28 February 2011

Windows 7 Blue Screen of Death

I’ve written before about how Windows 7 is a good operating system but then horror of horrors this morning I rebooted after some updates and received the fatal blue screen of death. For those lucky people who have never seen this it appears all of a sudden, usually whilst it’s running or starting up and the screen just goes entirely blue. Then it usually says something about a memory dump. This is the point at which users should be thankful that like all good citizens they have all their installation media and created backups of all their personal data.
I’ve been using the Windows operating system since it was first released and so I was lucky enough to have done all of this when it happened to me. I’m not really as smug as that sounds, because I’ve been caught out before, more than once. Creating backups and disaster recover plans always seems to be hard work, boring and at the bottom of the to-do list. However, I’m a computer techie so compared to most home users I am probably the exception rather than the rule.
  • Why do I need to back up?
    Computers are machines and they break. Your computer is more than likely running from a single hard drive. Hard drives have a life span after which they fail, so it’s not a question of whether your computer will fail, just when it will. It’s going to happen.
  • What do I need to back up?
    Any files that you create are obviously top of the list but don’t forget things like your contacts, emails, photos, music and files that you have stored (intentionally or otherwise) outside of the Documents folder (e.g. Outlook files).
    To re-install your computer you will also need all your ‘installation media’ by this I mean all the programs that you wish to install in what ever format you have them, e.g. CD, DVD or in the case of downloaded software, a file on disk. A list I use is:
    • User folder plus Pictures, Music and Videos
    • Outlook file(s) (should be in User folder)
    • Source Code Folders
    • Software Keys
    • MSSQL Data/Backup Files
    • Software: original install files
  • What can I do when it happens?
    All is not lost. There are a number of things you can do to try and recover your data. See below for more information.

What can you do to protect your system from catastrophic failure?

I’d suggest a two-pronged approach:
  • Protect yourself from potential failure
    Think about your system and look for single points of failure: i.e. where the system is reliant on one thing. The hard drive is an obvious situation where most people’s computers are reliant on one thing. A way round this is to run a RAID system. The definition of this is outside the scope of this post but suffice to say it basically means you run two drives in tandem. To you and the system it appears as one drive but anything you have on one is actually mirrored onto the other drive. They will both eventually fail but it’s less likely that they will both fail at the same time. When one does fail you can remove it and slot a new one in.
  • Plan and provision for Failure
    • Keep your installation media and software keys in a secure place: All too often I’ve tried to help someone fix their computer and they don’t have the disks, or can’t find the software keys. Software is expensive and operating systems don’t come cheap so look after it.
    • Backup your data: Its very difficult and sometimes impossible to recover data from a broken drive so either you’re prepared to loose it or you must back it up to another location regularly. Most operating systems come with some kind of in-build back-up software these days to achieve this, or failing that there are numerous off-the-shelf solutions for it. They do require an additional place to store your data however, so an inexpensive USB hard drive or alternative (e.g. network storage) is required.

What do you do when it fails?

Don’t Panic! There are a number of reasons why systems fail and many options when they do. Don’t rush to re-install everything, although sometimes this can be the only option it’s good to eradicate the others first. I’m going to write about a Windows machine here but some of these steps relate just as well to any computer:
  • Try turning it off! Most people know that re-booting can help but I’ve seen many systems fail due to over heating. Turn it off and leave it for an hour or so, then return to it.
  • Take notes: At the first sign of failure, take a note of what happens and any error messages. Continue to take notes until it is fixed. This will help to establish the route cause of the problem but also will help explain it if you need to call in help from someone else. It will also help you the next time it occurs!
  • Use the operating system’s own recovery software if it has some. Windows comes with System Recovery tools on the Windows installation disk. Boot your computer from this disk and explore these before anything else.
  • Try ‘Safe Mode’: A lot of system errors are to do with hardware incompatibility or failure and Windows Safe Mode loads the bare bones of the operating system. This might help you establish why it won’t start normally.
  • Boot from another drive: I’ve written before about creating a bootable USB device. This is a great tool for getting back control of your computer and establishing what’s wrong with it. Crucially it may also allow you to access the internet so you can search for help on error messages.

If this all fails then I’m afraid you will need to re-install. I have written some notes on that here.

No comments:

Post a Comment