A Shim Database (SDB) De-Compiler

Given that Shim Database (SDB) Files are compiled from XML and that Microsoft’s Shim Database Compiler, ShimDBC.exe, turns out to be readily available, it’s only natural to wonder if SDB files can feasibly be de-compiled to something like the XML they were compiled from. Done properly, a de-compiler would expose SDB files not just to relatively easy inspection but to editing and re-compiling.

To do it properly, in all its imaginable generality, would be a huge amount of work—far beyond my unpaid resources and a substantial commitment even for a software company with good revenues to subsidise development of tools that might not themselves have direct commercial value. An SDB file can contain something like 260 different tags, some of which change meaning depending on which tags enclose them and on the type of SDB file, e.g., for drivers or applications. The way that any one tag in an SDB file can have originated in XML is sometimes far from direct. There’s even a case where absence of a tag in an SDB file requires particular XML.

Even with a complete understanding of the XML schema, a de-compiler would be at least as substantial an undertaking as the compiler—which, by the way, is most of the 500KB or so of code and data in the Compatibility Administrator from the freely downloadable Application Compatibility Toolkit. But, of course, nobody outside Microsoft who has ever been known to have looked at SDB files with a view to publishing what they find has anything like that complete understanding. Indeed, the work you read in and around these pages appears to be the first serious attempt by anyone anywhere to deduce what XML Microsoft uses in its preparation of SDB files. The problem of developing a de-compiler is therefore not the exercise in programming, large though it would be relative to one man’s reasonable effort, but the far bigger one in reverse engineering, just to know what XML to de-compile to.

Tools that have yet been published for representing SDB files as XML—indeed, some are described as converting SDB to XML—have not got anywhere near to the XML that Microsoft evidently uses. That’s not to say their authors are incompetent, just that they didn’t have the evidence to work from. The existing tools were almost certainly developed without reference to Microsoft’s compiler. That we do have Microsoft’s compiler means there is straightforward experimental confirmation of any de-compiler’s output: does it re-compile for an exact match? Yet I doubt very much that a successful de-compiler could be developed just by experimental methods and guesswork, however inspired, about what to de-compile to. I’m biased, with a very strong inclination to theoretical methods—what most call static analysis—with experiments just for confirming positives and negatives deduced through theory, but I can’t see a successful de-compiler getting written except from careful and complete study of the compiler’s (binary) code. Even assuming you could assemble the possibly rare skill for such work, and keep the talent motivated, you’d be naive in the extreme to hope for your fully capable, general-purpose Shim Database De-Compiler in only a few man-months.

I certainly don’t have that capacity, but my recent interest in the implications of driver shims for the integrity of kernel-mode drivers did lead naturally to rendering the DRVMAIN.SDB file into XML. For this file, which is specific to the kernel’s loading of drivers and support of devices, relatively few SDB tags are meaningful and only a manageably small subset of those actually do appear in the file as distributed with Windows 8.1. Having worked out how just these SDB tags that appear in this one SDB file get compiled, I did of course soon have a quick-and-dirty tool to automate what I might otherwise have done by hand. Relax, I’m certainly not about to foist that on you. I don’t regard such things as publishable, which is why there are hardly any file-dumping or investigative tools at this website. But with a bee in my bonnet about the embarrassingly poor state of knowledge of SDB files even after so many years, and even after a few have thought well enough of their work on the topic to present at conferences, I have inevitably felt the need to put some money where my mouth is. And so I re-developed the one-time tool with at least some eye for generalisation.

The resulting program is still only good for driver databases, notably the DRVMAIN.SDB that ships with Windows, and even then for not many Windows versions (because, for instance, some tags change interpretations in ways that I don’t see how to account for just from the one compiler version that I studied). Still, even with its very limited aim, people have asked to see what tool produced my XML rendering of DRVMAIN.SDB, and though I certainly do not think that presenting source code for a tool, no matter how well annotated or polished, or even useful, is anything like the same as documenting a file format, I have to agree that this tool does at least demonstrate something that seems not to have been imagined as feasible, and might easily never exist in any better form.

For the particular SDB files it has yet been designed to handle, SHIMDBDC.EXE (named in contrast to Microsoft’s SHIMDBC.EXE) de-compiles to XML that is definitive in the sense that it can then be fed back to Microsoft’s compiler to recreate the SDB files byte for byte excepting only those bytes that tell when the file was compiled. Within limits, the round trip works the other way too: you can edit the XML, compile it to an SDB file and then de-compile it to recover the XML.

For Microsoft’s Shim Database Compiler (SHIMDBC.EXE), download Microsoft’s Application Compatbility Toolkit (ACT), lately rebadged as the Assessment and Deployment Kit (ADK), and “extract” it from the Compatibility Administrator. For directions, with details for one version, see my article Where Is ShimDBC.exe? which is published separately as PoC||GTFO 13:9.


For distribution, the Shim Database De-Compiler is compressed into zip files both with and without source code:

Source Code

Source code is provided in a tree of subdirectories that I have extracted from my larger build tree. Notable subdirectories that contain source code are:

The COMMON subdirectory extracts from headers and library code that I have developed over very many years for all my programming. The root directory has a README.TXT file.


As is natural for a low-level Windows programmer—in my opinion, anyway—all the source code is written to be built with Microsoft’s compiler, linker and related tools, and with the headers and import libraries such as Microsoft supplies in the Software Development Kit (SDK). Try building it with something else if you want, but you’re on your own.

Perhaps less natural for what is, in operating-system terms, a very ordinary console application, all the makefiles are written to be built with the Windows Driver Kit (WDK) for Windows 7. This is the last that supports Windows XP and the last that is self-standing in the sense of having its own installation of Microsoft’s compiler, etc. It also has the merit of supplying an import library for MSVCRT.DLL that does not tie the built executables to a particular version of Visual Studio.

To build the executables, open one of the WDK’s build environments, change to the root directory of this source tree, and run the WDK’s BUILD utility. Try porting it to an Integrated Development Environment such as Visual Studio if you want. I would even be interested in your experience if what you get for your troubles is in any sense superior.

To have the SHIMDBDC.EXE binary and symbol files get collected into the tools\sdb\bin subdirectory, undefine the environment variable NO_BINPLACE before running BUILD. For details, refer to the PROJECT.MK file in the root directory of the source tree.


An indirect merit of using the WDK comes from human preparation of makefiles. Among the many reasons that I have never seen Visual Studio as being worth my time to grapple with, even now that it explicitly supports driver programming, is that its automated generation of makefiles hides the build details not just to help the programmer but to frustrate the reviewer. Makefiles provide naturally for commenting, i.e., to describing what’s in the various source files and why they are built in any particular way. I strongly recommend that you start your reading with the SOURCES file—essentially a makefile inclusion—in each directory that contains source files.

Please note that tab characters in my source files are intended to expand to multiples of eight. This is the traditional handling and was long the standard until someone at Microsoft decided that Visual Studio’s text editor would better expand tabs to multiples of four by default. Traditional handling means that if you’re short of a text editor you can type these source files at the Command Prompt or just print them and they’ll look “right”. If, however, your preferred text editor defaults to expanding tabs any other way, then please adjust its settings before reading my code—else don’t curse me as having no sense of lining things up.