BMOW title
Floppy Emu banner

Four Little Updates


Some brief updates on Floppy Emu, Plus Too, and the DiskCopy2Dsk tool:

Two Apple IIc Plus testers reported this week that the Floppy Emu disk emulator is incompatible in 3.5 inch emulation mode with that machine. If you’re not familiar with the IIc+, it’s an uncommon member of the Apple II family, and is a souped-up version of the more common IIc with an internal 3.5 inch floppy drive. While 5.25 inch disk emulation and Smartport hard disk emulation work fine with the IIc+, 3.5 inch emulation does not, for unknown reasons. Apparently the disk interface on the IIc+ differs from that on the IIgs and on the external Apple 3.5 Drive, which were the basis for Floppy Emu’s 3.5 inch Apple II emulation mode. Unfortunately IIc+ systems are fairly rare, and I don’t have one to test. If anyone has technical info on the IIc+ disk interface that they could share, please contact me.

A minor update of the Floppy Emu firmware for Lisa and Mac HD20 is available: hd20-0.7C-F14.5. This resolves an issue where a “fatal error: 0x96 sync” sometimes occurred during file copies in HD20 mode. Thanks to Joe Strosnider for reporting this issue and helping to text the fix. You can download the new firmware from the Floppy Emu page.

For anyone working with Macintosh DiskCopy 4.2 disk images, a bug was fixed in the command-line version of the dc2dsk tool. The tool converts DiskCopy 4.2 disk images into raw .dsk images with no header. Now that Floppy Emu directly supports DC42 image files, the tool isn’t necessary anymore, but if anyone’s used it for other purposes this will fix a bug in the image size calculation. For the curious, more info about why this tool was needed can be found here.

Magnus Karlsson has ported the Plus Too design to the Pipistrello FPGA board. Plus Too is a working hardware replica of the Macintosh Plus computer, originally developed by me in 2011. Recently Till Harbaum revived the project, ported it to the MiST FPGA board, and made major fixes and improvements. Magnus picked up the MiST code and adapted it to the Pipistrello board, where it’s still a work in progress but successfully boots to the Mac desktop. More info on this project is in the Saanmila discussion forum.

Be the first to comment! 

Oops! Laser Cut Material Thickness


Manufacturing is hard. The thickness of my supplier’s clear acrylic material has magically increased 15%, meaning that the latest batch of Floppy Emu acrylic cases are impossible to assemble. The buttons and light pipes don’t fit in the cut-outs made for them, so this entire batch of product will have to be thrown out. I’m hoping the supplier will agree to re-run my order or provide a refund, but I’m not optimistic since 15% is just within their stated tolerance. An expensive mistake in manufacturing for me!

For the past year, I’ve been offering laser-cut case enclosures as a Floppy Emu accessory, and I’ve sold hundreds of the cases to happy customers. They’re made from 3.0 mm (nominal) clear acrylic. With all of my past orders from the laser cutter, the parts I received had an actual thickness between 2.73 mm and 2.83 mm, and my design accounts for that. A case assembled from the old ~2.75 mm thick material looks like this:


I just received a new delivery of parts yesterday, and the material thickness changed to 3.15 mm! Imagine if you were building a house with 8 foot ceilings, but some of the framing lumber was over 9 feet – it would never work. That’s the same magnitude of change I’m facing now. The buttons and light pipes are cut from the same material as the case body, so now they’re 3.15 mm thick. But the cut-outs in the top of the case are only about 3.05 mm, and the parts won’t fit through. It’s still possible to assemble the six sides of the case, but without the buttons and light pipes it’s useless.

The supplier’s material thickness is rated at +/- 15%, so this is really my fault and not theirs. But +/- 15% is a huge margin. How am I supposed to make that work? If I make cut-outs big enough to accept 3.45 mm (+15%) thick buttons, but the actual material thickness in a future delivery is 2.55 mm (-15%), it’ll be so loose that buttons will just fall out. There’s no way I can see to accommodate a thickness tolerance that large.

Some of you may be thinking that I should never have made a design that relied on the material thickness as a critical parameter, and you’re right. But again, I’m not sure how I could have avoided it – any design where two parts meet at right angles with a tab-and-slot system will suffer from the same problem. For now, I’m faced with either re-cutting all the buttons and light pipes using thinner material if I can find some, or re-cutting all the case tops using bigger cut-outs.

Read 12 comments and join the conversation 

Plus Too Mac Replica, New Progress!

After a long hiatus, there’s new progress for the Plus Too FPGA-based Macintosh replica. Till Harbaum has ported my original, unfinished design to the MiST board, and has begun making fixes and improvements. The video shows Plus Too booting on the MiST board, and selecting a boot floppy disk image from the MiST’s overlay menu.

Plus Too is a reimplementation of a Macintosh Plus, synthesized in an FPGA. All of the original Mac’s chips are modeled in a hardware description language and implemented in the FPGA’s logic cells: the 68000 CPU, VIA, SCC, IWM, memory controller, video circuitry, etc. I did the original work four years ago using an Altera DE1 evaluation board, which pairs an FPGA with some SRAM, flash memory, and other components. It worked well enough to boot Mac System 6.0.8 from a replica floppy disk, but it suffered from stability problems, and had no support for keyboard, sound, SCSI, serial ports, or real-time clock.


Till Harbaum designed the MiST board to implement classic 16-bit computers like the Amiga and Atari ST as a System-on-a-Chip using modern hardware, and it’s better suited to the task of replication than a generic board like the DE1. It combines a powerful Altera FPGA with a separate ARM-based CPU. The ARM CPU isn’t used directly in the replicated system, but performs helper functions like loading the selected FPGA core from the SD card, managing configuration overlay menus, and mimicking external peripherals like disks. MiST already has working cores for the Amiga and Atari ST, as well as a large number of 8-bit computers and game consoles. The classic Mac is the only computer from that era that’s still missing.

Till’s progress with Plus Too on MiST so far:

  • ported the original design to the MiST
  • adapted the memory controller to use SDRAM instead of SRAM
  • updated the 68000 CPU model
  • replaced the 6522 VIA implementation with one from the BBC Micro
  • implemented keyboard support
  • added an on-screen menu to select floppy disk images
  • fixed assorted timing bugs

Somewhere along the way, the stability problems I observed with the DE1 version also disappeared. This might be a hardware difference, or something related to the timing problems that were fixed.

Till is currently working on implementing on-the-fly GCR encoding of standard Macintosh disk images, similar to the way Floppy Emu works. The original Plus Too required disk images to be GCR encoded ahead of time, using a separate utility program.

His roadmap after that includes:

  • get both floppies to work nicely with .dsk images (read only)
  • make the video timing closer to a real Mac
  • add sound

Additional info on the MiST board is at
Source code for Mac-MiST is at
Binaries are at
Some discussion about the Mac core for MiST is at
Additional German-language discussion is at

Read 9 comments and join the conversation 

A Handmade Executable File

Make a Windows program by stuffing bytes into a buffer and writing it to disk: no compiler, no assembler, no linker, no nothing! It was the obvious conclusion of my recent efforts to gain more control over what goes into my executables, and this time I could set every bit exactly as I wanted it. Yes, I am still a control freak.

I began with a simple C program called ExeBuilder to construct the buffer and write it to disk in a file named handmade.exe. ExeBuilder looks like this:

#include "stdafx.h"
#include <Windows.h>

int main(int argc, char* argv[])
    HANDLE hFile = CreateFile("handmade.exe", GENERIC_WRITE, 0, NULL, CREATE_ALWAYS, 
                              FILE_ATTRIBUTE_NORMAL, NULL);
    BYTE* buf = (BYTE*) HeapAlloc(GetProcessHeap(), HEAP_ZERO_MEMORY, 1024);

    DWORD exeSize = BuildExe(buf);

    DWORD numberOfBytesWritten;
    WriteFile(hFile, buf, exeSize, &numberOfBytesWritten, NULL);

    HeapFree(GetProcessHeap(), 0, buf);
    printf("wrote handmade.exe\n");
    return 0;

All of the interesting work happens in BuildExe(). This function manually constructs a valid Windows PE header, filling the required header fields and leaving the optional ones zeroed, then creates a single .text section and fills it with a few bytes of program code. The program in this case doesn’t do much – it just returns the number 44.

Sorting out the PE header details and determining which fields were actually required was a chore. All my testing was performed under Windows 7 64-bit edition. If you try these examples on your PC, it appears that earlier versions of Windows were more permissive with PE headers, while Windows 8 and 10 may be more strict about empty PE fields.

Here’s my first implementation of BuildExe(), which makes a nice standard executable with a single .text section containing 4 bytes of code.

inline void setbyte(BYTE* pBuf, DWORD off, BYTE val) { pBuf[off] = val; }
inline void setword(BYTE* pBuf, DWORD off, WORD val) { *(WORD*)(&pBuf[off]) = val; }
inline void setdword(BYTE* pBuf, DWORD off, DWORD val) { *(DWORD*)(&pBuf[off]) = val; }
inline void setstring(BYTE* pBuf, DWORD off, char* val) { lstrcpy((char*)&pBuf[off], val); }

DWORD BuildExe(BYTE* exe)
    // 1. DOS HEADER, 64 bytes
    setstring(exe, 0, "MZ"); // DOS header signature is 'MZ'
    setdword(exe, 60, 64); // DOS e_lfanew field gives the file offset to the PE header

    // 2. PE HEADER, at offset DOS.e_lfanew, 24 bytes
    setstring(exe, 64, "PE"); // PE header signature is 'PE\0\0'
    setword(exe, 68, 0x14C); // PE.Machine = IMAGE_FILE_MACHINE_I386
    setword(exe, 70, 1); // PE.NumberOfSections = 1
    setword(exe, 84, 208); // PE.SizeOfOptionalHeader = offset between the optional header and the section table

    // 3. OPTIONAL HEADER, follows PE header, 96 bytes
    setword(exe, 88, 0x10B); // Optional header signature is 10B
    setdword(exe, 104, 4096); // Opt.AddressOfEntryPoint = RVA where code execution should begin
    setdword(exe, 116, 0x400000); // Opt.ImageBase = base address at which to load the program, 0x400000 is standard
    setdword(exe, 120, 4096); // Opt.SectionAlignment = alignment of section in memory at run-time, 4096 is standard
    setdword(exe, 124, 512); // Opt.FileAlignment = alignment of sections in file, 512 is standard
    setword(exe, 136, 4); // Opt.MajorSubsystemVersion = minimum OS version required to run this program
    setdword(exe, 144, 4096*2); // Opt.SizeOfImage = total run-time memory size of all sections and headers
    setdword(exe, 148, 512); // Opt.SizeOfHeaders = total file size of header info before the first section
    setword(exe, 156, 3); // Opt.Subsystem = IMAGE_SUBSYSTEM_WINDOWS_CUI, command-line program
    setdword(exe, 180, 14); // Opt.NumberOfRvaAndSizes = number of data directories following
    // 4. DATA DIRECTORIES, follows optional header, 8 bytes per directory 
    // offset and size for each directory is zero

    // 5. SECTION TABLE, follows data directories, 40 bytes
    setstring(exe, 296, ".text"); // name of 1st section
    setdword(exe, 304, 4); // sectHdr.VirtualSize = size of the section in memory at run-time
    setdword(exe, 308, 4096); // sectHdr.VirtualAddress = RVA for the section
    setdword(exe, 312, 4); // sectHdr.SizeOfRawData = size of the section data in the file
    setdword(exe, 316, 512); // sectHdr.PointerToRawData = file offset of this section's data
    setdword(exe, 332, 0x60000020); // sectHdr.Characteristics = IMAGE_SCN_MEM_READ | IMAGE_SCN_MEM_EXECUTE | IMAGE_SCN_CNT_CODE

    // 6. .TEXT SECTION, at sectHdr.PointerToRawData (aligned to Opt.FileAlignment)
    setbyte(exe, 512, 0x6A); // PUSH
    setbyte(exe, 513, 0x2C); // value to push
    setbyte(exe, 514, 0x58); // POP EAX
    setbyte(exe, 515, 0xC3); // RETN

    return 516; // size of exe

The resulting file is 516 bytes. Check to make sure it works:


The executable is built from six data structures, which are numbered in the code’s comments. The cross-references in these structures are sometimes specified as offsets within the file, and sometimes as relative virtual addresses or RVAs. File offsets reflect the executable as it exists on disk, while RVAs reflect how it’s loaded in memory at run-time. An RVA is a run-time offset from the executable’s base address in memory. Getting these two confused will lead to problems!

DOS Header – The only fields that must be filled are the ‘MZ’ signature at the beginning and the e_lfanew parameter at the end (unless you’re actually writing a DOS program). e_lfanew gives the offset to the PE header, which in this case follows immediately after.

PE Header – The true PE header doesn’t contain much, because all the good stuff is in the optional header. The PE header specifies 1 section (the single .text section with the code to return 44), and 208 bytes combined size for the next two sections.

Optional Header – The optional header is only optional if you don’t care whether the program works. Some noteworthy values:

  • SectionAlignment – Each section of the executable (.text, .data, etc) must be alignment to this boundary in memory at run-time. The standard is 4096 or 4K, the size of a single page of virtual memory.
  • AddressOfEntryPoint – Program execution will begin at this memory offset from the base address. Because the section alignment is 4096, the program’s single .text section will be loaded at offset 4096, and execution should begin at the first byte of that section.
  • FileAlignment – Similar to section alignment, but for the file on disk instead of the program in memory. The standard is 512 bytes, the size of a single disk sector.
  • SizeOfHeaders – This isn’t really the combined size of all the headers, but rather the file offset to the first section’s data. Normally that’s the same as the combined size of all headers plus any necessary padding.

Data Directories – A typical executable would store offsets and sizes for its data directories here, the number of which is given in the optional header. Data directories are used to specify the program’s imports and exports, references to debug symbols, and other useful things. Manually constructing an import data directory is a bit complicated, so I didn’t do it. That’s why the program just returns 44 instead of doing something more interesting that would have required Win32 DLL imports. Handmade.exe does not have any data directories at all.

If you’re wondering why there are 14 data directories each with zero offset and size, instead of just specifying zero data directories, that’s a small mystery. According to tutorials I read, some parts of the OS will attempt to find info in data directories even if the number of data directories is zero. So the only safe way to have an empty data directory is to have a full table of offsets and sizes, all set to zero. However, I found other examples that did specify zero data directories and that reportedly worked fine. I didn’t look into the question any further, since it turned out not to matter anyway.

Section Table – For each section, there’s an entry here in the section table. Handmade.exe only has a single .text section, so there’s just one table entry. It gives the section size as 4 bytes, which is all that’s needed for the “return 44″ code. The section will be loaded in memory at RVA 4096, which is also the program’s entry point.

Section Data – Finally comes the actual data of the .text section, which is x86 machine code. This is the meat of the program. The section data must be aligned to 512 bytes, so there’s some padding between the section table and start of the section data.

Here’s what dumpbin says about this handmade executable. Many of the fields are zero or have bogus values, but it doesn’t seem to matter:

Microsoft (R) COFF/PE Dumper Version 11.00.50727.1
Copyright (C) Microsoft Corporation.  All rights reserved.

Dump of file handmade.exe

PE signature found


             14C machine (x86)
               1 number of sections
               0 time date stamp Wed Dec 31 16:00:00 1969
               0 file pointer to symbol table
               0 number of symbols
              D0 size of optional header
             103 characteristics
                   Relocations stripped
                   32 bit word machine

             10B magic # (PE32)
            0.00 linker version
               0 size of code
               0 size of initialized data
               0 size of uninitialized data
            1000 entry point (00401000)
               0 base of code
               0 base of data
          400000 image base (00400000 to 00401FFF)
            1000 section alignment
             200 file alignment
            0.00 operating system version
            0.00 image version
            4.00 subsystem version
               0 Win32 version
            2000 size of image
             200 size of headers
               0 checksum
               3 subsystem (Windows CUI)
               0 DLL characteristics
               0 size of stack reserve
               0 size of stack commit
               0 size of heap reserve
               0 size of heap commit
               0 loader flags
               E number of directories
               0 [       0] RVA [size] of Export Directory
               0 [       0] RVA [size] of Import Directory
               0 [       0] RVA [size] of Resource Directory
               0 [       0] RVA [size] of Exception Directory
               0 [       0] RVA [size] of Certificates Directory
               0 [       0] RVA [size] of Base Relocation Directory
               0 [       0] RVA [size] of Debug Directory
               0 [       0] RVA [size] of Architecture Directory
               0 [       0] RVA [size] of Global Pointer Directory
               0 [       0] RVA [size] of Thread Storage Directory
               0 [       0] RVA [size] of Load Configuration Directory
               0 [       0] RVA [size] of Bound Import Directory
               0 [       0] RVA [size] of Import Address Table Directory
               0 [       0] RVA [size] of Delay Import Directory

   .text name
       4 virtual size
    1000 virtual address (00401000 to 00401003)
       4 size of raw data
     200 file pointer to raw data (00000200 to 00000203)
       0 file pointer to relocation table
       0 file pointer to line numbers
       0 number of relocations
       0 number of line numbers
60000020 flags
         Execute Read


        1000 .text

Sometimes a picture is worth 1000 words, so I also made a color-coded hex dump of the executable file:


Shrinking It

After doing all this, of course my first thought was to try making it smaller. There’s a lot of empty padding between the section table and the section data, due to the 512 byte alignment of sections in the file. There must be some way to shrink or eliminate that padding, right? I tried reducing Opt.FileAlignment to 4, moving the .TEXT section data down to 336, and adjusting sectHdr.PointerToRawData accordingly. All I got for my effort was an error complaining “handmade.exe is not a valid Win32 application.” I’m unsure why it didn’t work. Maybe the OS doesn’t like sections that aren’t 512 byte aligned in the file, no matter what the PE header says.

Then I thought maybe I could reuse the header as the section data. By changing sectHdr.PointerToRawData to 0, I could make the Windows loader use a copy of the executable header as the .TEXT section data. 0 is 512 byte aligned, so there wouldn’t be any alignment problems. It seemed strange, since an executable header is not x86 code, but by stuffing the 4 bytes of code into an unused area of the header and adjusting Opt.AddressOfEntryPoint, I could theoretically patch everything up. Lo and behold, it worked! The new executable was only 340 bytes.

With the 4 bytes of code now stored inside the header, I wondered if I really needed a section at all. The Windows loader will load the header into memory along with all the sections, so maybe I could just eliminate the .TEXT section completely, and rely on the entry point address to point the way to the code stored in the header?

This worked too, but not without a lot of futzing around. After setting PE.NumberOfSections to 0, PE.SizeOfOptionalHeader and Opt.SizeOfHeaders both had to be set to zero. They’re both essentially offsets to section structures, and with no sections, apparently a 0 offset is required. Opt.SectionAlignment also had to be reduced to 2048, and I honestly have no idea why. With those changes, the modified program worked.

With the elimination of the section table, this should have been enough to shrink the executable to 300 bytes, but I found that anything smaller than 328 bytes wouldn’t work. It appeared that the OS assumes a minimum size for the optional header or the data directories, regardless of the sizes specified in the header. So 28 bytes of padding are required at the end of handmade.exe. The 328 byte version of BuildExe() is shown here, with the changes from the previous version highlighted:

DWORD BuildExe(BYTE* exe)
    // 1. DOS HEADER, 64 bytes
    setstring(exe, 0, "MZ"); // DOS header signature is 'MZ'
    setdword(exe, 60, 64); // DOS e_lfanew field gives the file offset to the PE header

    // 2. PE HEADER, at offset DOS.e_lfanew, 24 bytes
    setstring(exe, 64, "PE"); // PE header signature is 'PE\0\0'
    setword(exe, 68, 0x14C); // PE.Machine = IMAGE_FILE_MACHINE_I386
    setword(exe, 70, 0); // PE.NumberOfSections = 1
    setword(exe, 84, 0); // PE.SizeOfOptionalHeader = offset between the optional header and the section table

    // 3. OPTIONAL HEADER, follows PE header, 96 bytes
    setword(exe, 88, 0x10B); // Optional header signature is 10B
    setdword(exe, 104, 296); // Opt.AddressOfEntryPoint = RVA where code execution should begin
    setdword(exe, 116, 0x400000); // Opt.ImageBase = base address at which to load the program, 0x400000 is standard
    setdword(exe, 120, 2048); // Opt.SectionAlignment = alignment of section in memory at run-time, 4096 is standard
    setdword(exe, 124, 512); // Opt.FileAlignment = alignment of sections in file, 512 is standard
    setword(exe, 136, 4); // Opt.MajorSubsystemVersion = minimum OS version required to run this program
    setdword(exe, 144, 4096*2); // Opt.SizeOfImage = total run-time memory size of all sections and headers
    setdword(exe, 148, 0); // Opt.SizeOfHeaders = total file size of header info before the first section
    setword(exe, 156, 3); // Opt.Subsystem = IMAGE_SUBSYSTEM_WINDOWS_CUI, command-line program
    setdword(exe, 180, 14); // Opt.NumberOfRvaAndSizes = number of data directories following
    // 4. DATA DIRECTORIES, follows optional header, 8 bytes per directory 
    // offset and size for each directory is zero

    // 5. SECTION TABLE, follows data directories, 40 bytes
    // no section table

    // 6. .TEXT SECTION, at sectHdr.PointerToRawData (aligned to Opt.FileAlignment)
    setbyte(exe, 296, 0x6A); // PUSH
    setbyte(exe, 297, 0x2C); // value to push
    setbyte(exe, 298, 0x58); // POP EAX
    setbyte(exe, 299, 0xC3); // RETN

    return 328; // size of exe

Here’s another pretty picture, showing the 328 byte executable file:


Maximum Shrinking

328 bytes was pretty good, but of course I wanted to do better. A popular technique seen in other “small PE” examples is to move down the PE header and everything that follows it, so that it overlaps the DOS header. This is possible because most of the DOS header is just wasted space, as far as a Windows executable is concerned.

The PE header can be moved down as low as offset 4 within the file. It must be 4-byte aligned, and it can’t be at offset 0 because then it would overwrite the required ‘MZ’ signature at the start of the file. Doing this is simple: just move everything but the DOS header down by 60 bytes.

The only complication with overlapping the DOS and PE headers this way is with the DWORD at file offset 60. This value is the e_lfanew parameter that gives the file offset to the PE header, so it now must be 4. But due to the overlapping, it’s also the Opt.SectionAlignment parameter that specifies the alignment between sections in memory at run-time. Hopefully Windows is OK with a 4-byte section alignment! It turns out that it’s fine, but only if Opt.FileAlignment is also 4. I’m not sure why.

These changes should have been enough to shrink the file to 240 bytes, but once again the OS seems to require 28 bytes of padding at the end of the file. Here’s the updated 268 byte version of BuildExe():

DWORD BuildExe(BYTE* exe)
    // 1. DOS HEADER, 64 bytes
    setstring(exe, 0, "MZ"); // DOS header signature is 'MZ'
    // don't set DOS.e_lfanew, it's part of the overlapped PE header

    // 2. PE HEADER, at offset DOS.e_lfanew, 24 bytes
    setstring(exe, 64-60, "PE"); // PE header signature is 'PE\0\0'
    setword(exe, 68-60, 0x14C); // PE.Machine = IMAGE_FILE_MACHINE_I386
    setword(exe, 70-60, 0); // PE.NumberOfSections = 1
    setword(exe, 84-60, 0); // PE.SizeOfOptionalHeader = offset between the optional header and the section table
    setword(exe, 86-60, 0x103); // PE.Characteristics = IMAGE_FILE_32BIT_MACHINE | IMAGE_FILE_EXECUTABLE_IMAGE | IMAGE_FILE_RELOCS_STRIPPED

    // 3. OPTIONAL HEADER, follows PE header, 96 bytes
    setword(exe, 88-60, 0x10B); // Optional header signature is 10B
    setdword(exe, 104-60, 296-60); // Opt.AddressOfEntryPoint = RVA where code execution should begin
    setdword(exe, 116-60, 0x400000); // Opt.ImageBase = base address at which to load the program, 0x400000 is standard
    setdword(exe, 120-60, 4); // Opt.SectionAlignment = alignment of section in memory at run-time, 4096 is standard
    setdword(exe, 124-60, 4); // Opt.FileAlignment = alignment of sections in file, 512 is standard
    setword(exe, 136-60, 4); // Opt.MajorSubsystemVersion = minimum OS version required to run this program
    setdword(exe, 144-60, 4096*2); // Opt.SizeOfImage = total run-time memory size of all sections and headers
    setdword(exe, 148-60, 0); // Opt.SizeOfHeaders = total file size of header info before the first section
    setword(exe, 156-60, 3); // Opt.Subsystem = IMAGE_SUBSYSTEM_WINDOWS_CUI, command-line program
    setdword(exe, 180-60, 14); // Opt.NumberOfRvaAndSizes = number of data directories following
    // 4. DATA DIRECTORIES, follows optional header, 8 bytes per directory 
    // offset and size for each directory is zero

    // 5. SECTION TABLE, follows data directories, 40 bytes
    // no section table

    // 6. .TEXT SECTION, at sectHdr.PointerToRawData (aligned to Opt.FileAlignment)
    setbyte(exe, 296-60, 0x6A); // PUSH
    setbyte(exe, 297-60, 0x2C); // value to push
    setbyte(exe, 298-60, 0x58); // POP EAX
    setbyte(exe, 299-60, 0xC3); // RETN

    return 268; // size of exe

And another pretty picture, with some color blending going on where data structures overlap:


According to several sources, 268 bytes is the absolute minimum size for a working executable under Windows 7 64-bit edition. There are other tricks that would shrink the header even more, but then I’d just have to add more padding. I can go no further!

Read 12 comments and join the conversation 

Assembly Language Windows Programming


Who says assembly language programming is dead? Keeping with my recent theme of peering inside Windows executable files, I decided to bypass C++ completely and try writing a Windows program entirely in assembly language. I was happy to discover that it’s not difficult, especially if you have a bit of prior assembly experience for any CPU. My first example ASM program is only 17 lines! Granted it doesn’t do very much, but it demonstrates a skeleton that can be extended to create exactly the program I want – no more futzing around with C compiler options to prevent mystery “features” from being added to my code. Yes, I am a control freak.

1. Minimal Assembly Example

Here’s a simple example:

.model flat, stdcall

EXTERN MessageBoxA@16 : proc
EXTERN ExitProcess@4 : proc

msgText db 'Windows assembly language lives!', 0
msgCaption db 'Hello World', 0

push 0
push offset msgCaption
push offset msgText
push 0
call MessageBoxA@16
push eax
call ExitProcess@4

End Main

If you’ve got any version of Microsoft Visual Studio installed on your PC, including the free Visual Studio Express versions, then you’ve already got MASM: the Microsoft Macro Assembler. Save the example file as msgbox.asm, and use MASM to build it from the command line like this:

> ml /coff /c /Cp msgbox.asm
> link /subsystem:windows /out:msgbox.exe kernel32.lib user32.lib msgbox.obj

That doesn’t look too complicated. Let’s examine it line by line.

This tells the assembler to generate x86 code that’s compatible with the Intel 686 CPU or later, aka the Pentium Pro. Any Intel-based machine from the past 15-20 years will be able to run this, so it’s a good generic default. You can also use .386, .486, or .586 here if you want to avoid generating any instructions not compatible with those older CPUs.

.model flat, stdcall
The memory model for all Win32 programs is always flat. The second parameter gives the default calling convention for procedures exported from this file, and can be either C or stdcall. Nothing is exported in this example, so the choice doesn’t really matter, but I’ll choose stdcall.

What’s a Calling Convention?

When one function calls another, it must somehow pass the arguments to the called function. The caller and callee must agree on where the arguments will be placed, and in what order, or else the code won’t work correctly. If the arguments are passed on the stack, then the two functions must also agree on who’s responsible for popping them off afterwards, so the stack can be restored to its original state. These details are known as the calling convention.

All of the Win32 API functions use the __stdcall convention, while C functions and the C library use the __cdecl (or just plain “C”) convention. You may also rarely see the __fastcall convention; look it up for more details. stdcall and cdecl conventions are similar: both pass arguments on the stack, and the arguments are pushed in right to left order. So a function whose prototype looks like:

MyFuction(arg1, arg2, arg3) 

is called by pushing arg3 onto the stack first, followed by arg2 and arg1:

push arg3
push arg2
push arg1
call MyFunction

These two conventions only differ regarding stack cleanup. With cdecl, the calling function is responsible for removing arguments from the stack, whereas with stdcall it’s the called function’s responsibility to do stack cleanup before it returns.

EXTERN MessageBoxA@16 : proc
EXTERN ExitProcess@4 : proc

These lines tell MASM that the code makes reference to two externally-defined procedures. When the code is assembled into an .obj file, references to these procedures will be left pending. When the .obj file is later linked to create the finished executable, it must be linked with other .obj files or libraries that provide the definitions for these external references. If definitions aren’t found, you’ll see the familiar linker error message complaining of an “unresolved external symbol”.

The funny @4 and @16 at the end of the function names is the standard method of name mangling for stdcall functions, including all Win32 functions. A suffix is added to the name of the function, with the @ symbol and the total number of bytes of arguments expected by the function. This mangled name is the symbol that appears in the .obj file or library, and not the original name. The actual symbol name is also prefixed with an underscore, e.g. _MessageBox@16, but MASM handles this automatically by prefixing an underscore to all statically imported or exported public symbols.

To find the number of bytes of arguments expected by a Win32 stdcall function, you can view the online MSDN reference and add up the argument sizes manually, or you can use something like dumpbin /symbols user32.lib to view the mangled names of functions in an import library.

For cdecl functions, there’s no name mangling. The name of the symbol is just the name of the function prefixed with an underscore, e.g. _strlen.

Most of the time you don’t see this level of detail, because the compiler or assembler knows the calling convention and argument list of any functions you call, so it can do name mangling automatically behind the scenes. But in this example, I never told MASM what the calling convention is for MessageBox or ExitProcess, nor the number and sizes of the arguments they expect, so it can’t help with name mangling and I have to provide the mangled names manually. In a minute, I’ll show a nicer way to handle this with MASM.

The .const directive indicates that whatever follows is constant read-only data, and should be placed in a separate section of the executable called .rdata. The memory for this section will have the read-only attribute enforced by the Windows virtual memory manager, so buggy code can’t modify it by mistake. Other possible data-related section directives are .data for read-write data, and .data? for uninitialized read-write data.

msgText db ‘Windows assembly language lives!’, 0
msgCaption db ‘Hello World’, 0

The next lines allocate and initialize storage for two pieces of data named msgText and msgCaption. Because the previous line was the .const directive, this data will be placed in the executable’s .rdata section. db is the assembler directive for “define byte”, and is followed by a list of comma separated byte values. The values can be numeric constants, string literals, or a mix of both as shown here. The 0 after each string literal is the null terminator byte for C-style strings.

.code indicates the start of a new section, and whatever follows is program code rather than data. It will be placed in a section of the executable called .text. Why doesn’t the directive match the section name?

Here the code defines a label called Main, which can then be used as a target for jump instructions or other instructions that reference memory. Main refers to the address at which the next line of code is assembled. There’s nothing magic about the word “Main” here, and label names can be anything you want as long as they’re not MASM keywords.

push 0
push offset msgCaption
push offset msgText
push 0

This code pushes the arguments for MessageBox onto the stack, in right to left order as required by the stdcall convention. According to MSDN, the prototype of MessageBox is:

int WINAPI MessageBox(HWND hWnd, LPCTSTR lpText, LPCTSTR lpCaption, UINT uType);

The first argument pushed onto the stack is the value for uType, a 4-byte unsigned integer. The value 0 here corresponds to the constant MB_OK, and means the MessageBox should contain a single push button labeled “OK”. Next the addresses of the caption and text string constants are pushed. The offset keyword tells MASM to push the memory address of the strings, and not the strings themselves, and is similar to the & operator in C. Finally the hWnd argument is pushed, which is a handle to the owner of the message box. The value 0 used here means the message box has no owner.

call MessageBoxA@16
Now the Win32 MessageBox function is finally called. call will push the return address onto the stack, and then jump to the address of _MessageBoxA@16. It will use the arguments previously pushed onto the stack, display a message box, and wait for the user to click the OK button before returning. Because it’s a stdcall function, MessageBox will also remove the arguments from the stack before returning to the caller. The return value from calling MessageBox will be placed in the EAX register, which is the standard convention for Win32 functions.

Notice that the code specifically called MessageBoxA, with an A suffix that indicates the caption and text are single-byte ASCII strings. The alternative is MessageBoxW, which expects wide or double-byte Unicode strings. Many Win32 functions exist with both -A and -W variants like this.

push eax
call ExitProcess@4

The return value from MessageBox is pushed onto the stack, and ExitProcess is called. Its prototype looks like:

VOID ExitProcess(UINT uExitCode);

It takes a single argument for the program’s exit code. In this example, whatever value is returned by MessageBox will be used as the exit code. This is the end of the program – the call to ExitProcess never returns, because the program is terminated.

End Main
The end statement closes the last segment and marks the end of the source code. It must be at the end of every file. The optional address following end specifies the program’s entry point, where execution will begin after the program is loaded into memory. Alternatively, the entry point can be specified on the command line during the link step, using the /entry option.

ml /coff /c /Cp msgbox.asm
link /subsystem:windows /out:msgbox.exe kernel32.lib user32.lib msgbox.obj

ml is the name of the MASM assembler. Running it will create the msgbox.obj file.
/coff instructs MASM to create an object file in COFF format, compatible with recent Microsoft C compilers, so you can combine assembly and C objects into a single program.
/c tells MASM to perform only the assembly step, stopping after creation of the .obj file, rather than also attempting to do linking.
/Cp tells MASM to preserve the capitalization case of all identifiers.

link is the Microsoft linker, the same one that’s invoked behind the scenes when building C or C++ programs from Visual Studio.
/subsystem:windows means this is a Windows GUI-based program. Change this to /subsystem:console for a text-based program running in a console window.
/out:msgbox.exe is the name to give the executable file that will be generated.

The remainder of the line specifies the libraries and object files to be linked. MessageBox is implemented in user32 and ExitProcess in kernel32, so I’ve included those libraries. I didn’t provide the path to the libraries, so the linker will search the directories specified in the LIBPATH environment variable. The Visual Studio installer normally creates a shortcut in the start menu to help with this: it’s called “Developer Command Prompt for Visual Studio”, and it opens a console window with the LIBPATH and PATH environment variables set appropriately for wherever the development tools are installed.

2. Improvements with MASM Macros and MASM32

MASM is a “macro assembler”, and contains many macros that can make assembly programming much more convenient. For starters, I could define some constants to replace the magic zeroes in the arguments to MessageBox:

MB_OK                  equ 0h
MB_OKCANCEL            equ 1h
MB_YESNOCANCEL         equ 3h
MB_YESNO               equ 4h
MB_RETRYCANCEL         equ 5h

NULL                   equ 0

In the preceding example, I had to do manual name mangling of Win32 function names, and push the arguments onto the stack one at a time. This can be avoided by using the MASM directives PROTO and INVOKE. Much like a function prototype in C, PROTO tells MASM what calling convention a function uses, and the number and types of the arguments it expects. The function can then be called in a single line using INVOKE, which will verify that the arguments are correct, perform any necessary name mangling, and generate push instructions to place the arguments on the stack in the proper order. Using these directives, the lines related to MessageBoxA in the example program could be condensed like this:

MessageBoxA proto stdcall :DWORD,:DWORD,:DWORD,:DWORD
invoke MessageBoxA, NULL, offset msgText, offset msgCaption, MB_OK

Many people using MASM will use it in combination with MASM32, which provides a convenient set of include files containing prototypes for common Windows functions and constants. This enables the relevant lines of the MessageBox example to be further simplified to:

include \masm32\include\
include \masm32\include\
invoke MessageBoxA, NULL, offset msgText, offset msgCaption, MB_OK

Take a look at Iczelion’s excellent tutorial for a MessageBox example program making good use of all the MASM and MASM32 convenience features.

3. Structured Programming with MASM

The biggest headache writing any kind of non-trivial assembly language program is that all the little details quickly become tedious. A simple if/else construct must be written as a CMP instruction combined with a few conditional and unconditional jumps around the separate clauses. Allocating and using local variables on the stack is a pain. Working with objects and structures requires calculating the offset of each field from the base of the structure. It’s a giant hassle.

Nothing can relieve all the tedium (this is assembly language after all), but MASM is a big help. Directives like .IF, .ELSE, and .LOCAL make it possible to write assembly code that almost looks like C. Instructions are automatically generated to reserve and free space for stack-based locals, and the locals can be referenced by name instead of with awkward constructs like EBP-8. MASM also supports the declaration of C-style structs with named and typed fields. The result can be assembly code that’s surprisingly readable. Borrowing snippets from another Iczelion tutorial:

; structure definition from
  cbSize            DWORD      ?
  style             DWORD      ?
  lpfnWndProc       DWORD      ?
  cbClsExtra        DWORD      ?
  ; ... more fields

WinMain proc hInst:HINSTANCE, hPrevInst:HINSTANCE, CmdLine:LPSTR, CmdShow:DWORD 
    LOCAL msg:MSG 
    mov wc.cbSize, SIZEOF WNDCLASSEX 
    mov wc.lpfnWndProc, OFFSET WndProc 
    mov wc.cbClsExtra, NULL 
    ; ... more code
    invoke RegisterClassEx, addr wc
    ; ... more code

        invoke GetMessage, ADDR msg, NULL, 0, 0 
        .BREAK .IF (!eax) 
        invoke TranslateMessage, ADDR msg 
        invoke DispatchMessage, ADDR msg 
     mov eax, msg.wParam 
WinMain endp

This almost reads like C, and you might wonder how different it really is from writing C code. Despite the appearance, it’s still 100 percent assembly language, and the instructions in the .asm file are exactly what will appear in the final executable. There’s no optimization happening, no instruction reordering, and no true code generation in any complex sense. Directives like LOCAL that hide individual assembly instructions are just complex macros.

If I find enough motivation, I’ll write another post soon that shows a more full-featured assembly language program using these techniques. Now if you want to know WHY in the 21st century someone would write Windows programs in assembly language, I don’t have a great answer. It might be useful if you need to do something extremely specific or performance critical. But if you’re like me, the only reason needed is that fact that it’s there, underlying everything that’s normally done with higher level languages. Whenever I see a black box like that, I want to open the lid and peek inside.

Read 5 comments and join the conversation 

What Happens Before main()

Did you know that a C program’s main() function is not the first code to be run? Depending on the program and the compiler, there are all kinds of interesting and complex functions that get run before main(), automatically inserted by the compiler and invisible to casual observers. For the past several days I’ve been on a quest to reverse engineer a minimal C program, to see what’s inside the executable file and how it’s put together. I was generally aware that some kind of special initialization happened before main() was called, but knew nothing about the details. As it turned out, understanding what happens before main() proved to be central to explaining large chunks of mystery code that I’d struggled with during my first analysis.

In my previous post, I used dumpbin, OllyDbg, and the IDA disassembler to examine the contents of a Windows executable file created from an 18 line C program. This example program is a text console application that only references printf, scanf, and strlen. The C functions compile into 120 bytes of x86 code. Yet dumpbin revealed that the executable file contained 2234 bytes of code, and imported 38 different functions from DLLs. It also located over 1300 bytes of unknown data and constants. The implementations of printf etc were in a C runtime library DLL, so that couldn’t explain the unexpected code bloat. Something else was at work.

Scaffold for a C Program

By compiling with debug symbols, loading the executable in a debugger, and examining the disassembly, I was able to see the true structure of the example program. This included all the things happening behind the scenes. You can view the complete disassembly with symbols here. Here’s an outline, based on compiling with Microsoft Visual Studio Express 2012, for a release build with compiler settings selected to eliminate all extras like C++ exception handling and array bounds checking. Pseudocode function names are my descriptions and don’t necessarily match the names obtained from debug symbols.

    // beginning of __tmainCRTStartup()
    // call init functions from a table of function pointers:
    // from pre_c_init()
    is_managed_app = ParseAppHeader(); // checks for initial "MZ" bytes, PE header fields 
    run_time_error_checking_initialize(); // calls init functions from an empty table
    setdefaultprecision(); // calls controlfp_s(0) and maybe calls invoke_watson()
    configthreadlocale(); // for C library function string formatting of numbers and time


    // from pre_cpp_init()

    // check tls_init_callback
    if (dynamic_thread_local_storage_callback != 0 && IsNonWritableInCurrentImage())

    // now the C program runs
    retVal = main();

    // C program has now finished
    if (!is_managed_app)
        // clean-up C library, and terminate process
        // clean-up C library, but do not terminate process

        return retVal;

    return (ValidateImageBase() &&

    if (IsRecognizedExceptionType())

   // also maintains onexit callbacks for DLLs

This was enough to help me identify the general purpose of most of the code in the executable file, even if the details weren’t all entirely clear. During the program analysis in my previous post, I was confused by large chunks of code that didn’t appear to be called from anywhere. The answer to that mystery was tables of function pointers, which I discovered are used in many places during program startup to call a whole series of initialization functions. The addresses of the functions are stored in a table in the data section, and then the address of the table is passed to _initterm. I’d thought _initterm had something to do with terminal settings, but it’s actually just a helper function to iterate over a table and call each function.

Even with that mystery explained, there were still quite a few snippets of unreachable code in the disassembly. Most of these were only 5 or 10 lines of code, and appeared to be related to other nearby functions. My guess is that many of these scaffold/startup functions were written in assembly language by Microsoft developers, and the linker can’t tell which lines are actually used or not. As a result of some conditionally-included features, or just carelessness on the part of the compiler development team, a few lines of orphaned code were left over and got included into my example program’s executable.

Exploring the Scaffold Functions

Let’s start at the entry point and work our way through the scaffold functions.

security_init_cookie is related to a compiler-generated security feature that checks for buffer overruns. This function generates a cookie value based on the current time and other data that’s difficult for an attacker to predict. On entry to an overrun-protected function, the cookie is put on the stack, and on exit, the value on the stack is compared with the global cookie. In this example program, buffer overrun checking was explicitly disabled in the compiler settings, yet security_init_cookie is called anyway. Hmm.

Next the structured exception handling frame is configured on the stack. SEH is a Windows mechanism that’s used to catch and handle CPU exceptions. I’ve never used them, but I believe they can be used to handle errors like division by zero or invalid memory references.

The next set of functions are called from a pointer table that’s placed in the data section, rather than by direct function calls. The code parses the in-memory executable header, including the DOS and PE headers, to determine whether this is a managed app or if it’s native code. It then initializes the exit callbacks, a mechanism that can be used to register other functions to be called when the program exits. Following this, it calls a function to initialize run-time error checks, another compiler-generated feature that can catch problems with type conversions and uninitialized variables. In the example program, run-time error checks were disabled in the compiler settings. The call to init RTC is still present, but it uses an empty table of function pointers to do its work, and so it ultimately does nothing.

After this it calls the math error handler, and then installs that error handler. I’m not sure why it directly calls the math error handler first, but it’s a stub function that does nothing and returns zero.

The call after the math handler initialization is to an internal function called setdefaultprecision, which sets the precision used for floating point calculations. The implementation of this function is curious. It calls controlfp_s(0) to set the precision, and if this returns an error, it invokes the Doctor Watson debugger. This is the only place in any of the scaffolding code where Doctor Watson is referenced or used. If it’s used at all, I would have expected to see it as part of the exception handling mechanism, but in fact it’s only called here during initialization of the floating point precision.

The last task performed by pre_c_init is to configure the locale settings, to help make correctly-formatted numbers and date strings in the C standard library functions.

Next, the scaffold code registers a handler to be used for SEH exceptions. This handler is mostly useless. If the exception is one of four recognized types, the handler calls terminate and then performs an INT 3 debugger break. Otherwise it just returns without doing anything.

After that, the code registers an exit callback function which terminates the run-time error checking feature. The registration mechanism makes use of SEH frames. It also appears to handle exit functions for DLLs, although I was unclear about exactly how that works. I assume that if a DLL used by the program needs to perform some kind of clean-up code or destructors before the program exits, it can register a callback here.

get_command_line_args does what it sounds like, and initializes argc, argv, and envp. I never really thought about it before, but of course these need to be provided by the operating system somehow, and this is where it happens.

The next piece of code is the most complicated and confusing of the whole lot. The code checks the value of something called __dyn_tls_init_callback, which is a global variable initialized to zero in the program’s .data section. This appears related to thread local storage – an area of memory that’s unique for each thread. If __dyn_tls_init_callback is not zero (though I don’t see any mechanism that could make it be non-zero), it calls another internal function called IsNonWritableInCurrentImage. This is the beginning of a fairly involved group of functions that scan the in-memory DOS and PE headers, and attempt to locate a particular section in the PE header. Depending on what it finds there, it may or may not call the __dyn_tls_init_callback function. Notably, IsNonWritableInCurrentImage also makes use of the security cookie for detecting buffer overruns.

Finally, after all this setup work, at last it’s time to call the C main() function. Hooray! This is where the real work happens, and what most people think of as “the program” when they talk about a C-based software application.

Eventually the C program finishes its work, and control returns from main(). The scaffolding code is now responsible for cleaning things up and shutting everything down in an orderly manner. If it was previously determined that this is not a managed app, the code simply calls exit() to terminate the process. On the other hand, if it is a managed app, the scaffold code calls cexit(), cleans up the SEH frame, and returns control to whomever originally called the entry point.


From my description, I hope it’s clear that the scaffold functions aren’t especially space-efficient. Probably most people don’t care about a few hundred or few thousand bytes of code wasted, but it’s easy to see where some optimizations could be made:

When the compiler knows ahead of time that RTC checking is disabled, it should completely eliminate the functions related to RTC initialization and cleanup, instead of retaining them but having them iterate over an empty function table.

If the main() function doesn’t use argc and argv, then don’t bother to call get_command_line_args().

The compiler must know whether it’s making a native or managed app, so it can set the scaffold behavior as needed for each case. This would be far simpler than including code to parse the PE header at runtime, and shutdown/cleanup code that must handle both native and managed cases.

Bypassing the Scaffolding

While the inefficiencies of the scaffold code are annoying, what’s more bothersome is that many of the scaffold features simply can’t be turned off by any compiler setting that I’ve found. If we group the scaffold functions into broad categories, it looks like this:

  • buffer overrun detection
  • SEH handling
  • run-time error checks (RTC)
  • math error handling and default precision
  • exit callbacks
  • thread local storage
  • command line args
  • managed/native app detection
  • locale settings

It would be great if there were compiler settings that could be used to disable each of these features when appropriate, for squeezing the last few hundred bytes out of the code. What’s maddening is that there are settings to disable the first two, but it appears they only prevent the features from being used in the main body of code. Support for the features is still present in the executable, because the scaffolding code uses them.

Another approach is to define a custom entry point for the program, and bypass the scaffolding completely. This could be as simple as adding

int MyEntryPoint()
    return main(0, NULL);

and then setting the program’s entry point to MyEntryPoint in the advanced linker settings. This causes all of the standard scaffold code to be omitted, and with my example program it shrunk the executable from 6144 to 2560 bytes. It also drastically reduced the number of external functions in the imports list, from 38 to 3.

Caution: when using this approach, none of the standard systems will be initialized. The program will misbehave or crash if it attempts to use the command line args, or thread local storage, or locale-dependent functions in the C runtime. The custom entry point can initialize many of these manually if needed. Most of the necessary functions like __getmainargs are documented in MSDN. The rest can be handled by using the debugger to examine the scaffold code, and copying what it does.

Read 5 comments and join the conversation 

Older Posts »