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Software and Return on Investment
The visibility of failed software architectures
by Gregg Wonderly
November 17, 2009
Windows 7 is here, and mysteriously, the Vista SP2 download has disappeared from windows update. What does this say about Vista that we didn't already know?


Windows Vista - A new Look on What a Computer is

I, probably like a majority of Windows Vista users, have had a really bad experience throughout the life of Vista. I bought three Vista installed computers from three different manufacturers. Each one had a particular issue that was painfully disruptive in the use of the system for an extended period of time.

I have a Toshiba Laptop that had a file system meltdown prior to SP1. I had to buy windows Vista Ultimate and upgrade over a backup that I restored from Windows Home server to recover from missing system files. Upgrade installs must be done from a running OS, so I had no choice but to restore to recover. That was a day of my life, and it happened twice, the first time I didn't have the home server, and I had to piece the OS back together file by file on another computer to get it to boot.

The other two computers were desktop machines, one Gateway, one HP. The Gateway had a disappearing DVD drive problem in Vista. I could boot from it and use it from other OSes, but Vista could not find it. I found information on the web for how to repair the registry to get it to work, but then it eventually disappeared again. Software installed on that computer was creating a problem with the OS finding the DVD?

The HP had a case of a disappearing video card. It had an on board video card as well, and I was able to tell the BIOS to use that, and this repaired that situation.

Vista SP2 Arrives

When Vista SP2 appeared in the Windows Update list, I decided to install it. I though humm, Microsoft is continuing to repair this nightmare, I should be even better off now.
I installed SP2 and "presto chango" the DHCP client service will now not start! I have no DHCP capabilities on my work laptop! I try and start it manually and get a "the parameter is incorrect" error code with no description of the problem in the system logs or anywhere visible.

I say, hey I should check microsoft's web site. I find "free Vista SP2 support" provided, so I use the web interface to get in contact with someone. We go through the steps of talking about the issue, and they want to use remote support to look at my computer. So I think humm, that's a frightful idea, but hey I have my home server backup to revert to, so what the heck.

We get it all setup, they connect and start messing around, asking me how many computers are connected to my computer. I tell them "this is a laptop, not a server". The first thing the go to do is turn off UAC. I tell them that's already off, been off for some time now. Next they start looking through the registry and running some commands at the dos prompt and poking around.

Some of the stuff was network related, some, looked to me like "hey what's in this dialog" kinds of "noob" discovery. I set back and continue to watch.

They make some other changes, which I am noting and tracking, and then want to reboot. We go round and round for like 2-3 hours doing this, and it is time for me to go to an evening event, so I tell them this, and they want to get back together the next day, so we make an appointment for them to call me on my Cell phone.

These Guys are using Public Web Pages for Reference

I go home, get done with my even activities, and sit down to see if I can find anything else out about this. I search around on the web, and find nothing on the Microsoft site, but there is a "tech" web site that has some stuff about checking/changing DHCP service parameters, and I see exactly the set of steps that I saw them performing on my machine.

Now, I'll concede that they might have an internal procedure document that is in fact these steps, but it sure seemed suspicious to me.

Vista SP2 Backed Out

I tried to use restore points to recover and uninstall SP2 overnight. Still no change in behavior after doing that. The next day, I get the call from MS support, and tell them I backed out SP2 and saw no change in behavior. They were alarmed that I had backed out a service pack! I told them, this is my computer, I bought it to use it, and it wasn't usable after their software was upgraded, so I needed to get back to a working state.

I had a few files checked out of our change control system that I had been working on, and some other things that I wanted to finish before I restored, again, from a home server backup from prior to installing SP2. Otherwise, instead of uninstalling SP2, I would have just done the restore.

They went around through my computer for a few more hours of another work day, and finally I just told them that we were done. I really did not have any more time to spend on this issue and that I needed to recover from a backup and move on.

Home Server Backup Comes to the Rescue Again

So that evening, I copied off all the things that I had checked out of the change control system (had to do a manual audit to make sure I wasn't missing anything). I then use the home server backup to restore to the backup I had made the morning of the SP 2 install, before it was installed. I copied the handful of changed files back into place, and had a working system. I revisited my Windows Update config to make sure that I had it configured to require manual installation so that I could avoid another SP 2 install.

Windows ... Upgrade - Free Installation Support

Going back and looking at the whole history of Windows, the APIs, and how things have always worked etc., is quite representative of why the OS has such "global catastrophes it seems to me. The architecture that they've had to maintain compatibility with has been too interleaved. There is a lot of stuff out in userland that when it fails, it becomes very difficult to track down because the dependencies are so global, that you really can't tell what is not working without running a debugger or having access to details that a normal user would never possibly muster and understanding of. So, each time there is an upgrade, so many things break in so many odd ways that Microsoft has to have a huge support team ready.

It's an honorable thing to do for product support, but I wonder if the scale of the operation is isolating the real issues from the developers who need to know what is really happening. When my C-Drive melted down and would no longer boot, I volunteered to create an image of the drive and upload it for them to look at. They were not interested in that concept.

Vista SP-2 Disappears from Windows Update

For a month of so after SP-2 disabled my DHCP client service, I was regularly greeted with the opportunity to install SP2. I kept ignoring that, but continued to install all the other updates. Eventually, it just disappeared from the list, about the time that Windows-7 RC1 appeared on the scene.

Is Windows 7 really an upgrade or is it a reversion to XP?

I really wonder how much of Windows-7 is Vista. I realize that a lot of the functionality of Vista is visible in Windows-7, so perhaps they have finally found what the core issue was with all the instability and fixed it.

I'd like to interview a Microsoft OS developer and get their view on what has happened with the OS from a stability perspective and what they've learned about the codebase and how to manage it for the future to avoid disasters like Vista.

I'm also curious to know how many people had catastrophic experiences with Vista and how many people just never saw a stability problem and just used it, working around some of the worts like UAC popups and the other GUI/UI issues that were much different from XP.

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About the Blogger

Gregg Wonderly graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1988 with an MS in COMSCI. His areas of concentration include Operating Systems and Languages. His first job was at the AT&T Bell Labs facilities in Naperville IL working on software retrofit for the 5ESS switch. He designed a procedure control language in the era of the development of Java with similar motivations that the Oak and then Java language development was driven by. Language design is still at the top of his list, but his focus tends to be on application languges layered on top of programming languages such as Java. Some just consider this API design, but there really is more to it! Gregg now works for Cyte Technologies Inc., where he does software engineering and design related to distributed systems in highly available environments.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2009 Gregg Wonderly. All rights reserved.

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