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What the Technical Reasons for 1024 character limit

After having used Linux for the past 3 years, so many Windows 7 Pro issues have been bothering me at my day job. The most inane are the filename limit and environment variable forgetting. I realize MSDN says the limitation for combined system ENV is 1024, but why? I have a large user path variable set. It works fine, unless I leave it on for a while. Then suddenly it will stop recognizing the PATH value until I restart.

How does windows store the ENV values that would cause this imposed limit? How would that value become corrupted through normal use?

MSDN https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/kb/906469

Update For completeness, I'll describe the situations I encounter the mentioned issue. I normally set User Env PATH through the environment dialogue in system settings. Things like msbuild, vstest.console.exe, tf.exe that I run while developing. I almost exclusively use PowerShell v4 in ConEmu. After a few hours, or a day of uptime those commands will suddenly stop responding as recognized. Resetting, or changing the vales through the Env dialogue or command line won't restore the functionality. Though echoing the $env:PATH will show the correct values. Restarting was the only solution I found.

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  • The maximum size of a user-defined environment variable is 32,767 characters. There is no technical limitation on the size of the environment block. However, there are practical limits depending on the mechanism used to access the block. For example, a batch file cannot set a variable that is longer than the maximum command line length. – SimonS Apr 27 '16 at 6:08
  • Why does Windows have a limit on environment variables at all? doesn't Linux and other OSes also have a limit? How can you store a string longer than the maximum string you can have on your system? How can computer with finite address bus and finite memory have no limit on string length? – phuclv Apr 22 '17 at 11:05
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What the Technical Reasons for 1024 character limit

The limit you refer to is not 1024 bytes. As explained in the article you linked to that was a bug, with a hotfix available.

The article explicitly says the limit is 2048 bytes for the CreateEnvironmentBlock function.

In addition the bug was specific to two old versions of Windows (XP and Server 2003).

When an application calls the CreateEnvironmentBlock function to retrieve the environment variables on a Microsoft Windows Server 2003-based or Microsoft Windows XP-based computer, the returned path environment variable is truncated to 1,024 bytes. This behavior occurs even though the maximum size of an environment variable is 2,048 bytes. This problem prevents the application from obtaining the correct environment variable.

Source A returned path environment variable is truncated to 1,024 bytes on a Windows Server 2003-based or Windows XP-based computer


So is the limit 2048 characters?

The actual limit is 32,760 characters. However, you are unlikely to attain that theoretical maximum in practice.

  • A batch file is constrained by the maximum command line length since the environment variable needs to fit into the command line buffer of the batch processor.

    On computers running Microsoft Windows XP or later, the maximum length of the string that you can use at the command prompt is 8191 characters.

    Command Prompt ignores any environment variables that are inherited from the parent process and are longer than its own limitations of 8191 characters.

  • Setting the Environment registry key has a 2048 character limit in the code that parses that registry key and builds an environment block out of it.

Sources documented below.


How would that value (PATH) become corrupted through normal use?

As explained later, this can occur if the system PATH is modified to be longer than 1920 characters.

You have not provide enough information in your question for an exact diagnosis on why this is happening.


I have a large user PATH variable set

There is a specific limit on the PATH environment variable.

In order for the user PATH variable to be successfully merged with the system PATH variable the system PATH variable must be < 1920 characters.

Found out that on Windows Server 2003, once the system PATH passes 1920 characters, the user PATH environment variable is no longer merged with it to set the process PATH environment variable, even though the full system PATH (even if larger) will be included in the process PATH variable.

Source Does echo %PATH% expand to only the system or also the user variables? answer by David Heffernan


What are the limits on a file path?

Maximum Path Length Limitation

In the Windows API (with some exceptions discussed in the following paragraphs), the maximum length for a path is MAX_PATH, which is defined as 260 characters.

  • A local path is structured in the following order: drive letter, colon, backslash, name components separated by backslashes, and a terminating null character.

  • For example, the maximum path on drive D is D:\some 256-character path string<NUL> where <NUL> represents the invisible terminating null character for the current system codepage. (The characters < and > are used here for visual clarity and cannot be part of a valid path string.)

    Note: File I/O functions in the Windows API convert "/" to "\" as part of converting the name to an NT-style name, except when using the "\?\" prefix as detailed in the following sections.

The Windows API has many functions that also have Unicode versions to permit an extended-length path for a maximum total path length of 32,767 characters.

  • This type of path is composed of components separated by backslashes, each up to the value returned in the lpMaximumComponentLength parameter of the GetVolumeInformation function (this value is commonly 255 characters). To specify an extended-length path, use the "\?\" prefix. For example, "\?\D:\very long path".

Note: The maximum path of 32,767 characters is approximate, because the "\?\" prefix may be expanded to a longer string by the system at run time, and this expansion applies to the total length.

Source Naming Files, Paths, and Namespaces


What is the maximum length of an environment variable?

The theoretical maximum length of an environment variable is around 32,760 characters. However, you are unlikely to attain that theoretical maximum in practice.

  • All environment variables must live together in a single environment block, which itself has a limit of 32767 characters.

  • But that count is the sum over all environment variable names and values, so you could, I guess, hit that theoretical maximum length if you deleted all the environment variables and then set a single variable called X with that really huge 32,760-character value.

  • In practice, of course, you have to share the environment block with all the other variables in the block, so your random call to SetEnvironmentVariable with a 32,760-character string is unlikely to succeed.

But that’s not your only practical limit.

  • It also depends on how you’re setting the variable; i.e., the code that your environment-variable-setting technique passes through before it gets to the SetEnvironmentVariable call.

  • If you’re using a batch file, then you’re constrained by the maximum command line length since the environment variable needs to fit into the command line buffer of the batch processor.

  • On the other hand, maybe you’re setting the Environment registry key, in which case you run into a 2048-character limit in the code that parses that registry key and builds an environment block out of it.

  • There’s also a limitation in the dialog box for interactively setting environment variables, the numeric value of which I don’t happen to know off the top of my head.

Source What is the maximum length of an environment variable? by Raymond Chen (a Microsoft employee).


Command prompt (Cmd.exe) command-line string limitation

On computers running Microsoft Windows XP or later, the maximum length of the string that you can use at the command prompt is 8191 characters. On computers running Microsoft Windows 2000 or Windows NT 4.0, the maximum length of the string that you can use at the command prompt is 2047 characters.

This limitation applies to the command line, individual environment variables (such as the PATH variable) that are inherited by other processes, and all environment variable expansions. If you use Command Prompt to run batch files, this limitation also applies to batch file processing.

Examples

The following list gives you some examples of how this limitation applies to commands that you run in Command Prompt and commands that you use in a batch file.

  • In Command Prompt, the total length of the following command line that you use at the command prompt cannot contain more than either 2047 or 8191 characters (as appropriate to your operating system):

    cmd.exe /k ExecutableFile.exe parameter1, parameter2 ... parameterN
    
  • In a batch file, the total length of the following command line that you use in the batch file cannot contain more than either 2047 or 8191 characters (as appropriate to your operating system):

    cmd.exe /k ExecutableFile.exe parameter1, parameter2 ... parameterN
    

    This limitation applies to command lines that are contained in batch files when you use Command Prompt to run the batch file.

  • In Command Prompt, the total length of EnvironmentVariable1 after you expand EnvironmentVariable2 and EnvironmentVariable3 cannot contain more than either 2047 or 8191 characters (as appropriate to your operating system):

    c:> set EnvironmentVariable1=EnvironmentVariable2EnvironmentVariable3
    
  • In a batch file, the total length of the following command line after you expand the environment variables in the command line cannot contain more than either 2047 or 8191 characters (as appropriate to your operating system):

    ExecutableFile.exe parameter1 parameter2
    
  • Even though the Win32 limitation for environment variables is 32,767 characters, Command Prompt ignores any environment variables that are inherited from the parent process and are longer than its own limitations of either 2047 or 8191 characters (as appropriate to the operating system). See SetEnvironmentVariable function.

Source Command prompt (Cmd.exe) command-line string limitation

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