Virtual DOS machines can operate either exclusively through typical software emulation methods (e.g. dynamic recompilation) or can rely on the virtual 8086 mode of the Intel 80386 processor, which allows real mode 8086 software to run in a controlled environment by catching all operations which involve accessing protected hardware and forwarding them to the normal operating system (as exceptions). The operating system can then perform an emulation and resume the execution of the DOS software.
When a DOS program running inside a VDM needs to access a peripheral, Windows will either allow this directly (rarely), or will present the DOS program with a virtual device driver (VDD) which emulates the hardware using operating system functions. A VDM will systematically have emulations for the Intel 8259A interrupt controllers, the 8254 timer chips, the 8237 DMA controller, etc.
DOS-based VDMs appeared with Windows/386 2.10 in 1987 and were also present in Windows 3.0, 3.1x and Windows for Workgroups 3.1x running in 386 Enhanced Mode as well as in Windows 95, 98, 98 SE and ME.
Similar to Windows 3.x 386 Enhanced Mode in architecture, EMM386 3.xx of Novell DOS 7,Caldera OpenDOS 7.01,DR-DOS 7.02 (and later) also uses VDMs to support pre-emptive multitasking of multiple DOS applications, when the EMM386 /MULTI option is used. This component has been under development at Digital Research / Novell since (at least) 1991 under the codename "Vladivar" (originally a separate device driver KRNL386.SYS instead of a module of EMM386). While primarily developed for the next major version of DR DOS, released as Novell DOS 7 in 1994, it was also used in the never released "Star Trek" project in 1992/1993.
VDMs called MVDM (Multiple Virtual DOS Machine) are used in OS/2 2.0 and later since 1992. OS/2 MVDMs are considerably more powerful than NTVDM. For example, block devices are supported, and various DOS versions can be booted into an OS/2 MVDM. While the OS/2 1.x DOS box was based on DOS 3.0, OS/2 2.x MVDMs emulate DOS 5.0.
Seamless integration of Windows 3.1 and later Win32s applications in OS/2 is a concept looking similar on surface to the seamless integration of XP Mode based on Windows Virtual PC in Windows 7. A redirector in a "guest" VDM or NTVDM allows access on the disks of the OS/2 or NT "host". Applications in a "guest" can use named pipes for communication with their "host".
NTVDM is a system component of all IA-32 editions of the Windows NT family since 1993 which allows execution of 16-bit Windows and 16-bit / 32-bit DOS applications. It is not included with 64-bit versions. The Windows NT 32-bit user-mode executable which forms the basis for a single DOS (or Windows 3.x) environment is called ntvdm.exe.
In order to execute DOS programs, NTVDM loads NTIO.SYS which in turn loads NTDOS.SYS, which executes a modified COMMAND.COM in order to run the application that was passed to NTVDM as command-line argument. The 16-bit real-mode system files are stripped down derivations of their MS-DOS 5.0 equivalents IO.SYS, MSDOS.SYS and COMMAND.COM with all hard-wired assumptions on the FAT file system removed and using the invalid opcode 0xC4 0xC4 to bop down into the 32-bit NTVDM to handle the requests. Originally, NTDOS reported a DOS version of 30.00 to programs, but this was soon changed to report a version of 5.00 at INT 21h/AH=30h and 5.50 at INT 21h/AX=3306h to allow more programs to run unmodified. This holds true even in the newest releases of Windows; many additional MS-DOS functions and commands introduced in MS-DOS versions 6.x and in Windows 9x are missing.
16-bit applications all run in their own thread within a single preemptively multithreaded 32-bit NTVDM process. The 16-bit processes are by default cooperatively multitasked with respect to each other, unless the "Run in separate memory space" option is checked in the Run box or the application's shortcut file. NTVDM emulates BIOS calls and tables as well as the Windows 3.1 kernel and 16-bit API stubs. The 32-bit WoW translation layer thunks 16-bit API routines.
32-bit DOS emulation is present for DOS Protected Mode Interface (DPMI) and 32-bit memory access. This layer converts the necessary extended and expanded memory calls for DOS functions into Windows NT memory calls. wowexec.exe is the emulation layer that emulates 16-bit Windows. Windows 2000 and Windows XP added Sound Blaster 2.0 emulation. 16-bit virtual device drivers and DOS block device drivers (e.g., RAM disks) are not supported. Inter-process communication with other subsystems can take place through OLE, DDE and named pipes.
Since virtual 8086 mode is not available on non-x86-based processors (more specifically, MIPS, DEC Alpha, and PowerPC) NTVDM was instead implemented as a full emulator in these versions of NT, using code licensed from Insignia's SoftPC. Up to Windows NT 3.51, only 80286 emulation was available. With Windows NT 4.0, 486 emulation was added.
In January 2010, Google security researcher Tavis Ormandy revealed a serious security flaw in Windows NT's VDM implementation that allowed unprivileged users to escalate their privileges to SYSTEM level, noted as applicable to the security of all x86 versions of the Windows NT kernel since 1993. This included all 32-bit versions of Windows NT, 2000, XP, Server 2003, Vista, Server 2008, and Windows 7. Ormandy did publish a proof-of-concept exploit for the vulnerability. Prior to Microsoft's release of a security patch, the workaround for this issue was to turn off 16-bit application support, which prevented older programs (those written for DOS and Windows 3.1) from running. 64-bit versions of Windows were not affected since they do not include the NTVDM subsystem. Once the Microsoft security patches had been applied to the affected operating systems the VDM could be safely reenabled.[nb 1]
A limitation exists in the Windows XP 16-bit subsystem (but not in earlier versions of Windows NT) because of the raised per-session limit for GDI objects which causes GDI handles to be shifted to the right by two bits, when converting them from 32 to 16 bits. As a result, the actual handle cannot be larger than 14 bits and consequently 16-bit applications that happen to be served a handle larger than 16384 by the GDI system crash and terminate with an error message.
The NTVDM is not supported on x86-64 and AAarch64 versions of Windows, which do not support 16-bit x86 code of any kind, including DOS programs. The only way to run them is to use Windows XP Mode, other virtualization software, or to use NTVDMx64, an unofficial port of the older emulated implementation of the NTVDM which was provided on NT 4 for non-x86 platforms.
In general, VDM and similar technologies do not satisfactorily run most older DOS games on today's computers. Emulation is only provided for the most basic peripherals, often implemented incompletely. For example, sound emulation in NTVDM is very limited. NT-family versions of Windows only update the real screen a few times per second when a DOS program writes to it, and they do not emulate higher resolution graphics modes. Because software mostly runs native at the speed of the host CPU, all timing loops will expire prematurely. This either makes a game run much too fast or causes the software not even to notice the emulated hardware peripherals, because it does not wait long enough for an answer.
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