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EXE File

EXE file extension is used by executable files in older MS-DOS format and in newer Windows portable executable or PE file format. All executable files on Windows OS use portable executable file format including not only EXE files but also DLL and SYS files.

Portable executable file consists of multiple sections and headers which specify at which locations they should be loaded into memory. Sections could be of different types to define different protection levels for code and data. For example machine code is typically stored in .text section which is mapped to memory as execute and read only, while data is stored in no execute and read-write section. This is done to protect code sections from malicious access and overwriting either by viruses or incorrect code.

Since content of the portable executable file is binary it is possible to view it using hex editors. While such approach may be used by developers who understand internals of the portable executable format, there is an easier way to learn what is inside portable executable file without going through binary codes. It is possible to convert an executable file into a textual file with a dump of all internal file structures and all machine code disassembled. This is achieved with a tool called disassembler. Great disassembler tool is available as part of Microsoft Visual Studio dumpbin.exe utility. Following command line will disassemble example.exe file.

Dumpbin.exe -disasm example.exe

Disasm is only one of the options supported by the dumpbin.exe tool. Besides disasm dumpbin.exe allows to dump exe file exports, sections, symbols and many more. For more details about dumpbin.exe options visit Dumpbin utility reference page.

EXE files are primarily used on Windows operating system, though limited support is available on other operating systems. Within Windows operating system PE files support IA-32, IA-64, x86-64, ARM and ARM64 instruction set architectures.

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