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How to Develop a Virtual Disk Driver for Windows: A No-Nonsense Guide

Software developers create virtual disks and drivers for them to provide their users and administrators with containers for data. Such containers help to protect, isolate, and manage sensitive pieces of data. But creating virtual device drivers requires in-depth expertise not only in driver development but also in Windows software development. To help you overcome this challenge, we decided to share our knowledge of working with virtualization technologies.

In this step-by-step guide, we explain how to develop a virtual disk driver for Windows 10 along with a control utility for it. We also discuss Windows Driver Framework (WDF) components for driver development, device stacks in Windows 10, and input/output control calls. You can use this guide to develop a virtual disk driver for any Windows version, including Windows 11.

This article will be useful for Windows development teams who want to learn more about creating virtual disks in a simple manner.

Basic terms of Windows driver development

Before we start creating a virtual disk and a driver for it, let’s define the key terms we’ll be using in this article.

A driver is a software component that helps an operating system expose hardware functionality to user applications. Some drivers work without actual hardware, since they can emulate devices or alter the behavior of other drivers.

A device can be either a software or hardware component. For instance, hardware components like a CD-ROM drive or a USB flash drive are usually called “devices.” However, drivers can create software objects that are also called “devices” because they represent hardware components.

A disk device provides storage for data that is managed by a certain system. File systems allow users to work with files and directories. A virtual disk device has no real hardware and stores data in an ordinary file.

The workflow of a virtual disk device

Virtual disk drivers mount CD and DVD images as well as virtual machine disk images. They also provide encrypted storage for sensitive data.

Since Windows 10 is our target operating system in this test project, we use tools and services that Microsoft provides for developers. Let’s start with Windows Driver Frameworks, or WDF — a set of libraries developed by Microsoft that greatly simplifies driver development. For example, WDF can reduce a dummy plug and play driver from 3000 to 300 lines of code. We highly recommend using WDF instead of the low-level Windows Driver Model.

WDF consists of the kernel-mode driver framework (KMDF) and user-mode driver framework (UMDF). In this article, we’ll use KMDF and run our driver in kernel mode. In our previous article, we showed how to develop a virtual disk driver in user mode.

Some time ago, Windows drivers were written only in C. But nowadays, C++ has taken over, as it’s a more advanced and less error-prone language. We’ll use basic C++ functionality to develop a driver for a virtual disk, so the code examples we provide will still be understandable to people who know only C.

With that in mind, let’s start developing the Windows virtual disk driver.

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Developing the Windows virtual disk driver

Before starting development, make sure you set up the kernel-mode debugging tool on your host machine according to the Microsoft documentation. Here’s the list of things you’ll need to follow our virtual driver development tutorial:

Visual Studio 2019 has a template for a driver project, so we’ll use it. A typical driver project has a bunch of .c, .cpp, and .h files with code, a .rc file for resources, and a .inf file for installation instructions. Here’s how you can create such a project in Visual Studio 2019:

Creating a driver project in Visual Studio 2019


Figure 1. Creating a driver project in Visual Studio 2019

Let’s explore each component of our virtual disk driver in detail.

Pch is the precompiled header that contains system headers and significantly reduces build times, as it needs to be compiled only once (and not for each .cpp file).

Main.cpp contains the driver entry point, which is the very first driver function that will be called by the Windows kernel. This entry point delegates all the work to our Driver class. Note that DriverEntry is marked as an EXTERN_C function:

EXTERN_C NTSTATUS DriverEntry(_In_ PDRIVER_OBJECT driverObject, _In_ PUNICODE_STRING registryPath)
    return Driver::create(driverObject, registryPath);

Here, Driver is a simple class that has only two methods:

  • Driver::create initializes a driver object by calling a corresponding WDF function and registers the Driver::onDeviceAdd callback.
  • Driver::onDeviceAdd is called for each device object that matches our driver.

Here’s how the Device class looks:

NTSTATUS Driver::create(PDRIVER_OBJECT driverObject, PUNICODE_STRING registryPath)
    WDF_DRIVER_CONFIG_INIT(&config, onDeviceAdd);
    return WdfDriverCreate(driverObject, registryPath, WDF_NO_OBJECT_ATTRIBUTES, &config, WDF_NO_HANDLE);
    return Device::create(deviceInit);

The Device class is responsible for processing queries to our virtual disk from the operating system.

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Device objects in Windows are layered and form stacks. Our Device object is positioned between the so-called physical device object and the volume device object that belongs to the file system driver. In our case, the Device object belongs to the SoftwareDevice driver. Its role is just to report the hardware ID to the system so the OS can match the ID to our driver, load it, and call Driver::onDeviceAdd.

Note that the volume device object forms another device stack and is seen by applications as a drive letter.

In reality, there are also filter device objects in both storage and file system stacks. They add functionality such as providing disk snapshots for backups and checking files for viruses.

Stacks of device objects in Windows

The Device::create method sets device name, security attributes, and type. After that, it calls the WdfDeviceCreate function to create a device object and allocate memory for the instance of our Device class. Also, it registers the Device::onCleanup handler that will clean up resources by calling the class destructor.

Once the instance of our Device class is created, we call the Device::init method to continue initialization:

// Create a device
deviceAttributes.EvtCleanupCallback = onCleanup;
WDFDEVICE wdfDevice;
status = WdfDeviceCreate(&deviceInit, &deviceAttributes, &wdfDevice);
if (!NT_SUCCESS(status))
    return status;
// Initialize a device
auto self = new(getDevice(wdfDevice)) Device();
status = self->init(wdfDevice);
if (!NT_SUCCESS(status))
    return status;

Device::init reads the device property key where we store a path to the file we’re going to use as a virtual disk. Then it does the following:

  • Opens the file
  • Receives its size
  • Creates a GUID_DEVINTERFACE_VOLUME device interface with the system’s predefined type
  • Creates two queues for processing requests: a default queue and a file queue

The IOCTL calls are used to report meta information about our device, such as disk size, writability, and geometry. Here’s how they work:

void Device::onIoDeviceControl(WDFQUEUE queue, WDFREQUEST request, size_t outputBufferLength, size_t, ULONG ioControlCode)
    ULONG_PTR bytesWritten = 0;
    auto self = getDevice(queue);
    // Handle required control codes
    switch (ioControlCode)
        status = WdfRequestRetrieveOutputBuffer(request, sizeof(*info), reinterpret_cast<void**>(&info), nullptr);
        if (!NT_SUCCESS(status))
        info->DeviceType = FILE_DEVICE_DISK;
        info->DeviceNumber = MAXULONG;
        info->PartitionNumber = MAXULONG;
        bytesWritten = sizeof(*info);

We implemented the following IOCTL codes in our driver:


The Windows operating system uses more IOCTLs, but they aren’t required for the system’s basic functionality. Since we don’t implement all IOCTL calls, advanced disk features like those from Disk Management snap-in won’t work.

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The device’s read/write handler gets buffer, length, and offset parameters and performs read and write operations with them on the disk image file. Here’s how this handler looks:

void Device::onIoRead(WDFQUEUE queue, WDFREQUEST request, size_t length)
    // Get a buffer and its parameters
    PVOID outputBuffer;
    NTSTATUS status = WdfRequestRetrieveOutputBuffer(request, 0, &outputBuffer, nullptr);
    if (!NT_SUCCESS(status))
        WdfRequestCompleteWithInformation(request, status, 0);
    WdfRequestGetParameters(request, &requestParams);
    // Read from the file
    IO_STATUS_BLOCK iosb{};
    status = ZwReadFile(getDevice(queue)->m_fileHandle,
    WdfRequestCompleteWithInformation(request, status, iosb.Information);

Note that there is a catch: file operations in the Windows kernel need an asynchronous procedure call (APC) to be enabled for the thread. However, APC is disabled for the thread where our read/write handler is invoked. So we need another thread to process them.

As we mentioned earlier, our driver has two request queues: the default queue and the file queue. The default queue processes all requests at any interrupt request level (IRQL). If a request is a read/write operation, the driver forwards the request to the file queue.

The file queue supports only the PASSIVE_LEVEL IRQL. We need to raise the IRQL to DISPATCH_LEVEL before forwarding the read/write request to stop WDF from processing the request in the current file system thread and make it use a worker thread.

The file system and worker threads in the Windows kernel

This is how the Device::onIoReadWriteForward function forwards requests from one queue to another:

void Device::onIoReadWriteForward(WDFQUEUE queue, WDFREQUEST request, size_t)
    // Forward read/write requests to the file i/o queue. To force processing in another thread, raise the IRQL.
    KIRQL oldIrql;
    KeRaiseIrql(DISPATCH_LEVEL, &oldIrql);
    WdfRequestForwardToIoQueue(request, getDevice(queue)->m_fileQueue);

The PropertyKeys.h file contains a definition of our device property key that’s shared between the driver and the control utility. We can use this file to pass a disk file image path to the driver for device initialization. Here’s how we can do it:

// Use this property to pass a disk image file path to the driver
DEFINE_DEVPROPKEY(DEVPKEY_VIRTUALDISK_FILEPATH, 0x8792f614, 0x3667, 0x4df0, 0x95, 0x49, 0x3a, 0xc6, 0x4b, 0x51, 0xa0, 0xdb, 2);

We can find standard and custom device properties in the device manager:

Standard and custom device properties


Figure 2. Standard and custom device properties

The NewImpl helper file helps us place operator new and delete operators for C++ support. Implementing this helper is simple:

void* __cdecl operator new(size_t, void* ptr)
    return ptr;
void __cdecl operator delete(void*, size_t)

Placing operator new is used to call class constructors. WDF allocates memory for the device context before the call. Here’s an example of such a call:

auto self = new(getDevice(wdfDevice)) Device();

The class destructor is called explicitly from the WDF cleanup callback:

void Device::onCleanup(WDFOBJECT wdfDevice)

This mechanism allows for moving initialization and deinitialization code to constructors and destructors as well as keeping objects in memory allocated by the framework.

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Сreating the device control utility

Next, we need to develop a utility that allows us to launch a virtual disk, make Windows 10 see it, and close it when we don’t need it.

The device control utility has a simple command-line interface with two commands: to open and close. The utility also receives the path to the file we’re going to use as the virtual disk:

void printHelp()
        << "Virtual disk control utility. Copyright(C) 2022 Apriorit, Inc." << endl
        << endl
        << "Usage: " << endl
        << "  VirtualDiskControl open <filepath> [filesize] - Open an existing disk image or create a new one" << endl
        << "                                                  with the size `filesize` MB." << endl
        << "                                                  `filesize` is optional, default value is 100." << endl
        << "  VirtualDiskControl close <filepath>           - Close disk image." << endl;

To load our driver, the control utility uses Software Device API. It calls the SwDeviceCreate function to instruct the system-provided SoftwareDevice driver to create a new physical device object with the specific hardware ID:

const wchar_t kHardwareIds[] = Lu0022RootAprioritVirtualDisku0022;

Then the operating system will search for a driver in the driver database and load the driver that matches the hardware ID. Also, the control utility sets the device property to pass the target file path to the driver:

const DEVPROPERTY devPropFilePath
    .BufferSize = static_cast<ULONG>((fullFilePath.size() + 1) * sizeof(wchar_t)),
    .Buffer = const_cast<wchar_t*>(fullFilePath.c_str()),

The operating system distinguishes devices by their instance IDs. We use a file path hash as an instance ID:

const auto instanceId = to_wstring(hash<wstring>{}(filePath));

Device lifetime is controlled by the SwDeviceSetLifetime function.

The control utility is the last thing we need to implement in our driver. Now we can run the virtual disk using the driver to see how it works.

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Running the virtual disk

We recommend testing your drivers on a virtual machine (VM) before launching them on real hardware. This way, you’ll protect your machine from possible harm caused by driver malfunctions. You can explore more information about testing in our article on Windows driver testing.

Before running the virtual disk, create a virtual machine (VM) for Windows 10. You can use any VM for this: Hyper-V, VMware, VirtualBox, QEMU, etc. Then, disable driver signature enforcement in the Windows startup settings, since it’s not required if kernel debugging is active.

Windows startup settings


Figure 3. Windows startup settings

Next, let’s copy the following files and make sure they have the same bitness as the operating system:

  • VirtualDisk.inf
  • VirtualDisk.sys
  • VirtualDiskControl.exe

Install the driver by right-clicking on the .inf file and selecting Install from the opened menu:

Installing the virtual disk driver


Figure 4. Installing the virtual disk driver

Click OK several times until the final dialog box appears:

End of successful driver installation


Figure 5. End of successful driver installation

Now we’ve added our driver to the operating system’s driver database. It’s time to open a command prompt console with administrator rights and launch our control utility:

Opening the virtual disk with the console utility


Figure 6. Opening the virtual disk with the console utility

The newly created virtual disk is not formatted, so we need to format it:

Formatting the virtual disk


Figure 7. Formatting the virtual disk

After that, we can use our virtual disk:

The virtual disk is now available in Windows 10


Figure 8. The virtual disk is now available in Windows 10

We can now check whether our device is already in the Device Manager:

The virtual disk in the list of system devices


Figure 9. The virtual disk in the list of system devices

When we no longer need our virtual disk, we can close it in the following way:

Closing the virtual disk with the control utility


Figure 10. Closing the virtual disk with the control utility

If you can open and close the virtual disk without any issues, it means that the driver is working correctly and your virtual disk driver development is finished. Now you can use this driver on real machines and do whatever you need with your virtual disks.

To learn more about drivers, check out our article about wireless driver development.

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Developing Windows drivers requires specific knowledge and a deep understanding of operating system internals, nuances of driver functionality, and C++. Gaining such expertise is a long and challenging process, but it allows the development team to create custom drivers for a virtual disk that can carry out any project task.

Apriorit experts have already mastered driver development for Windows, Linux, and macOS. In this article and demo, we showed you the basics of how to create a driver for a virtual disk device. However, you’ll need to implement more functionalities in this driver to use it in production.

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