Many of us have read technology industry press reporting, blogs and perhaps scores of user and community group threads describing the issues and problems they have had with Windows Vista. Some are sincere and reflect user frustration with use and stability issues encountered during an upgrade over, or from a previous version of Windows. Regretfully, others in the tech press have done little more than wrap vented spleen in half-witted reviews as they railed against Vista - if these people offered solutions other than cleverly worded recommendations for users to hold onto Windows XP, or consider a move to Apple OS X, or Ubuntu, one might be able to take them seriously.
I can't and won't - most of the tech industry's press doesn't appear to be objective, or particularly skilled technically and I have found myself moving from a position of decreasing respect for them, to one of utter contempt. Where this becomes a real problem for me is where the alleged experts facing regular users fail to offer real help and competent technical advice, as they mockingly and recklessly confuse and poorly advise the users who trust them - all in the name of perpetuating the myths they've created around Vista.
So where are regular users and perhaps system and network administrators supposed to turn for help and real-world assistance? Certainly, Microsoft TechNet and MSDN are great places to start, but they can be a little intimidating and perhaps a bit too comprehensive for regular users, or newer administrators seeking sources of information that they can share with users they support. Something simpler and closer to home might help and that is part of why this blog and its forums exist.
In most cases published here, I am going to draw on our own company's experiences and the work we do each day in the service of our customers. In many examples, I'll be presenting information that is not based on immediate success, but from our own initial failures and what we did and do to solve the inevitable challenges that are present in any work - including using and supporting Windows Vista. My hope is that people will be helped, but also that together, we can help elevate the discussions centering on our industry and restore some objectivity.
So back to what matters most - helping people get the most out of their use of computers. As shared, some users of Windows Vista have had a rough time. In some cases hardware and software failures and stability issues have arisen and a lot of the time it seems hard to diagnose what the problem is. While it's tempting to randomly blame bad drivers and bad software, or as many in our press have done, declare Vista a monumental flop, it doesn't help much. What does help are tools specifically designed to aid users, technicians and engineers, and that is what one has every right to expect from Microsoft and an operating system as powerful and evolved as Windows Vista is.
Fortunately, Windows Vista has some very powerful new tools that are a part of a much larger ecosystem designed to very quickly identify and solve hardware and software issues Microsoft's customers and its partners experience. While powerful and well integrated to the entire ecosystem, Vista's diagnostic tools are very easy to use and they face users and technicians in very readable ways. As and before we get into these tools, I'm going to set up the case study by outlining the scenario and a few parameters which affected our own need and use of Vista's performance and reliability tools.
System Behaviors and Reported User Experiences:
Windows Vista Ultimate Computer with a Windows Experience Index [WEI] score of 5.5 reported "Freezing" "Locking Up" and "Unresponsive" when the customer visited the AOL.com public website, resulting in numerous disruptive shutdowns. Similar behaviors were reported by the customer when visiting other websites, like Yahoo.com and a local public library website.
Telephone support exchanges with the customer revealed that the error messages displayed prior to the computer freezing included:
Explorer.exe failed to respond
Internet Explorer failed to respond
Installed Software on the computer included:
Windows Vista Ultimate Boxed Retail
Microsoft Office 2007 Professional Boxed Retail
Adobe Photoshop CS2 and CS3
Panda Software Panda Anti virus 2007
AOL Client Software VR, or Vista Ready edition
Now, before I go too much further, I have to share that we live, work and play in the same world as our customers - we build and use the same systems we build and sell as delivered and fully set-up, turn-key systems ready for immediate use. So in our case, there is a lot of information that we can access about our own systems and we can much more closely replicate what our customers are experiencing... and very troubling to us, we were seeing many of the same things. This was early in our commercial deployment of Windows Vista based media computers, and the system above was one of of the very first media centric systems we had deployed. The customer has been with us for a very long time and we built and manage all the systems and networks servicing his orthodontics practice. The system delivered was part of a much larger house-wide entertainment and automation system and built to replace a Windows Media Center 2005 system we had built two years earlier. The home network into which the new computer was deployed is a large, mixed client wired/wireless network with both desktop and laptop computers - including Mac OS X computers and NAS devices, as well as several commercial image and document printers.
Solving the Challenge:
Using our own experiences and the Windows Vista Performance and Reliability Monitor, we accessed instrumentation data remotely and aggregated it. Most home users aren't likely to do this, but the principles are the same, and all network and systems administrators are encouraged to explore how to access and acquire this data remotely. Ref: Windows Reliability and Performance Monitor
For independent users, or on the spot technical evaluations, users and engineers should go to, START | Control Panel | <switch to classic view> | Administrative Tools | Computer Management | <Select and expand, Reliability and Performance and then Reliability Monitor>
For users that have placed the "Computer" icon on the desktop, just right-click Computer and select, "Manage" then proceed from Reliability and Performance as above.
Our review of the customer's performance data reported in Windows Vista's Reliability Monitor and that data in our own systems reflected no hardware issues, but they did reflect one very obvious application error and depending upon what type of application, or process it was, it could be responsible for the errors the customer and we were observing. As reflected in the image below, an applications process called, AVENGINE.EXE had stopped working. As I shared and since we hand build and use the same systems we build for customers, we do a great deal of testing and knew that AVENGINE.EXE was a Panda Software, Panda Anti virus 2007 process. Since we have been long term Panda Software customers [7 years], we had participated in their Vista BETA programs, as well as many programs from companies like, Symantec, ESET Software [NOD32], and MacAfee. We also knew that early in the deployments around Windows Vista that there may not be a great deal of data available from the security software companies and less of which would be proliferated through their technical support staffs - which was confirmed as we sought information about the reflected process error.
Since we had been testing other products on identical and similar builds as used by the computers reflecting errors, we went back to Windows Vista's Reliability Monitor and we noted that no such errors were being reflected and no such behaviors were being reported by customers who were not running stand-alone client versions of Panda Anti virus 2007. Again, Vista's instrumentation, as clearly reflected in the Reliability Monitor, made it quick and easy to see exactly how the computers were performing.
The image below reflects the Windows Vista Reliability Monitor on one of my own Windows Media Center [WMC] Computers - note the error reported for AVENGINE.EXE
Note also that the same error was reported on the computer on 1st of April 2007.
We noted that while we were seeing similar AVENGINE.EXE application failures we were not seeing them with the frequency that the customer had observed - but we weren't going to AOL's website either. When we did, AVENGINE.EXE failed almost immediately, and like the customer reported, closing the application also caused EXPLORER.EXE to fail - freezing the computer. We reassessed the data we had collected and then tested using ESET Software's NOD32 on computers running AOL 9.0 VR and AOL.com's public website. The systems ran without error and happily, they "felt" both faster and smoother under the mouse.
Needless to say, we shagged it over to the customer's home and removed Panda Anti virus 2007 and installed ESET's NOD32. We did the same thing on several other test systems and select personal systems and once again, collected and aggregated performance and reliability data. Most happily, no further errors have been observed and our customer is very happy.
The figure below reflects a very handsome 10.0 - perfect performance and reliability rating - which is the only number we like to see. Sustaining that number is hard to do, but it can be done and remember, this is a Windows Media Center system running Windows Vista and subject to intense daily use. It processes live satellite television throughout most of our home and supports two Xbox systems as media extenders.
Not being the sort that enters into, or out of business relationships casually, we alerted and have been working with Panda Software's Technical Support Department since recording that it is probable that their shipping AV 2007 product may not work reliably on Windows Vista in all cases.
While we have seen errors with certain websites while using Windows Vista, Internet Explorer with its default Protected Mode on and Data Execution Protection [DEP] enabled, we had not seen any iexplorer.exe errors resulting from a DEP related event cause a fault in EXPLORER.EXE until it was combined with the use of Panda Anti virus 2007 and AOL.com. We suspect that a DEP related event was intercepted by Panda Anti virus 2007.
As you can see, there is a lot under the hood when it comes to Windows Vista, and while the example above only introduces a small portion of the instrumentation and monitoring available in Microsoft's new operating system, it does hopefully reflect that users and technicians do not have to use all of them, or even understand how they work, in order to use and benefit from them. By using readily accessible performance and reliability information that is easy to understand, one may quickly discover what a computer is doing and what one might do in order to solve challenges users report.
All around these tools is an enormous ecosystem that underwrites Windows Vista - with Vista, the aggregation of data, reporting of and response to hardware and applications failures has been both accelerated and better served. In our company we have seen the very tangible benefits inherent to this process and we have seen Windows Vista mature at a rate that is very hard to believe - certainly many times faster than any previous version of Windows. Related to this, users will from time to time, note a systems tray icon and balloon help alerting them to resolutions to errors reported by them as part of the customer experience program. We strongly encourage all users to participate in these programs - they will allow Windows Management Instrumentation systems to alert engineers of problems with hardware and software and provide automated systems the ability to report and deliver solutions to end users.
I hope this post and our experience using Vista's Performance and Reliability Monitor helps illustrate a few more things - I hope it helps show just how different, new and more advanced Windows Vista is over previous versions of Windows. I also hope that it reveals what we need to expect from those writing about our industry - including problems that are revealed. I assess professionals in our industry and certainly all those that allow themselves to be regarded as "experts" have a very real obligation to know and share the truth. If they don't know about the instrumentation and monitoring tools baked into Vista, they should, or they should write about something else. If they are aware of these tools and they do not share them, or ask those that seek their help and support what these tools are reporting, then I assert they are intentionally working to prevent Windows Vista from succeeding and being assessed objectively. It is OK if they are not advocates of Windows Vista, or Microsoft - they are entitled to their opinions, but they need to declare them. If they, even one time, withhold information like this that could help a person, whether it is due to their incompetence, or by intent, then I assess they need to be held to account. I've heard and read so many examples of this and it makes me very angry - it's one thing to have an opinion, but quite another to allow a user to suffer or be injured in some way, while some tech pundit with an agenda pursues his or her own interests. I submit that it will not be long before the instrumentation, reporting and tools that underwrite Vista will very quickly work to silence even its most ardent detractors.