technology in Windows XP and Vista that rarely gets the attention it deserves. It has raised my esteem and admiration towards Microsoft ten fold, and I feel it would be wise to share it, publicize it, and then of course, find (positive) ways to exploit it to turn it into a powerful backend for various purposes.

The Shim Engine, which is how I’ll call it (and is one of the official names), is a technology implemented in various DLLs (mostly shimeng.dll and apphelp.dll — which is the Application Compatibility Interface) as well as through some callbacks and hacks in the PE Loader present in ntdll.dll. It also contains various registry entries for its configuration, as well as system database files.

What does this technology do? You’ve probably seen it in action when using Windows XP/Vista’s “Compatibility Wizard”, or the dialog which gives you options such as “Disable visual themes”, “Run application in Windows 2000” mode or “run at 640×480”. The checkboxes are called “shims”, while the actual Windows 2000 or Windows 98 combo box selections are called “layers”. Although this is hidden from you, layers are usually simple large combinations of other shims, each which somehow modify the system to behave in a different way. Unfortunately, this dialog contains only 3 shims, while over 100 are present by default on a Windows installation.

However, it is enough to illustrate how the technology works. Once an application has been “shimmed” manually, registry entries are created to notify the loader. As it loads, the loader will run the Shim Engine, which will perform lookups in the system compatibility database, recovering various information. This database is called sysmain.sdb, and it is located in your AppPatch directory. On top of the default database, individual, custom databases can be created, which are registered and installed through the registry. These specify settings for programs that you’ve manually chosen to be shimmed.

The way that shims are implemented is usually through a helper DLL, which the Shim Engine will load during PE Loading, and intercept the APIs being used, much like Detours. These DLLs are prefixed “Ac” and are also in the AppPatch directory. They contain the redirected code which behaves differently then the normal system API.

The most interesting part however, is not the ability to select these options, but the fact of how much of this is being done behind your back every single time you run an application. Upon analysis, the system database contains over 5000 applications (in Windows Vista) from small Chinese publishers to the largest application vendors, including Microsoft itself.

One of the core “objects” that the database supports is the Matching File construct, which does file pattern matching to identify whether or not this entry actually applies to the program being run. These pattern matches can go from the very simple “starcraft.exe” with a timestamp and checksum entry, to the more complex entries which try to match various .bmps, .wavs and data files present in a game’s engine. Wildcards and simple boolean logic is also supported, making for powerful pattern matching abilities.

Once a matching Executable construct has been found through its children Matching Files, 4 different types of modifications can be done. The first are system shims, which are implemented typically in the acgenral.dll or aclayers.dll library, and that many products might benefit from, such as emulating an older version of an API. The second are specific shims, which are tailored to an application, and located in acspecfic.dll. The third kind is also a shim, but a Flag shim, which specifices undocumented flags which are to be sent to LUA or the Installer about this application. Finally, the fourth type of change is a binary patch, which represents actual in-memory patching on the executable, instead of a system API hook.

Sound interesting and powerful? It is. I’ll spend the next few blog entries talking more about the various parts of the system, as well as offering two applications that I’ve been writing on. The first is a complete dumper of any .SDB database, and the second will be announced at the end. Here’s an overview of the different posts that I’m expecting to make:

1 ) Introduction (You are here).
2 ) System Shims – The Most Interesting Ones.
3 ) The Private Shim Engine Interface With The PE Loader.
4 ) Built-in Shimmed Applications and Specific Shims – A Sample.
5 ) Tool 1 – CDD – Compatibility Database Dumper
6 ) Flag Shims – LUA and Installer Flags.
7 ) The Run-Time In-Memory Patching Behaviour and Analysis
8 ) The System Blocked Driver Database – The Kernel Side of SDB.
9 ) Conclusion and Tool 2.

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