The subtleties of Create­Stream­On­HGlobal, part 4: Non-movable memory


Last time, I noted that some people ignore the requirement that the memory block passed to Create­Stream­On­HGlobal be movable. What happens next?

The documentation is a bit of two minds on this. On the one hand, it says that the memory must be movable. On the other hand, it also talks about how you need to be careful if the memory is not movable (and how using movable memory is strongly recommended). I suspect this ambivalence comes from a compatibility constraint: Although the function is documented as requiring movable memory, in practice, people have provided fixed memory and have relied upon particular implementation details that let them get away with it, so the system has to let you continue to get away with it, at least to the extent that you got away with it before.

So what happens if you ignore the admonitions and pass fixed memory anyway?

The underlying stream doesn’t realize that the memory block is fixed and continues operating under the assumption that it is movable. It still dutifully locks and unlocks the memory block around each access, even though locking and unlocking fixed memory has no effect.

The scariest change is when the underlying memory block needs to be reallocated, because reallocation of a fixed block behaves very differently from reallocation of a movable block. Reallocating a movable block will not change the memory handle, not even if the underlying memory moves to a new address. If the underlying memory moves, that the next attempt to lock the memory block returns the new address.

On the other hand, reallocating a fixed memory block does change the handle if the underlying memory moves, because fixed memory blocks use the memory address as the handle. This means that when a reallocation happens, the internal HGLOBAL changes!

If you have multiple streams sharing the same HGLOBAL, but which aren’t clones of each other, then the consequences of the HGLOBAL changing address are quite dire. It means that once one stream reallocates the HGLOBAL, all the other streams are left with a dangling pointer, which means a use-after-free bug and a security hotfix soon thereafter.

As I noted, the solution here is not to create multiple streams from the same HGLOBAL, but rather to create a single HGLOBAL-based stream from the HGLOBAL, and then clone that stream. Clones of an HGLOBAL-based stream are aware of each other and can coordinate their actions.

But wait, we’re not done yet.

Since reallocation changes the HGLOBAL, it means that if a reallocation occurs, then the HGLOBAL you passed when you created the stream got freed out from under you!

HGLOBAL hglob = GetInitialHGlobal();
IStream* stream;
CreateStreamOnHGlobal(hglob, FALSE, &stream);
WriteToStream(stream); // ← hglob may no longer be valid!

If you’re sticking with the whole fDelete­On­Release = FALSE thing, then you need to check with the stream just before it is destructed, “Hey, so what’s the HGLOBAL you’re managing right now?” In other words, “If you were to be destructed right now, what HGLOBAL would you free?”

You need to ask this question immediately before the final Release of the stream. Asking any sooner risks the possibility that the stream resizes again after you asked, and the answer you got is no longer valid.

The hard part is knowing exactly when to ask this question. It’s not like the stream lets you know that it’s about to be destroyed. You have to keep your eye on the stream and make sure it never lands in the hands of somebody who is going to extend its lifetime.

Personally, I would limit my use of fDelete­On­Release = FALSE to the case of creating a brand new empty stream, writing data into the stream (being careful not to give to anybody who will extend the lifetime), and then extracting the HGLOBAL from it.

And even that is pretty risky. I would probably use an alternate approach of leaving fDelete­On­Release = TRUE and letting the stream itself control the lifetime of the HGLOBAL:

// Non-RAII version to make everything explicit.
IStream* stream = nullptr;

    CreateStreamOnHGlobal(nullptr, TRUE, &stream))) {


    // Lifetime of the HGLOBAL is controlled by the stream.
    HGLOBAL hglob = nullptr;
    if (SUCCEEDED(GetHGlobalFromStream(stream, &hglob))) {

    // This Release call frees the HGLOBAL

Bonus chatter: If I were sent back in time to make small design changes to Create­Stream­On­HGlobal with the benefit of hindsight, I think I would have done something like this:

HRESULT CreateStreamOnHGlobal(HGLOBAL hGlobal, REFIID riid, void** ppv);

Creating a stream always takes ownership of the hGlobal. This avoids the problem of an object that intentionally leaks memory.

interface IStreamOnHGlobal : IUnknown
    HRESULT DetachHGlobal(HGLOBAL* result);

Instead of the Get­HGlobal­From­Stream function, we use this interface that can be queried from the stream. Using an interface avoids undefined behavior if somebody calls Get­HGlobal­From­Stream with a stream that didn’t come from Create­Stream­On­HGlobal. The introduction of this interface explains why I changed the signature of Create­Stream­On­HGlobal to let you specify the output interface.

The interface method Detach­HGlobal behaves differently from Get­HGlobal­From­Stream. The method performs an ownership transfer, rather than sharing ownership. Once you detach the HGLOBAL from a stream, it cannot be put back, and any future stream operations return an error (perhaps RO_E_CLOSED from the future).

This avoids the problem of a stream that has had its HGLOBAL freed out from under it: At no point is ownership of the HGLOBAL ever shared. It belongs clearly to somebody at all times. If you want to access the HGLOBAL, you have to take ownership of it.


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  • Ray

    And I thought working with own buffers in a .NET MemoryStream was hard somehow.

  • Joshua Hudson

    It occurs to me there are three general patterns where one would use this.

    1) You are passing a stream to something that reads it. If the memory is in a pre-existing HGLOBAL you would want to retain ownership. The code structure will ensure that the memory is freed correctly. I’m kind of disappointed you can’t pass it an arbitrary pointer to a blob.

    2) You are passing a stream to something that reads it as a persistent stream. (The true in-memory version of a file stream.) In this case you would want to copy to a new HGLOBAL and give the stream ownership.

    3) You are passing the stream to a geneartor. You would essentially always want to have it allocate and manage the stream, and when the generator finishes grab the HGLBOAL and do what you want with the memory, that is copy it into the middle of something else. I’m having a hard time imaging why you would want to keep the existing HGLBOAL but again if you did the code structure would protect.

    An interesting API change that could be added on immediately and simplify the worst of the problems for new applications:

    IStreamGlobal { /* Interfaces are immutable so we have to add one */
    HGLBOAL SwapHGlobal(HGLOBAL newMemory);

    We extend the semantics to allow NULL as a HGLOBAL to both this function and to CreateStreamOnHGlobal; NULL is treated as a stream of zero length. The idea is you would always pass TRUE for fDeleteOnRelease and when the time comes to get your HGLOBAL back or gather it up in the first place you call SwapHGlobal to get yours and put the NULL in. There’s already an IStream::Seek interface member. (Note that I’m used to seek()-like API functions not validating their position and having a file pointer well off the end of the file not being an error condition. Fill with zeros on actual write.)