How To Launch a Win32 Application from Visual Basic

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SUMMARY

A Windows application can consist of more than one process, and a process can consist of more than one thread. The Microsoft Win32 application program interface (API) supports multitasking, which creates the effect of simultaneous execution of multiple processes and threads. This article describes processes and threads, and explains how to create and use them from Microsoft Visual Basic, with a step-by-step example.

MORE INFORMATION

A process is a program that is loaded into memory and prepared for execution. Each process has a private virtual address space. A process consists of the code, data, and other system resources such as files, pipes, and synchronization objects that are accessible to the threads of the process. Each process is started with a single thread, but additional independently executing threads can be created.

A thread can execute any part of the program's code, including a part executed by another thread. Threads are the basic entity to which the operating system allocates CPU time. Each thread maintains a set of structures for saving its context while waiting to be scheduled for processing time. The context includes the thread's set of machine registers, the kernel stack, a thread environment block, and a user stack in the address space of the thread's process. All threads of a process share the virtual address space and can access the global variables and system resources of the process.

A multitasking operating system divides the available CPU time among the threads that need it. In Windows, the Win32 API is designed for preemptive multitasking; this means that the system allocates small slices of CPU time among the competing threads. The currently executing thread is suspended when its time slice elapses, allowing another thread to run. When the system switches from one thread to another, it saves the context of the suspended thread and restores the saved context of the next thread in the queue.

Because each time slice is small (approximately 20 milliseconds), it appears that multiple threads are executing at the same time. This is actually the case on multiprocessor systems where the executable threads are distributed among the available processors. On a single processor system, however, using multiple threads does not result in more instructions being executed. In fact, the system can slow down if it is forced to keep track of too many threads.

How to Launch Win32 Applications from Visual Basic

There are two ways to launch another Win32 application from a Microsoft Visual Basic application:
  • Use the Visual Basic shell command. This spawns a new process and returns its process ID. However, to be able to do anything useful, a process handle is required, which can be obtained by a subsequent call to the OpenProcess Win32 API function.
  • Use the CreateProcess Win32 API function that creates both a process object and a main thread object. Both the process and the initial thread are assigned a 32-bit identifier that remains valid until the respective object (process or thread) terminates. The 32-bit identifier can be used to uniquely identify the object within the system. The new process and new thread handles are also created with full access rights. All these four values are returned in the PROCESS_INFORMATION structure that is passed by reference to CreateProcess.
The process handle returned by either of the two methods can then be used with other Win32 APIs such as TerminateProcess to manipulate the newly launched application.

It is important to understand that at creation time, the system gives each object an initial usage count of one. Then, just before CreateProcess returns, the function opens both the process and the thread object and places the process-relative handles for each in the hProcess and hThread members of the PROCESS_INFORMATION structure.

When CreateProcess opens these objects, the usage count for each increments to two. This means that before the Windows NT or Windows 2000 Executive can free the process object, the process must terminate (decrementing the usage count to one) and the parent process must call CloseHandle (decrementing the usage count to zero). To free the thread object, the thread must terminate and the parent process must close the handle to the thread object.

CAUTION: It is very important to close these handles. Failure to do so can result in a system memory leak because some Windows NT or Windows 2000 Executive objects are never destroyed.

Similar considerations are required when obtaining a process handle with OpenProcess. In this case too, the usage count is incremented by one, and unless the handle is closed, the process object will remain in memory even when the process itself has terminated.

Step-by-Step Example

  1. Start a new Standard EXE project in Visual Basic. Form1 is created by default.
  2. Copy the following code to the Code window of the Form1 form:
    Option Explicit
    
          Private Type PROCESS_INFORMATION
             hProcess As Long
             hThread As Long
             dwProcessId As Long
             dwThreadId As Long
          End Type
    
          Private Type STARTUPINFO
             cb As Long
             lpReserved As String
             lpDesktop As String
             lpTitle As String
             dwX As Long
             dwY As Long
             dwXSize As Long
             dwYSize As Long
             dwXCountChars As Long
             dwYCountChars As Long
             dwFillAttribute As Long
             dwFlags As Long
             wShowWindow As Integer
             cbReserved2 As Integer
             lpReserved2 As Long
             hStdInput As Long
             hStdOutput As Long
             hStdError As Long
          End Type
    
          Private Declare Function CreateProcess Lib "kernel32" _
             Alias "CreateProcessA" _
             (ByVal lpApplicationName As String, _
             ByVal lpCommandLine As String, _
             lpProcessAttributes As Any, _
             lpThreadAttributes As Any, _
             ByVal bInheritHandles As Long, _
             ByVal dwCreationFlags As Long, _
             lpEnvironment As Any, _
             ByVal lpCurrentDriectory As String, _
             lpStartupInfo As STARTUPINFO, _
             lpProcessInformation As PROCESS_INFORMATION) As Long
    
          Private Declare Function OpenProcess Lib "kernel32.dll" _
             (ByVal dwAccess As Long, _
             ByVal fInherit As Integer, _
             ByVal hObject As Long) As Long
    
          Private Declare Function TerminateProcess Lib "kernel32" _
             (ByVal hProcess As Long, _
             ByVal uExitCode As Long) As Long
    
          Private Declare Function CloseHandle Lib "kernel32" _
             (ByVal hObject As Long) As Long
    
          Const SYNCHRONIZE = 1048576
          Const NORMAL_PRIORITY_CLASS = &H20&
    
          Private Sub Form_Click()
             Dim pInfo As PROCESS_INFORMATION
             Dim sInfo As STARTUPINFO
             Dim sNull As String
             Dim lSuccess As Long
             Dim lRetValue As Long
    
             sInfo.cb = Len(sInfo)
             lSuccess = CreateProcess(sNull, _
                                     "Calc.exe", _
                                     ByVal 0&, _
                                     ByVal 0&, _
                                     1&, _
                                     NORMAL_PRIORITY_CLASS, _
                                     ByVal 0&, _
                                     sNull, _
                                     sInfo, _
                                     pInfo)
    
             MsgBox "Calculator has been launched!"
    
             lRetValue = TerminateProcess(pInfo.hProcess, 0&)
             lRetValue = CloseHandle(pInfo.hThread)
             lRetValue = CloseHandle(pInfo.hProcess)
    
             MsgBox "Calculator has terminated!"
          End Sub
    
    					
  3. On the Run menu, select Start, or press the F5 key to start the program. Click on the Form1 form to launch the Calculator application. A message box appears indicating the application has launched successfully. Click OK to close the message box and the Calculator application. Another message box appears indicating the application has successfully terminated.

REFERENCES

For additional information, please see the following articles in the Microsoft Knowledge Base:
129796 How To Use a 32-Bit Application to Determine When a Shelled Process Ends
176391 How To Programmatically Close a Single Instance of a Windows-Based Program

Properties

Article ID: 129797 - Last Review: July 15, 2004 - Revision: 2.2
APPLIES TO
  • Microsoft Visual Basic 5.0 Learning Edition
  • Microsoft Visual Basic 6.0 Learning Edition
  • Microsoft Visual Basic 5.0 Professional Edition
  • Microsoft Visual Basic 6.0 Professional Edition
  • Microsoft Visual Basic 5.0 Enterprise Edition
  • Microsoft Visual Basic 6.0 Enterprise Edition
  • Microsoft Visual Basic 4.0 Standard Edition
  • Microsoft Visual Basic 4.0 Professional Edition
  • Microsoft Visual Basic 4.0 32-Bit Enterprise Edition
Keywords: 
kbhowto kbapi KB129797

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