Computer behaving badly? Check your Internet connection.

A slowly degrading Internet connection that reported itself available to applications became a major headache.
Written by David Chernicoff, Contributor

Spending much of any given day sitting in front of the same computer usually gives you a pretty good idea of how the system should be performing. So when my primary desktop began to exhibit signs of problems about a week ago, I began to search for the cause for the occasional slowdown and delayed response problems that the computer was exhibiting.

The computer itself is pretty much an antique; a Dell XPS 720 that's about 4 years old. But it's still an Intel quad core (Q6700 at 2.83 GHz) with 8 GB of Ram and 2 TB of fast storage, running Windows 7 Ultimate x64. Not cutting edge but more than adequate for the bulk of my writing and analysis tasks. So when the performance seemed to be taking a hit I started the diagnostic process.

Checking system logs, making sure that my anti-virus software was running and up to date, setting performance counters to log specific behaviors. Checking if it was specific applications that were causing problems, etc., all proved to be fruitless tasks. Nothing seemed to be wrong with the computer, yet the problem was getting progressively worse.  Applications were taking a long time to load, web pages would become non-responsive, then suddenly work properly, simple keystrokes would often take seconds to appear on the screen.  And every diagnostic; if it completed, said there were no problems.

The issue came to a head yesterday morning. The system had slowed to a point where it was becoming completely unusable. I was almost ready to chalk it up to a case of mysterious Windows Death Syndrome when I noticed that my office Internet connection was barely working, which I thought was being caused by the miserable weather.  Despite allowing a connection to the net, it wouldn't maintain the connection properly.  On a hunch, I rebooted, then connected my desktop to my Verizon MiFi 4G LTE hotspot. All of my problems now magically disappeared.

When I had Comcast out this morning to repair my main Internet connection the service rep told me that he pulled my site record before he came out and saw that I had a degrading service problem that had been getting worse for the last 10 days.  This matched up perfectly with my apparent problems on my Windows desktop.

But why should an intermittent or poor internet connection cause the major performance and application problems with my desktop computer? A look at what I have running as background applications started to clear that mystery up.  With everything from cloud storage services that let me drag and drop files to cloud backup, to streaming video providers, so my family can access our network video collection from their phone of choice, to applications such as anti-virus that phone home regularly for updates, I had no less than a dozen applications that depended on Internet access for their own function. And it appears that when that access was "sort of" available many of them would keep retrying to maintain connections, download updates, or just provide their keep alive information.

And because the Internet connection seemed to be working (I could, for example, ping an address. The first packet would work, the rest would fail), any mechanism that these background applications had for stopping their behavior in the absence of an Internet connecting, never activated, resulting in what was likely a constant fight for system resources that manifested as poor console performance for the user.

With a properly functioning Internet connection, all of my usability problems went away.  All of the background applications were now happy and behaving properly.  I don't really blame any of them for this problem, either. In years of testing products and applications, intermittent infrastructure failures are always the toughest condition to test for. But should I see this behavior again, testing the infrastructure by swapping my internet provider (using the MiFi connection) has moved way up the problem solving action list.

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