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Does Windows 2000 Mean an End to .DLL Hell?




by John Loomes

The Problem

Since the beginning of time (well, since the ealiest
versions of Windows first appeared anyway…), the operating system
and any applications running on it have relied upon the presence of
.DLL’s…

Since the beginning of time (well, since the ealiest
versions of Windows first appeared anyway…), the operating system
and any applications running on it have relied upon the presence of
.DLL’s (Dynamic Link Libraries), these objects contain common
functions and code that the O/S and/or the applications need to use
from time to time. .DLL’s can be unique to a particular application,
or they can be shared between applications and the underlying
operating system , these .dll’s are known as ‘Common’ or ‘System’
.dll’s, and are used to provide common programming functions used by
both the o/s and its applications.

The problem stems from the fact that Microsoft, with
all its releases, Service Packs and Hotfixes, may produce several
versions of a particular System .DLL over a period of time, all of
which may have subtle differences in functionality and behaviour,
whilst ostensibly delivering the same end result as far as the user
is concerned. Software Developers often utilise these system .dll’s
for some functionality of an application, and may require (or rely
on), the behaviour or functionality of a certain version of a
particular system .dll in order for their application to perform
correctly. Whilst the Microsoft line might be that developers should
use their latest release of a system .dll is in their code, this is
not always possible due to the frequent o/s updates Microsoft
typically issues as described earlier, and also they may require the
functionality of a particular version of a system .dll that isnt
present in the latest replease. So traditionally, to circumvent this
problem, many developers have chosen to bundle the version of the
system .dll they require with the setup routine for their
application, thus ensuring that the target machine will run their
code correctly. Fine….

The fun usually starts when you install several such
applications, all demanding a different version of the .dll. This
(as Im sure many of you will have experienced) can cause havoc with
either one or more of the applications, or even the o/s itself (some
.dll’s rely on the presence and functionality of other .dll’s in
order to work correctly).

This malpractice of behalf of developers, has given
rise to a whole arm of I..T Services – Application Intergration, or
in laymans terms ‘The Art of Making Several Applications Developed
by Several 3rd Parties Work Together on One System’, and its kept me
in work for some years off and on. However, thats no excuse,and
Microsoft HAD to come up with a solution to force developers to tow
the line, and it actually looks like they might have achieved it in
Windows 2000………

The
Solution

In Windows 2000 System .dll’s are known as ‘Protected’
.dll’s. They are protected in such that only an application with a
correct Digital Signature, such as the application of a Service Pack
or Hotfix, is allowed to change them. If a third party attempts to
overwrite a system .dll in Win2k, the system can detect, by means of
a digital signature within the .dll, that the upgrade is
unauthorised, and the original version is automatically restored
from the ‘DLL Cache’ a folder containing the latest o/s approved
versions of all registered system .dll’s. If the correct version is
not found in the cache, then installation media is requested
containing the correct (authorised) version of the file.

The result of this is that it becomes impossible for
wayward software developers to introduce spurious .dll’s into the
o/s. It forces developers to either not use system .dll’s in their
code, or to write their code in such a way that the version of a
system .dll doesnt affect the applications functionality. Windows
2000 helps here too. It allows an application to load a ‘Private’
version of a system .dll, solely for use by the application that
needs it, this version may be different than the version in use by
the o/s. The o/s is thus isolated from the application, providing
far greater stability than in previous versions of Windows.

This mechanism is known as the Windows File Protection
System and is an integral part of Windows 2000.

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