sábado, 12 de marzo de 2011

Emergency at the University: A PC problem or an OS that is defective?

On Jan 20th, 2011, I posted an entry on my office network and, jokingly, put up a picture in which viruses were pawning the Windows computers. Well, that picture became prophetic: while the Windows 7 machine gradually collapsed, the XP one became a zombie that got the entire University Internet service in trouble for a whole week. However, my Mandriva box emerged pristine, completely unscathed. This is the account of what happened.

The main computer in the section is an XP system, which was later linked to the new Windows 7 computer that was bought. The computer I use was also an XP one. However, I installed Mandriva Linux to make it a dual boot and now I seldom boot it in Windows. After less than a year, the Windows 7 station started to show some strange symptoms: It would not start, the screen would flicker, or the machine would freeze. We asked the department technician to come to examine it and, as Carla Schroder said it back in April 2010 (read article here), the technician deemed the whole thing a hardware problem (he blamed it on the hard drive) and substituted the HD. I told him I had my reserves, but people in the office pretty much ignored me.

Last week, the Internet service of the University was in terrible shape. I wanted to go talk to the IT Manager of the Faculty, but it was not necessary because he stormed yesterday into my department. He was a rabid pitbull after something to bite and barked that a machine in my section was sending viruses non-stop and collapsed the University Internet service. His boss, therefore, gave him a furious call with an ultimatum: "Either you find the infected computer, or you pull the switch off for the entire Faculty". He went to my machine first, but I told him that I only run Linux on it, upon which he responded: "Linux? Then it's not yours!" and jumped to the other machines and found the IP of the culprit...it was the XP system. The result? The machine was unhooked from the network and will remain in quarantine.

But what happened to the Windows 7 box? I asked the technician in my section if he had actually checked the integrity of the hard drive to support his claim. I knew the answer already; he only supposed it had been a hardware failure, but never checked the disk! Carla Schroder was absolutely right: people assume that computer problems are necessarily hardware, not OS problems!

I asked him to put the disk back. He reformatted it and Windows 7 is behaving OK so far. I wonder if Windows does not check the integrity of the disk BEFORE install... Anyway, I installed Mandriva (no indication of disk problems whatsoever, by the way) and now that system is also a dual boot.

Maybe it's time for people to stop blaming computer problems on hardware and to begin seeing reality. In my office, there are three stations for three individuals who are not computer experts. The two Windows machines broke; the Linux one is still up to the job and has not failed, not even once, since its Penguin OS was installed.

As a simple computer user, what can I learn? Well, the lesson that I see is that if you want to have Windows as the OS of your computer, you must accept that its security is flawed by design, which eventually will cause problems for an user that is not an expert. You must then invest a lot of time to learn how to protect your system, how to correctly operate the antivirus, firewall, anti-malware, etc. You also have to refrain from downloading shiny animations and programs to enhance your desktop, as they can compromise your system. On the other hand, if you do not want to be bothered by common security problems, then you should use Linux. Thus, you will discover that many so-called PC problems are but Windows problems.

4 comentarios:

  1. So, one of your computers was the responsible of the network collapse in the whole university...wow!

    I have a couple of questions:

    If Microsoft offers "great support" for its OS, then where was it when it was needed?

    If they say they offer support but there isn't actually any, then how is it that situations like this one happen and Microsoft gets always cleared?

    Shouldn't the university IT authorities barking at Microsoft for their insecure software?

    Where are the Windows 7 champions who say that this OS has implemented security policies that rival those of Linux?

  2. Sensei, it bugs me when people don't want to do their homework and fail to determine whether it's a hardware issue or not.

    As someone who works with not exactly end user hardware (for example my audio interface) I have found myself in the situation when I must determine what is going wrong. It might be a tough job but I know it's the only way to avoid incurring in unnecessary expenses.
    It was the IT's job to check the HDD. Replacing it was pretty much the same as reformatting the boot drive, unless the drive that was changed was for other purpose. Changing only the hdd is pretty much the same as making a clean install of windows to erase all the junkware installed slowing it down. What he did was not a hardware fix, it was the OS he fixed.

  3. @ Vanargand,
    Well, since Windows EULA doesn't let technicians work on the real problem (the OS), all they can do is reformat & reinstall. If there are backups involved, then they charge extra for that. That has created a culture of negligent, ineffective technicians who earn a lot for doing little. Many of them don't want to leave such a profitable and comfortable model, of course.