Windows Enterprise Desktop


April 8, 2009  5:15 PM

Sizing and Placing the Vista Pagefile

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

One question that I get frequently about Vista, especially from power users, tackles the size of its paging file. Remember, the paging file (which resides in a file named pagefile.sys on Vista machines, often on the system drive, sometimes on one or more other physical drives present on a Vista PC) provides extra “scratch space” for the operating system to use, especially when moving applications in and out of physical memory. The combination of the page file and physical memory creates an aggregate work space so that Vista can manage multiple applications, services, and so forth simultaneously, without having to keep all of them in memory all of the time.

When Vista creates a paging file, it normally creates one that’s twice the size of physical memory, sometimes more than that (actual values depend on free space available on the target drive(s) at the time the page file is situated). Microsoft recommends no less than the amount of physical memory plus 300 MB for the minimum value, and sets the maximum at three times the amount of RAM installed in a PC. Conventional wisdom is that the defaults are fine, particularly on drives that have sufficient free space to allocate three times RAM to the paging file as an ultimate high-water mark.

Most of the power user questions add some interesting wrinkles to this discussion. Thus, for example, consider that 32-bit Windows can address only 4 GB of RAM period. A common form for this query is something like: “Why is a paging file necessary when the amount of RAM matches what Windows can handle anyway?” The answer is interesting and a bit counterintuitive:

  • on 32-bit systems video memory, BIOS memory space, DMA, IRQ, and other system memory maps and hardware addressing usually consume memory from the top down. That’s why on 32-bit systems with 4 GB installed, Task Manager usually reports only 3xxx MB of RAM (3317 on my Dell D620 notebook and 3581 on my Intel desktop, for example) rather than 4096.
  • some Windows applications require access to a paging file so they can operate properly, and will crash if you try to run them with the paging file disabled.
  • Windows itself prefers to have access to a paging file, if only to help it manage the process of loading and unloading applications scheduled for execution (on the way in) or for termination or swap-out (on the way out).
  • You can’t capture memory dumps from stop or blue screen errors without a paging file (even minidumps require a 64 KB paging file, and the Vista minimum size is 16 MB in any case).

This discussion kicks up a notch when power users run 64-bit Vista with more than 4 GB of RAM, but the issues remain more or less the same. In general, it’s not worth messing with the defaults unless there’s some compelling reason to do so (limited space on a notebook SSD, for one example, or demonstrable performance slow-downs attributable to paging, for another).

When downsizing a paging file, here are some points to ponder:

  • experimentation shows that at least 512 MB of paging file is the absolute minimum that delivers reasonably stable operation, with values of 1 – 2 GB sometimes offering even better stability.
  • if you want to capture a complete memory dump, the paging file must be at least as large as the amount of physical memory installed on the machine (this file usually appears in a filed named MEMORY.DMP in the %SystemRoot% directory, which is C:\Windows on most Vista machines).
  • be sure to check all the applications you’ll want to run on that machine, and keep an eye out for insufficient virtual memory messages. These will appear until you re-size the paging file to a point where all applications find sufficient virtual memory available for their use.

This kind of testing, requires a lot of patience, time, and effort which is why only power users (and mildly obsessive ones at that) are usually willing to go through this exercise. For most users, especially those uninterested in tweaking and tuning their Vista notebook or desktop PCs, the system-defined defaults should work just fine.

April 6, 2009  6:46 PM

TX Legislature Inveighs Against Vista

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

On April 2, ComputerWorld reported that the Texas Senate included a rider in its 2009-2010 state budget that blocks state agencies from upgrading to Windows Vista without first obtaining written consent from that body. State Senator Juan Hinojosa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, explained he included the rider “because of the many reports of problems with Vista.” He went on to say that in addition “…the XP operating system is working very well” and that his body is “…not in any way, shape, or form trying to pick on Microsoft.”

Interestingly, the rider requires Texas state agencies to otain written approval from the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) before acquiring any Vista licenses, even for PC’s that include pre-installed copies of this much-maligned OS. Alas, it’s too late for many existing installations. The Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) reports that over 40 state arms has spent more than $6M on Vista purchases and upgrades, though the DIR itself uses Windows XP and Mac OS X. Given Microsoft’s overall clout, and the fact that it employs over 1,500 people in the state, with sales and development offices in most major Texas cities (Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and others), it will be interesting to see if this injunction can withstand the budget reconciliation with the house version, and pressure from Microsoft and business interests allied with that company.

But those whose thoughts about Vista might have occasionally included the phrase “…there oughta be a law…” can now claim some legislative satisfaction, no matter how fleeting or transitory this ruling may turn out to be. Personally, I find it fascinating that the legislative machinery includes room for this kind of activity along with everything else that’s involved in keeping government going!


April 3, 2009  3:11 PM

Check Out Windows Springboard for Win7 Info

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Thanks to a recent email from the Microsoft Learning PR rep, the ever-helpful Andrea Platt Dayal, I now know about the Microsoft Springboard Series, which she describes as a source of “…additional information for IT pros on Windows 7.” True though this statement may be, it fails to do justice to what you’ll find there. After digging into and through some of its offerings descriptive phrases like “treasure trove” or “fabulous collection” somehow spring to mind.

Let me list some of the items I found there by way of explanation:

  1. Long-time Windows internals guru and MS Technical Fellow Mark Russinovich offers a Channel9 preview of the long-awaited revision to his Inside Windows book with a show called “Mark Russinovich Goes Inside Windows 7.” If you follow the link to his “Pushing the Limits of Windows: Paged and Nonpaged Pool” you’ll find an interesting discussion of Windows memory pools and the first really cogent and concise of the dreaded IRQL_NOT_LESS_OR_EQUAL stop error code I’ve seen.
  2. A nice series of Windows 7 Feature walkthroughs is also available. Topics covered include Windows PowerShell 2.0 (a major upgrade from the 1.0 and 1.1 versions available to Vista), the User State Migration tool and Windows 7 AIK, BranchCache, DirectAccess, UAC, the new Windows Troubleshooting Platform, AppLocker, Deployment Image Servicing and Management (DISM), and a whole lot more of great potential interest to enterprise admins.
  3. Interesting spots of coverage in the Windows Client blog, including blogs related to Engineering Windows 7 and this very Springboard Series.
  4. Links to news and highlights items (with an RSS feed to match), as well a link to the Windows 7 Beta forums. Makes it easy to keep up with recent developments, and the forums provide ample insight into what users love and hate about the current beta.

Do yourself a favor: if Win7 interests you, even only as a matter of curiosity, check these links out!


April 1, 2009  4:18 PM

My New Favorite Vista Epigram

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

I jsut read a marvelous story from the Sydney Morning Herald entitled “Windows 7 looking good, especially after Vista woes.” It includes a brief but telling remark about Windows Vista to which I can’t help but ascribe epigram status — namely, “Windows Vista is widely reviled, and sometimes seems so bad that it resembles malware (malicious software).” While I can’t agree with this statement, I can’t dispute its accuracy or relevancy, either. As you read through the story, and I encourage you to do at your earliest opportunity, you’ll find plenty of other interesting and diverting bits of techno-trivia.

What I’ve had ongoing trouble with right up to the present is with Vista’s complexity and lack of incisive controls. On certain hardware configurations, I’ve repeatedly found myself in situations where Vista would keep limping along, but an increasing number of applications would fade into the “Not Responding” state. At the same time, I found myself unable to bail out of the OS using either CTRL-ALT-ESC to get into Task Manager, or CTRL-ALT-DEL to call up the login/logout/control screen. Rebooting to re-establish system stability is kind of a cop-out anyway, but I’ll be darned if either the System or Application logs in Event Viewer can provide me with any data about what caused my system to hang, and required me to peform yet another “disruptive shutdown” to regain control over my machine.

In working with Windows 7, I’ve been able to get the two “attention sequences” (CTRL-ALT-DEL and CTRL-ALT-ESC) to work as they should even when the system got extremely flaky owing to installation of an obviously incompatible driver. I have to ask: why won’t Vista work the same way? I’m not ready to put this OS in the same class as malware, and I do believe I’ve reached an “uneasy rapprochement” with Vista, to the point where I can get along with it on a day-to-day basis and keep my own and my users’ machines up and running most of the time. But I keep wondering why it gets flaky from time to time, and how I might be better able to maintain stable, long-term operation (for more discussion see my March 12 Blog at ViztaView.com).

If anybody has any wisdom to dispense here, or any war stories or hard-earned experience to share, please chime in. Surely it’s better for us to suffer together, than to do so alone! Just because you think Windows Vista is out to get you, doesn’t mean you’re paranoid.


March 27, 2009  4:00 PM

Vista Grows Market Share: Too Little, Too Late?

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

On March 23, Sam Diaz blogged for ZDnet that Vista’s market share has apparently climbed past 30% for the first time, according to an analysis by Web traffic monitoring company StatCounter. According to that latter company’s CEO, Aodhan Cullen: “Based on daily data Windows Vista has only topped 30% a few times before and only for a maximum of three days running. This is the first time it has broken through 30% on a weekly basis suggesting that it is gaining some consistent traction in the US.” Based on an analysis of 4 billion pageloads monthly, this data also makes some other interesting observations possible:

  • XP still predominates with a market share in excess of 55%.
  • Vista traffic spikes on weekends, while XP predominates on weekdays. This underscores the presence of Vista in the consumer category, probably pre-installed on newer PCs, with the continuing presence of XP in the workplace.
  • Mac OS numbers show slightly in excess of 8%.
  • By extension, this puts Linux, Unix, and other OSes at about 7%.

While Vistaheads (like me) might be tempted to take some heart from this upsurge (which has climbed steadily since hovering around 10% until last fall), the real news here is that a big loyal installed base of XP continues to rule the workplace. With free support for XP scheduled to end on April 14, 2009, does this mean that companies will be boosting MS support coffers with paid support while waiting for Windows 7 to ship?

I don’t see how it’s possible to come to any other conclusion. It will be interesting to watch the Vista numbers for movement in the coming months, as businesses — especially smaller ones — start to realize what the end of free XP support really means, and to weigh the risks and costs of switching to Vista sooner or paying for the privilege of switching to Windows 7 later.


March 25, 2009  6:02 PM

Handy Tool: Halfdone Development’s Unknown Devices

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

If you’re like me, you’re nearly always in the process of building or rebuilding one or more Vista systems, or checking specific systems out for currency and correctness. Especially when dealing with new or revised builds, or with systems you haven’t worked with before, you will occasionally come across devices that Windows doesn’t recognize. When that happens the first step toward finding the correct and likely MIA device driver is to identify the device that’s currently earning a yellow question mark in Device Manager.

That’s where Unknown Devices comes in. It goes through the Windows device enumeration process and records everything it discovers during that process. Even if the program itself can’t identify a device — and I’ve seen this happen in less than a handful of instances on all the systems I’ve tried it on —it provides you with a vendor ID string in nearly every case (so far, that means 100% for me in my personal experience, but I also know that it’s possible that you might come across a device for which the software can’t find such data). With that information in hand, you can almost always Google your way to device identification, and from there to a driver for your platform and OS.

The interface is pretty spare and simple, and consists simply of a list of device categories at the top level. These map to elements that appear in Device Manager as well, though you’ll find more elements in Unknown Devices than you may see on a specific desktop. For example, I’ve turned off the floppy controller and floppy disk drives in BIOS on those machines that have no floppy drives installed and they don’t appear in Device Manager any more; nevertheless, they still show up in Unknown Devices (though no entries appear under these headings on such machines, as you might expect).

Unknown Devices lists all devices it finds using familiar Device Manager categories.

Unknown Devices lists all devices it finds using familiar Device Manager categories.

Click on any category and you can examine a listing of its contents as shown here, for the Storage Controllers category (a green checkmark indicates a signed driver):

Items listed for "Storage Controllers"

Items listed for the Storage Controllers category.

Right-click on any item, then select device details to see basic information about the device in question. Here’s a snap of the info shown for the motherboard’s built-in ICH9R RAID controller:

Basic device information is readily available.

Basic device information is readily available.

Despite an occasional misspelling (Vender for Vendor, Visable for Visible) the tool nevertheless delivers lots of useful information, and can help you run down and pinpoint unknown devices pretty efficiently. Better yet, I’ve recently learned from direct experience that this tool works with XP, Vista, and Windows 7, even, which makes it very handy indeed. I’d wondered why Unknown Devices was part of the basic toolkit for the various WinBuilder projects (LiveXP, VistaPE, and Win7PE) and now I know. Try it out, and so will you!

WARNING! The information that Unknown Devices turns up is only as good as the various PCI, USB, and Chipset identification text files that drive the program. You’ll definitely want to follow developer Mike “Catfish” Moniz’ advice, and grab the latest version of the PCI, PCI-e, AGP, … devices list from the link he provides for that purpose. This program is no panacea for Windows device identification or troubleshooting, but it does come in pretty handy.


March 23, 2009  4:41 PM

A New Operational Definition of “Windows Bloat”

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

OK, for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been digging more seriously into Windows 7, trying to get my mind around the new operating system, particularly from the standpoints of performance, usability, heft, and complexity. I’ve got to report that I’m favorably impressed on all fronts, especially in terms of heft. The performance is also definitely better than Vista, and perhaps even faster than XP (as amply illustrated in Adrian Kingsley-Hughes’ outstanding blog on that topic) in my own recent personal experience.

What blows me away most, however, is how compact and efficient Windows 7 is by contrast to Vista. The only version of Windows 7 currently available is the Ultimate one, so check out these two screenshots that compare both environments on a working desktop: first Vista, then Windows 7.

79 processes, CPU Usage 10%, Memory usage 53% (4 GB)

Vista Ultimate: 79 processes, CPU Usage 10%, Memory usage 53% (4 GB)

0%, Memory 29% (2 GB)

Win7 Ultimate: 42 Processes, CPU Usage: 0%, Memory 29% (2 GB)

Excuse me, but this is nothing short of amazing–at least to me! Given that I’m also getting reasonable performance for Win7 on the same Asus Eee 1000HE PC that only comes with XP at present (and XP Home at that), I can’t wait to see how more minimal versions will run on netbook hardware when the time comes to play with those.

Right now, I’m still learning my way around the interface and how to use the new OS (it still feels mostly like Vista to me), but I’ve yet to really learn how to use the new interface elements like Libraries, Homegroups, Devices and Printers, and so forth. That’s why I’m still reserving judement on complexity and usability areas, though I can say I’m favorably impressed.

One more thing: on the software and hardware compatibility fronts, I’m pretty much blown away by Win7. I’ve only had problems with one device driver for Win7 so far (and it’s for virtual remapping of the Eee 1000HE display to create a virtual space of 1200×768 in a window that’s actually 1200×600 in size). Every other device driver I’ve tried from Vista has worked in Windows 7. I’ve also had great luck with software and have encountered compatibility problems only where they might rightly be expected: on very OS-specific tools such as defrag (Raxco PerfectDisk 10), 50-50 on Unknown Device Identifier (Zhangduo.com) though Halfdone’s Unknown Device works fine on all systems, inability to load the 4.72 version of Logitech SetPoint (4.70 works fine), and a few other odds and ends. Even my old standby, DriverAgent, works on Windows 7 quite well although it recognizes that this is a new (and unknown) operating system, as far as it can tell.

What does this all mean to enterprise desktop admins? For one thing, it’s not inappropriate to look forward to and actually enjoy working with Winodws 7. I definitely don’t see the same headaches with device drivers that plagued and stalled early adoption of Vista affecting Winodws 7.  For another, expect Win7 to make better use of the same hardware as compared to Vista. In different terms: Win 7 is much less resource-consumptive and also more responsive and easier to tweak than Vista. Definitely worth checking out, and showing to the powers that be!


March 19, 2009  7:35 PM

ITKE Contest Lets Experts Play on Their Knowledge

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Between March 18 (yesterday) and April 30th (the end of next month) IT Knowledge Exchange (ITKE) members who rack up the most Knowledge Points and ask five IT related questions can win one of three different Microsoft Xbox 360 gaming rigs (an Elite model goes to the top ranked player, a regular Xbox 360 for second place, and an Xbox 360 Arcade to the third-ranked expert). To repeat: the people with the highest Knowledge Points scores who have also asked at least 5 IT questions in the period from 3/18-4/30/2009 will win Xbox 360 gaming systems.

As usual, some further restrictions apply to these rules:

  • Only players from the following countries are eligible: USA, Canada, UK, and Western Europe (I’m guessing this means countries in the European Union or its geographical confines, though residents of Liechtenstein, Andorra, Monaco, and so forth may want to request clarification before going all out for a top slot).
  • Previous Xbox contest winners at ITKE are not eligible for this contest.
  • All answers, discussions, and questions will be reviewed for validity.

So start answering lots of questions (see the index of topics on the contest announcement blog) and visit the Ask a Question page to start building up credit for your 5 obligatory inquiries as well.

Good luck to one and all. Hope to see you on the podium on April 30!

—Ed—


March 18, 2009  6:43 PM

Windows 7 Comes Off Pretty Darn Well

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Now that I’ve gotten Windows 7 (the latest beta build: 7057) up and running on a couple of computers, I understand most of the recent hoopla it’s garnered a whole lot better. It is indeed quick and easy to install: under half an hour in all cases, working from an ISO download I burned to DVD after downloading it from MSDN. Windows 7 does consume fewer resources and run faster than Vista, just like other recent reports indicate. Also, it does a decent to stellar job of recognizing hardware and getting itself installed with a minimum of user input and activity involved. I selected a language, confirmed my time zone and locale, provided a key, and indicated I was using a home network. That was the entire extent of my interaction with the PCs upon which I installed this software (one notebook, one desktop, just to get the full flavor of Win7 in my test environment).

I also now understand that Windows 7 is a whole lot more like Vista than it is unlike Vista, though it does look completely different, and organize the desktop as well as access to programs, services, and so forth a bit differently. It worked perfectly with all the software I threw at it with only two exceptions: it wouldn’t run PerfectDisk 10 for defrag (analyzing a drive produced the generic catchall “Error 0″ notification) nor would it run Unknown Devices 1.2 (when run on Vista, this program reports “I don’t know what OS this is exactly, so I guessed where the PnP info is, and I’m right!” I’m guessing this means PnP data has moved in Windows 7 or it probably would have worked, too. That said, HunterSoft/Zhanguo.com’s Unknown Device Identifier worked fine on Windows 7).

Unlike Ed Bott’s recent report on installing and living with Build 7057, Windows 7 didn’t recognize all the devices on my HP HDX18-1001xx, as it did on his Dell XPS 420. It only missed on 7 items though, including two Intel ICH9 chipset elements (Thermal Subsystem 2932 and SMBus Controller 2930), the notebook’s built-in HP Webcam and Validity Fingerprint scanner, the ENE CIR Receiver (for IR remote control support), the ATSC/Analog TV tuner card, and the JMicron memory card reader (MS, SD, SD/MMC, xD). A quick trip to the HP Customer Care Web pages for my notebook made downloading the necessary 32-bit Vista drivers a snap. All installed without a hitch. I was even able to use my old tried and trusted DriverAgent tool to check and confirm driver status, as shown here:

DriverAgent Works Nicely with Windows 7

Most impressively, the wireless networking and Bluetooth elements on the system worked flawlessly as soon as the system booted “for real” after the install completed. This is the first time in my experience that wireless connections have worked as quickly and painlessly with Windows as they did here, Vista and XP included.

All this experience and my (mostly successful) navigation of the Windows 7 UI confirms my belief that Windows 7 is incredibly Vista-like. This definitely explains why MS is touting Vista as the right point of departure for getting to know Windows 7, because these two OSes are more alike than they are different. It’s also made working with and getting to know Windows 7 a whole lot easier and faster than I expected it to be.

My next project is to install Windows 7 on an Asus Eee PC 1000HE, but I’m waiting on a USB enclosure for a DVD drive to arrive by mailorder before I can get started on that project–which I’ll be documenting extensively in an article for InformIT.com. Stay tuned here for the high points, and for more information about my Win 7 adventures. So far, so good, however.


March 16, 2009  6:21 PM

Dual-boot Vista (or XP) and Windows 7–the Easy Way!!

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

While indeed you can shrink the system partition on your current boot/system drive and install Windows 7 on a new partition you create by trimming space from that partition, why bother? You can install Windows 7 to an external hard disk (eSATA only, USB won’t work[updated 5/17/09 thanks to feedback from reader Jay Visaria]) and then manipulate the boot drive order in BIOS to control which OS boots on your machine.

Leave your current boot drive order unaltered, and Vista will continue to boot as always. Change your boot order so that the Win7 boot drive is ahead of the Vista boot drive and presto! you’ll boot into Windows 7 instead of Vista. This is a great and easy way for admins to muck about with Windows 7 on familiar hardware, while avoiding potential difficulties that dual-booting from the same volume can sometimes cause. This is significantly less likely with Windows 7 and Windows Vista than other Windows versions because both of those versions use the same BCD files and software. But I’ve been bitten too many times in my Windows forays–especially into new and relatively uncharted territory–to want to put a production OS and a beta OS on the same drive.

Now that the beta is publicly available and all kinds of people want to jump on this new OS, dual-booting is bound to be an issue for many. Though there are many other ways to scratch this particular itch, I prefer the one just described because it keeps things as disjoint as possible. I’m leery enough about the Win7 beta that I turn the external drive upon which it resides on only when I want to explore its file system from Vista, or when I actually want to run Windows 7 and boot from that drive. It stays off the rest of the time.

Know of other, better methods? Please share them with me, but don’t tell me to run Win 7 in a VM, please. I already know how to do that, too!

Thanks,

–Ed–


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