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Crash Dump Files

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By default, all Windows systems are configured to attempt to record information about the state of the system when the system crashes. You can see these settings by opening the System tool in Control Panel, clicking the Advanced tab in the System Properties dialog box, and then clicking the Settings button under Startup And Recovery.

Three levels of information can be recorded on a system crash:

• Complete memory dump. A complete memory dump contains all of physical memory at the time of the crash. This type of dump requires that a page file be at least the size of physical memory plus 1 MB for the header. Device drivers can take advantage of up to 256 MB for device dump data, but the additional space is not required for a header. Because it can require an inordinately large page file on large memory systems, this type of dump file is the least common setting. If the system has more than 2 GB of RAM, this option will be disabled in the UI, but you can manually enable it by setting the CrashDumpEnabled value to 1 in the HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\CrashControl registry key. At initialization time, Windows will check whether the page-file size is large enough for a complete dump and automatically switch to creating a small memory dump if not. Large server systems might not have space for a complete dump but may be able to dump useful information, so you can add the IgnorePagefileSize value to the same registry key to have the system generate a dump file until it runs out of space.



• Kernel memory dump. A kernel memory dump contains only the kernel-mode read/ write pages present in physical memory at the time of the crash. This type of dump doesn’t contain pages belonging to user processes. Because only kernel-mode code can directly cause Windows to crash, however, it’s unlikely that user process pages are necessary to debug a crash. In addition, all data structures relevant for crash dump analysis—including the list of running processes, stack of the current thread, and list of loaded drivers—are stored in nonpaged memory that saves in a kernel memory dump. There is no way to predict the size of a kernel memory dump because its size depends
on the amount of kernel-mode memory allocated by the operating system and drivers
present on the machine. This is the default setting for both Windows Vista and
Windows Server 2008.



• Small memory dump. A small memory dump, which is typically between 128 KB and
1 MB in size and is also called a minidump or triage dump, contains the stop code and parameters, the list of loaded device drivers, the data structures that describe the current process and thread, the kernel stack for the thread that caused the crash, and additional memory considered potentially relevant by crash dump heuristics, such as the pages referenced by processor registers that contain memory addresses and secondary dump data added by drivers. The debugger indicates that it has limited information available to it when it loads a minidump, and basic commands like !process, which lists active processes, don’t have the data they need. Here is an example of !process executed on a minidump:

Microsoft (R) Windows Debugger Version 6.10.0003.233 X86
Copyright (c) Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

Loading Dump File [C:\Windows\Minidump\Mini100108-01.dmp]
Mini Kernel Dump File: Only registers and stack trace are available
...
0: kd> !process 0 0
**** NT ACTIVE PROCESS DUMP ****
GetPointerFromAddress: unable to read from 81d3a86c
Error in reading nt!_EPROCESS at 00000000

A kernel memory dump includes more information, but switching to a different process’s address space mappings won’t work because required data isn’t in the dump file. Here is an example of the debugger loading a kernel memory dump, followed by an attempt to switch process address spaces:

Microsoft (R) Windows Debugger Version 6.10.0003.233 X86
Copyright (c) Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

Loading Dump File [C:\Windows\MEMORY.DMP]
Kernel Summary Dump File: Only kernel address space is available
...
0: kd> !process 0 0 explorer.exe
PROCESS 867250a8 ...

0: kd> .process 867250a8 ...
Process 867250a8 has invalid page directories

While a complete memory dump is a superset of the other options, it has the drawback that its size tracks the amount of physical memory on a system and can therefore become unwieldy. It’s not unusual for systems today to have several gigabytes of memory, resulting in crash dump files that are too large to be uploaded to an FTP server or burned onto a CD. Because user-mode code and data are not used during the analysis of most crashes (because crashes originate as a result of problems in kernel memory, and system data structures reside in kernel memory) much of the data stored in a complete memory dump is not relevant to analysis and therefore contributes wastefully to the size of a dump file. A final disadvantage is that the paging file on the boot volume (the volume with the \Windows directory) must be at least as large as the amount of physical memory on the system plus up to 365 MB. Because the size of the paging files required, in general, inversely tracks the amount of physical memory present, this requirement can force the paging file to be unnecessarily large. You should therefore consider the advantages offered by the small and kernel memory dump options.

An advantage of a minidump is its small size, which makes it convenient for exchange via e-mail, for example. In addition, each crash generates a file in the directory \Windows\Minidump with a unique file name consisting of the string “Mini” plus the date plus a sequence number that counts the number of minidumps on that day (for example, Mini082608-01.dmp). A disadvantage of minidumps is that to analyze them, you must have access to the exact images used on the system that generated the dump at the time you analyze the dump. (At a minimum, a copy of the matching Ntoskrnl.exe is needed to perform the most basic analysis.) This can be problematic if you want to analyze a dump on a system different from the system that generated the dump. However, the Microsoft symbol server contains images (and symbols) for all recent Windows versions, so you can set the image path in the debugger to point to the symbol server, and the debugger will automatically download the needed images. (Of course, the Microsoft symbol server won’t have images for thirdparty drivers you have installed.)

A more significant disadvantage is that the limited amount of data stored in the dump can hamper effective analysis. You can also get the advantages of minidumps even when you configure a system to generate kernel or complete crash dumps by opening the larger crash with WinDbg and using the .dump /m command to extract a minidump. Note that a minidump is automatically created even if the system is set for full or kernel dumps.

The kernel memory dump option offers a practical middle ground. Because it contains all of kernel-mode-owned physical memory, it has the same level of analysis-related data as a complete memory dump, but it omits the usually irrelevant user-mode data and code, and therefore can be significantly smaller. As an example, on a system running Windows Vista with 4 GB of RAM, a kernel memory dump was 160 MB in size.

When you configure kernel memory dumps, the system checks whether the paging file is large enough, as described earlier. Some general recommendations, but these are only estimated sizes because there is no way to predict the size of a kernel memory dump. The reason you can’t predict the size of a kernel memory dump is that its size depends on the amount of kernel-mode memory in use by the operating system and drivers present on the machine at the time of the crash.

Therefore, it is possible that at the time of the crash, the paging file is too small to hold a kernel dump. If you want to see the size of a kernel dump on your system, force a manual crash either by configuring the option to allow you to initiate a manual system crash from
the console or by using the Notmyfault tool. When you reboot, you can check to make sure that a kernel dump was generated and check its size to gauge how large to make your boot volume paging file. To be conservative, on 32-bit systems you can choose a page file size of 2 GB plus up to 356 MB, because 2 GB is the maximum kernel-mode address space available (unless you are booting with the 3gb and/or userva boot options, in which case this can be up to 3 GB). If you do not have enough space on the boot volume for saving the memory.dmp file, you can choose a location on any other local hard disk through the dialog box.



Source of Information : Microsoft Press Windows Internals 5th Edition

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