yasofiz yasofiz - 2 months ago 6x
C Question

Does NtDll really export C runtime functions, and can I use these in my application?

I was looking at the NtDll export table on my Windows 10 computer, and I found that it exports standard C runtime functions, like

, etc.

Does that mean that I can call them dynamically at runtime through
? Is this guaranteed to be the case for every Windows version?

If so, it is possible to drop the C runtime library altogether (by just using the CRT functions from NtDll), therefore making my program smaller?


There is absolutely no reason to call these undocumented functions exported by NtDll. Windows exports all of the essential C runtime functions as documented wrappers from the standard system libraries, namely Kernel32. If you absolutely cannot link to the C Runtime Library*, then you should be calling these functions. For memory, you have the basic HeapAlloc and HeapFree (or perhaps VirtualAlloc and VirtualFree), ZeroMemory, FillMemory, MoveMemory, CopyMemory, etc. For string manipulation, the important CRT functions are all there, prefixed with an l: lstrlen, lstrcat, lstrcpy, lstrcmp, etc. The odd man out is wsprintf (and its brother wvsprintf), which not only has a different prefix but also doesn't support floating-point values (Windows itself had no floating-point code in the early days when these functions were first exported and documented.) There are a variety of other helper functions, too, that replicate functionality in the CRT, like IsCharLower, CharLower, CharLowerBuff, etc.

Here is an old knowledge base article that documents some of the Win32 Equivalents for C Run-Time Functions. There are likely other relevant Win32 functions that you would probably need if you were re-implementing the functionality of the CRT, but these are the direct, drop-in replacements.

Some of these are absolutely required by the infrastructure of the operating system, and would be called internally by any CRT implementation. This category includes things like HeapAlloc and HeapFree, which are the responsibility of the operating system. A runtime library only wraps those, providing a nice standard-C interface and some other niceties on top of the nitty-gritty OS-level details. Others, like the string manipulation functions, are just exported wrappers around an internal Windows version of the CRT (except that it's a really old version of the CRT, fixed back at some time in history, save for possibly major security holes that have gotten patched over the years). Still others are almost completely superfluous, or seem so, like ZeroMemory and MoveMemory, but are actually exported so that they can be used from environments where there is no C Runtime Library, like classic Visual Basic (VB 6).

It is also interesting to point out that many of the "simple" C Runtime Library functions are implemented by Microsoft's (and other vendors') compiler as intrinsic functions, with special handling. This means that they can be highly optimized. Basically, the relevant object code is emitted inline, directly in your application's binary, avoiding the need for a potentially expensive function call. Allowing the compiler to generate inlined code for something like strlen, that gets called all the time, will almost undoubtedly lead to better performance than having to pay the cost of a function call to one of the exported Windows APIs. There is no way for the compiler to "inline" lstrlen; it gets called just like any other function. This gets you back to the classic tradeoff between speed and size. Sometimes a smaller binary is faster, but sometimes it's not. Not having to link the CRT will produce a smaller binary, since it uses function calls rather than inline implementations, but probably won't produce faster code in the general case.

* However, you really should be linking to the C Runtime Library bundled with your compiler, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is security updates that can be distributed to all versions of the operating system via updated versions of the runtime libraries. You have to have a really good reason not to use the CRT, such as if you are trying to build the world's smallest executable. And not having these functions available will only be the first of your hurdles. The CRT handles a lot of stuff for you that you don't normally even have to think about, like getting the process up and running, setting up a standard C or C++ environment, parsing the command line arguments, running static initializers, implementing constructors and destructors (if you're writing C++), supporting structured exception handling (SEH, which is used for C++ exceptions, too) and so on. I have gotten a simple C app to compile without a dependency on the CRT, but it took quite a bit of fiddling, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it for anything remotely serious. Matthew Wilson wrote an article a long time ago about Avoiding the Visual C++ Runtime Library. It is largely out of date, because it focuses on the Visual C++ 6 development environment, but a lot of the big picture stuff is still relevant. I distinctly remember that Matt Pietrek wrote an article about this in the Microsoft Journal a long while ago, too, but I can't find a copy of it anywhere online (all the links seem to be dead).

If your concern is just the need to distribute the C Runtime Library DLL(s) alongside your application, you can consider statically linking to the CRT. This embeds the code into your executable, and eliminates the requirement for the separate DLLs. Again, this bloats your executable, but does make it simpler to deploy without the need for an installer or even a ZIP file. The big caveat of this, naturally, is that you cannot benefit to incremental security updates to the CRT DLLs; you have to recompile and redistribute the application to get those fixes. For toy apps with no other dependencies, I often choose to statically link; otherwise, dynamically linking is still the recommended scenario.