Reverse Engineering Fun

Recently I read a lot about reverse engineering –  in relation to malware research. I for one simply wanted to get ancient and hardly documented HVAC engineering software to work.

The software in question should have shown a photo of the front panel of a device – knobs and displays – augmented with current system’s data, and you could have played with settings to ‘simulate’ the control unit’s behavior.

I tested it on several machines, to rule out some typical issues quickly: Will in run on Windows 7? Will it run on a 32bit system? Do I need to run it was Administrator? None of that helped. I actually saw the application’s user interface coming up once, on the Win 7 32bit test machine I had not started in a while. But I could not reproduce the correct start-up, and in all other attempts on all other machines I just encountered an error message … that used an Asian character set.

I poked around the files and folders the application uses. There were some .xls and .xml files, and most text was in the foreign character set. The Asian error message was a generic Windows dialogue box: You cannot select the text within it directly, but the whole contents of such error messages can be copied using Ctrl+C. Pasting it into Google Translate it told me:

Failed to read the XY device data file

Checking the files again, there was an on xydevice.xls file, and I wondered if the relative path from exe to xls did not work, or if it was an issue with permissions. The latter was hard to believe, given that I simply copied the whole bunch of files, my user having the same (full) permissions on all of them.

I started Microsoft Sysinternals Process Monitor to check if the application was groping in vain for the file. It found the file just fine in the right location:

Immediately before accessing the file, the application looped through registry entries for Microsoft JET database drivers for Office files – the last one it probed was msexcl40.dll – a  database driver for accessing Excel files.

There is no obvious error in this dump: The xls file was closed before the Windows error popup was brought up; so the application had handled the error somehow.

I had been tinkering a lot myself with database drivers for Excel spreadsheets, Access databases, and even text files – so that looked like a familiar engineering software hack to me 🙂 On start-up the application created a bunch of XML files – I saw them once, right after I saw the GUI once in that non-reproducible test. As far as I could decipher the content in the foreign language, the entries were taken from that problematic xls file which contained a formatted table. It seemed that the application was using a sheet in the xls file as a database table.

What went wrong? I started Windows debugger WinDbg (part of the Debugging tools for Windows). I tried to go the next unhandled or handled exception, and I saw again that it stumbled over msexec40.dll:

But here was finally a complete and googleable error message in nerd speak:

Unexpected error from external database driver (1).

This sounded generic and I was not very optimistic. But this recent Microsoft article was one of the few mentioning the specific error message – an overview of operating system updates and fixes, dated October 2017. It describes exactly the observed issue with using the JET database driver to access an xls file:

Finally my curious observation of the non-reproducible single successful test made sense: When I started the exe on the Win 7 test client, this computer had been started the first time after ~3 months; it was old and slow, and it was just processing Windows Updates – so at the first run the software had worked because the deadly Windows Update had not been applied yet.

Also the ‘2007 timeframe’ mentioned was consistent – as all the application’s executable files were nearly 10 years old. The recommended strategy is to use a more modern version of the database driver, but Microsoft also states they will fix it again in a future version.

So I did not get the software to to run, as I obviously cannot fix somebody else’s compiled code – but I could provide the exact information needed by the developer to repair it.

But the key message in this post is that it was simply a lot of fun to track this down 🙂