Microsoft Approaches Secure, Reliable Vista

Opinion: An analyst suggests that Windows Vista could come to be as reliable as Unix, given Microsoft's push for hardware compatibility.

Windows Vista may approach the reliability levels usually associated with Unix-based operating systems.

So says my friend Rob Enderle, and he makes good sense.

According to Enderle, an industry analyst and consultant known for his uncommonly good insight, Microsoft is pushing hardware vendors to spec ECC memory (error-correcting code memory) in Vista hardware.

Why? Because with driver problems now mostly in check, Microsoft has learned that faulty memory has become a major source of system and application crashes in Windows XP. Fixing this problem should significantly improve the reliability of Windows Vista running on ECC-equipped hardware, Enderle says.

/zimages/5/28571.gifRead more here about security features in Microsoft Vista.

A bit of history: Microsoft has long maintained that most system crashes (aka "the blue screen of death") are caused not by the operating system, but by hardware drivers not written by Microsoft.

The first major culprits were memory cards, which stopped being a problem after manufacturers started testing their driver software more carefully. More recently, graphics card drivers were the main cause of crashes, Microsoft has said.

The company has instituted a program, largely ignored by hardware manufacturers, under which it digitally signs drivers that have passed testing. You may have seen a warning that the driver of some piece of hardware youre installing hasnt been signed, asking if you want to install it anyway. Like everyone, you chose to install anyway, as signed drivers are not widely available.

Thankfully, even non-signed drivers have improved enough so that they rarely pose problems anymore. That is, recent drivers dont cause trouble, because there are still many older drivers in use that can still crash a system, given the right (or is it wrong?) circumstances.

Microsoft could stop non-signed drivers from running on its operating systems, and is doing so with the 64-bit version of Windows Vista.

In a recent interview, Microsoft Windows czar Jim Allchin said the company could take the step because 64-bit drivers are new and requiring them to be signed doesnt cause problems for customers with legacy hardware.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read more about Microsofts decision to require signed drivers.

However, 32-bit systems will remain open to having unsigned drivers installed on them and peripheral vendors will, presumably, still say away from the driver signing program in droves.

But, I digress. With drivers no longer the problem they once were, Microsoft has learned that bad memory has taken over as the great crasher of Windows XP. Microsoft knows this because of the reports submitted by its Watson crash reporting and analysis system. This is the pop-up that may appear after an application crashes asking if youd like to report the trouble to Microsoft. I always file the report.

Occasionally, Microsoft is able use the report and respond with the cause of the problem, usually a driver, and send you to download a new one. More often, Microsoft thanks you for the report and adds it to the database.

But, those reports are important, as the move to promoting error-correcting memory shows. Enderle said that if the company is successful, customers should experience far fewer application and system crashes when using the new hardware.

Youd think Microsoft could simply tell hardware vendors to use the new memory, but the Mighty Microsoft uses only friendly persuasion. Enderle estimated that right now, using ECC memory might add $30-$40 dollars to the cost of a new computer, but that premium should fade away as volume ramps up.

Over the past few years, Windows has become increasingly reliable, but still isnt as crash-proof as Linux, Unix or a Macintosh. Im glad Microsoft is pushing the hardware companies to help solve what is, after all, their problem. And I am especially glad that all those problems Ive reported to Microsoft may have actually helped accomplish something.

Improved reliability, coupled with better security, could allow Windows Vista to become Microsofts first nonstop operating system. Its worth watching.

Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at

/zimages/5/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for Microsoft and Windows news, views and analysis.