Managing 32-Bit and 64-Bit Windows-based Locations

Microsoft designed 64-bit versions of Windows to allow existing 32-bit applications to work seamlessly on 64-bit versions of Windows. They also designed 64-bit versions of Windows in such a way to allow a recompiled version of the same code to work seamlessly as a 64-bit application. 

In some cases, such as installation, what is normally a beneficial separation becomes a challenge. Typically, installers are 32-bit applications themselves (in order to run on 32-bit machines) and accessing 64-bit locations to install a 64-bit application is more complex than a standard file copy or registry write. 

To provide support for allowing existing 32-bit applications to work on 64-bit versions of Windows, most 64-bit versions of Windows use 32-bit Windows-on-Windows (WOW64) emulation. This WOW64 emulation support isolates the 32-bit and 64-bit files from each other by storing their files in separate locations.

A 64-bit target system typically has two Program Files folders:

  • Program Files, which is for 64-bit applications
  • Program Files (x86), which is for 32-bit applications 

A 64-bit target system typically has two Common Files folders (one in either Program Files folder):

  • Program FilesCommon Files, which is for 64-bit applications
  • Program Files (x86)Common Files, which is for 32-bit applications

A 64-bit target system also typically has two system folders:

  • System32, which is for 64-bit libraries and executable files
  • SysWOW64, which is for 32-bit libraries and executable files

Because of this structure, if an end user runs a 32-bit installer on a 64-bit version of Windows that uses WOW64 emulation, files that you may want to be installed to 64-bit file locations may be redirected to 32-bit file locations (such as Program Files x86). However, on 32-bit systems, those files are installed to Program Files.

The isolation of 32-bit and 64-bit data from each other on 64-bit systems also occurs in the registry. A 64-bit target system typically has two HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINESoftware keys:

  • HKLMSoftware, which is for 64-bit applications
  • HKLMSoftwareWow6432Node, which is for 32-bit applications

Because of this separation, if an end user runs a 32-bit installer on a 64-bit version of Windows that uses WOW64 emulation, registry data that you may want to be installed to 64-bit HKLMSoftware locations may be redirected to HKLMSoftwareWow6432Node. On 32-bit systems, such registry data are installed to HKLMSoftware.

As you manage 32-bit and 64-bit Windows-based locations, it’s important to be aware of this structure for file adjustments as needed.  If you have tips to add, please share!

 

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