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Crisis - What Crisis?

I'm reduced to writing this column on Wordpad and if it wasn't for the help of Andy at M-wise Computers in Margate, you wouldn't be reading this column at all.

Windows XP is supposed to be invulnerable, well almost but experience shows that while it's more robust than any of its predecessors, when it does crash it does so catastrophically and invariably demands a system rebuild.

In January, Microsoft very kindly sent an ambulance around to collect my first HP laptop and completely re-built my system when it crashed for the first time. This time, it was a new laptop, a Saturday afternoon and a week ahead that starts with an early morning flight to Nice to speak at the Unisys, 'Zero Gap' security conference.

Although I'm backed-up to a CD, having learned my lesson in the past, XP's stubborn refusal to move past it's splash screen took me by surprise. The PC is only weeks old and most of that time was spent installing Microsoft Office and Microsoft's Flight Simulator, both vital line of business applications for the busy columnist-consultant. As I happened to be away from my London home with a dead laptop and a weekend reserved for catching-up with a backlog of work, XP's perfect dead-parrot impression was nothing less than a disaster.

In an act of desparation, I went looking for a PC dealer and stumbled across M-Wise, who had the system back up and running within two hours, having had to re-install the Operating System from scratch. That's the good news. The bad news is that Office is demanding that I re-run setup and Symantec's utilities keep warning me that my system has been tampered with and wants to shut it down entirely. Worse still, Norton anti-virus has turned itself off in a sulk, as have all the Symantec applications, so attempting to use the Internet would be an act of foolish bravado, as my machine is entirely unprotected.

Here lies the problem. Lose the Operating System and you lose all the rights management software that goes with it. Vendor paranoia over software piracy - frequently justified - means that the OS represents a single point of failure for most of the line-of-business applications that it supports. My Exchange client allows me to read any email that was delivered before the crash but that's a far as it goes and Microsoft Office is a lost cause until I find my installation disks, currently a hundred miles away.

Over the last month, I've been interviewing local government IT managers about their infrastructure and what they have in common is there enthusiasm for Windows Terminal Server. Not only does it offer them a good security model, ask Luton or Kent or Tunbridge but when a system crashes, then can hot-desk or 'hot-swap' very quickly to another machine and run their mission critical and line of business applications from the server, frequently over a telephone line which delivers the equivalent of broadband speed, as only screens and keystrokes are pushed back and forth from the client device. If you don't have a Terminal Server farm, which is true for most of us, then losing your PC and particularly your email, has been shown to be as emotionally traumatic as a divorce or at least a temporary separation.

Last week, I spoke at an early briefing at London's Savoy Hotel on trust in the software industry and had the the opportunity of presenting some of my opinions to several of the largest IT companies who were there to enjoy their traditional Atkins breakfast. My thesis was that the industry has slimmed down to such a degree that it is no longer efficient and strangely enough, nobody disagreed. A manager from one of the best known vendors remarked that his company is so obsessed with quarterly reorgansation that he and his colleagues have calculated that they are only productive for eight weeks of the year. "The same is true for us", commented a senior manager from another and equally big name in the IT industry and there appeared to be a consensus, that very little of the working day involved looking after customers and that most of the time was spent reading increasing volumes of email or twiddling with sales forecasts.

Good news though. A snapshot survey of the same group suggested a very real pick-up in the market with signficant evidence that business was at last releasing its IT budgets, so evidence of real optimsm for the next twelve months from several of the companies that Wall Street cares most about.

Finally though, back to the small businessman and his limping laptop. Like death and taxes, my advice to you is to assume the inevitability of a Windows XP system crash. It's bad enough that we are constantly being suffocated by viruses and strangled by worms but we need somethig to rely on and that is the integrity or stability of the Operating System. If my own experience and what I have heard from others is anything to go on, then having an up-to-date backup of vital files is absolutely essential and keep your Windows XP system disk and Office installation disks with you at all times. As for Symantec, putting their software on your system is easy but uninstalling in an emergency can be next to impossible.

And if this column is full of spelling mistakes, it's because the spell-checker is on strike too.


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