Shim Database (SDB) Files

The introduction of Application Compatibility for Windows XP (chronologically, with some back-fitting into the late service packs of Windows 2000) brought with it a new type of file for holding potentially large amounts of data about programs and drivers that need some sort of help. One type of help involves inserting code, known generically as a shim, between a troubled application and the Windows DLLs that it calls. The code in the shim then modifies the application’s otherwise faulty use of the called functions. This shim technology, as Microsoft has been known to name it, lends its name to the data files.

These SDB files can exist anywhere, of course, but a set of them at a standard location (and in subdirectories) is collectively the Application Compatibility Database.

The SDB File Format

The large-scale structure of an SDB file is strikingly simple. Each SDB file is a fixed-size header and then a sequence of variable-size tags. Each tag is in three parts:

Of course, the increasingly many different values that are recognised for a TAG allow for describing many different properties. Where complexity comes into the large-scale structure, however, is that the description can be hierarchical: again depending on the high 4 bits of the TAG, the data can itself be a sequence of child tags.

Header

The fixed-size header is 0x0C bytes:

Offset Size Description
0x00 dword major version number
0x04 dword minor version number
0x08 4 bytes the characters “sdbf”, making the integer 'fbds', as a signature

Microsoft’s names for the members aren’t known with the certainty of type information from symbol files but a compelling guess can be had from error messages that APPHELP can write to a log file. The text in all known versions describes the first and last dwords as MajorVersion and Magic—and what would be the point of naming something MajorVersion if there’s not a MinorVersion too? Even without this helpful text, the first two dwords might confidently be identified as something like major and minor version numbers because the SdbGetDatabaseVersion function, which is exported in all versions, reproduces them into the variables whose addresses are given as the function’s two arguments.

The flip side to what APPHELP interprets of the header is what someone writes as the header when creating an SDB file. Early versions of APPHELP were not involved in creating SDB files, let alone in writing the SDB header. What later versions export as the SdbCreateDatabase function was at first just a library routine that was linked in to other programs and DLLs that wanted it for creating an SDB file. Not until the build of version 5.2 for Windows Server 2003 SP1 is the routine linked in to APPHELP and exported. Wherever it’s found, the implementations before version 6.0 compose the minor version as a date stamp. The following combinations of major and minor version are observed in SDB files on the installation discs for various Windows versions (or in self-extracting executables for some service packs):

Major Version Minor Version Windows Version
2 1 Windows Vista to Windows 8.1, including all known services packs and updates
2 10,817 (17th August 2001) Windows XP
2 20,502 (2nd May 2002)
20,718 (18th July 2002)
Windows 2000 SP3
2 20,829 (29th August 2002) Windows 2000 SP4 (msimain.sdb)
Windows XP SP1
2 30,325 (25th March 2003) Windows Server 2003
2 30,616 (16th June 2003) Windows 2000 SP4 (sysmain.sdb)
2 40,804 (4th August 2004) Windows XP SP2
2 50,324 (24th March 2005) Windows Server 2003 SP1
2 70,217 (17th February 2007) Windows Server 2003 SP2
2 80,414 (14th April 2008) Windows XP SP3
3 0 Windows 10

All APPHELP versions recognise major versions from older SDB files and accommodate differences of interpretation. Even the SdbOpenDatabase function from SDBAPIU.DLL for Windows 2000 SP3 recognises both 1 and 2 for the major version. The only known change from version 1 to version 2 is to force two-byte alignment for all tags. Major version 3 is new for Windows 10. The only known change in advancing to version 3 is a significant reinterpretation of the so-called runtime platform that is the data for tag 0x4021.

Tags

The many numerical values that are yet defined for the TAG are listed separately. A few, however, have a special role in the large-scale structure of the SDB file.

Root Tag

It can help to start the hierarchy of tags with a root tag that does not actually exist in the file. Imagine it instead as a virtual tag that has no TAG or size, just data that begins at offset 0x0C in the file and continues to the end of the file. There is explicit support for this notion in the APPHELP functions that work with SDB files. These typically refer to a tag in the file by giving its offset in bytes from the start of the file as the tag’s TAGID. The first tag that is physically present in the file thus has 0x0000000C as its TAGID, but users of the API functions don’t know this (because they are spared the details of the file format, including the size of the header). They instead find this first top-level tag by asking the SdbGetFirstChild function for the first child of the virtual tag whose TAGID is 0, which Microsoft documents as TAGID_ROOT.

Top-Level Tags

In practice however, the immediate children of the root are the top-level tags in the hierarchy. Three can be expected. Of these, one has the meaningful content and the other two are meta-content that seem intended to be generated automatically from the meaningful content. The summaries that follow may eventually link to separate pages.

Especially important as meta-content is a string table. This is a top-level tag 0x7801 (TAG_STRINGTABLE). Its children have tag 0x8801 (TAG_STRINGTABLE_ITEM). The data in each such item is a null-terminated Unicode string. The point to having a string table is to avoid repetition. For instance, among the executables that need a shim may be several from the same vendor. The SDB file is smaller if the vendor’s name appears in just one string-table item. Where tags that describe each executable refer to the one vendor, they each have as their data not the string itself but a reference to the one string. This string reference is the offset from the beginning of the string table, i.e., the tag 0x7801, to the tag 0x8801 that has the string as its data.

Arguably even more important for performance when working with SDB files are the indexes. These are children of a top-level tag 0x7802 (TAG_INDEXES) that some APPHELP code expects to be the first child of the root tag. Each index is a tag 0x7803 (TAG_INDEX). APPHELP allows for 32 indexes. Each index must have among its children a tag 0x3802 (TAG_INDEX_TAG), a tag 0x3803 (TAG_INDEX_KEY) and a tag 0x9801 (TAG_INDEX_BITS). The first two have as their word of data a TAG. The “bits” are an array of 0x0C-byte structures that each have an 8-byte hash and a 4-byte TAGID for instances of the “tag” sorted by the “key”.

What is arguably the actual content of the database file is in a top-level tag 0x7001 (TAG_DATABASE). The typically substantial tree of tags beneath this one is where the database describes the applications and drivers that need shims, patches, and whatever. Some of the immediate children, however, are significant for describing the database itself.

Database ID

Specially so is tag 0x9007 (TAG_DATABASE_ID) whose data is the GUID that can be learnt from the SdbGetDatabaseID function and which may identify the SDB file as being suitable for use as one of the standard databases. APPHELP recognises the following:

GUID Symbolic Name
{11111111-1111-1111-1111-111111111111} GUID_SYSMAIN_SDB
{D8FF6D16-6A3A-468A-8B44-01714DDC49EA} GUID_MSIMAIN_SDB
{F9AB2228-3312-4A73-B6F9-936D70E112EF} GUID_DRVMAIN_SDB

XML Representation

Of course, SDB files are not prepared in this form by hand, and probably not even in a language that requires the preparer to know anything of the header and tags. That Microsoft thinks in terms of compiling SDB files, if not quite like compiling C-language source code for programs then perhaps as something like compiling resource scripts, has been known since Microsoft’s documentation of a selection of APPHELP functions apparently for Windows Vista. The data for tag 0x6022 is there described as the “Shim database compiler version”.

What can we know of whatever language Microsoft compiles SDB files from? Allow that each TAG has a friendly name. Take the size and data together as data that can be represented as text. Take Microsoft’s known name TAG as a hint. You will likely soon be picturing XML with either or both of <name>data</name> tags or name="data" attributes. If you’re the experimental sort of reverse engineer that I am not, you will likely also be thinking to run up some tool (or find an already-written one on the Internet) to convert SDB to some sort of XML, and perhaps back. This article’s interest, however, is in what can be learned of Microsoft’s practices from the software, development kits and documentation that we have from Microsoft. After all, if Microsoft does create SDB files from XML input, then Microsoft’s XML would be what we want to know.

That the SDB file is a binary re-packaging of data that Microsoft prepares as XML was always at least a reasonable supposition just from what Microsoft supplies with Windows. Though APPHELP has no code for creating an SDB file from XML input, it does have code that in some sense goes the other way. Sadly, this doesn’t mean going all the way to dumping a whole SDB file as XML for easier inspection by users who want to know what run-time changes Windows makes to the software that’s on their computers or what unusual support has turned out to be needed by software they’re thinking to buy. Still, APPHELP has from its very first version, as did SDBAPIU before it, exported functions that help represent database items as text that would be suitable for an XML file. It even has functions that assemble such text as an XML file specifically.

The very many different values that are recognised for the TAG do indeed have friendly names. These are readily obtained from the SdbTagToString function. Most are immediately suitable for XML tags, though some were not until a reworking for version 6.0. For the several dozen values that describe various types of file attributes, both the TAG and the data (e.g., size, checksum, version number, timestamp or copyright notice) can be nicely formatted as attribute="value", crying out for inclusion in an XML tag, by the SdbFormatAttribute function in all versions. The undocumented functions SdbGrabMatchingInfo and SdbGrabMatchingInfoEx collect these attributes for potentially very many so-called matching files and write the lot out as properly formatted XML. Here’s an example:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-16"?>
<DATABASE>
<EXE NAME="Exe Not Specified" FILTER="GRABMI_FILTER_NORMAL">
    <MATCHING_FILE NAME="apphelp_xp.dll" SIZE="145512" CHECKSUM="0xAE40BB1E" BIN_FILE_VERSION="6.1.9600.16384" BIN_PRODUCT_VERSION="6.1.9600.16384" PRODUCT_VERSION="6.1.9600.16384" FILE_DESCRIPTION="Application Compatibility Client Library" COMPANY_NAME="Microsoft Corporation" PRODUCT_NAME="Microsoft Application Compatibility Toolkit 6.1" FILE_VERSION="6.1.9600.16384 (winblue_rtm.130821-1623)" ORIGINAL_FILENAME="Apphelp" INTERNAL_NAME="Apphelp" LEGAL_COPYRIGHT="© Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved." VERDATEHI="0x0" VERDATELO="0x0" VERFILEOS="0x40004" VERFILETYPE="0x2" MODULE_TYPE="WIN32" PE_CHECKSUM="0x2EFDF" LINKER_VERSION="0x60003" UPTO_BIN_FILE_VERSION="6.1.9600.16384" UPTO_BIN_PRODUCT_VERSION="6.1.9600.16384" LINK_DATE="08/22/2013 03:55:53" UPTO_LINK_DATE="08/22/2013 03:55:53" EXPORT_NAME="apphelp_xp.dll" VER_LANGUAGE="English (United States) [0x409]" />
    <MATCHING_FILE NAME="Compatadmin.exe" SIZE="1478320" CHECKSUM="0x468440DC" BIN_FILE_VERSION="6.1.9600.17029" BIN_PRODUCT_VERSION="6.1.9600.17029" PRODUCT_VERSION="6.1.9600.17029" FILE_DESCRIPTION="Compatability Administrator" COMPANY_NAME="Microsoft Corporation" PRODUCT_NAME="Microsoft Application Compatibility Toolkit 6.1" FILE_VERSION="6.1.9600.17029 (winblue_gdr.140219-1702)" ORIGINAL_FILENAME="CompatAdmin.exe" INTERNAL_NAME="CompatAdmin.exe" LEGAL_COPYRIGHT="© Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved." VERDATEHI="0x0" VERDATELO="0x0" VERFILEOS="0x40004" VERFILETYPE="0x1" MODULE_TYPE="WIN32" PE_CHECKSUM="0x173A94" LINKER_VERSION="0x60003" UPTO_BIN_FILE_VERSION="6.1.9600.17029" UPTO_BIN_PRODUCT_VERSION="6.1.9600.17029" LINK_DATE="02/20/2014 07:25:18" UPTO_LINK_DATE="02/20/2014 07:25:18" VER_LANGUAGE="English (United States) [0x409]" />
</EXE>
</DATABASE>

If Microsoft does compile SDB files from XML input, then much of the point to the XML output of these functions would be that it compiles. If nothing else, the suggestion must be strong that Microsoft’s XML uses the name="data" style at least for SDB tags whose data describe matching files and perhaps for all SDB tags that have no child tags. Also to be expected is some amount of interpretation of the data in its string form according to the name, as where “6.1.9600.16384” for BIN_FILE_VERSION is what anyone would want in the XML instead of the qword 0x0006000125804000 that would be the data for a tag 0x5002 (TAG_BIN_FILE_VERSION) in the SDB file.

Supposition that Microsoft designed SDB files for easy preparation from XML input is explicitly confirmed by a comment in a header file, named SHIMDB.H, that Microsoft publishes in a Windows Driver Kit (WDK) for Windows 10. How or why SHIMDB.H came to be public may be anyone’s guess. It has no programmatic content of its own. It merely includes other headers, some of which aren’t supplied. But even if this header is pretty much useless to programmers outside Microsoft, its disclosure is welcome for clarifying the history:

This "database" is more of a tagged file, designed to mimic the structure of an XML
file. An XML file can be converted into this packed data format easily, and all strings
will by default be packed into a stringtable and referenced by a DWORD identifier, so files
that contain a lot of common strings (like the XML used by the App Compat team) will not
bloat.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that even with this confirmation that what Microsoft compiles SDB files from is XML specifically, no amount of studying SDB files or Microsoft’s documentation of the API for working with SDB files or even the binary code of programs that come with Windows—and most likely not the source code, either—gives any deduction of what Microsoft’s XML looks like.

The Shim Database Compiler

Outside of APPHELP.DLL and other such files that are on every Windows computer, there is the separately downloadable Application Compatibilty Toolkit (ACT), nowadays rebranded as the Windows Assessment and Deployment Kit (ADK). This kit’s Compatibility Administrator, named CompatAdmin.exe, and a program named QFixApp.exe that Microsoft supplied only with the kit’s early versions certainly can create SDB files from XML input. The intention is that system administrators and advanced users may create custom database files to support applications whose need for compatibility support was not known to Microsoft for the database files that are supplied with Windows. Both programs are tightly constrained, but they turn out to have the whole of Microsoft’s Shim Database Compiler built in. Microsoft surely has this compiler as a separate program, apparently named ShimDBC.exe, but its operation as code and data that is linked in to the Compatibility Administrator certainly is open to study.