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Using the Windows Vista Performance Tools (part 1)

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5/10/2011 6:09:20 PM

Using Performance Monitoring Tools

The process of improving overall system performance usually begins with monitoring the current system. Often, this involves measuring performance statistics related to system components such as the CPU, memory, hard disk, and network adapters. The goal is to identify any system resource bottlenecks that might reduce overall performance. After you identify potential problems, you can move toward resolving those issues.

In this section, you’ll look at an overview of several different performance monitoring tools that are available in Windows Vista. Details include how you use them to monitor performance and ways in which this information might be helpful for resolving common issues.

Real World

Anil Desai

The process of performance monitoring involves many different aspects that you must keep in mind. First, there’s an element of mystery solving. After you’ve identified a problem, you need to collect performance-related clues that help you pinpoint the source of the issue. Second, you need a solid understanding of the ways in which operating systems and applications interact with the underlying computer hardware. So how do you learn these skills?

Troubleshooting actual performance issues is probably the best way to learn and apply performance monitoring skills. Perhaps you’re wondering what’s happening when a particularly slow application is launched. Is the hard disk a bottleneck? Is there a lack of physical memory? Is the problem network related (perhaps a slow Internet connection)? The steps you take (and tools you use) to determine the source of the problem can greatly improve your support skills. Perhaps the best advice is always to collect and use evidence when making changes. It’s often too easy to just “twiddle a few knobs” and hope that will magically fix the issue.

Performance monitoring skills go far beyond just supporting an operating system such as Windows Vista. If you decide to move into an IT professional role (such as working as a system administrator for a corporation), these abilities will help you tremendously in keeping systems running at their best. Overall, the key is to practice troubleshooting these issues whenever possible.

Understanding Task Manager

Modern operating systems can run dozens of different processes and applications, all at the same time. Some of these processes are obvious; for example, when you use Microsoft Word to write a new document, it’s easy to see that it’s running. Other applications and services might not have a user interface. When working with the Windows Vista operating system, you’ll often want to get a quick view of all of the processes that are running on the system. The Task Manager is a quick way to obtain these details.

There are several ways to launch the Task Manager utility, including the following:

  • Start menu Searching on the string “taskmgr” quickly provides a link to open the application.

  • Taskbar When you right-click the Windows Vista taskbar, you’ll see an option to launch Task Manager directly. This helps ensure that Task Manager is located only a couple of clicks away, regardless of the number of applications that are running on the system.

  • Keyboard shortcut You can quickly open Task Manager by using the Ctrl+Shift+Esc keyboard combination. Although it might not be the easiest method to remember, this shortcut enables you to launch Task Manager even when many other windows are open.

The Task Manager user interface automatically updates with the latest details and statistics related to system performance. For example, whenever you start a new application or service, it appears on the corresponding tab of the interface.

The first three tabs of the Task Manager interface provide details related to programs that are currently running on the computer. Specifically, there are three main views that show this information. Each describes details about a particular type of program that is running on the system.

Monitoring Applications

Most users are aware that they can run numerous programs at the same time within Windows Vista. For example, it’s common for users to have Word, Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Internet Explorer, and other applications running simultaneously. You can see most running programs in the Windows Taskbar and the system tray.

The Task Manager Applications tab shows the current programs that are running on the local computer (see Figure 1). Generally, this list corresponds to the open applications that you see on the desktop and in the taskbar.

Figure 1. Viewing a list of running applications

From a performance monitoring standpoint, this is a good place to check first when encountering performance issues. In some cases, an application might not be responding to the operating system, or unwanted programs might be running. You can easily close these applications by right-clicking the appropriate item and selecting End Task. After you end the task, the system resources it was using (such as CPU time and memory) are returned to the operating system.

Note: Exercise caution when stopping programs

When managing applications, processes, and services, it might be tempting simply to shut down a variety of processes that do not seem to be needed. Keep in mind that there are potentially dozens of tasks and services that are required for Windows Vista to run properly. Stopping certain programs from running might cause system instability or prevent important functions from occurring. Also, data loss could occur if a program is not properly terminated. If you want to free up memory by closing Word, for example, it’s best to use the application’s Exit option.

In general, if you’re in doubt about the purpose or function of a particular task, you should leave it alone. Tools such as Windows Defender and antivirus products are often able to determine automatically any unwanted or malicious programs.

Monitoring Processes

The Processes tab in Task Manager lists all of the tasks currently running on the system. In general, every application that is running has at least one associated task. However, the Processes tab contains details related to processes that might not have a user interface or that are running as part of the operating system itself. Figure 2 shows an example.

Figure 2. Monitoring processes in Task Manager

It can sometimes be difficult to determine what a particular process is used for. Task Manager provides many different pieces of useful information, including the following:

  • Image Name This is the name of the actual executable file that is running on the system. In some cases, you can use this name to determine the purpose of the program that is running.

  • User Name This is the name of the user context under which the program is running. If the Show Processes From All Users check box is selected, processes from all users are shown. Otherwise, only processes that were launched by the current user are included. Some programs have the name of a user account, whereas others are launched under special system accounts.

  • Image Path Name This information provides the fully qualified path for the executable. If the executable name does not provide enough information, sometimes viewing in which folder it is stored can be helpful. This column is not shown by default but can be added using the Select Columns command in the View menu.

  • Description This text displays an easy-to-read description of the process that is running, if one is available.

  • CPU This listing shows the current percentage of CPU time the process is using.

  • Memory This category shows the total amount of memory the process is using.

You can add additional columns to the view by clicking View and choosing Select Columns. These details can be very helpful when troubleshooting performance issues. For example, in some cases, processes might be using large amounts of memory when they are actually not needed. Simply closing the related application (or ending the process) resolves the problem. It is also possible that unwanted processes are running on the system.

One other useful option is changing the priority of a particular process. By default, most processes run under the Normal priority. This tells Windows Vista to provide the same amount of CPU and other resources to each process. It’s possible for one or more processes to start consuming a large amount of system resources. In this case, you can right-click the process and choose the Set Priority option to lower its priority. The process continues to run, but other applications on the system get a higher preference for system resources.

Monitoring Services

Windows services are programs that are designed to run independently of a user. Unlike applications such as Internet Explorer, they do not require users to start them manually. Usually, services do not have a user interface, and the operating system manages them automatically. An example is the Windows Defender service, which is designed to start and run whenever the operating system is running. You can configure, start, and stop services by using the Services item in Control Panel. You can launch this tool from the Start menu or by opening Control Panel, clicking the System And Maintenance link, clicking the Administrative Tools link, and then double-clicking Services.

The Services tab in Task Manager shows details related to services that are configured on the computer. The Name and Description columns provide details related to the purpose and function of the service. As with applications and processes, you can right-click a service and choose to stop it. This is useful when you suspect that a particular service is using significant system resources.

Monitoring Performance

So far, you have looked at ways in which you can obtain details about applications, processes, and services that are running on a system. Often, you’ll want to get details about overall system resource usage first. The Task Manager Performance tab can provide a quick overview of CPU and memory resources and how they’re being used (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Monitoring performance in Task Manager

The CPU Usage and CPU Usage History graphs show the percentage of time that the system’s CPU(s) are in use. When the levels are consistently high (for example, above 80 percent), it might indicate that a particular program is slowing down the system. It is also possible that the system might need a hardware upgrade to improve performance.

Similarly, the Memory and Physical Memory Usage History graphs show details about how much random access memory (RAM) the system is using. In most situations, the amount of physical memory that is being used should be less than the total amount of memory being used. Launching numerous applications or running memory-intensive operations can cause these numbers to increase significantly.

The bottom of the display shows additional details related to the number of processes that are running, how long the system has been running, and statistics related to how physical memory is currently allocated. All of these details can provide a quick overview of system resource use and help identify a potential hardware constraint that might be causing slow performance.

Gadgets for Windows Sidebar

The Windows Sidebar provides a great way to keep useful performance-related information available on the desktop. Windows Vista includes the CPU Meter gadget, which is available as part of the operating system (see Figure 4). This gadget displays two gauges that show the current amount of CPU use and the percentage of system memory that is currently in use.

Figure 4. Using the CPU Meter gadget to monitor CPU and memory use

The CPU Meter provides a convenient way to determine how current system resources are being used. If CPU or memory use is frequently high, this might indicate that there is a performance issue or that the computer could benefit from a hardware upgrade.

Resource Monitor

Earlier, this lesson mentioned the importance of monitoring CPU, disk, network, and memory resources on the computer. Although tools such as Task Manager can provide some of these details, the Resource Monitor is designed to provide a quick overview of the details in a single user interface. You can launch the Resource Monitor from the Start menu or from Task Manager by clicking the Performance tab and then clicking Resource Monitor. You can also access the Resource Monitor by searching for the Reliability and Performance Monitor from the Start menu. Figure 5 provides an overview of the default view of the Resource Monitor in the Reliability and Performance Monitor application.

Figure 5. Monitoring resource usage with Resource Monitor

The graphs at the top of the display provide a quick overview of resource usage over time. Spikes or sustained high values can indicate a potential performance bottleneck. Because statistics vary based on the capabilities of the underlying hardware, Windows Vista might automatically rescale each graph to reflect current values.

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