Republished with permission from WatchGuard Technologies, Inc.

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Take The "Sting" Out of XP Performance Issues

by David M. Piscitello, President, Core Competence, Inc.

...I have stood here before inside the pouring rain
With the world turning circles running 'round my brain
I guess I'm always hoping that you'll end this reign
But it's my destiny to be the king of pain...
       --
"King of Pain," from the album Synchronicity, by The Police

The personal computing experience has improved considerably since the pre-Windows days, where one chose between CPM/96 and DOS, and ran maybe a half-dozen clunky applications. Personal computers amazed folks in the 1980s, and the intimate community who owned them happily invested hours tweaking, configuring, and tuning systems to milk out that last byte of memory and kilohertz of CPU.

Two decades later, the PC user community is ubiquitous, but not so much amazed with PCs as impatient. Most PC users spend unmeasured time on the Windows exercise wheel, and much less happily than PC pioneers invest their hours tweaking, configuring, and tuning systems to milk out that last megabyte of memory and gigahertz of CPU.

In the words of Sting, we were, and are, "Kings of Pain."

But it's not necessarily your destiny to remain so. This article lists tips and resources that'll help you improve performance on your XP Pro machines, while slightly enhancing security.

Pay now... or later

Ask five XPerts the best strategy for tuning Windows XP Professional (XPPro), and you'll probably get nine answers. What works well for business-purpose PCs won't provide you the fastest gaming computer. Multi-user PCs pose a different set of requirements and tuning considerations than single-user PCs. And so on. Most importantly, however, is that what you begin with often dictates how you can best attack performance problems, and how much time and money you'll invest improving performance.

If there is anything close to a universal principle in the PC universe, it is that performance is directly related to memory, processing, and storage. The feature column in the July issue of PC Magazine, "189 Ways to Make Your PC Work Better," provides an exhaustive list of system, disk, file, and memory management utilities you can purchase to turbo-charge your PC. I'll argue that by the time you research, choose, install, and learn to use these optimizers, you still won't have the same performance as if you had invested in suitable processors, more RAM, plus more and faster disk drives.

According to AssetMetrix, the slowest CPU speed XP will accept is 233 MHz. Your results may vary, but I would not run XPPro on anything under 500 MHz. Most sources recommend a minimum of 256 MB of RAM for XPPro; however, memory resident processes in XP can use in the vicinity of 180 MB. My experience is that XP runs much better with 512 MB and brilliantly with 1 GB. Memory is the single, best investment you can make in a PC. Judge for yourself: for the cost of two or three share- or commercial-ware utilities, you can buy or upgrade PCs and laptop memories to 512 MB RAM or more. And you can spend the time you'd invest tinkering with the utilities in a non-work-related activity (remember those?).

Generally speaking, disk intensive applications will perform better with faster spinning disks. Faster disks will also help when virtual memory is invoked. SCSI is fast, but it is typically not a desktop option. When possible, upgrade from the more common, OEM-installed 5400 RPM drives to 7200 RPM IDE drives. If your PC supports the 66 MBps Ultra Direct Memory Access mode (Ultra ATA 66), you'll want to investigate ways to enable this faster data transfer rate in XPPro's registry or through a utility.

Even after you make intelligent hardware choices, a few well-chosen tweaks can make XPPro run even more efficiently.

Improve Virtual Memory performance

No matter how much RAM you have, you and XP will use it up. How you've configured virtual memory (VM) will then influence performance. The most common VM settings often specify an initial and maximum size. This dynamic VM setting is useful in situations where disk space is limited, but performance suffers when XP has to search for free disk space as VM needs increase, and performance suffers the most on fragmented disks. A static setting (accomplished by specifying identical initial and maximum sizes) improves performance by reserving VM space permanently. One way of guaranteeing that a static VM setting won't fail in the presence of gross fragmentation is to create a separate partition for virtual memory. I've seen dramatic improvement after applying this tip alone on XP systems, especially upgraded systems.

Pruning services

XP resembles a Jules Verne hot air balloon: just as you would empty sandbags to make the balloon rise, so you can disable services to make XP "lighter" on RAM. Elsewhere, I mentioned how Black Viper, Fred Langa, and others have taken an exhaustive look at ways to shed XP load. Rather than repeat much of what you can easily reference, I'll recommend a simple process you can use to apply this accumulated expertise and insight:

  1. Identify the Windows networking dependencies and security risks for your LAN environment. Study the list of XP services and ask questions like, "Is there any reason why all XP systems in my workgroup/domain should be configured to serve as the 'backup' for the Computer Browser service?" "What value does my company derive from having my XP systems report application errors to Microsoft?" "Do my users benefit from the Indexing and System Restore Services?" "NetMeeting Remote Desktop Sharing, SNMP, and Routing and Remote Access pose security risks to my LAN, so shouldn't we disable them?" "Do client PCs need modem and fax services?" If you decide (as I did) that your LAN doesn't need these services, launch the Services control panel (run services.msc), and disable unnecessary and risky services to free a considerable amount of RAM and, for some services, valuable processing cycles.
  2. Decide whether your organization needs or uses MSN (Instant) Messenger. If you're blocking all IMs (or using a different one), configure XP so that it does not load Messenger at every startup. The Stop MSN Messenger thread at Betarun Forums describes several methods, each with a different consequence. Of these, I found that using the group policy editor (gpedit.msc) satisfied my LAN requirement.
  3. Learn what support services your PC vendor installs (e.g., Dell Support Alerts). Determine whether these are necessary, and disable them to reclaim any resident memory they consume.
  4. Decide if more granular tuning is appropriate. To improve startup time and performance, visit Annoyances.org and Webhero.org. These sites describe performance gains earned from eliminating extraneous fonts, disabling XP visual effects, using Windows Classic rather than Active Desktop, and disabling XP Themes. Bear in mind, however, that your goal is user productivity and efficient administration. Special desktop effects and customized graphical interfaces do impede performance, but ask whether measures that may be viewed as Draconian by your users are best left as last resorts.
  5. Establish a process for uniformly configuring all user PCs. With a new PC, create partitions on the hard drive for the OS, VM, applications and data. Perform a clean install of XP Professional on the system, then configure it to meet the performance and security criteria you set. If your organization purchases multiple systems with exact hardware configurations, you can install the image you've created on all these PCs, or you can clone hard drives and install these in the PCs.

Microsoft's many XP-related pages are worthwhile. I've included below several I found helpful, but your searches at MSDN TechNet and the Windows XP Professional pages may help you even more.

Windows Task Manager is your friend

Like security, performance is not a "once and done" operation. Windows XP has a reputation of "slowing down" over time, and with use. Use the Processes Tab of the Task Manager to identify what's running on systems with degraded performance. Check that processes you intentionally disabled remain so, then check what new processes are running. If you're unfamiliar with a process, a quick visit to AnswersThatWork.com's Task List may help you identify the performance-draining culprit. I've also had exceptional success Googling process names to learn what they are, whether they are friendly, benign, or evil, and in what circumstances they are useful.

So there you have it. These guidelines can take you from "King of Pain" to having happy, productive users "Wrapped Around Your Finger." Remember, to take the Sting out of XP performance issues, a minute of prevention is worth an hour of intervention. ##

Resources:

Windows XP Professional Home Page

Windows XP Professional How-To Articles

Windows XP User Tips Archive

Windows XP Settings that Improve Performance

Performance Issues with Windows XP

Langa List Home Page

Black Viper's Windows XP Service Configurations

Dave's related article, "Stepping Up to Windows XP: What to Expect at Your Firewall"


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