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Mighty Mark's Vista Troubleshooting Tour

For today’s blog, I take great delight in referencing a true Windows luminary’s similar efforts at Microsoft. I’m talking about Mark Russinovich, who continues his efforts with Sysinternals tools and utilities, and anything else that catches his considerable fancy, under the Microsoft umbrella. For those not familiar with Mark’s fabulous skills and abilities, let me observe that he’s the author of the best book on Windows Internals ever written (due in a fifth edition in January 2008, with an exclusive focus on Vista and Windows Server 2008), and a former principal in Sysinternals/Winternals, a company devoted to crafting really great Windows tools and utilities. In a rare and perhaps unequaled display of corporate good sense, Microsoft bought Sysinternals/Winternals in 2005, and continues to make the free Sysinternals software available on their Web pages.

In Mark’s latest blog entitled “The Case of the Sloooooow System,” he delivers a tour-de-force demo of the great Sysinternals tool known as Process Explorer. This nifty tool not only shows you what processes are active on your Windows PC, a la Task Manager’s Processes tab, it also shows you which execution threads belong to those processes, and even lets you suspend them temporarily, thanks to a handy right-click menu facility.

In this troubleshooting exercise, Russinovich makes use of Process Explorer to identify a problem that drags his wife’s Vista desktop into the weeds, performance-wise. He immediately sees that two processes are consuming 100% of the CPU resources between them. Because she’s got a dual-core CPU, each one grabs one of those cores for its exclusive use, thereby freezing out all the other processes (and threads) that want to run on the system. A little quick sleuthing shows that some browser helper object (BHO) is sucking up all the cycles on one core within Iexplore.exe (the process name for Internet Explorer), and that a COM services DLL named Dllhost.exe is doing likewise for the other core.

In the course of identifying his troubles and trying to determine what’s at fault, Russinovich not only shows how to make inspired use of Process Explorer, he also provides some really great information about — you guessed it — Windows internals. He takes us on a journey from Internet Explorer, to one of its specific tabs, and then into the Thread Stack to show us that something about Adobe Flash is hogging that CPU core. For this, there proves to be no obvious fix: no patches, updates, or replacements for the version that’s already running on the machine. The other cycle sucker gets traced back to Roxio Creator, and for this one he does find an update (not yet advertised on Windows Update or via the Creator auto-update functions) that appears to fix the problem. He downloads and installs the update, and does away with one out of two of the problems.

His final assessment of the situation is worth the price of admission all by itself: “My wife’s system was now usable again, and though I wasn’t able to close the Flash-related part of the case, at least I knew the cause and could keep an eye out for updates. More importantly, by solving the Dllhost part of the case, even if Flash went crazy again, her system would still be usable and she wouldn’t be filing a critical support incident for it with me – thanks to Process Explorer and Process Monitor.”

Like any great performance it looks obvious, elegant, and effortless. Only those of us who’ve spent hours trying to troubleshoot runtime gotchas know how much and what kind of experience is necessary to develop such mastery. If you aren’t already familiar with the great Sysinternals toolset, type into your Web browser and do some spelunking. You’ll be sure to find some cool stuff, and possibly some great tools you won’t be able to live without a moment longer. You’ll probably want to grab Process Explorer, but be sure to check out the PSTools grab-bag as well.

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