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Stop Chasing the Rainmakers

Week of June 24, 2000

'The way out is via the door.'
 - Confucius
'If you want to wet a stone, spit on it many times.'
 - Scandinavian Proverb
'If you make your bed, sleep in it.'
 - North American Proverb

There are no cures for the ails of Windows 9x. As the 'x' goes from '5' to '8' and beyond they only get worse. And the one single reason so many people use these pseudo operating systems is that they were on the machines in the first place. And the people who bought them never saw the console room of a 370 mainframe, never got to experience a bullet-proof VM or VMS, and they really believe operating systems are funny things working somewhere between the applications and the hardware that you really have to reboot all the time because of the inevitable memory leaks.

We'd of course be in a lot of trouble if this were really true. Think of it.

'Talk to me Goose!'
'Can't Maverick - we're out of memory!'

The ATMs wouldn't work either. Halfway through processing your withdrawal request, the machine would go down, out of memory, a janitor would come along, recipe card in hand, punch in a security key, and hit Ctrl+Alt+Delete. Sure.

'Houston we have a problem! There's a memory leak!'

Maybe some of this stuff has happened - maybe. But in critical system domains, and until very recently, it didn't, and computers were never as puny as they are today either, either in size or in intellectual ambition.

370s were known to need to go down twice a year, due to snags in their imperfect time sharing system. They got into a thrashing situation, processes being continually swapped in and out with no computing actually taking place. The possibility of the machine falling into this trap was remote, but then again the 370s worked around the clock - they didn't reboot every second hour, there was no Ctrl+Alt+Delete.

Even relatively puny OSes of late have been reliable. NT 3.51 Server seldom if ever needed a reboot.

Then along comes Windows 95, the greatest event in computing since the introduction of the PC, the Memory Leak - and Ctrl+Alt+Delete.

And if you use it, and stick by it, even in this day and age when you've had ample opportunity for years to avoid it, then accept what you have. You're leaking and there isn't a thing you can do about it.

And stop chasing the rainmakers. They dance their cute dance, they sing to the sky, and then they pass the hat around. But it will rain on its own if it's meant to, and all the visual effects in the world won't make it happen any sooner.

On NT, they might make a stab at things. All radsoft.net tools are equipped with the ability to trim process working sets. But does this bring rain? Perhaps. It is offered as an option only because, to use the words of daring Sir Edmund Hillary, 'it's there'. Because the operating system offers it. Because it costs one line of 70 characters of code, in other words nothing. If it brings rain is another matter. And if rain is really needed, do you really think the operating system wouldn't just take matters into its own hands anyway? Of course it would.

The 9x rain dances are much more primitive and even more suspect. 9x can't trim a working set to save its skin - so what do the 9x rainmakers promise when they come to town?

One promise is to gobble up as much RAM as they can and then immediately let it go again, and the pitch sounds even better when they promise lots of cool graphics so you can watch it all happen in 'realtime' like NT's Task Manager, with nifty coloured wavy lines and stuff, really cool stuff.

But it's just a dance, and dances - with or without graphics - do not make rain. By gobbling up all available RAM they do force the OS to yank it away from other running processes, true, and you can hear your disk going nuts as well when this happens - but isn't all of this exactly what the system was going to do anyway when it was time to rain?

And most importantly: did it stop the memory leak itself? Of course not.

Another dance, a very dangerous dance at that, is to start taking the DLLs out. How these rainmakers can promise to know when a DLL can be safely taken out is the whole issue - they can't. They'd need to do a lot of dancing to figure that out, and no rainmaker is particularly good at dancing.

They come and go, the rainmakers, the old ones that we've grown tired of watching and supporting disappear without a sound, and a new generation come to take their place. And again, all the people who should know better anyway rush outdoors to greet them, to pass the word up and down the street. 'A new rainmaker has come to town, and this one will finally make it rain!'

Gardeners get the rainmaker epithet all the time too. They may not be rainmakers, but by clever design or not they can sure look like it. Are they completely innocent? Or are they trying to have a chuckle or even make a buck off gullibility and inert desperation? Who knows? Does it matter?

All they do is stand out back, hose down their petunias and chrysanthemums, then take the rest of the afternoon off in the hammock or hide indoors behind the kitchen curtains and wait for the stir to begin. The townspeople see the precipitation and think 'rain' and start to flock to their doors, and the gardeners either get paranoid from the onslaught of attention or have a good laugh over their cleverly executed practical joke.

But there is no rain.

Rainmakers can be entertaining to watch, and you might feel a donation of a wooden nickel is a small price to pay for knowing you've helped a stranger to an evening meal and a roof over his head for the night, but don't ever forget you're watching entertainment, and no one can ever make rain.

If you want it to rain, rely on the natural order to provide it. If you want to stop the memory leaks, walk out the door. Do what you like, but stop carrying on. If you don't want to change things, if you like your bed the way you've already made it, fine - sleep in it as is and stop carrying on.

You can stop the memory leaks today. You can stop chasing the rainmakers too. You can do both in an instant.

But will you? Only you can know.

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