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Improving System Performance (part 1) - Developing a Performance Optimization Approach & Managing Startup Programs

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5/17/2011 11:35:11 AM
In many ways, it is human nature to want to optimize the way a system or device behaves. Most of us would like our cars to accelerate faster, especially if it requires only a few minor modifications. The same is true for working with operating systems. Although some users are willing to dedicate time and effort to squeeze every last bit of performance out of their systems, most are not aware of the many ways in which they can configure their systems to run more efficiently.

An important goal for the Windows Vista operating system is to provide the best possible performance for users. When people can use programs more quickly, they tend to be more productive. Numerous enhancements have been included in the core operating system to improve memory, disk, CPU, and network performance.

As a Consumer Support Technician, you’re likely to hear complaints about performance issues. For example, a customer might mention that her system is running more slowly after she installed a new application. There are many different aspects related to troubleshooting these issues, and determining which applications and processes should be running is based on the particular needs of the user. Sometimes, it might make sense to remove an application or process that is not used. Spyware, viruses, malware, and other unwanted programs are common examples.


Developing a Performance Optimization Approach

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of troubleshooting is having a clear and well-defined process. Technical professionals often jump into making changes quickly without a full understanding of the problem. This can lead to less-than-optimal configurations or other related problems.

A performance optimization approach should include several steps, including these important steps in the process:

  • Establish a baseline Because the goal of making performance-related changes is to improve overall performance, it’s important to know how the system is working currently. Sometimes a baseline must be collected over a long period of time (for example, an entire week or month). In the case of a consumer operating system such as Windows Vista, it’s likely that the user has one or more applications that are not running as fast as he or she would like. Taking some brief measurements, such as the time to open a particularly resource-intensive application, can be helpful in determining whether changes have helped the problem.

  • Identify bottlenecks Defined simply, a bottleneck is the slowest step in a given process. Given a particular process or workload, it’s possible for the CPU, memory, hard disk, or network subsystem to be the overall rate-limiting component. Through the use of performance monitoring, you can determine which aspects of the system are most overworked. These are the areas on which to focus to realize the most improvement.

  • Implement a change This step involves actually trying to improve performance. You’ll look at many different examples in this lesson, but one idea to keep in mind is that you should minimize the number and types of changes that you make at the same time. For example, if you have three different ideas about how to improve disk-related performance, it’s best to make one change first and then measure its effects. Making multiple changes at the same time can cause a variety of problems. Imagine, for example, that you made three different changes. One increased performance by 15 percent, another decreased performance by 10 percent, and the third had no effect. In this case, you have an overall positive effect (a 5 percent increase in performance), and you might conclude that the changes were a positive step. Note, however, that one of the changes actually decreased performance. It would have been easier to detect this by making only one change at a time.

  • Measure performance After you’ve made a change to the system, it’s time to determine its effects. Ideally, you will have some kind of test that you can run to see whether you’ve improved performance. In the previous lesson, you looked at how the Windows Experience Index can provide a basic benchmark of overall performance. Other measures might include the amount of time it takes to start an application or to perform a particularly resource-intensive task. If the change was beneficial, it should probably be retained (unless, of course, it causes some unintended negative effects). Otherwise, it should be rolled back, and another approach should be attempted.

  • Repeat the process (if needed) The process of performance optimization can often continue indefinitely. For example, you can continue to isolate and reduce bottlenecks to squeeze more capacity out of a system. The problem, however, is that at some point, the amount of effort it takes to perform optimizations will outweigh the potential benefits. For example, if it takes several hours of time to find a way to increase performance by 2 percent, many users will not find this to be a worthwhile investment. Although it doesn’t sound like optimization, often the rule for the process is to stop when performance is good enough.

It is important to keep the steps of the performance optimization process in mind when looking at ways to troubleshoot Windows Vista performance issues.

Using Performance Information and Tools

One of the potential challenges related to changing operating system settings is finding all of the available options. The Performance Information And Tools link in Control Panel provides a starting point for viewing the many available options and utilities. Figure 1 shows the tasks that can be launched quickly by using the links on the left side of the window.

Figure 1. Using the Performance Information And Tools window

In addition to these tasks, clicking Advanced Tools in the left pane of the Performance Information And Tools window shows numerous other features that you can launch directly from within Control Panel (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Viewing Advanced Tools using the Performance Information And Tools window

You can also launch all of these tasks in other ways. For example, you can access Windows Defender through the Start menu. Indexing, visual effects, and power settings can also be accessed directly from within Control Panel. Overall, however, the Performance Information And Tools window provides a good starting point for the optimization process. You’ll learn more about these tasks in this lesson.

Managing Startup Programs

Like most modern operating systems, Windows Vista provides programs with the ability to launch automatically during the startup process. This provides users with ready access to the applications and services that they plan to use. Perhaps the most noticeable examples include the Windows Sidebar, Windows Defender, and other applications that might automatically run whenever a user logs on to the system.

Although automatically running applications on startup or during the logon process can be convenient, it can also lead to performance problems. In some cases, unwanted applications such as malware might be configured to run without requiring any user interaction. Often, users are completely unaware that the program is running. Many of these applications and processes can consume significant system resources, thereby reducing performance.

When attempting to diagnose performance-related problems in Windows Vista, it’s often helpful to determine which applications or programs are configured to run automatically. The actual configuration details might be stored in one of several different places, including the Startup folder and several sections in the Windows Registry. Tracking down these different locations can be difficult.

Configuring Startup Items with MSConfig

Windows Vista includes a System Configuration application known as MSConfig. It can be launched from System Configuration or Msconfig in the Start menu. This utility includes several different tabs that you can use to determine how Windows Vista operates. Specifically, with relation to performance optimization, the Startup tab is very useful. As shown in Figure 3, this tab provides a list of all of the programs that are configured to run automatically during the Windows Vista startup process.

Figure 3. Managing Startup options by using the System Configuration (MSConfig) utility

The columns include the following details:

  • Startup Item The name of the startup item.

  • Manufacturer The manufacturer of the software. This is most commonly the name of a software or hardware company (such as Microsoft Corp.) that created the application.

  • Command The full text of the actual command that is being run. Several startup items might include configuration switches as part of the command line.

  • Location The file system or Registry location in which the startup information is stored for each item.

  • Date Disabled Displays the date on which an item was disabled. By default, this column is blank.

You can disable a startup item by clearing the check box next to the name of that item. This option is a convenient way to troubleshoot potential performance problems caused by these items because clearing an item’s check box does not remove the command and other information permanently. If you disable an item, Windows Vista does not run it during the next reboot or logon operation. Additionally, there is a Disable All button that you can use to clear the check boxes automatically for all of the startup items in the list. This option can be useful in cases in which numerous startup programs are making the system slow and unresponsive. A typical performance troubleshooting process involves enabling or disabling an item, rebooting the computer, and re-evaluating system performance.

There is also another way to disable all startup items from running. The General tab (shown in Figure 4) includes several options for enabling or disabling device drivers and services. The Selective Startup option includes a Load Startup Items check box. If you clear this check box, no startup items run, regardless of their configuration on the Startup tab.

Figure 4. Choosing startup selections in the System Configuration utility

Managing Startup Programs with Windows Defender

Windows Defender is an antispyware utility that is included with the Windows Vista operating system. Although its focus is on detecting and removing potentially malicious software, Windows Defender provides an option for managing startup programs. You can open Windows Defender from the Start menu or by clicking the Windows Defender system tray icon (if it is present). You can launch this option by clicking Tools in the Windows Defender Home view and then clicking the Software Explorer link. You can also directly access this view by clicking Manage Startup Programs in the Performance Information And Tools Control Panel window.

By clicking the Startup Programs category in the Windows Defender Software Explorer, you can view a list of all of the programs that are configured to run during the Windows Vista startup process. By default, the list of items is grouped by the publisher of the software and sorted by the name of each application or process. You can change the grouping to view information based on startup type by right-clicking any item and choosing Startup type (see Figure 5). The groups include the User Profile Startup Folder, the Current User Registry Key, and the Local Machine Registry Key.

Figure 5. Viewing a list of startup programs (sorted by Startup Type) in Windows Defender Software Explorer

You can obtain more details about a particular item by selecting it in the list. The right pane then shows a long list of details about the application or process. Some of the details include the file name of the program, the location of the file, the size of the file, the date it was installed, and the location of the startup information. Another useful detail specifies whether the program shipped with the operating system. In general, programs that shipped as part of Windows Vista should be considered safe and are often required for the operating system to work properly.

The Classification section is based on a centralized database known as SpyNet. The Windows Defender Software Explorer can automatically query this database over the Internet to determine which applications are known and which are not. Spyware, malware, and other malicious programs will automatically be prevented from running on the system. Of course, it is also possible for some third-party applications and services to be listed as Not Yet Classified.

When managing startup items, there are three primary configuration operations that you can perform:

  • Disable This command prevents a specific item from running at system startup or during the logon process. The definition of the item (including the command and its file system or Registry location) will remain in the system. Disabling is most useful for situations in which it is possible that the startup item will be needed again.

  • Enable Startup items that have been marked as disabled can be configured to run at startup by re-enabling them.

  • Remove This command permanently removes an item from the list of startup programs. This usually involves the deletion of a shortcut or the removal of the associated Registry key. The Remove command is most appropriate for removing software items that are known to be unwanted.

Windows Defender also includes a category for viewing which processes are currently running on the system and for optionally terminating them. If a particular program is known to be causing problems, you can use the End Process command to stop that program immediately and return system resources. 

Other -----------------
- Using the Windows Vista Performance Tools (part 2)
- Using the Windows Vista Performance Tools (part 2)
- Using the Windows Vista Performance Tools (part 1)
- Configuring Windows Vista Security : Understanding User Account Control (part 2)
- Configuring Windows Vista Security : Understanding User Account Control (part 1)
- Configuring Windows Vista Security : Managing User Accounts
- Using Windows Security Center (part 3) - Configuring Malware Protection
- Using Windows Security Center (part 2) - Configuring Automatic Updating
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