Windows Crufting

Here is a well known fact – windows crufts itself over time. When you do a fresh installation it runs like a dream. Then it deteriorates. Even if you take a good care of your machine – you keep it clean of infections and spyware, regular day-to-day usage will still slowly but surely degrade your performance. There are a myriad of reasons for this – badly written software, crappy system drivers with memory leaks, disk fragmentation, slow but steady growth and littering of the registry hive, orphaned services, badly written DRM, security suites that incrementally bloat with each update…

And of course there is spyware, addware and all the stupid applications that insist that they start with windows. It seems that every printer these days ships with some sort of printer manager, printer update service manager, toner monitoring manager, paper monitoring manager and automated error reporting service – each of which starts with windows and runs as a self contained process with an icon in the task bar. And if you disable all of them, the printer still works – in fact, it works faster.

Not to mention that 1 in 4 of these things will have some sort of a persistent memory leak – so if you don’t reboot your computer that often you will find yourself utilizing Pagefile.sys which is Windowsspeak for swap file.

This crufting and slowing down of the system is a fact of life. If you are cluefull individual, or if you retain such individual in your household you can probably delay this process or stall it altogether via regular maintenance, cleaning, pruning and de-lousing. Most people however do not have the time or resources to do this, and so their computers slowly deteriorate.

This behavior is so prevalent that there are businesses built around it. Yes, people actually make money basing their sales pitch on the sole premise that Windows will cruft itself and become sluggish over time. Foe example, I see this ad during pretty much every commercial break on most of the channels that I watch these days:


FinallyFast.com 2 Minute Commerical by Blaxxx2

It is a horrible commercial, I know. The actors are obnoxious, the faux errors shown on the computer screens are laughable and clearly added in post production. I will leave picking apart this piece of cap as an exercise to the reader (hint: in this comment thread we make fun of finallyfast.com). Also, it it is immediately apparent that finallyfast.com service is a total scam.

But the premise of the add is familiar and it resonates with most viewers. It starts with bunch of computer users stating a simple fact: “When I bought my computer, it was really fast. Now it is really slow! What happened?”. It is a common complaint, and millions of people out there can relate to it. The add promises to remedy this issue – it claims to sell a silver bullet that will end all your computer problems in an instant. And people buy into it. If they didn’t, then I doubt the company would have the funds to play this commercial every 15 minutes on every single channel.

Of course the finallyfast.com service is snake oil. All the stuff they claim to do (virus and adware removal, registry cleaning, deteting temp files) can be done with free (or proprietary tools). In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if their whole service was not a bundle of free tools along with a hefty heap of bundled spyware.

But despite a horribly bad sales pitch they continue making money because they found an easily exploitable niche. Most telemarketers these days must invent imaginary problems that can be solved by their products. For example, has anyone seen the Snuggie commercials? Correct me if I’m wrong here but Snuggie seems to be a robe… that you wear backwards. Most people actually posses a part of a brain that can apply logic to marketing pitch and arrive at a logical conclusion that the item sold is actually a piece of crap.

But there are few people who know why exactly does every Windows machine seem to slow down to a crawl after a while. I don’t think there exist an easy answer to this question. It’s pretty much one of these things that needs to be resolved on a case-by-case basis. It is a common problem that is very poorly understood – and therefore easily exploitable.

Recently I was talking to someone who was telling me about some crazy setup he once saw that was devised to alleviate this particular problem. The company in question had a few dozen workstations. Each of them would have 3 partitions – system, data and image. First one would hold the OS files, the second would hold all the user files and the third one would contain a read only image of the OS partition and re-imaging software. There was an automatic script that would run and re-image the OS partition on a weekly or by weekly basis. Whenever there was a major windows update the IT staff would create a new image file and push it out to the workstations.

It seems like a very extreme approach, but if you think about it this type of setup allowed this company to keep their windows machines running in peek condition and virtually removed the need for reactive IT services that dealt with common windows crufting issues such as infections, spyware, registry rot, disk fragmentation and etc.

Also, I can tell you from experience that restoring a partition image with software such as Norton Ghost is actually faster than running a virus scan or defrag routine.

I don’t have any specific solution or recommendation here – I’m just bringing it up as something to think about. We can’t deny that Windows has this problem – the scams like finallyfast.com are common and effective and that is as good proof as any that this issue exists and is firmly rooted in public awareness.

Interestingly enough, I have never experienced Linux or Unix crufting. I’m going to put it down to better design: modularity, no central registry, non-fragmenting file system, sane security model etc.

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11 Responses to Windows Crufting

  1. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    LOL @ commercial!! The first computer shown is an iMac, and I’m pretty sure there were some macbooks in there too! That website seems to have the same stink as malware…

    I’m not sure how you feel about mobile OSes, but they suffer from this crufting issue too. I used a few Symbian devices, culminating with the N95 8GB, and now with the iPhone. All of these suffer from the same problem.

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  2. With companies looking at virtualization, “Window rot” is becoming a moot point. At my company, we are moving to virtualized workstations running virtualized apps (kinda like running portable apps, but easier to centralize and license). When a virtual desktop goes wakko, we reload it from an image and voila, everything is like new!

    I actually keep a ghost image of my systems at home for this very reason. All the important data files are kept on a Samba share on my UNIX box (which is backed-up to tape) so I can always feel free to blow away Windows at any given time. I usually will reload whenever I get a new game so it performs at it’s best.

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  3. MrJones GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Questions:
    #1: Will it run in wine?
    #2 Will it blend?

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  4. Gothmog UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Actually- I have some experience with a similar setup. We use a nifty program called ‘Deep Freeze’ (made by Faronics) on all Sales, Customer Support & Accounting PCs that ‘freezes’ the primary windows partition. All user data is stored on a secondary partition. What this software does is allow windows and the user to make any changes they want to- it then wipes them on a reboot.

    I have a script thaw the systems at night and pull down any windows updates from our WSUS.

    All in all, it works pretty well. If the user needs a particular program to troubleshoot a client/customers issue, they can install it- it will be wiped away when they reboot. Same goes for 0-day virus outbreaks- reboot and its gone. it’s saved me countless hours of fixing little piddly annoying issues. Most everything can be fixed with a reboot. If a reboot can’t fix it, I deploy a spare system and copy over any files they might have on their 2nd partition.

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Mart: I can confirm all of these are mac machines. I don’t think there is a single PC featured in that commercial. Also, if you look at the error messages you will notice that the text and windows in most of the shots are not parallel to the edges of the screen – they didn’t even bother to align the images they were pasting in.

    @Craig A. Betts: So how does this work exactly? Do you have your workstations run a stripped down OS underneath, and then launch a full screen VM emulation at boot time? I’m not knocking it – I’m genuinely interested how one would set up an environment like that.

    @MrJones: Answers:

    #1. Standard answer for everything wine related: yes, but not without a lot of tweaking.

    #2. Standard answer for everything blending related: yes it will.

    @Gothmog: Ooh! I like this. Thanks for the suggestion – I might actually recommend this software (or something like it) for our company. Then again I’m not sure if it would work well in our distributed environment – most of our employees work from home and in the field and never visit the home office.

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  6. So how does this work exactly? Do you have your workstations run a stripped down OS underneath, and then launch a full screen VM emulation at boot time? I’m not knocking it – I’m genuinely interested how one would set up an environment like that.

    We are running Wyse VXO terminals with an embedded VMWare VDI Client. The terminal will use RDP to connect to a virtual workstation (XP or Vista) running on a VMWare ESX server. The VDI is the magic that allows a pool of virtual desktops to be used as needed. The VDI infrastructure can bring more systems online if needed in minutes (a clone takes about five minutes to build). We are using roaming profiles to distribute the same environment no matter which system a user gets.

    This is not a good environment for CAD or multimedia, but is the perfect solution for most users, especially administrative personnel. It will also allow the use of regular workstations to be used instead of just the thin clients.

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  7. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I’ve been meaning to find some kind of partition imaging software… I get my stuff set up the way I like it, then every so often I end up having to reinstall, and it takes a while to get it back the way I like it.

    Would really prefer something with as few buttons as possible – if it had nothing but “Make image” and “Restore from image” then that would be great :P

    Any recommendations (free software preferable)

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  8. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Matt`: You could try clonezilla. It’s a linux based imaging tool and it’s free!

    I prefer Acronis TrueImage for ease of use. Using it at home and at work.

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  9. I’ve been meaning to find some kind of partition imaging software… I get my stuff set up the way I like it, then every so often I end up having to reinstall, and it takes a while to get it back the way I like it.

    Would really prefer something with as few buttons as possible – if it had nothing but “Make image” and “Restore from image” then that would be great :P

    If you want to live in the VM world, try Sun’s VirtualBox

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  10. Steve UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Linux DOES cruft up – you’re probably just one of the smarter (more educated) users that doesn’t download EVERY. SINGLE. PACKAGE. that looks cool in the repository, allows enough space for the root drive, checks his logfiles every so often…

    But most Linux systems will cruft up VERY badly within anywhere from 6 months to a year with my experience, unless you’re VERY careful about what you install and how your partitioning scheme is set up (also, try to use Ext3 if possible, it’s the most reliable FS out there right now)…

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  11. Steve wrote:

    Linux DOES cruft up – you’re probably just one of the smarter (more educated) users that doesn’t download EVERY. SINGLE. PACKAGE. that looks cool in the repository, allows enough space for the root drive, checks his logfiles every so often…
    But most Linux systems will cruft up VERY badly within anywhere from 6 months to a year with my experience, unless you’re VERY careful about what you install and how your partitioning scheme is set up (also, try to use Ext3 if possible, it’s the most reliable FS out there right now)…

    I can’t say I have ever had this problem on Linux. By default, it is good about rotating log files, so no bloat there. RPMs do not keep backups of previous files like Solaris does (keeping a Solaris system patched at regular intervals will decimate a filesystem, filling it with all the backout files). The only thing that kills my Linux systems is my insistence of keeping audit logs.

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