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Paranoia Is Your Friend
On a Windows system, there are no such things as 'completely unrelated' programs.
A pound of cure, an ounce of prevention, a pinch of paranoia. Yes, paranoia. I'm convinced it can be a Windows user's best ally, assuming it's applied properly. And if you're in charge of numerous Windows systems, paranoia can be as valuable as a working network driver.
Being a paranoid Windows user means showing heightened caution, even skepticism, about new or unproved products, particularly from vendors that lack a good track record. This extends from the individual features of the software products you use all the way to the combination of peripherals you attach to a system's parallel port.
If there's one thing life teaches us, it's that what we don't do is as important as what we do. The Windows computing environment is a perfect example. The basic architecture of Windows, with the DLLs, drivers, Registry and other shared components that make up its very DNA, is inherently exposed to systemwide failure or mind- and schedule-blowing problems at the hands of an ill-behaved application or installation program. It happens all the time. You run some application's SETUP.EXE, and suddenly another completely unrelated program you rely on daily stops working.
The problem is that on a Windows system there are no such things as "completely unrelated" programs. All your apps use the same set of system drivers and often share nonsystem files, such as the runtime packages for various programming languages. Just peer into your Windows System folder and look at all the DLLs with names that begin with "MFC" or "MSVC." These files contain components used by programs created with Microsoft's Visual C++ compiler. My main production system has 19 MFC files and six MSVC files, including a new one that was added just yesterday. If an application replaces one of these files with a buggy version, everything that uses the file will be exposed.
So, how do you avoid such nightmares and lead a stress-free Windows existence? It's really not that hard, which is why I'm constantly amazed at the horrors I see on clients' systems-horrors I've never experienced on my own in nearly 20 years of desktop computing.
Three simple guidelines should help you fend off most trouble:
Isolate, isolate, isolate. One of the most valuable computers in my stable is one I lovingly call FrankenPC. It's just a lowly 75MHz Pentium, but its C: drive is in a removable drawer, and I have a stack of hard drives I can plug in and reboot to swap not just operating systems, but entire configurations. This allows me to test anything suspect on a nonproduction system with any operating system I want. Beta software, which I run frequently, never sees a production system. As a result, my total lost time, not counting a spate of recent hard drive failures, is zero.
Don't install upgrades or features you don't really need. Never use the "typical" installation option on a setup program unless you're positive it will install exactly the set of features you want. Installing additional features always creates still more system changes, which only increase the possibility of corrupting your machine's configuration. Install the features you need, and don't pay the price for those you don't need.
Remember that only the same is the same. When Microsoft shipped the FAT32 file system as part of OEM Service Release 2, there was no doubt the vast majority of software would blithely ignore the change and run just fine. But some software, including that bundled with at least one popular model of removable media drive, malfunctioned.
Of course, it's easy to get overly cautious and stifle your organization's ability to do its work. If a new application or piece of hardware will improve productivity or reduce errors, then shunning it just because it's new, different or from an unknown vendor is just as bad as buying every product at your local computer store and slapping them onto PCs with abandon. Those are two routes to the same destination: frustration and massive lost time for everyone involved. Paranoia is like anything else measured in pinches, particularly most medicines and certain spices. Too little is worthless, and too much is worse than not enough.
Contributing editor Lou Grinzo is president of Lou Grinzo Technologies, a computer consulting and contract programming firm, and author of Zen of Windows 95 Programming (Coriolis Group, 1995). Contact Lou in the "Windows at Work" topic of WINDOWS Magazine's areas on America Online and CompuServe, or at the e-mail addresses here.