Monday, January 28, 2008

Finally Understanding COM After Changing a Light Bulb

Recently I discovered that my passenger low-beam headlight burnt out. More accurately, the nice police officer who pulled me over and only gave me a verbal warning let me know it had burnt out. With this new knowledge, I went to the local auto parts store to find a new one.

I uninstalled the broken one and brought it in with me. On the bottom of it, there was a "9006" identifier. The lady at the store helped me find another "9006" low beam headlight and it took about a minute to install.

It sort of reminds me of how relatively simple COM is at its core.

For the past decade, the sum of all of my knowledge about COM was approximately:

  • It stood for Component Object Model
  • It looked painful: avoid it like you'd avoid eating at a restaurant publicly condemned by the Board of Health.
  • Somehow it involved interfaces.
  • You had to manage your own memory.
  • Windows uses it everywhere... somehow.
  • It was replaced by .NET, so forget about it.
  • I could use COM classes (like the one for IE) in VB and .NET, but I had no idea how it worked under the covers.
  • Nothing on earth was worse than "DCOM," or so I'd been told.

You probably knew more than that, but that's probably what I would have squeaked out if push came to shove. In my life, I never really had to really understand COM at all, so I didn't even bother.

Recently, I had to break down and actually learn enough about it to get some things done. I learned that it's really not that bad. Please consider this as the absolute minimum that a Windows programmer should know about COM. I wish I had, it would have made things faster to learn.

The first thing to learn is that there are three major figures in COM:


A client is somebody that wants to get a job done. Maybe he's trying to get a light bulb for his car. Or, perhaps it's someone who's trying to play some music. Another possibility it's someone that wants to display a web page or talk to Outlook. It doesn't really matter, it's someone that wants to do something.


A server is something that wants to do some tasks for you. He's the guy that the client is pushing around. He only does a few tasks that are on a menu that the client knows about.

(Bee) "Hive" Keeper (a.k.a. "Registry")

The bee "hive" is buzzing with activity. Imagine a bee keeper that stores all of his notes on the individual "cells" of a honey comb. It's sort of like a big telephone directory, but one that was designed by someone who hates bees.

Now that we know the key players, let's get back to our light bulb. Imagine that all you had in the world were the three major players above. What would have need to have happened?

Well, the server in this case would be a light bulb. Wanting to copy Apple's naming convention, let's call him iLight, or more boringly: ILight. Now ILight had to advertise himself to the world. The menu of things that the client can request him to do include "Turn On" and "Turn Off" and maybe "CalculateWattage." He has a boring part number just like my real light did (e.g. 9006). Let's say that he walked over to the hive and wrote down in the directory that "ILight is part #9006" and also wrote down exactly where in the store to find him. The only real requirement is that this must happen before any clients can use him.

The client is just like me and knows he needs something that can "Turn On," "Turn Off," and "CalculateWattage." He looks in his car manual and finds out he needs an ILight. He goes to Hive and finds that "ILight" is part number "9006." Next, he goes to the "cell" where information on part "9006" is stored and finds exactly where to find it. He picks up the ILight and lives happily ever after.

See? Not too hard right? At a high level, it's pretty simple. For fun, let's dive deeper into the reality that is COM.

"ILight" would more than likely have started his life in Visual Studio as an ATL (ActiveX Template Library) project. ATL is just a simple way of dealing with the gooey parts of COM that don't really matter that much. ATL projects are written in C++, so they're sure to bring fond memories of your college days back.

In the project, we'd create a new class of type "ATL Simple Object" (see, it's simple :))

And give it a name of "Light" and have the wizard automatically fill in the details:

It doesn't matter if we get scared after clicking next, we just need to hit finish and trust the defaults (remember, this is the absolute minimum you should know):

Next, go to the class view window on the right hand side of their screen and right click on the "ILight" interface and add a few methods:

The first method being "TurnOn" (and similarly turn-off) that has no arguments:

To make it interesting, let's say there was one more method called "CalculateWattage" that takes two parameters (volts and amps) and returns the wattage:

Now, one would go to the Light.cpp and fill in the definition of these functions. In this example, we'll just show a message box for the turn on/turn off commands. Note that for the "CalculateWattage" function, we return the result via a parameter pointer. This is important since the return value for COM methods is almost always the status of whether it succeed or not. Successful responses always start with "S_" and errors always start with "E_". The COM-ese for this is the "HRESULT" that you can think of as "here's the result of the function call."

If you actually spent your time in C++ as a client, you'd have to make calls like this:

You can't simply check a value to be equal to something since any result that starts with "E_" is a failure (popular ones include E_FAIL and E_NOINTERFACE). The "FAILED" macro just checks to see if the most significant bit is set.

Now, when going to build the project on Vista, a curious error is reported:

What happened? Well, answering that will take us back to the hive.

When we created the ILight interface and its concrete implementation, Visual Studio automatically created a "part number" for us that is a really huge number called a Globally Unique Identifier (GUID). The number is so big that it makes us yearn for the days of simple part numbers like 9006. In order for clients to be able to find our component, they need to look up our part number or our name in a special area in the registry/hive. Specifically, the servers need to put their details under the hive key (HKEY) that is the root of all classes/servers. This is conveniently called "HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT":

But we don't want just anyone being able to write there right? If any ol' server could just write into that area, they could replace a good implementation of ILight with one that say, recorded all your keystrokes and sent them to some COM-enlightened hacker several timezones away. This is just one of the reasons why setup programs require a User Account Control (UAC) elevation before they will start. Microsoft is guessing that setup will probably want to register some COM server or write to a directory that the standard user doesn't have permission to write to (e.g. "C:\Program Files"), and gets it out of the way early.

When you go to build the project, Visual Studio will create a helper batch file for you in your project's debug directory and run it. If you use a tool like Process Monitor, you can see all of this happening:

If you're really quick, you'll be able to copy the batch file before Visual Studio deletes it after it gets an error. Here's what the batch file looks like:

All that the batch file does is call out to "regsvr32," which clearly stands for "register 32 bit COM server." I say that a little tounge-in-cheek because I had seen the "regsvr32" name hundreds of times before and never really understood what a server meant. "What's a server?!" However, in hindsight, it's quite simple. It's just a COM class that can do work.

When regsvr32 goes to write into the HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT area (abbreviated HKCR), it gets denied:

Note that the text after the "VCReportError" label in the batch file is exactly what was reported to us in Visual Studio's error window.

What are we to do now? Well, the simple answer is to run Visual Studio again, but this time with administrator privileges and try it again:

This time, DevEnv.exe has administrator credentials and this causes the batch file to run under administrator credentials which, you guessed it, causes regsvr32.exe to run with administrator credentials and therefore allows us to write into HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT.

Now, our component is registered. To learn exactly what this means, we need to use another tool called "OLE-COM Object Viewer" (oleview.exe) that's part of the Windows SDK. OleView simply lets you see all of the components/servers that are registered on your machine. It's like browsing an auto parts store. If we search for our "Light" component, we'll see a screen like this:

Which is full of all sorts of great information about our Light pulled from many different areas of the hive. For example, it says that our light class implements the ILight interface that has the interface identifier of "BBABC3ED-E2B6-4023-AE58-1B04E80E0DAE" and the concrete class has a part number/class identifier of "98C0E3FF-264C-4919-8DE6-F4D87B83D779." Furthermore, the location in the "store" is on the file system at "C:\Users\Jeff.Moser\Documents\Visual Studio 2005\Projects\LightBulb\LightBulb\Debug\LightBulb.dll". The class has a version specific name of "Acme.Light.1", and it also goes by the version non-specific name of "Acme.Light".

Impressive! It's a little more complicated than the auto parts store, but not that much. The hive is buzzing with information about how to find our component and what it provides.

Now, let's jump over to client land. The client can be anything that supports COM. For example, VBA in Excel. We can either add a reference to it by clicking Tools*References:

and then write some VBA code to use it:

Note that we can do the exact same code in C# in a similar way:

Neat huh? Note that we didn't have to check for HRESULTs like we would have done in C++. The reason is that under the covers, the VBA runtime (and C# .NET Runtime Callable Wrapper and CLR) do that for you. If the function returns an error, an exception is generated so that you can't ignore it.

Another nice feature is that we can take advantage of the fact that the hive can retrieve information about our class just by its string name (ProgID). The following code has the same result for the CalculateWattage call:

We can do the same thing in C#, but the syntax will be little messier until C# 4.0's support for dynamic lookup is available:

It's the exact same idea, but we get less language support.

So that is what COM is all about. Well, that's what I would say is an absolute minimum to get by without assuming things are just magic. I left out a few details that aren't 100% necessary to know:

  • No sane person would write a COM implementation without using a framework like ATL to handle all the "goo."
  • A middleman like COM (or CORBA for that matter) must exist because in the wild, you get inconsistencies that prevent you from using raw binaries directly in your code. For example, different C++ compilers mangle function names differently. If you try to allow binary interoperability, you'll inevitably recreate something like COM.
  • COM actually creates a factory class from your DLL that, in turn, creates your class.
  • Your don't have to implement your class as a DLL (in process). You can have it be an EXE (out of process) that is running. In this case, the EXE runs and registers itself with the OS and says that it's running and ready for work. If it isn't already running, the OS will start it.
  • All classes must implement the IUnknown interface. This interface lets you "cast" your pointer to another interface (via the QueryInterface method) and it also keeps track of memory.
  • The pointer that you get back from COM is actually an entry into your class's v-table for the requested interface. This is what ultimately drives the requirement that interfaces must never ever change once published in the wild. Note that all "casts" of a pointer must go through COM. This is because it's important that you do essentially static_cast instead of a reinterpret_cast. The latter would give you weird results if you tried it on a pointer that didn't have the method you wanted.
  • Since an interface cannot change once it is published, and because a v-table is used, the common pattern is to use an increasing number after the base name for each successive revision and have the new interface inherit from the old one. For example, IWebBrowser2 inherits from IWebBrowser and adds methods to the end of it.
  • COM doesn't have a garbage collector like .NET and Java does. For this reason, you have to explicitly keep track of how many instances of your COM class there are. When the number drops to 0, it can be removed from memory. IUnknown handles this. ATL gives you a good implementation of this automatically.
  • By default, COM uses a message queue for coordination. This introduces several different "apartment threading models." These strictly exist to make sure you're careful with multithreading and access to shared state. You'll eventually need to know more about these. The apartments get created when you call COM/COmponent Intialize (CoInitialize) or the simpler, CoCreateInstance.
  • When a .NET class calls a COM class, a Runtime Callable Wrapper (RCW) is created to handle all the IUnknown goo.
  • When a COM client needs to call .NET code, an aptly named "COM Callable Wrapper" (CCW) is created and used. The neat trick is that this is essentially a reference to the .NET core runtime with your assembly passed in as an argument. This is how the .NET side of the house is bootstrapped.
  • IDispatch is an interface that essentially lets you call functions by name and gives you a poor-man's version of .NET's reflection. This is the magic that allows scripting languages to work so well. Instead of binding to a specific function at compile time and getting compiler support, you can do runtime lookups. It essentially allows for the differences between my first and second example. Note that my Light class implemented both ILight andIDispatch. Again, ATL handled all the magic here.
  • As you dig deeper into COM, you'll note that the Interface Description Language (IDL) plays an important role in making sure all languages of COM understand the details about your component properly. Basically, languages agree on how they'll handle things defined in IDL. Once again, ATL hides most of this
  • Note that to use a COM class, we had to make an entry into the registry. This entry requires elevated permissions like I mentioned earlier. This is a bit of an overkill if your application is the only one that uses it. I think that Microsoft realized this as they were making the big UAC push in the development of Vista. This led to an update in XP SP1 called "Registration-Free COM" which allows you to create a file that is named the same as your .dll/.exe except that it ends in the ".manifest" extension. It's an XML file that has the same type of information that the hive/registry has. However, it doesn't require you to have the elevation to get an entry into HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT. It's useful for using in low permission environments.
  • There are a lot of good articles on COM, they're just hard to find. I've tagged a few that were helpful to me on Please let me know if you think I missed a good one and I'll check it out.

COM is a necessary layer due to the binary incompatibility problems. Since we now have .NET, when you look back at COM, it's sort of like your grandparents telling you how they washed clothes without electricity. It was a bit more involved and tedious, but it got the job done. COM started in the early 90's, well before Java and the CLR with its unified type system.
Since many of the core classes/servers of Windows and Microsoft Office use COM, it will be around for a long, long, long time.

It's good that I finally understand it enough to make use of it effectively!

How did you learn about COM?

UPDATE: I wrote about "Using Obscure Windows COM APIs in .NET."

kick it on


Colin! said...

Wow! Absolutely great post on COM that will save many people lots of time!

Seriously, a well-written, engaging article (with pictures and obligatory links to Raymond Chen's blog, no less!) is something that has been sorely lacking in the COM world.

My major critique content-wise would be glossing over IDispatch vs. vtbl and type libraries -- this is the magic that allows .NET RCWs to feel so natural.

Also, your last bullet point looks like it has a mangled A tag, it renders like this: realized this as they were making the big UAC push in the development of Vista. This led to an update in XP SP1 called "

Pranav said...

Very well written article and extremely helpful. I've been dabbling with the Win32 api for a while just for fun, and found a serious lack of good articles like yours. You should continue writing more such stuff.

Jeff Moser said...

Colin and Pranav:

Thanks for the generous and encouraging feedback! I updated the article to fix the last bullet point and added more information about IDispatch.

Please let me know if there's anything significant about COM that I missed that beginners should know about.

Thanks again! Keep the feedback coming :)

undees said...

This is indeed a well-written article: it explains why things are the way they are in COM.

However, it's also a beautiful reminder of why I hate COM. Imagine that the clerk at the auto parts store is surly and uncooperative, you have to fill out a ten-page form to get the light bulb, there's nothing in the box when you open it, and so on.

grnemo said...

Man, You are simply great!!!! This is a state of the art article.

Thank you.

Jeff Moser said...

grnemo: Thanks for the kind words! Glad you liked it.

Jeff Moser said...

undees: Interesting use of the metaphor :)

Mike Petry said...

For true COM Zen, learn IDL. Develop typelibs seperately, compile with MIDL. When creating a COM component think in terms of implementing interfaces. Know the difference between C/C++ only COM and OLEAutomation compatible COM.
Remember as Don Box said:
1. COM is love
2. IDL is the lingua franca of COM.

Jeff Moser said...

Mike: good catch! I didn't mention IDL since ATL hides it so well. I added a bullet on that. I don't think I'm brave enough to go into MIDL on my own (and I haven't had to yet).

ATL is really nice as long as you don't have to dig too deep into the details :)

Huseyin Tufekcilerli said...

Great article about COM, a bare minimum for any Windows programmer. (and btw great blog, starting to read your previous posts)

I was a VB6 programmer that didn't bother with the internals of COM and then it comes .NET and COM interop I have decided to learn how it works. Currently I am reading Adam Nathan's great .NET and COM: The Complete Interoperability Guide book, a must read for who are messing with CCWs and RCWs in a daily basis like me.

I also have a few COM related links here on my like Minimal COM object registration, What registry entries are needed to register a COM object

A little off-topic but the three icons in the blog post are awesome, is that a free collection which I can find on internet?

Jeff Moser said...

Huseyin: thanks for the nice comments on the article and blog as well as the links.

The icons were just Office 2007 avatar clipart I found while using PowerPoint 2007. The license agreement says that personal, non commercial use is permitted. So I assumed that they'd be a good fit for the post.

Kyle McIntyre said...

Thanks for the great article. One question I have for you is why would you ever want to use a registration-free com? If the class is only used by your application, shouldn't it just be built in to your application or at the most be a library that's linked in? I'm definitely a newbie at this, but it doesn't make sense to me to create a "com" when there's no communication involved.


Jeff Moser said...

Kyle McIntyre: Good question. One example might be if the component is coming from another vendor who only offers it as a COM dll.

It's a way to guarantee that you won't have to worry about getting the wrong version of a component and not have to modify the registry.

I'm no COM expert as I mention in the article, but it seems like a decent technology to share native components (as indicated by its heavy use by Windows and other Microsoft products). Registration free COM seems like a way to still use the components but without the registry ills.

Anonymous said...

Nice article. However like most other COM articles I have read, you didn't emphasize enough the most important aspect of COM which is binary compatibility. It is what enables true binary reusability across vastly different languages and runtimes.

I am also a firm believer that COM may actualy out live its replacement! .Net offers compeling productivity features and binary reusability, though it is fundumentaly constrained by its VM architecture while COM is far more versatile.


Jeff Moser said...

Dimitris: Are you referring to the layout of a COM object?

What are your thoughts about COM vs. .NET with respect to multiple platforms (e.g. Silverlight on non-x86 processors?) It seems that the VM/.IL approach gives .NET a long-term advantage.

Victor Cheung said...

It seems there's something wrong with the picture in this article.I have try 3 browsers: IE,google chrome,firefox, but no use. Can you help to fix this ,thanks

Jeff Moser said...

Victor Cheung: Thanks for pointing out the bad picture. I recreated the project and redid the final C# picture. Does it work for you now?

s said...

hi, I think it would be nice if you complete the picture -put in class factory and map out the jargon.
I read this blog and a few other links -there is more jargon out there.
It looks like there is a class factory, then a com class which manages multiple COM interfaces. Not sure whether a COM component is the class object or the interface instance object

Jeff Moser said...

s: You might find this blog post helpful.

Anonymous said...

Great article, it's really useful with me, thanks so much...

Iyan said...

this is really helping me, when i read Don Box's book.. i felt like i was walking alone in the no-end tunnel, hair-pulling!

Mac said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mac said...

Great Article.

Just a comment regarding: "For example, different C++ compilers mangle function names differently."

To help clarify by anyone else who was confused by this statement. The compiler produces a "C" function with the standard underscore within the DLL. If you use bindump you will see a helper function to create the COM class. This helper function returns a pointer to the newly created class. Every function in a COM class must be declared virtual. Thus rather than knowing the address of every function it only needs to know the field that contains the function pointer.

However, I still have my reservations about this being compatible across compilers as not every compiler stores their fields on the same byte alignment.

Great article. Thank you for sharing!

Steve said...

Thanks for the article. It helped a lot.

A few things that have showed up since you wrote it:

If the com object doesn't compile with Visual Studio 2008, try upgrading to SP1. This will fix the "incremental linker" error.

If you're using 64-bit Windows 7, and the C# code can't find your lightbulb object, set the build from "all platforms" to "x86".

I don't think COM's going away, but with the easy tools and the great tutorial, it's not so bad...

Anonymous said...

Simply amazing. I am glad clicked your link!!

Anonymous said...

very nice post! After reading your post, I actually feel I understand COM better. (When I read many other COM articles, I felt more and more confused, just like stuck in mud.)

Anonymous said...

Nice Article! I only need to know, how do I take this COM library and register it in another machine??5

Jeff Moser said...

Anonymous: You'd just have to call regsvr32 with your DLL as I mentioned happens in this post.

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