Mystery explained: Why you have to reboot Windows so often

Mystery explained: Why you have to reboot Windows so often

Summary: You know the drill: you've been using your Windows computer for a while when things start to go wrong. Your programs slow down, or you start getting inexplicable error messages.

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You know the drill: you've been using your Windows computer for a while when things start to go wrong. Your programs slow down, or you start getting inexplicable error messages. Your cursor lags, or when you move windows around they leave droppings on the screen. It's that time again. Time to reboot.

Ever wonder why that happens? The answer may have been revealed in a 2003 memo from Bill Gates, who retired from Microsoft on Friday.

In the memo, Bill plays the part of the clueless user as he tries to download a program from the Microsoft web site. He has a hard time of it, finding all sorts of usability problems. At one point, he writes (emphasis mine):

Then it told me to reboot my machine. Why should I do that? I reboot every night -- why should I reboot at that time?

Since Bill G rebooted his machine every night (instead of being forced to reboot when the problems mount up), he didn't see those instability and slowdown issues first hand. If he had, he would have fired off another memo. And because Bill never ran into them, maybe that's why they didn't get fixed. This could explain a lot about why we're stuck rebooting Windows so often.

You can bet that after Bill sent his note, there was a lot of activity to address the web site and install issues that he pointed out. I know from experience that having an executive actually try to sit down and use your software is highly motivational.

Without that "C-level QA", the folks at the top may have a distorted view of how your products are performing. And, especially in a big company, everybody else takes their cues from those leaders. Do the executives at your organization get involved and use their influence like this? And are they getting the full experience that your customers are getting?

In his parting speech, Bill mentioned the memo, adding:

What do you think I do all day? Sending an e-mail like that, that is my job. That's what it's all about. We're here to make things better.

Exactly right. I only wish he had experienced more of our pain.

Topics: Operating Systems, CXO, Collaboration, Software, Windows

Ed Burnette

About Ed Burnette

Ed Burnette is a software industry veteran with more than 25 years of experience as a programmer, author, and speaker. He has written numerous technical articles and books, most recently "Hello, Android: Introducing Google's Mobile Development Platform" from the Pragmatic Programmers.

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96 comments
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  • You failed to explain...

    WHY rebooting in necessary.

    It's because of the Windows architecture. It is so monolithic that it can't recover from simple application errors. When one thing goes wrong, it is a snow ball effect.

    Other OS's do not suffer nearly as bad when something goes wrong. My Linux and Novell operating systems can and do run without reboot. Unless a kernel needs upgrading these OS's can run indefinitely.
    bjbrock
    • re: You failed to explain

      [i]WHY rebooting in necessary.[/i]

      I found that odd too.

      [i]Other OS's do not suffer nearly as bad when something goes wrong. My Linux and Novell operating systems can and do run without reboot.[/i]

      I don't know about Linux, but my Novell servers need rebooting every so often as well. One was up 113 days before it started to noticably slow down. The other was about 236 Days. Which is about as much as I need to reboot my MS servers. My MS workstations on the other hand need to be rebooted every 1 to 2 weeks for normal operation.
      Badgered
      • Linux reboots

        It depends on what you're doing with it. I have run Linux servers for over a year without the slightest degradation. I don't know about windows servers, but the Linux kernel is really good about policing itself; shutting down orphaned processes, correcting file system errors etc.

        Linux on a desktop is another story, but unless you're a power user (running network audits, trying to recover lost files etc) you won't see much need to reboot.

        ...except of course the "oops" factor with the occasional update.
        catseverywhere@...
      • Novell uptime

        When I finally put my last Netware server to sleep a couple of years agi it had been up for nearly 5 years.
        mswift@...
    • No! Try again

      From the article context, windows needs to reboot because files are in use, not anything to do with errors! Hotpatching alleviates it to a degree.
      You do have to reboot for bluescreen errors, but those are pretty rare these days.
      Nice try with the "Can't recover from simple application errors" though.
      Joeman57
      • Two reasons to reboot

        There are two main reasons why you're forced to reboot. One is replacing files in use, which seems to be addressed in the latest Vista SP. In BillG's original memo that was one thing he was complaining about.

        The other reason, which is the one I'm talking about is rebooting when Windows "goes wonky", i.e. when it gets slow, corrupted, etc.. Report a problem to technical support and the first thing they say is "try rebooting", right? More often that not that fixes things.
        Ed Burnette
  • Is that really a solution or just a workaround?

    Actually, the slowdown comes from a number of softie programs that like to turn themselves on while you are working. If you have been working a while, using up ram and adding system processes by the gazillion, it can happen any time.

    Gates is right. Why should he have to reboot at all? Certainly Linux does not have that reputation. The problem with Microsoft operating systems (all of them) is that there seems to be no end to adding things that serve no value added for the customer but add all kinds of value for Microsoft. Registry, schedulers, Antivirus system checks, DRM, automatic updates, and the worst of all, windows little phone home routines to verify you have a valid copy. I won't even go into the ways that Microsoft turns system functions off it it can't talk to your computer from home base.

    If you are running your own security software, such as process managers that block unapproved processes it can even kick in Dr Watson, which ultimately slows your system to a crawl, until you figure out how to block the right `part' of those Microsoft interfering processes, as there might be several programs loaded at once to perform those tasks.

    Next time it happens, open task manager and watch the processes as they load at the top. look at the CPU stat column there and you will see it all happening before your eyes. Better yet, install something like DiamondCS Process Guard and watch the actual DLLs as they load. Get real familiar with msconfig Services and Startup tabs and if you don't know what it is, look it up and make your own decisions on whether or not you actually need the service or program to be running in the background.

    The fewer you have the better your machine will run.

    Another thing to do is to cleanse your drive's unused space with 1's and 0's so that when it is reused by actual writing you want to keep, the process sees only a clean blank disk for the new writing actions. Such a method is much better than using the disk defragment. If you do this you won't ever have to defragment.

    No, the solution is to turn off all those unnecessary forays into your personal space. Either that or go to another operating system.

    Just remember that what Bill Says and What Bill Does are two completely different things.
    WinnebagoBoy
    • Fragmentation isn't sector cleaning

      Although I agree that less 'crapplets' help, some of your post is just ... odd IMHO.

      >>it can even kick in Dr Watson, which ultimately slows your system to a crawl,<<

      You know what Dr Watson does? If you have it setup on a full dump, it's your fragmented disk that is slowing down the core dump. Linux isn't necessarily any faster.

      Set Dr Watson to do a mini-dump, it's a lot more usefull and much faster.

      >>Another thing to do is to cleanse your drive's unused space with 1's and 0's so that when it is reused by actual writing you want to keep, the process sees only a clean blank disk for the new writing actions. Such a method is much better than using the disk defragment. If you do this you won't ever have to defragment.<<

      That makes no sense. Unused space will be written over just as fast no matter what the contents, and it won't help fragmentation at all.

      I've seen Linux machines that had to be formatted to get rid of disk fragmentation. It's a logical issue of space management, not an O/S issue.

      == John ==
      jgwinner
      • Fragmentation isn't sector cleaning. duh.

        But a clean disk reduces fragmentation (and a well managed OS, with reduced process undercurrents), as I have been running a system for about five years now, same drive, heavy use, never been defragmented, and does not need to be. And I contend I will get another couple of years use out of the drive. You may not believe that while fragmentation is not sector cleaning, they are interconnected. Executive Software's old and obsolete defragementation technology is quite obsolete, as is evidenced by the constant flow of unreliable Microsoft systems out there.

        Sector cleaning significantly extends the life and reliability of a drive, therefore extending the amount of time to reboot as well as mtbf for the drive. You said it is a logical issue of space management, not an O/S issue. If space management is not an OS issue, what is? I understand your point about the logical partition management, but my point is you have forgotten what an operating system is supposed to do: provide a host environment to allow the user to derive intellectual use of memory, reliably.

        I can also relate to your confusion about my odd statement as the operating system as it is today, does not work very well toward allowing users to be as productive as they could, for both low level logic management and for the more esoteric aesthetic uses, the operating system is still in the dark ages.

        Yes. I know what Dr. Watson is. Another crappy Microsoft program that helps no one and does anything but help with debugging, is difficult to use and has the interesting value of actually being a tool to be used by hackers to derive information from a user's session, when a dump is forced on a system that has been compromised. I actually keep my machine core dump to off, but it dumps anyway when some useless Microsoft processes are blocked from running.
        WinnebagoBoy
      • Fragmentation is largely a file system issue.

        The Windows/Linux difference when it comes to that is with Linux you can choose your file systems which you can't do with Windows. By default most but not all modern Linux systems use ext3/4 by default I have been running this for 3 1/2 years now with 3 to 4% fragmentation. This is a desktop set up so it does get a lot of install/uninstall, creation of files, deletion of files on a regular basis just as any desktop system would. Windows file systems just don't manage the disks as well. Windows wastes space and fragmentation is rampant. I remember having to defrag. at least every 6 months or so too keep things moving.<br><br> This is one of the reasons I think why the Windows users were so let down when Vista didn't come with the promised new file system.<br><br>

        Note that Windows needs to pre-bundle a defragmenter and Linux, Unix,OS X, BSD, Solaris don't... What do they all have in common? They don't use the same file systems as Windows.
        devlin_X
  • You do? I don't.

    Maybe something is wrong with YOU.
    Feldwebel Wolfenstool
    • Or.....

      Perhaps you are the famous "exception" that proves the rule.
      A statement I've never understood because you'd think that
      once you find an exception it proves that the rule is well not
      a rule rather than it proves the rule to be true.

      Pagan jim
      James Quinn
      • Rules have rounding errors

        If the exception is only left-handed red-haired Bulgarians, that proves the rule is worth retaining. The Bulgarians can be safely ignored, except by their families, who are tired of the complaints.
        Anton Philidor
    • I'm happy for you

      All I can say is I've always had to reboot desktop Windows machines that I or my friends and family have used over the years. I'm sure usage patterns, software installed, brand of the hardware, and so on has a lot to do with it, so YMMV.
      Ed Burnette
      • He's probably a reasonably common tale.

        He probably reboots, he probably just doesn't have to do it himself. The ONLY time my Windows computer ever gets rebooted (barring an error that is generally my fault of course) is on Patch Tuesday. Once a month. And even then only if the updates require it.

        What I'm saying is that I never reboot my computer. It never needs it. It does it on its own when an update forces it to, but that's all. It's highly likely that the OP and myself aren't the only people for whom that description is accurate.

        It's not really brag-worthy, though. What that means is that my machine reboots on average once every month or two. If it weren't for the forced reboots, I honestly don't know how long it would last before needing one. I imagine longer, but I couldn't even guess how much longer. I can factually state that I have not had to manually reboot my computer in at least a year, if that means anything.

        In other words, even if it is a problem, most won't know it exists, and therefore don't care.


        I remember having to reboot pretty regularly in the past, though.
        laura.b
        • Not bragging...

          Had a Win2K server - after running it for 6 months w/o issue, it wouldn't run stable for more than 36 hours. Had to reboot it every night, or it would flake out during the day.

          Changed the motherboard - kept everything else, including CPU , memory and RAID. Never had to reboot it again (except for when applying patches!).

          Hardware has as much to do with it as software, or so it would seem.
          User07734
  • RE: Mystery explained: Why you have to reboot Windows so often

    write a program to fix the problem i personally get tired of having to reboot every day
    theroyalcountess
  • Cause or effect?

    Is he rebooting because he doesn't want to leave his PC running overnight, <i>or</i> because he knows only too well what happens if it isn't rebooted?

    In other words, if you asked him to leave his PC running for a few days without rebooting, so he can see what happens, he may respond by saying "Why the hell would I do that? My machine would slow down and become unusable".
    Jason Etheridge
    • Re: cause or effect

      Good point, but I like to think that if he had problems with his machine being slow and unusable he's the kind of person that would fire off another memo and motivate people to address the problem.

      On the opposite side of the spectrum, if all the executives are too busy to try the product once in a while, how sympathetic are they going to be if you go to them as a developer and say you have to delay the product 3 months and spend a million dollars to fix some large problem.
      Ed Burnette
  • Rebooting Windows - NOT

    I have servers that haven't been rebooted in many months, and my home (XP SP2) system goes weeks without being rebooted. The reality is that this is how *most* windows systems operate.

    Try reporting on reality, not popular myths.
    aureolin