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12 steps to improving stability in Windows

There are two things every administrator wants out of an operating system: security and stability. Here's a stability checklist from former editor Bernie Klinder.

There are two things every administrator wants out of an operating system: security and stability. While security...

has received a lot of attention in the past year, we tend to leave the stability part completely to Microsoft.

After all, when have you ever seen a stability checklist? The plain truth is, many system instabilities are preventable. While operating system bugs do exist, there is a lot that administrators can do to improve the overall availability of their servers and workstations.

1. Always use a clean install of Windows. Upgrading from a previous version of Windows is technically easier and faster, but sooner or later you'll pay for this shortcut in terms of unexplained system instabilities and a host of compatibility issues that begin to creep up over time. Just bite the bullet and do it right the first time. You'll save yourself many future headaches.

2. Don't skimp on the quality of your hardware. Your system is only as good as the components in it and attached to it. Spending a few extra dollars on name brand components can really make a difference in the overall stability of your system, Avoid generic memory chips, power supplies, hard drives, CD-ROM drives, video cards and network cards. The same rules apply to peripherals such as printers, scanners, mice, joysticks and other devices. Poorly written drivers and bundled software can wreak havoc on your system. For Windows NT-based systems such as Windows 2000 and Windows XP, make sure your hardware is on Microsoft's Hardware Compatibility List.

3. Don't mix hardware drivers. It's tempting to want to keep old printers or scanners when you buy new systems. However, if the hardware manufacturer hasn't updated the driver for your current operating system, don't give in to the temptation of installing the previous driver to see if it will work. Do some research and find out if other users have discovered a stable workaround, or if a default Windows driver will work. It has been my experience that manufacturers will write updated drivers for medium- to high-end products, but not low-end or entry-level products.

4. Evaluate your software before installing it. Whenever possible, only run software written for your operating system version. Windows XP and Windows 2000 include a compatibility mode to support legacy applications, but I would recommend upgrading the software whenever you can. Never load legacy software that interacts with hardware such as disk and system utilities or old scanner software. Also, use caution when downloading software from the Internet, including shareware, screensavers, various utilities, games, etc. I happen to be a big fan of shareware and freeware, but some of it is just poorly written. Download only from reputable sites, and look for user ratings or software reviews and awards. Poorly written software can cause problems, doesn't always uninstall properly and may leave fragments in the system registry and configuration files that will slow the performance of your machine. If you love to test beta software, consider using an emulator such as VMWare or Microsoft's Virtual PC.

5. Don't over-tweak your system. As your users become more adept with their systems, the more adventurous among them will be tempted to start meddling with settings, including the system registry. Don't let them. There are a small handful of settings that may yield a small performance boost, but it's rarely worth the bother. Tell them that there is no "killer" registry hack that will miraculously speed up their PC to any significant degree. They'll get a bigger boost in performance by properly maintaining their system.

6. Always use a UPS. Most people think nothing of plugging a $2,000 workstation directly into an outlet until a lighting strike turns it into a paperweight. Don't skimp on surge protection for your PCs. Instead of just buying a power strip with a wimpy surge protector, I recommend an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS), which typically offers better surge protection and also provides short-term battery power in the event of a blackout or intermittent power failure. APC and Belkin both offer a number of affordable models that will provide excellent protection against surges as well as brownouts and intermittent spikes. In buildings with older wiring, constant subtle fluctuations in power may affect the life of your workstation. A UPS can help regulate an even flow of electricity to your PC and prevent a number of problems.

7. Keep your system up to date. Windows Update is an easy way to keep up on the latest security and stability patches from Microsoft. While I always install critical security patches, I usually wait a week or two before I install any other updates in the event that the patch will cause more problems than it solves. Patches are not tested as rigorously as service packs, and have occasionally been pulled after a few weeks. Evaluate bug fixes as they come out, and wait for a service pack release if the issue isn't critical or doesn't affect you.

8. Clean the registry. Microsoft used to have a utility for Win9x called RegClean that would go through a computer's registry and remove old fragments and miscellaneous junk that would accumulate over time. Today, I use a utility called RegVac, which I run about once a month on each of my systems. Happiness is a clean registry.

9. Fight spyware. Spyware and Adware are programs that monitor your PC use, in many cases without your knowledge. Users are often tricked into installing these programs as part of installing something else, or by visiting unscrupulous Web sites. Some versions change a homepage repeatedly or display pop-up ads and other garbage while users are trying to work. AdAware is a free program that scans systems for these malicious programs and deletes them in the same manner as antivirus software. The program is also updated regularly to keep up with new threats.

10. Secure your system. Security has become a big issue over the last few years, but there are still thousands of unprotected systems. Antivirus software needs to be kept up to date. Broadband users should always use a firewall. Wireless networks should be secured. Increase your users' browser security settings, and constantly remind them not to open unsolicited e-mail attachments.

11. Don't use the administrator account for routine tasks. It seems unnatural for people to give up power when they don't have to. However, using administrator-level accounts for everyday computing can come back to haunt you. Log into the system using a user-level account, and use the "RUN AS" command when you need to perform functions requiring administrator-level access.

12. Provide a healthy environment. In the early days of IT we pampered computer systems with industrial air conditioning, clean rooms, anti-static mats and dust covers. Today, we do just the opposite. Workstations and servers are often stored under desks, cramped closets or other areas where heat and dust conspire to shorten the life of components. Power supplies usually fail first, followed by hard drives. Some systems will initiate a shutdown if CPU temperatures get too high, but persistent overheating can warp or burn out components. Strong magnetic fields from two-way radios and electric motors can corrupt data stored on hard drives. The goal isn't to try to make these systems last 10 years, but to minimize the chance of hardware failure.

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