Tools and tips to tweak YOUR desktop system

The most recent version of Microsoft's flagship OS has been on the market for almost a year. Unless you've been living in a cave, you've no doubt heard all the promotion and praise of Windows 2000 Professional. You might have even taken the plunge and upgraded your system. If you're considering upgrading to Win2K Pro or you've already installed it on your system, you'll benefit from knowing what to expect from such a radically new OS and how to get the most out of this OS once it's up and running.

Reliability
In Win2K Pro, Microsoft has gone to great lengths to improve the OS's reliability. Whether you're an administrator who manages users' desktops or a power user, you'll appreciate Microsoft's efforts in this area.

To test Win2K Pro's reliability, Microsoft enlisted the aid of National Software Testing Laboratories (NSTL), an independent organization that evaluates hardware and software. Rather than rely solely on lab machines, NSTL tested Win2K Pro systems at customers' sites by installing on each system a small tool that recorded the uptime for each desktop. From the tool's data, NSTL determined that the average uptime between failures for a Win2K Pro system was 3 times the average uptime between failures for a Windows NT Workstation system and 13 times the average uptime between failures for a Windows 98 system. Win2K Pro's average time between failures was more than 72 weeks (counted in 40-hour workweeks). To achieve this level of reliability in Win2K Pro, Microsoft included in the OS several improvements, such as driver signing, Windows Installer service, and Windows File Protection (WFP).

Delivery from Driver Dilemmas
According to Microsoft's research, third-party drivers that run in NT's kernel are responsible for a significant number of the OS's blue screens. The kernel is the most sensitive part of the OS because it communicates directly with the hardware. Researchers concluded that improved driver handling would provide increased reliability. Thus, Win2K Pro includes two new capabilities: driver signing and the Driver Verifier utility. (Table 1 describes several helpful Win2K Pro tools.)

Driver signing is a new type of Microsoft certification program. In this program, the Windows Hardware Quality Lab (WHQL) puts a driver through a series of rigorous tests to verify its reliability. If a driver passes the tests, Microsoft digitally signs it—giving the driver Microsoft's stamp of approval. Given how important hardware drivers are to the reliability and stability of a system, this program makes a lot of sense.

Although Microsoft has digitally signed all the drivers on the Win2K Pro CD-ROM, you can run the File Signature Verification utility to double-check your system's drivers. To do so, from a command prompt, launch sigverif.exe.

If you try to install a driver that Microsoft hasn't digitally signed, Win2K Pro warns you that the driver isn't certified before the system installs the driver. In most cases, this warning isn't cause for alarm. Just remember that you installed a noncertified driver in case you run into problems later.

However, if you want to keep an eye on a suspicious driver, or on any driver, you can use the Driver Verifier tool. To launch Driver Verifier, you run verifier .exe at a command prompt. In the Driver Verifier Manager window, which Figure 1 shows, you specify which drivers you want the tool to watch. After you reboot the system, Driver Verifier watches the selected drivers, and if any of the specified drivers misbehaves, the tool presents you with a blue-screen bug-check error that exposes the offending driver. If this error appears, ask your hardware manufacturer for an upgraded driver. If the verifier watches a driver and doesn't present you with a blue-screen error after a few weeks of typical use, the driver is probably OK.

Liberation from DLL Conflicts
Applications represent another challenge to Windows' stability. In some cases, problems result from application vendors' poor programming practices. More often, however, conflicting DLLs are the cause. DLL conflicts often occur when an older version of a DLL overwrites a newer version that has the same name and is already installed on your system.

For example, suppose you install application A on your system, and application A calls subroutines from progstuff.dll. During the application installation, the setup program installs progstuff.dll 2.5 into your computer's system32 directory.

A few months later, you successfully install application B on your system. Application B relies on subroutines in progstuff.dll, and the application's programmers bundled progstuff.dll 1.8 with the application's installation routine. Thus, application B's setup program overwrites progstuff.dll 2.5 with progstuff.dll 1.8.

A few weeks later, when you try to run application A, the application works fine until it needs functionality that only progstuff.dll 2.5 offers. The result is a cryptic error message, and enough time has passed that you don't connect the failure of application A with the installation of application B.

To address this problem, Microsoft included Windows Installer in Win2K Pro. Vendors must use this installation method to obtain the "Certified for Windows 2000 Professional" logo for their applications. Applications that use Windows Installer minimize file conflicts, provide self-repairing capabilities, and support the Add/Remove Programs function.

Protection from File Corruption
File conflict and corruption problems aren't limited to third-party applications—Windows is susceptible to these difficulties. To avoid internal conflicts, Win2K Pro includes WFP, which contains two primary components: a monitoring service that watches for changes in your key system files and a manually initiated checking routine.

The monitoring service watches all your system's key files (i.e., .sys, .dll, .exe, .ttf, .fon, and .ocx files) for changes or deletion. If someone modifies one of these files, Win2K Pro checks the file's digital signature to ensure that the file is a Microsoft-approved version. If the file fails this check, Win2K Pro retrieves a copy of the original file from the cache and overwrites the new file with the old file. The OS then writes an event to the System log and informs the user that WFP has repaired the damaged file.

I attempted to delete a file from my system to see what Win2K Pro would do. I chose a command-line utility (cacls.exe), verified that it was in my system's \%systemroot%\system32\dllcache directory, then deleted it. The file reappeared, and my System log contained a new event, which Figure 2 shows.

This service works great for catching obvious problems, but what about the invisible problems, such as when some sort of data error corrupts a file? The System File Checker command-line utility (sfc.exe) lets you trigger a scan of all your system's protected files to ensure the files are intact and digitally signed. If any files appear in questionable condition, System File Checker replaces the file with a cached copy from either the \%systemroot%\system32\dllcache directory or the Win2K Pro CD-ROM. To launch System File Checker, run sfc.exe at a command prompt.

Offline File Freedom
I expect reliability to be a standard feature—not an enhancement or upgrade—of an OS. So, although Win2K's reliability improvements are nice, they should have been in the OS from the beginning. A true enhancement to Windows is Win2K Pro's mobility features. If you frequently travel with a laptop, you'll have much more productivity running Win2K Pro than running any other version of Windows.

Offline files is at the top of my list of reasons to upgrade to Win2K Pro. The offline files feature delivers an easy-to-use, reliable means of maintaining a local copy of network resources. To launch the Offline Files Wizard, right-click a network file or folder in the Windows Explorer interface and select the Make available offline option. This wizard lets you configure Win2K Pro to automatically synchronize local files with their network-based counterparts.

A key benefit of the offline files feature is that most files that you access from a mapped drive are still visible under that drive letter when the network resource isn't available. For example, suppose your H drive is mapped to a network server directory. If your server goes offline or you take your system off the network, all the files on your H drive are still available. If you make any changes to the files while you're disconnected from the network, as soon as you reconnect, Win2K Pro automatically uploads the changes to the network.

By default, the Offline Files Wizard synchronizes files at every logon and logoff. However, you can use the Synchronization Manager (i.e., mobsync.exe), which Figure 3, page 55, shows, to customize the replication schedule so that Win2K Pro syncs the files at specified intervals (e.g., when Win2K Pro is idle). You can determine which files to replicate and the replication frequency based on the type of network connection you're using. For example, when you're using a LAN connection, you might want Win2K Pro to synchronize all your files every few hours. However, if you're dialed-in to your office over a modem, you probably don't want synchronization to occur as frequently. For more information about offline files, see Mark Minasi, Inside Out, "Offline Files," December 1999, and Inside Out, "More About Offline Files," January 2000.

Performance Perks
According to Microsoft, Win2K Pro is 25 percent faster than Win9x on systems that have 64MB or more of RAM. For an impartial test of Win2K Pro's performance, Microsoft commissioned an independent lab that ran tests on laptop and desktops systems to compare Win2K Pro's performance with that of earlier Windows versions. These studies confirmed that Win2K Pro is as fast as NT Workstation.

In my experience, Win2K Pro performs almost as well as NT Workstation on my 3-year-old 150MHz Pentium processor laptop that has only 48MB of RAM. For handling basic documents and email, Win2K Pro's performance is fine, and the OS's added reliability and stability makes the upgrade a necessity, even on my old system. However, I have colleagues who have had different experiences with Win2K Pro than I have. They recommend that you run Win2K Pro on systems with at least a Pentium II processor and 64MB of RAM.

Enabling Internet Connection Sharing
One of the most popular small office/ home office (SOHO) applications is high-speed Internet connection sharing. To use Win2K Pro's Internet-connection-sharing function, you must have two network connections on your computer. One is an Internet connection (a dial-up modem connection or an Ethernet connection to a Digital Subscriber Line—DSL—or cable modem). The second is a connection to your internal computers.

To enable Win2K Pro's Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) tool, open the properties window of your Internet connection by right-clicking the associated icon in the Network and Dial-Up Connections dialog box. Then, select the Enable Internet Connection Sharing for this connection check box on the Sharing tab, which Figure 4, page 55, shows. When you select this option, Win2K Pro will reassign your second connection to a fixed IP address of 192.168.0.1, and this connection will act as an Internet router. However, before the connection will pass traffic, you must set the default gateway for all your internal systems to 192.168 .0.1 so that they'll send their Internet requests to your Win2K Pro system.

Next, you need to define which protocols your system will pass to the Internet. To do so, click Settings in the connection's properties window. You can define the protocols as applications, services, or both. You set application protocols as the protocols that you want to let your internal computers use to request information from external hosts on the Internet (e.g., you can define HTTP to let internal systems retrieve Web pages).

Services are protocols that you want to let into your network. For example, to run a Web server on a system in your network, configure Win2K Pro to redirect any incoming HTTP requests to a specific machine in your network. Table 2 lists the protocols that you can use for Internet connection sharing.

Compatibility Considerations
Although Microsoft has put considerable effort into ensuring that Win2K Pro is compatible with most hardware and software, assuming that all the devices and applications that worked on NT will work on Win2K Pro is a mistake. I've run into several software applications that don't run on Win2K Pro, and I've had mixed results with hardware.

For example, after I upgraded my desktop system from NT Workstation to Win2K Pro, the system consistently crashed a few minutes after reboot. The culprit turned out to be a CD-Rewritable (CD-RW) drive that had functioned fine under NT.

Fortunately, I experienced better results when I upgraded my laptop to Win2K Pro. The OS solved a resource conflict between my network adapter and sound card. When I had NT Workstation on the system, I could boot with either network connectivity or sound but not both. Win2K Pro recognized the conflict between the devices and fixed the problem. Now, both devices function perfectly.

To check your system for hardware and software compatibility before you upgrade to Win2K Pro, download Microsoft's Windows 2000 Readiness Analyzer (http://www.microsoft.com/windows2000/ upgrade/compat/ready.asp). This tool checks the hardware and software on your system for compatibility conflicts, so you can resolve problems before you upgrade.

The Application Compatibility Tool
Until all vendors upgrade their applications to Win2K compatibility, you might run into a situation in which you try to install an application on Win2K Pro, only to have the application's setup routine inform you that you need a more recent version of Windows. This strange message is the result of an application setup routine's check of your system's service-pack level to ensure that your system meets the application's minimum requirements.

For example, suppose you're attempting to install an application that requires NT 4.0 Service Pack 3 (SP3) or later. The application's installation routine finds that your Win2K Pro system has no service packs installed. The installation routine erroneously assumes that you're using an earlier version of NT and generates the error message.

Although most application vendors will eventually fix this problem, Microsoft provides a helpful tool to work around it—the Application Compatibility tool (appcompat.exe). You can find this tool on the Win2K Pro CD-ROM in the \support directory.

Appcompat.exe tricks an application into thinking that your system is running the Windows version that you specify. By telling the Application Compatibility tool which executable program to run, you can simulate other OSs, including NT 4.0 SP3, NT 4.0 SP4, or NT 4.0 SP5, or Win9x. However, although this tool supports Win9x, Microsoft didn't design the Application Compatibility tool to install applications that run only on Win9x (e.g., games).

Pro Is for Productivity
The changes that Microsoft has made to the Windows OS have made it the most reliable OS that the company has ever developed. From the moment you install it, Win2K Pro will make you more productive. And you can use the tools I've discussed to tweak your system and get the most out of your Win2K Pro installation.