The Unknown Error Code

When you look at log files you will frequently find negative error codes inside them (that is mostly the reason why you are looking at the log file anyway). For some of them you can find on Google what they mean but pretty frequently you end up with nothing. Why is that so? Most likely you have a COM error code in front of you. They have a different structure which is described here.

The most important thing to remember about COM error codes is that if bit 31 is set it signals an error. If bit 31=1 the signed 32 bit value becomes negative. That explains the strange values of COM error codes.  The bits 0..15 are most of the time the WIN32 error codes. Other bits above bit 15 can be set but these are irrelevant for normal readers of an error code.

If you ever encounter in a log file a negative error code you can follow that simple recipe to find out what it might be about. Lets suppose you have e.g. Error: -2147480631.

1. Open calc.exe, set it to Programmer mode and paste it as decimal number.


2. Get the first 4 digits of the hex number. Type in calc BC9 to get the decimal value.


3. Google for that Win32 error code or type on a command shell

net helpmsg 3017


and you finally have got a hint why some chained installer did fail. In that case it was some file in use issue which caused a MSI installer to demand a reboot and in the installer log file only that cryptic error code was to be found. Not many people seem to know that negative error codes are mostly a hint to try to convert the lower 16 bit of the error code to decimal and try to interpret that one as Win32 error code.

If you are a powershell guy

-2147480631 -band 0xfff


And here is the shortest form

net helpmsg (-2147480631 -band 0xfff)


That’s a simple but powerful trick which should be more widely known.