Dynamic-link library (or DLL) is Microsoft’s implementation of the shared library concept in the Microsoft Windows and OS/2 operating systems. These libraries usually have the file extension DLL, OCX (for libraries containing ActiveX controls), or DRV (for legacy system drivers). The file formats for DLLs are the same as for Windows EXE files – that is, Portable Executable (PE) for 32-bit and 64-bit Windows, and New Executable (NE) for 16-bit Windows. As with EXEs, DLLs can contain code, data, and resources, in any combination.
Data files with the same file format as a DLL, but with different file extensions and possibly containing only resource sections, can be called resource DLLs. Examples of such DLLs include icon libraries, sometimes having the extension ICL, and font files, having the extensions FON and FOT.
Since DLLs are essentially the same as EXEs, the choice of which to produce as part of the linking process is for clarity, since it is possible to export functions and data from either.
It is not possible to directly execute a DLL, since it requires an EXE for the operating system to load it through an entry point, hence the existence of utilities like RUNDLL.EXE or RUNDLL32.EXE which provide the entry point and minimal framework for DLLs that contain enough functionality to execute without much support.
DLLs provide a mechanism for shared code and data, allowing a developer of shared code/data to upgrade functionality without requiring applications to be re-linked or re-compiled. From the application development point of view Windows and OS/2 can be thought of as a collection of DLLs that are upgraded, allowing applications for one version of the OS to work in a later one, provided that the OS vendor has ensured that the interfaces and functionality are compatible.
DLLs execute in the memory space of the calling process and with the same access permissions which means there is little overhead in their use but also that there is no protection for the calling EXE if the DLL has any sort of bug.