Processes, Threads, and Jobs in the Windows Operating System

  • 6/17/2009

Examining Thread Activity

Examining thread activity is especially important if you are trying to determine why a process that is hosting multiple services is running (such as Svchost.exe, Dllhost.exe, or Lsass.exe) or why a process is hung.

There are several tools that expose various elements of the state of Windows threads: WinDbg (in user-process attach and kernel debugging mode), the Reliability and Performance Monitor, and Process Explorer. (The tools that show thread-scheduling information are listed in the section Thread Scheduling.)

To view the threads in a process with Process Explorer, select a process and open the process properties (double-click on the process or click on the Process, Properties menu item). Then click on the Threads tab. This tab shows a list of the threads in the process and three columns of information. For each thread it shows the percentage of CPU consumed (based on the refresh interval configured), the number of context switches to the thread, and the thread start address. You can sort by any of these three columns.

New threads that are created are highlighted in green, and threads that exit are highlighted in red. (The highlight duration can be configured with the Options, Configure Highlighting menu item.) This might be helpful to discover unnecessary thread creation occurring in a process. (In general, threads should be created at process startup, not every time a request is processed inside a process.)

As you select each thread in the list, Process Explorer displays the thread ID, start time, state, CPU time counters, number of context switches, and the base and current priority. There is a Kill button, which will terminate an individual thread, but this should be used with extreme care.

The best way to measure actual CPU activity with Process Explorer is to add the clock cycle delta column, which uses the clock cycle counter designed for thread run-time accounting (as described later in this chapter). Because many threads run for such a short amount of time that they are seldom (if ever) the currently running thread when the clock interval timer interrupt occurs, they are not charged for much of their CPU time. The total number of clock cycles represents the actual number of processor cycles that each thread in the process accrued. It is independent of the clock interval timer’s resolution because the count is maintained internally by the processor at each cycle and updated by Windows at each interrupt entry (a final accumulation is done before a context switch).

The thread start address is displayed in the form "module!function“, where module is the name of the .exe or .dll. The function name relies on access to symbol files for the module. (See “Experiment: Viewing Process Details with Process Explorer” in Chapter 1.) If you are unsure what the module is, click the Module button. This opens an Explorer file properties window for the module containing the thread’s start address (for example, the .exe or .dll).

However, the thread start address displayed might not be enough information to pinpoint what the thread is doing and which component within the process is responsible for the CPU consumed by the thread. This is especially true if the thread start address is a generic startup function (for example, if the function name does not indicate what the thread is actually doing). In this case, examining the thread stack might answer the question. To view the stack for a thread, double-click on the thread of interest (or select it and click the Stack button). Process Explorer displays the thread’s stack (both user and kernel, if the thread was in kernel mode).

Viewing the thread stack can also help you determine why a process is hung. As an example, on one system, Microsoft Office PowerPoint was hanging for one minute on startup. To determine why it was hung, after starting PowerPoint, Process Explorer was used to examine the thread stack of the one thread in the process. The result is shown in Figure 5-10.

Figure 5-10

Figure 5-10. Hung thread stack in PowerPoint

This thread stack shows that PowerPoint (line 10) called a function in Mso.dll (the central Microsoft Office DLL), which called the OpenPrinterW function in Winspool.drv (a DLL used to connect to printers). Winspool.drv then dispatched to a function OpenPrinterRPC, which then called a function in the RPC runtime DLL, indicating it was sending the request to a remote printer. So, without having to understand the internals of PowerPoint, the module and function names displayed on the thread stack indicate that the thread was waiting to connect to a network printer. On this particular system, there was a network printer that was not responding, which explained the delay starting PowerPoint. (Microsoft Office applications connect to all configured printers at process startup.) The connection to that printer was deleted from the user’s system, and the problem went away.

Finally, when looking at 32-bit applications running on 64-bit systems as a Wow64 process (see Chapter 3 for more information on Wow64), Process Explorer shows both the 32-bit and 64-bit stack for threads. Because at the time of the system call proper, the thread has been switched to a 64-bit stack and context, simply looking at the thread’s 64-bit stack would reveal only half the story—the 64-bit part of the thread, with Wow64’s thunking code. So, when examining Wow64 processes, be sure to take into account both the 32-bit and 64-bit stacks. An example of a Wow64 thread inside Microsoft Office Word 2007 is shown in Figure 5-11. The stack frames highlighted in the box are the 32-bit stack frames from the 32-bit stack.

Figure 5-11

Figure 5-11. Example Wow64 stack

Limitations on Protected Process Threads

As we discussed in the process internals section, protected processes have several limitations in terms of which access rights will be granted, even to the users with the highest privileges on the system. These limitations also apply to threads inside such a process. This ensures that the actual code running inside the protected process cannot be hijacked or otherwise affected through standard Windows functions, which require the access rights in Table 5-14.

Table 5-14. Thread Access Rights Denied for Threads Inside a Protected Process

Object: Access Mask



Disables full access to a thread inside a protected process.


Disables impersonating a thread inside a protected process.


Disables accessing and/or modifying the CPU context (registers and stack) of a thread inside a protected process.


Disables querying all information on a thread inside a protected process. However, a new access right was added, THREAD_QUERY_LIMITED_INFORMATION, that grants limited access to information on the thread.


Disables setting all information on a thread inside a protected process. However, a new access right was added, THREAD_SET_LIMITED_INFORMATION, that grants limited access to modifying information on the thread.


Disables setting an impersonation token for a thread inside a protected process.


Disables terminating a thread inside a protected process. Note that terminating all threads atomically through process termination is allowed.