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Posted 15 Apr 2002


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How a C++ compiler implements exception handling

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15 Apr 2002CPOL26 min read
An indepth discussion of how VC++ implements exception handling. Source code includes exception handling library for VC++.


One of the revolutionary features of C++ over traditional languages is its support for exception handling. It provides a very good alternative to traditional techniques of error handling which are often inadequate and error-prone. The clear separation between the normal code and the error handling code makes programs very neat and maintainable. This article discusses what it takes to implement exception handling by the compiler. General understanding of the exception handling mechanism and its syntax is assumed. I implemented exception handling library for VC++ that is accompanied with this article. To replace the exception handler provided by VC++ with my handler, call the following function:


After this point, any exception that occurs with in the program - from throwing an exception to stack unwinding, calling the catch block and then resuming the execution - is processed by my exception handling library.

The C++ standard, like any other feature in C++, doesn't say anything about how exception handling should be implemented. This means that every vendor is free to use any implementation as he sees fit. I will describe how VC++ implements this feature, but it should be a good study material for those as well who use other compilers or Operating Systems [1]. VC++ builds its exception handling support on top of structured exception handling (SEH) provided by Windows operating system [2].

Structure exception handling - Overview

For this discussion, I will consider exceptions to be those that are explicitly thrown or occur due to conditions like divide by zero or null pointer access. When exception occurs, interrupt is generated and control is transferred to the operating system. Operating System, in turn, calls the exception handler that inspects the function call sequence starting from the current function from where the exception originated, and performs its job of stack unwinding and control transfer. We can write our own exception handler and register it with the operating system that it would call in the event of an exception.

Windows defines a special structure for registration, called EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION:

   DWORD handler;

To register your own exception handler, create this structure and store its address at offset zero of the segment pointed to by FS register, as the following pseudo assembly language instruction shows:

mov FS:[0], exc_regp

prev field signifies linked list of EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION structures. When we register EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION structure, we store the address of the previously registered structure in prev field.

So how does the exception call back function look like? Windows requires that the signature of exception handler, defined in EXCPT.h, be like:

    void * EstablisherFrame, 
    _CONTEXT *ContextRecord,
    void * DispatcherContext);

You can ignore all the parameters and return type for now. The following program registers exception handler with the Operating System and generates an exception by attempting to divide by zero. This exception is caught by the exception handler which does not do much. It just prints a message and exits.

#include <span class="code-keyword"><iostream></span>
#include <span class="code-keyword"><windows.h></span>

using std::cout;
using std::endl;

   DWORD handler;

    void * EstablisherFrame, 
    _CONTEXT *ContextRecord,
    void * DispatcherContext)
	cout << "In the exception handler" << endl;
	cout << "Just a demo. exiting..." << endl;
	return ExceptionContinueExecution; //will not reach here

int g_div = 0;

void bar()
	//initialize EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION structure
	EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION reg, *preg = &reg;
	reg.handler = (DWORD)myHandler;
	//get the current head of the exception handling chain	
	DWORD prev;
		mov EAX, FS:[0]
		mov prev, EAX
	reg.prev = (EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION*) prev;
	//register it!
		mov EAX, preg
		mov FS:[0], EAX

	//generate the exception
	int j = 10 / g_div;  //Exception. Divide by 0. 

int main()
	return 0;

In the exception handler
Just a demo. exiting...

Please note that Windows strictly enforces one rule: EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION structure should be on the stack and it should be at a lower memory address than its previous node. Windows will terminate the process if it does not find such to be the case.

Functions and Stack

Stack is a contiguous area of memory which is used for storing local objects of a function. More specifically, each function has an associated stack frame that houses all the local objects of the function as well as any temporaries generated by the expressions with in the function. Please note that this is a typical picture. In reality, the compiler may store all or some of the objects in internal registers for faster access. Stack is a notion that is supported at the processor level. Processor provides internal registers and special instructions to manipulate it.

Figure 2 shows how a typical stack may look like when function foo calls function bar and bar calls function widget. Please note that in this case the stack grows downwards. This means that the next item to be pushed on the stack would be at lower memory address than the previous item.

Image 1

The compiler uses EBP register to identify the current active stack frame. In current case, widget is being executed and as the figure shows, EBP register points at widget's stack frame. Function accesses its local objects relative to the frame pointer. The compiler resolves at compile time all the local object names to some fixed offset from frame pointer. For instance, widget would typically access its local variable as some fixed number of bytes below the frame pointer, say EBP-24.

The figure also shows the ESP register, stack pointer that points at the last item in the stack, or in current case, ESP points at the end of widget's frame. Next frame would be created after this location.

Processor supports two operations for the stack: push and pop. Consider:

pop EAX

means read 4 bytes from the location where ESP is pointing and increment (remember, stack grows downwards in our case) ESP by 4 (in 32 bit processors). Similarly,

push EBP

means decrement ESP by 4 and then write the contents of EBP register at the location where ESP is pointing.

When compiler compiles a function, it adds some code in the beginning of the function called prologue that creates and initializes the stack frame of the function. Similarly, it adds code at the end of the function called epilogue to pop the stack frame of the exiting function.

Compiler typically generates the following sequence for the prologue:

Push EBP      ; save current frame pointer on stack
Mov EBP, ESP  ; Activate the new frame
Sub ESP, 10   ; Subtract. Set ESP at the end of the frame

The first statement saves the current frame pointer EBP on the stack. The second statement activates the frame for the callee by setting EBP register at the location where it stored the EBP of the caller. And the third statement sets the ESP register at the end of the current frame by subtracting ESP's value with the total size of all the local objects and the temporaries that the function will create. Compiler knows at compile time the type and size of all the local objects of a function, so it effectively knows the frame size.

The epilogue does the reverse of the prologue, It has to remove the current frame from the stack:

Mov ESP, EBP    
Pop EBP         ; activate caller's frame
Ret             ; return to the caller

It sets ESP at the location where its caller's frame pointer is saved (which is at the location where callee's frame pointer points), pops it off in EBP thus activating its caller's stack frame and then executes return.

When processor encounters return instruction, it does the following: it pops off the return address from the stack and transfer's control at that address. The return address was put on the stack when its caller executed call instruction to call it. Call instruction first pushes the address of the next instruction where control should be returned and then jumps to the beginning of the callee. Figure 3 shows a more detailed view of the stack at runtime. As the figure shows, function parameters are also part of the stack frame of the function. The caller pushes callee's arguments on the stack. When the function returns, the caller removes the callee's arguments from the stack by adding the size of the arguments to the ESP which is known at compile time:

Add ESP, args_size

Alternatively, callee can also remove the parameters by specifying the total parameter size in return instruction which again is known at compile time. The instruction below removes 24 bytes from the stack before returning to the caller, assuming total parameter size is 24:

Ret 24

Only one of these schemes is used at a time depending upon callee's calling convention. Please note that every thread in a process has its own associated stack.

Image 2

C++ and Exceptions

Recall that I had talked about EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION structure in the first section. It is used to register the exception callback with the operating system that it calls when exception occurs.

VC++ extends the semantics of this function by adding two more fields at the end:

   DWORD handler;
   int   id;
   DWORD ebp;

VC++, with few exceptions, creates EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION structure for every function as its local variable [3]. The last field of the structure overlaps the location where frame pointer EBP points. Function's prologue creates this structure on its stack frame and registers it with the operating system. The epilogue restores the EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION of the caller. I will discuss the significance of the id field in the next sections.

When VC++ compiles a function, it generates two set of data for the function:

a) Exception callback function.
b) A data structure that contains important information about the function like the catch blocks, their addresses, the type of exception they are interested in catching etc. I will refer to this structure as funcinfo and talk more about it in the next section.

Figure 4 shows a broader picture of how things look like at runtime when considering exception handling. Widget's exception callback is at the head of the exception chain pointed to by FS:[0] (which was set by widget's prologue). Exception handler passes widget's funcinfo structure's address to __CxxFrameHandler function, which inspects this data structure to see if there is any catch block in the function interested in catching the current exception. If it does not find any, it returns ExceptionContinueSearch value back to the operating system. Operating system gets the next node off the exception handling list and calls its exception handler (which is the handler for the caller of the current function).

Image 3

This continues until the exception handler finds the catch block interested in catching the exception in which case it does not return back to the operating system. But before it calls the catch block (it knows the address of the catch block from funcinfo structure, see figure 4), it must perform stack unwinding: cleaning up the stack frames of the functions below this function's frame. Cleaning of the stack frame involves nice little intricacy: The exception handler must find all the local objects of the function alive on the frame at the time of the exception and call their destructors. I will discuss more about it in a later section.

The exception handler delegates the task of cleaning the frame to the exception handler associated with that frame. It starts from the beginning of the exception handling list pointed to by FS:[0] and calls the exception handler at each node, telling it that the stack is being unwound. In response, the handler calls destructor for all the local objects on the frame and returns. This continues until it arrives at the node that corresponds to itself.

Since catch block is part of a function, it uses the stack frame of the function to which it belongs. Hence the exception handler needs to activate its stack frame before calling the catch block. Secondly, every catch block accepts exactly one parameter, its type being the type of exception it is willing to catch. Exception handler should copy the exception object or its reference to catch block's frame. It knows where to copy the exception from funcinfo structure. The compiler is generous enough to generate this information for it.

After copying the exception and activating the frame, exception handler calls the catch block. Catch block returns it the address where control should be transferred in the function after try-catch block. Please note that at this moment, even though the stack unwinding has occurred and frames have been cleaned up, they have not been removed and they still physically occupy the space on the stack. This is because the exception handler is still executing and like any other normal function, it also uses the stack for its local objects, its frame present below the last function's frame from where the exception originated. When catch block returns it needs to destroy the exception. It is after this point that the exception handler removes all the frames including its own by setting the ESP at the end of the function's frame (to which it has to transfer the control) and transfers control at the end of try-catch block. How does it know where the end of function's frame is? It has no way of knowing. That's why the compiler saves it (through function's prologue) on function's stack frame for the exception handler to find it. See figure 4. It is sixteen bytes below the stack frame pointer EBP.

The catch block may itself throw a new exception or rethrow the same exception. Exception handler has to watch for this situation and take appropriate action. If catch block throws a new exception, the exception handler has to destroy the old exception. If catch block specifies a rethrow, then the exception handler has to propagate the old exception.

There is one important point to note here: Since every thread has its own stack, this means that every thread has its own list of EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION structures pointed to by FS:[0].

C++ and Exceptions - 2

Figure 5 shows the layout of funcinfo structure. Please note that the names may vary from the actual names used by VC++ compiler and I have only shown the relevant fields. Structure of unwind table is discussed in the next section.

Image 4

When exception handler has to search for a catch block in a function, the first thing it has to determine is whether the point from where the exception originated from within a function has an enclosing try block or not. If it does not find any try block, then it returns back. Otherwise, it searches the list of catch blocks associated with the enclosing try block.

First, let's see how it goes about finding the try block. At compile time, the compiler assigns each try block a start id and end id. These id's are also accessible to exception handler through funcinfo structure. See > figure 5. The compiler generates tryblock data structure for each try block with in the function.

In the previous section, I had talked about VC++ extending the EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION structure to include id field. Recall, this structure is present on function's stack frame. See figure 4. At the time of exception, the exception handler reads this id from the frame and checks the tryblock structure to see if the id is equal to or falls in between its start id and end id. If it does, then the exception originated from with in this try block. Otherwise, it looks at the next tryblock structure in tryblocktable.

Who writes the id value on the stack and what should be written there? The compiler adds statements in the function at various points that update id value to reflect the current runtime state. For instance, the compiler will add a statement in the function at the point where try block is entered that will write the start id of the try block on the stack frame.

Once exception handler finds the try block, it can traverse the catchblock table associated with the try block to see if any catch block is interested in catching the exception. Please note that in case of nested try blocks, the exception that originated from inner try block also originated from outer try block. The exception handler should first look for the catch blocks for the inner try block. If none is found, then it looks for the catch blocks of the outer try block. While laying the structures in tryblock table, VC++ puts inner try block structure before the outer try block.

How is the exception handler going to determine (from catchblock structure) if a catch block is interested in catching the current exception? It does so by comparing the type of the exception with the type of the catch block's parameter. Consider:

void foo()
   try {
      throw E();
   catch(H) {

The catch block catches the exception if H and E are the exact same type. The exception handler has to compare the types at runtime. Normally, languages like C provide no facility to determine object's type at runtime. C++ provides run time type identification mechanism (RTTI) and has a standard way of comparing types at runtime. It defines a class type_info, defined in standard header <typeinfo> that represents a type at runtime. The second field of the catchblock structure (see figure 5) is a pointer to the type_info structure that represents the type of the catch block's parameter at runtime. type_info has operator == that tells whether the two types are of exact same class or not. So, all the exception handler has to do is to compare (call operator ==) the type_info of the catch block's parameter (available through catchblock structure) with the type_info of the exception to determine if the catch block is interested in catching the current exception.

The exception handler knows about the type of the catch block's parameter from funcinfo structure, but how does it know about the type_info of the exception? When compiler encounters a statement like

throw E();

It generates excpt_info strcuture for the exception thrown. See figure 6. Please note that the names may vary from the actual names used by VC++ compiler and I have only shown the relevant fields. As shown in the figure, exception's type_info is available through excpt_info structure. At some point of time, exception handler needs to destroy the exception (after the catch block is invoked). It may also need to copy the exception (before invoking the catch block). To help exception handler do these tasks, compiler makes available exception's destructor, copy constructor and size to the exception handler through excpt_info structure.

Image 5

If the catch block's parameter type is a base class and the exception is its derived class, the exception handler should still invoke that catch block. However, comparing the typeinfo's of the two in this case would yield false as they are not the same type. Neither does class type_info provide any member function or operator that tells if one class is base class of the other. And yet, the exception handler has to invoke this catch block. To help it do so, the compiler has generated more information for the handler. If the exception is a derived class, then etypeinfo_table (available through excpt_info structure) contains etype_info (extended type_info, my name) pointer for all the classes in the hierarchy. So the exception handler compares the type_info of the catch block's parameter with all the type_info's available through the excpt_info structure. If any match is found then the catch block will be invoked.

Before I wrap up this section, one last point: How does the exception handler become aware of the exception and the excpt_info structure? I will attempt to answer this question in the following discussion.

VC++ translates throw statement into something like:

//throw E(); //compiler generates excpt_info structure for E.
E e = E();  //create exception on the stack
_CxxThrowException(&e, E_EXCPT_INFO_ADDR);

_CxxThrowException passes control to the operating system (through software interrupt, see function RaiseException) passing it both of its parameters. The operating system packages these two parameters in _EXCEPTION_RECORD structure in its preparation to call the exception callback. It starts from the head of the EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION list pointed to by FS:[0] and calls the exception handler at that node. The pointer to this EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION is also the second parameter of the exception handler. Recall that in VC++, every function creates its own EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION on its stack frame and registers it. Passing the second parameter to the exception handler makes important information available to it like EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION's id field (important for finding the catch block). It also makes the exception handler aware of the function's stack frame (useful for cleaning the stack frame) and the position of the EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION node on the exception list (useful for stack unwinding). The first parameter is the pointer to the _EXCEPTION_RECORD structure through which the exception pointer and its excpt_info structure is available. The signature of the exception handler defined in EXCPT.H is:

    void * EstablisherFrame, 
    _CONTEXT *ContextRecord,
    void * DispatcherContext);

You can ignore the last two parameters. The return type is an enumeration (see EXCPT.H). As I discussed before, if the exception handler cannot find catch block, it returns ExceptionContinueSearch value back to the system. For this discussion, other values are not important. _EXCEPTION_RECORD structure is defined in WINNT.H as:

    DWORD ExceptionCode;
    DWORD ExceptionFlags; 
    PVOID   ExceptionAddress; 
    DWORD NumberParameters;
    DWORD ExceptionInformation[15]; 

The number and kind of entries in the ExceptionInformation array depends upon the ExceptionCode field. If the ExceptionCode represents C++ (Exception code is 0xe06d7363) exception (which will be the case if the exception occurs due to throw), then ExceptionInformation array contains pointer to the exception and the excpt_info structure. For other kind of exceptions, it almost never has any entry. Other kind of exceptions can be divide by zero, access violation etc and their values can be found in WINNT.H.

Exception handler looks at the ExceptionFlags field of the _EXCEPTION_RECORD structure to determine what action to take. If the value is EH_UNWINDING (defined in, that is an indication to the exception handler that the stack is being unwound and it should clean its stack frame and return. Cleaning up involves finding all the local objects alive on the frame at the time of the exception and calling their destructors. The next section discusses this. Otherwise, exception handler has to search for the catch block in the function and invoke it if it is found.

Stack Frame Cleanup

C++ standard says that when the stack is being unwound, destructor for all the local objects alive at the time of exception should be called. Consider:

int g_i = 0;
void foo()
   T o1, o2;
       T o3;
   10/g_i; //exception occurs here
   T o4;

When exception occurs, local objects o1 and o2 exists on foo's frame while o3 has completed its lifetime. O4 was never created. Exception handler should be aware of this fact and should call destructor for o1 and o2.

As I wrote before, the compiler adds code to the function at various special points that register the current runtime state of the function as execution proceeds. It assigns id's to these special regions in the function. For instance, try block entry point is a special region. As discussed before, the compiler will add statement in the function at the point when try block is entered that will write the start id of the try block on function's frame.

The other special region in the function is where the local object is created or destroyed. In other words, the compiler assigns each local object a unique id. When compiler encounters object definition like:

void foo()
   T t1;

It adds statement after the definition (after the point when object will be created) to write its id value on the frame:

void foo()
   T t1;
   _id = t1_id; //statement added by the compiler

The compiler creates a hidden local variable (designated in the above code as _id) that overlaps with the id field of the EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION structure. Similarly, it adds statement before calling the destructor for the object to write the id of the previous region.

When exception handler has to clean up the frame, it reads the id value from the frame (id field of the EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION structure or 4 bytes below the frame pointer, EBP). This id is an indication that the code in the function up to the point to which current id corresponds executed without any exception. All the objects above this point were created. Destructors for all or some of the objects above this point need to be called. Please note that some of these objects may have been destroyed if they are part of a sub block. Destructor for these should not be called.

Compiler generates yet another data structure for the function, unwindtable(my name), which is an array of unwind structures. This table is available through funcinfo structure. See figure 5. For every special region in the function, there is one unwind structure. The structure entries appear in the unwindtable in the same order as their corresponding regions appear in the function. unwind structure corresponding to objects is of interest (remember, each object definition denotes special region and has id associated with it). It contains information to destroy the object. When compiler encounters object definition, it generates a short routine that knows about the object's address on the frame (or its offset from the frame pointer) and destroys this object. One of the fields of unwind structure contains the address of this routine:

typedef  void (*CLEANUP_FUNC)();
struct unwind
    int prev;

unwind structure for try block has a value of zero for the second field. prev field signifies that the unwintable is also a linked list of unwind structures. When exception handler has to cleanup the frame, it reads the current id from the frame and uses it as an index into the unwind table. It reads the unwind structure at that index and calls the clean up function as specified by the second field of the structure. This destroys the object corressponding to this id. The handler then reads the previous unwind structure from unwind table at an index as specified by prev field. This continues until end of list is reached (prev is -1). Figure 7 shows how a unwind table may look like for the function in the figure.

Image 6

Consider case of the new operator:

T* p = new T();

The system first allocates memory for T and then calls the constructor. If constructor throws an exception, then the system must free up the memory allocated for this object. To achieve this, VC++ also assigns id to each new operator for a type that has a non-trivial constructor. There is corresponding entry in the unwind table, the cleanup routine frees the space allocated. Before calling the constructor, it stores id for the allocation in EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION structure. After constructor returns successfully, it restores the id of the previous special region.

Furthermore, the object may have been partially constructed when the constructor throws exception. If it has member sub objects or base class sub objects and some of them had been constructed at the time of exception, destructor for those objects must be called. Compiler generates same set of data for a constructor as for any normal function to perform these tasks.

Please note that the exception handler calls the user-defined destructors while unwinding the stack. It is possible for the destructor to throw an exception. The C++ standard says that while the stack is unwinding, the destructor may not throw an exception. If it does, the system calls std::terminate.


This section talks about three topics that have not been discussed above:

a) Installing the exception handler.
b) Catch block rethrowing the exception or throwing a new exception.
c) Per thread exception handling support.

Please look at the Readme.txt file in the source distribution for build instructions [1]. It also includes a demo project.

The first task is to install the exception handling library, or in other words, replace the library provided by VC++. From the above discussion, it is clear that VC++ provides __CxxFrameHandler function that is the entry point for the all the exceptions. For each function, the compiler generates exception handling routine that is called if the exception occurs with in this function. This routine passes funcinfo pointer to the __CxxFrameHandler function.

install_my_handler() function inserts code at the beginning of __CxxFrameHandler that jumps to my_exc_handler(). But __CxxFrameHandler resides in readonly code page. Any attempt to write to it would cause access violation. So the first step is to change the access of the page to read-write using VirtualProtectEx function provided by Windows API. After writing to the memory, we restore the old protection of the page. The function writes the contents of jmp_instr structure at the beginning of __CxxFrameHandler.


#include <span class="code-keyword"><windows.h></span>
#include <span class="code-string">"install_my_handler.h"</span>

//C++'s default exception handler
extern "C" 
     struct _EXCEPTION_RECORD *ExceptionRecord,
     void * EstablisherFrame,
     struct _CONTEXT *ContextRecord,
     void * DispatcherContext

    char cpp_handler_instructions[5];
    bool saved_handler_instructions = false;

namespace my_handler
    //Exception handler that replaces C++'s default handler.
    EXCEPTION_DISPOSITION my_exc_handler(
         struct _EXCEPTION_RECORD *ExceptionRecord,
         void * EstablisherFrame,
         struct _CONTEXT *ContextRecord,
         void * DispatcherContext
         ) throw();

#pragma pack(1)
    struct jmp_instr
        unsigned char jmp;
        DWORD         offset;
#pragma pack()
    bool WriteMemory(void * loc, void * buffer, int size)
        HANDLE hProcess = GetCurrentProcess();
        //change the protection of pages containing range of memory 
        //[loc, loc+size] to READ WRITE
        DWORD old_protection;
        BOOL ret;
        ret = VirtualProtectEx(hProcess, loc, size, 
                         PAGE_READWRITE, &old_protection);
        if(ret == FALSE)
            return false;

        ret = WriteProcessMemory(hProcess, loc, buffer, size, NULL);
        //restore old protection
        DWORD o2;
        VirtualProtectEx(hProcess, loc, size, old_protection, &o2);

		return (ret == TRUE);

    bool ReadMemory(void *loc, void *buffer, DWORD size)
        HANDLE hProcess = GetCurrentProcess();
        DWORD bytes_read = 0;
        BOOL ret;
        ret = ReadProcessMemory(hProcess, loc, buffer, size, &bytes_read);
        return (ret == TRUE && bytes_read == size);

    bool install_my_handler()
        void * my_hdlr = my_exc_handler;
        void * cpp_hdlr = __CxxFrameHandler;

        jmp_instr jmp_my_hdlr; = 0xE9;
        //We actually calculate the offset from __CxxFrameHandler+5
        //as the jmp instruction is 5 byte length.
        jmp_my_hdlr.offset = reinterpret_cast<char*>(my_hdlr) - 
                    (reinterpret_cast<char*>(cpp_hdlr) + 5);
            if(!ReadMemory(cpp_hdlr, cpp_handler_instructions,
                return false;
            saved_handler_instructions = true;

        return WriteMemory(cpp_hdlr, &jmp_my_hdlr, sizeof(jmp_my_hdlr));

    bool restore_cpp_handler()
            return false;
            void *loc = __CxxFrameHandler;
            return WriteMemory(loc, cpp_handler_instructions, 

The #pragma pack(1) directive at the definition of jmp_instr structure tells the compiler to layout the members of the structure without any padding between them. Without this directive, size of this structure is eight bytes. It is five bytes when we define this directive.

Going back to exception handling, when the exception handler calls the catch block, the catch block may rethrow the exception or throw a completely new exception. If catch block throws a new exception, then the exception handler has to destroy the previous exception before moving ahead. If the catch block decides to rethrow, the exception handler has to propagate the current exception. At this moment, the exception handler has to tackle with two questions: how does the exception handler know that the exception originated from with in a catch block and how does it keep track of the old exception? The way I solved this problem is that before the handler calls the catch block, it stores the current exception in exception_storage object and registers a special purpose exception handler, catch_block_protector. The exception_storage object is available by calling get_exception_storage() function:

exception_storage* p = get_exception_storage();
p->set(pexc, pexc_info);
register catch_block_protector
call catch block

If exception is (re)thrown from within a catch block, the control goes to catch_block_protector. Now this function can extract the previous exception from exception_storage object and destroy it if catch block threw new exception. If the catch block did a rethrow (which it can find out by inspecting first two entries of ExceptionInformation array, both are zero. See code below), then the handler needs to propagate the current exception by copying it in ExceptionInformation array. The following snippet shows catch_block_protector() function.

// If this handler is calles, exception was (re)thrown from catch 
// block. The  exception  handler  (my_handler)  registers this 
// handler before calling the catch block. Its job is to determine
// if the  catch block  threw  new  exception or did a rethrow. If 
// catch block threw a  new  exception, then it should destroy the 
// previous exception object that was passed to the catch block. If 
// the catch block did a rethrow, then this handler should retrieve
// the original exception and save in ExceptionRecord for the 
// exception handlers to use it.
EXCEPTION_DISPOSITION  catch_block_protector(
	 _EXCEPTION_RECORD *ExceptionRecord,
	 void * EstablisherFrame,
	 struct _CONTEXT *ContextRecord,
	 void * DispatcherContext
	 ) throw()
    pFrame = reinterpret_cast<EXCEPTION_REGISTRATION*>
    (EstablisherFrame);if(!(ExceptionRecord->ExceptionFlags & (  
        void *pcur_exc = 0, *pprev_exc = 0;
        const excpt_info *pexc_info = 0, *pprev_excinfo = 0;
        exception_storage *p = 
        get_exception_storage();  pprev_exc=
        p->get_exception();  pprev_excinfo=
        p->get_exception_info();p->set(0, 0);
        bool cpp_exc = ExceptionRecord->ExceptionCode == MS_CPP_EXC;
        get_exception(ExceptionRecord, &pcur_exc);
        get_excpt_info(ExceptionRecord, &pexc_info);
        if(cpp_exc && 0 == pcur_exc && 0 ==   pexc_info)
            {ExceptionRecord->ExceptionInformation[1] = 
            (pprev_exc);ExceptionRecord->ExceptionInformation[2] = 
            exception_helper::destroy(pprev_exc, pprev_excinfo);
    return ExceptionContinueSearch;

Consider one possible implementation of get_exception_storage() function:

exception_storage* get_exception_storage()
    static exception_storage es;
    return &es;

This would be a perfect implementation except in a multithreaded world. Consider more than one thread getting hold of this object and trying to store exception object in it. This will be disasterous. Every thread has its own stack and own exception handling chain. What we need is a thread specific exception_storage object. Every thread has its own object which is created when the thread begins its life and destroyed when the threads ends. Windows provides thread local storage for this purpose. Thread local storage enables each object to have its own private copy of an object accesible through a global key. It provides TLSGetValue() and TLSSetValue() functions for this purpose.

Excptstorage.cpp file defines get_exception_storage() function. This file is built as a DLL. This is due to the fact that it enables us to know whenever a thread is created or destroyed. Every time a thread is created or destroyed, Windows calls every DLL's (that is loaded in this process's address space) DllMain() function. This function is called in the thread that is created. This gives us a chance to initialize thread specific data, exception_storage object in our case.


#include <span class="code-string">"excptstorage.h"</span>
#include <span class="code-keyword"><windows.h></span>

    DWORD dwstorage;

namespace my_handler
    __declspec(dllexport) exception_storage* get_exception_storage() throw()
        void *p = TlsGetValue(dwstorage);
        return reinterpret_cast<exception_storage*>(p);

                       DWORD  ul_reason_for_call, 
                       LPVOID lpReserved
    using my_handler::exception_storage;
    exception_storage *p;
        //For the first main thread, this case also contains implicit 
        //DLL_THREAD_ATTACH, hence there is no DLL_THREAD_ATTACH for 
        //the first main thread.
        dwstorage = TlsAlloc();
        if(-1 == dwstorage)
            return FALSE;
        p = new exception_storage();
        TlsSetValue(dwstorage, p);
        p = new exception_storage();
        TlsSetValue(dwstorage, p);
        p = my_handler::get_exception_storage();
        delete p;
        p = my_handler::get_exception_storage();
        delete p;
    return TRUE;


As discussed above, the C++ compiler and the runtime exception library, with support from the Operating System, cooperate to perform exception handling.

Notes and References

  1. As of this discussion, Visual Studio 7.0 is released. I compiled and tested the exception handling library primarily with VC++ 6.0 on Windows 2000 running on pentium processors. I also tested it with VC++ 5.0 and VC++ 7.0 beta release. There is small difference between 6.0 and 7.0. 6.0 first copies the exception (or its reference) on catch block's frame and then performs stack unwinding before calling the catch block. 7.0 library first performs stack unwinding. The behavior of my library is similar to 6.0 library in this respect.
  2. See excellent article on MSDN by Matt Pietrek on structured exception handling
  3. The compiler may not generate any exception related data for a function that does not have a try block and does not define any object that has a non-trivial destructor.


This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)

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Comments and Discussions

QuestionMy vote of five Pin
Min.23-Aug-14 22:58
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Questionexception initialization Pin
anandssunku10-Mar-14 1:00
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AnswerRe: exception initialization Pin
pasztorpisti5-Apr-14 11:49
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GeneralMy vote of 4 Pin
Ryan Giggs29-Sep-11 15:01
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GeneralGreat article Pin
elitehussar24-May-10 6:18
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GeneralThanks a lot Pin
valdok30-Mar-10 9:26
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GeneralThrowing an exception in a different thread Pin
Lon126-Sep-09 21:02
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GeneralRe: Throwing an exception in a different thread Pin
theCPkid22-Jun-10 0:17
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GeneralRe: Throwing an exception in a different thread Pin
Lon124-Jun-10 1:01
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GeneralRe: Throwing an exception in a different thread Pin
theCPkid24-Jun-10 2:16
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GeneralRe: Throwing an exception in a different thread Pin
Lon126-Jun-10 16:14
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GeneralRe: Throwing an exception in a different thread Pin
theCPkid29-Jun-10 2:57
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QuestionHow Much Extra CPU Time Does Exception Handling Generate? Pin
jombi23-Jun-09 4:30
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GeneralSmall correction Pin
_henke_5-Apr-09 7:37
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General? setjmp.h... Pin
alejandro29A5-Jan-09 8:49
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GeneralRe: ? setjmp.h... Pin
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GeneralExcellent! Pin
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GeneralLine & function Info Pin
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GeneralSome compilers will work differently though Pin
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QuestionUsing own exception handler to avoid "1st chance exceptions" to reach the debugger for certain 3rd party library calls Pin
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AnswerRe: Pin
valdok30-Mar-10 9:17
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GeneralExcellent article. Pin
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QuestionRTTI and Exception handling Pin
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