A Comprehensive Guide To PE Structure, The Layman’s Way

In this article, we will look at the PE Structure or Portable Executable file format or PE File Format, which is important in understanding an executable file’s internal part.

Once you have an overall idea about what’s inside the executable file and how it works in Windows, it will become easy to analyze any executable file as you advance the journey to the Malware Analysis path.

Hopefully, this article will make you understand the overall scenario as to why I wrote this up and the importance of PE Structure or PE File Format while analysing any malware binary.

Also, I would try to keep this post as simple as possible since I assume you are new to this exciting world of Malware Analysis, and I don’t want you to get overwhelmed.

Lets have an in-depth look into Win32 Portable Executable File Format.

Introduction to PE Structure

Each executable file has a common format called Common Object File Format (COFF), a format for executable, object code, and shared library computer files used on Unix systems. And PE file format is one such COFF format available today for executable, object code, DLLs, FON font files, and core dumps in 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows operating systems.

And if you ask me what’s on the plate for Linux then? We have an Executable Link File (ELF) format for Linux. Since I have dedicated this post to the Windows PE headers, I will discuss ELF format in some other posts later.

PE (Portable Executable) file format is a data structure that tells the Windows OS loader what information is required to manage the wrapped executable code. This includes dynamic library references for linking, API export, import tables, resource management data, and TLS data.

The data structures on disk are the same data structures used in the memory, and if you know how to find something in a PE file, you can almost certainly find the exact information after the file is loaded into the memory.

It is important to note that PE files are not just mapped into memory as a single memory-mapped file. Instead, the Win32 loader looks at the PE file and decides what portions of the file to map in.

A module in memory represents all the code, data, and resources from an executable file needed by a process.

Other parts of a PE file may be read but not mapped in (for instance, relocations). Some parts may not be mapped in at all, for example, when debug information is placed at the end of the file.

A field in the PE header tells the system how much memory needs to be set aside for mapping the executable into memory. Data that won’t be mapped in is placed at the end of the file, past any parts that will be mapped in.

What are the contents of the PE Structure?

The PE data structures include DOS Header, DOS Stub, PE File Header, Image Optional Header, Section Table, Data Dictionaries, and Sections.

PE Structure
Portable Executable FILE Format

Let me explain these data structures with the help of an example. So, I am taking an example of Calculator (calc.exe) here, which I’ll be opening in Hex Editor (HxD). You can grab this handy tool from here.

Calc in HxD
Calc in HxD

DOS Header

DOS Header occupies the first 64 bytes of the file. i.e., the first 4 rows of the hex editor as seen in the image below. If you notice, you will see the ASCII strings “MZ” mentioned at the beginning of the file. This MZ occupies the first two bytes (hexadecimal: 4D 5A or 0x54AD) of the DOS Header, which is read as 5Ah 4Dh.

MZ is the initials of Mark Zbikowski, one of the developers of MS-DOS. This field is called e_magic or the magic number, which is a vital field to identify an MS-DOS-compatible file type. All MS-DOS-compatible executable files set this value to 0x5A4D, i.e., “MZ” in ASCII.

The final field, e_lfanew, is a 4-byte offset (F0 00 00 00) and tells where the PE Header is located. Check the PE header section below for this offset location.

DOS Header

DOS Stub Program

A stub is a tiny program or a piece of code that is run by default when the execution of an application starts. This stub prints out the message “This program cannot be run in DOS mode” when the program is not compatible with Windows.

So if we run a Win32-based program in an environment that doesn’t support Win32, we will get this informative error message.

In this case, the real-mode stub program is run by MS-DOS when the executable is loaded. When a Windows loader maps a PE file into the memory, the first byte of the file that gets mapped corresponds to the first byte of the MS-Dos stub.

DOS Stub

PE File Header

The PE header is located by looking at the e_lfanew field of the MS-DOS Header. The e_lfanew field gives the offset of the PE header location. The field e_lfanew denotes the file header of the new .exe header. The main PE Header is a structure of type IMAGE_NT_HEADERS and mainly contains SIGNATURE, IMAGE_FILE_HEADER, and IMAGE_OPTIONAL_HEADER.

SIGNATURE: This is the 4 bytes Dword signature. In this case, the offset set for the PE header is 000000F0, and the PE signature starts at 50 45 00 00 (the letter PE followed by two terminating zeroes).

PE Header

IMAGE_FILE_HEADER: The file header is the next 20 bytes of the PE file and contains only the most basic information about the file’s layout.

PE Header

The above-highlighted part of the image signifies the file header of any portable executable file.

The fields of the Image File Header are as follows:-

Image File Header

IMAGE_OPTIONAL_HEADER: One should not assume from the name itself that this is an optional header and is not a relevant one. This header contains some critical information that is beyond the basic information contained in the IMAGE_FILE_HEADER data structure.

Some of the important fields that one should be aware of are listed below:-

  • Magic: The magic field tells whether an executable image is 32-bit or 64-bit. The value set in the Magic field is IMAGE_NT_OPTIONAL_HDR_MAGIC, and the value is defined as IMAGE_NT_OPTIONAL_HDR32_MAGIC (0x10b) in a 32-bit application and as IMAGE_NT_OPTIONAL_HDR64_MAGIC (0x20b) in a 64-bit application.
  • AddressOfEntryPoint: It is the address where the Windows loader will begin execution. This holds the RVA (Relative Virtual Address) of the Entry Point (EP) of the module and is usually found in the .text section. For executable, this is the starting address. For device drivers, this is the address of the initialized function. The entry point function is optional for DLLs, and when no entry point is present, this member is zero.
  • The BaseOfCode and BaseOfData members hold the RVAs of the beginning of the code and data sections, respectively.
  • ImageBase: It is the address where an executable file will be memory-mapped to a specific location in memory. In Windows NT, the default image base for an executable is 0x10000, and for DLL, the default is 0x400000. Keep in mind that in the case of Windows 95, the address 0x10000 can’t be used to load 32-bit EXEs because it lies with the linear address region shared by all processes. And because of this, Microsoft decided to change the default base address for the Win32 executable to 0x400000. So, this is by default 0x400000 for applications and 0x10000000 for DLLs.
  • SectionAlignment and FileAlignment: Both members indicate the alignment of the sections of PE in the memory and in the file, respectively. When an executable is mapped into the memory, each section of that executable starts at a virtual address which is the multiple of this value.
  • SizeOfImage: The SizeOfImage member indicates the memory size occupied by the PE file on runtime. It has to be a multiple of the SectionAlignment values.
  • Subsystem: This field identifies the target subsystem for an executable file, i.e., the type of subsystem an executable uses for its user interface. Each possible subsystem value are defined in the WINNT.H file:
ValueIdentifierMeaning
NATIVE1It doesn’t require a subsystem
WINDOWS_GUI2Runs in Windows GUI subsystem
WINDOWS_CLI3Runs in Windows character subsystem
OS2_CUI5Runs in OS/2 character subsystem
POSIX_CUI7Runs in the Posix character subsystem

Finally, at the end of the IMAGE_OPTIONAL_HEADER structure, next is the so-called Data Directory array of IMAGE_DATA_DIRECTORY structures. The Data Directory member is a pointer to the first IMAGE_DATA_DIRECTORY structure.

IMAGE_DATA_DIRECTORY: The data directory field indicates where to find the other important components of executable information in the file. The structures of this field are located at the bottom of the optional header structure. The current PE file format defines 16 possible data structures, out of which 11 are currently used.

Below are some of the data directories:

// Directory Entries

// Export Directory
define IMAGE_DIRECTORY_ENTRY_EXPORT 0
// Import Directory
define IMAGE_DIRECTORY_ENTRY_IMPORT 1
// Resource Directory
define IMAGE_DIRECTORY_ENTRY_RESOURCE 2
// Exception Directory
define IMAGE_DIRECTORY_ENTRY_EXCEPTION 3
// Security Directory
define IMAGE_DIRECTORY_ENTRY_SECURITY 4
// Base Relocation Table
define IMAGE_DIRECTORY_ENTRY_BASERELOC 5
// Debug Directory
define IMAGE_DIRECTORY_ENTRY_DEBUG 6
// Description String
define IMAGE_DIRECTORY_ENTRY_COPYRIGHT 7
// Machine Value (MIPS GP)
define IMAGE_DIRECTORY_ENTRY_GLOBALPTR 8
// TLS Directory
define IMAGE_DIRECTORY_ENTRY_TLS 9
// Load Configuration Directory
define IMAGE_DIRECTORY_ENTRY_LOAD_CONFIG 10

A few important ones are the ExportTableAddress (table of exported functions), the ImportTableAddress (table of imported functions), and the ResourcesTable (table of resources such as images embedded in the PE), and the ImportAddressTable (IAT), which stores the runtime addresses of the imported functions.

Each data directory entry specifies the size and relative virtual address of the directory. To locate a particular directory, we first need to determine the relative virtual address from the data directory array in the optional header. Then we have to use the virtual address to determine which section the directory is in.

Once we identify which section contains the directory, the section header for that section is then used to find the exact file offset location of the data directory.

The data directory is another important concept that one should be aware of. As I don’t want to make this post lengthy for you. I have covered the Data Directory topic in a separate post mentioned below:

Read more:
Journey Towards Import Address Table (IAT) of an Executable

Section Header Table

Section Header Table is an array of IMAGE_SECTION_HEADER structures and contains information related to the various sections available in the image of an executable file. The sections in the image are sorted by the RVAs rather than alphabetically.

Sections Headers Table contains the following important fields:

  • SizeOfRawData: This specifies the real size of the section in the file. If this is the last section and we sum this value with the PointerToRawData value, then the result will be the size of the value itself.
  • VirtualSize: This section indicates the size of the section in memory.
  • PointerToRawData: The offset where the Raw Data section starts in the file. So, by adding this to the value above and assuming that the file alignment property is set to default, we can obtain the offset of where the next section starts in the file.
  • VirtualAddress: The RVA of the section in memory. Using VirtualAddress and VirtualSize info. we can obtain the RVA of the next section, assuming that the memory alignment property is set to default.
  • Characteristics: This tells about the memory access rights for that section in memory denoted as flags (R, RW, RWE, etc..). These flags describe whether the section is executable, readable, writable, or some combination of these.

Sections

PE file section headers also specify the section name using a simple character array field called Name. Below are the various common sections names available from an executable file:

  • .text: This is normally the first section and contains the executable code for the application. Inside this section is also an entry point of the application: the address of the first application instruction that will be executed. An application can have more than one section with the executable code.
  • .data: This section contains initialized data of an application, such as strings.
  • .rdata or .idata: Usually, these section names are used for the sections where the import table is located. This table lists the Windows API used by the application (along with the names of their associated DLLs). Using this, the Windows loader knows the API to find in which system DLL to retrieve its address.
  • .reloc: contains information about the address of relocation table
  • .rsrc: This is the common name for the resource-container section, which contains things like images used for the application’s UI.
  • .debug: contains debug information.

One thing to note is that the author can modify the names of these sections. However, in a general scenario, the above-mentioned are some of the common names of specific sections, but one shouldn’t imply that they will always be used with the same name or for the same purpose.

And because the array is only 8 bytes long, PE section names are limited to only 8 characters long. Their maximum length is 8 ASCII characters, and each section has its characteristics (access right permissions in memory).

For example, .text section usually has read/execute access, .data section with read/write and .rsrc section with read-only access, etc.

The .edata and .data Sections

Among the above-mentioned common sections available in any PE file, it also includes other important sections as well, namely .edata and .idata, which contain the table to exported and imported functions.

The export directory and import directory (directory entries under Optional Header) entries in the DataDirectory array refer to these sections.

The .idata sections specify which functions and data the binary imports from the shared libraries or DLLs, and the .edata section lists down the various functions and their addresses that the DLL will export to be used by other binary files.

Conclusion

PE format is one of the most important concepts in understanding any malware binary. It gives a plethora of information about any executable, whether it is compiled for a 32-bit or a 64-bit machine or whether it’s a DLL file or any other file.

I hope this article could give you a brief understanding of PE file format and what to look for when you start analysing an executable.

FAQs

References:

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3 comments
  1. hI Satyajit! thank you so much for writing this article (sorry, but it seems I can only write in uppercase).
    Do you know what sections are read while computing the signature on a Windows executable?
    thank you so much!
    best!
    pablo

  2. Hi Pablo,
    Thanks and Yes, I just noticed… I can also type in Uppercase only. But system has already posted your comment as small case later. I’ll look into this.

    Well, to answer your query, I am not sure how it works exactly but i think that during signature computation, specific sections or portions of an executable file which I had mentioned earlier like code section, data section, imports/exports and resources are included in the hashing process. And once the hash value is computed it is encrypted with the private key to create a digital signature. Finally this signature is then embedded within the executable file.

    Hope I answered your query.

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