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Thursday, February 7, 2008

Book Review: Microsoft Windows Internals, Fourth Edition

Microsoft Windows Internals, Fourth Edition, by Mark E. Russinovich and David A. Salomon, Microsoft Press, LOCCN 2004115221

Many years ago, before the release of NT 3.1, I read a book entitled "Inside Windows NT" by Helen Custer. It was a great book, basically a text-book on operating system theory - as exemplified by Windows NT. It covered the theory of how to implement an operating system kernel, showing how it was done in Windows NT. It did not talk about API's so much as about the data structures and logic behind the scenes and the theory of the basic functions of an operating system such as memory mamangement and the IO system.

As I'm now getting back into some heavy-duty C++ coding for the Windows environment, I thought this might be a good refresher for me to (re-)learn about internal structures and enable me to find the right places to implement the functionality I need.

With these expectations I was a bit disappointed by "Windows Internals, Fourth Edition". It's a very different kind of book compared to the original first edition - in fact it's not the fourth edition of "Inside Windows NT" - it's really the second or third edition of "Windows Internals". So, what kind of book is it then?

"Windows Internals" is a cross between a troubleshooting manual for very advanced system managers, a hackers memoirs, an applied users guide to sysinternals utilities and the documentation Microsoft didn't produce for Windows.

It's almost like an independent black-box investigators' report of findings after many years of peering into the internals of Windows - from the outside. Instead of describing how Windows is designed from the designers point of view, it describes a process of external discovery based on reverse-engineering and observation. Instead of just describing how it works, the book focuses on "experiments" whereby with the help of a bunch of very nifty utilities from sysinternals you can "see" how it works.

I find the approach a little strange, I was expecting a more authoritative text, not an experimental guide to 'discovery'. I don't think one should use experimental approaches to learning about a piece of commercial software. Software is an engineering practice - and it should be described, not discovered. It should not be a research project to find out how Windows works - it should be be a matter of reading documentation and backgrounders, which was what I was hoping for when purchasing the book.

Having read all 870 pages, what did I learn? I learnt that sysinternals (http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/sysinternals/default.aspx) has some very cool utilities (which I already knew), and I learnt a bit about how they do what they do, and how to use them to inspect the state of a Windows system for troubleshooting purposes. As such, it should really be labelled "The essential sysinternals companion", because that's what it really is. It shows you a zillion ways to use the utilities for troubleshooting. Which is all well and good as it goes and very useful in itself.

To summarize, this is not really the book to read if you want to get an authoritative reference about the Windows operating system, although you will learn quite a bit along the way - after all, there is quite a bit of information here. If you're a system manager and/or facing extremely complicated troubleshooting scenarios, then this book is indeed for you. Also, if you're a more practical-minded person, and just want to discover the 'secrets' of Windows, you'll find all the tools here. I would have preferred that Microsoft documented things, instead of leaving it for 'discovery' (and then hiring the people doing the discovering if they're to good at it, and then make them write a book about - which is what happend here).

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