When developing applications for Windows Vista, one of the problems that often arises is how to programmatically control the execution level of a process. When the user starts an application, its elevation level is determined by the value of the
requestedExecutionLevel attribute in its manifest, and Vista's User Account Control (UAC) takes appropriate actions depending on it (such as displaying the elevation prompt when needed, etc.) However, what if the application needs to start a new process with a different execution level than that of the application itself? For example:
- An application that runs at the standard (non-elevated) level determines that an updated version of it is available for download. To be able to update itself, it needs to start a separate process that needs to be elevated in order to perform the upgrade properly. In this case a non-elevated process needs to start a new, elevated process.
- Most of the installation utilities offer the user the option to run the application automatically at the end of the installation. The installation utility is executing at the elevated level, however, the application must be started at the standard, non-elevated level.
Microsoft has provided a relatively easy way to accomplish the first task (starting a process elevated), by specifying the
"runas" verb when calling the
ShellExecuteEx API. However, for some reason they have not offered a similarly easy way of going in the opposite direction: to start a non-elevated process from an elevated one. In this article I will show how to solve this and related problems.
Determining the current elevation level
First of all, how can an application determine its current elevation level? The file VistaTools.cxx included in the source code to this article contains two functions that give the answer to this question.
The first such function is
GetElevationType() and it uses the Win32 API
GetTokenInformation() to obtain the elevation type of the token of the current process. The possible values that it can return are:
TokenElevationTypeDefault - User is not using a "split" token. This value indicates that either UAC is disabled, or the process is started by a standard user (not a member of the Administrators group).
TokenElevationTypeFull - the process is running elevated.
TokenElevationTypeLimited - the process is not running elevated.
Note that the last two values can be returned only if both the UAC is enabled and the user is a member of the Administrator's group (that is, the user has a "split" token).
The second function is
IsElevated() that also calls the
GetTokenInformation() API, but requests the
TokenElevation class of information. It can return one of the following:
S_OK - the current process is elevated. This value indicates that either UAC is enabled, and the process was elevated by the administrator, or that UAC is disabled and the process was started by a user who is a member of the Administrators group.
S_FALSE - the current process is not elevated (limited). This value indicates that either UAC is enabled, and the process was started normally, without the elevation, or that UAC is disabled and the process was started by a standard user.
Using these two functions, an application can determine the exact circumstances of its execution.
Starting an elevated process
If a non-elevated process needs to start an elevated one, all it has to do is call the
ShellExecuteEx() API and supply the
"runas" verb as one of its parameters. The source code of this article contains the function
RunElevated() that does just that:
RunElevated( HWND hwnd,
LPCTSTR pszParameters = NULL,
LPCTSTR pszDirectory = NULL )
memset( &shex, 0, sizeof( shex) );
shex.cbSize = sizeof( SHELLEXECUTEINFO );
shex.fMask = 0;
shex.hwnd = hwnd;
shex.lpVerb = _T("runas");
shex.lpFile = pszPath;
shex.lpParameters = pszParameters;
shex.lpDirectory = pszDirectory;
shex.nShow = SW_NORMAL;
return ::ShellExecuteEx( &shex );
Starting a non-elevated process from an elevated one
Going in the opposite direction (from an elevated process to a non-elevated one) turns out to be much more difficult. If the parent process is elevated, then any process it starts directly becomes elevated too, no matter which value of the
requestedExecutionLevel attribute is specified in the application's manifest. For some reason, Microsoft has not provided an API to lower the execution level directly, so we had to come up with an indirect way of achieving the goal.
The trick is to use the built-in Task Scheduler of Windows Vista to set up a task to be executed at the low execution level, and request that the task should start as soon as it is registered with Task Scheduler. The net result is about the same as if the process was started directly.
The source code of this article contains the function
RunAsStdUser() that does exactly that. It is based on the MSDN sample "Registration Trigger Example", and it involves calls to more than a dozen COM interfaces to communicate with the Task Scheduler and set up a task to run at the standard (non-elevated) level. I am not including the source code of the function here as it's rather boring; you can find it in the file VistaTools.cxx
Seeing it all in action
The demo application (VistaElevator) illustrates how to perform both the elevation and lowering of the execution level programmatically. When you run it, it displays a dialog box that shows the information about the execution level of the current process obtained by calling
IsElevated() (see above). It also offers you two choices of how to restart it, elevated or not. Depending on your choice,
VistaElevator calls either
RunAsStdUser() functions (see above) to restart itself at the requested execution level.
Note: Make sure you have the latest Windows SDK (see msdn.microsoft.com for more information) if you want to compile the source code on your own.
An update: Vista Elevator 2.0
- 2007-Feb-27: I have posted an updated version 2.0 of this sample application at http://www.tweak-uac.com. The main improvement is the new function
RunNonElevated() that does not rely on Task Scheduler and works well for both the administrators and standard users. Check it out!