CXO

Systems maintenance: Driver asleep at the wheel

How would you like to increase system performance and improve hardware compatibility, for free? James McPherson's here to tell you how.


I’m sure all you sharp tech-heads out there defrag and error check the systems in your office at least every 30 days, download the latest virus definitions, and keep errant swap files from slowly consuming hard drives. But, when was the last time you checked drivers? Oh, sure, you can give me the old, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” routine, but if that was the case, we’d still be using 8088s and liking it.

Why bother?
The simple truth is that hardware vendors don’t bother to write driver updates without a reason. It’s not really their purpose in life to pay engineers to write software for hardware they’ve already sold. The only reason they do that kind of stuff is, (a) to fix things that would prevent selling that device; (b) to foster warm fuzzy feelings in repeat customers (which would be nice but very few companies bother); or (c) to improve the device’s performance so it stays competitive.

Oh, THAT got your attention, didn’t it? Let me repeat: “Performance Upgrade.” Before you start salivating too hard, realize that performance is relative to the way the device operates.

Sporadically, (very, very, VERY sporadically; almost never) you will find a new driver that enables new features or faster operation, but this isn’t usually the case. The general effect is to reduce the system requirements or improve the resource management of the drivers. There are also a number of non-critical bug fixes in driver updates that can extend the life of your hardware by eliminating those little lags and momentary hangs that cause users to moan about how slow their system is.

The most common update is to reduce memory consumption or eliminate memory leaks. Printer drivers have become nearly rock-solidly reliable, but given the fact that documents are often 5 to 10 MB, a small improvement in job queuing could forestall that memory upgrade for the print server.

Video card drivers are a great source for system improvement. Better color management or refresh rate controls can appear with new hardware releases along with possible optimizations for high-load applications or specific hardware configurations. A recent beta driver for Nvidia’s Geforce card running on Athlon systems with Windows NT resulted in 50 to 150 percent performance improvements. This boost made it 3 to 20 percent faster than an equivalent PIII system using RDRAM and was the result of using a “standard” driver on a new motherboard platform that was only on the market for about a week.

Sure, it worked, but it wasn’t up to its full potential. So you performance freaks living at the razor’s edge of the technology curve should remember to frequently check for driver updates after getting the newest toys to ensure you get your money’s worth.

Test it first
Yet, you are correct to be cautious about driver upgrades. First things first, so find your driver version number and then read the FAQ listing new features/bug fixes before considering upgrades. Occasionally, a driver update intended to improve compatibility can actually reduce performance on systems not suffering from the problem.

I recommend checking at least two places for drivers: the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) who built the system and the actual component manufacturer. Some OEMs order custom variants to cut costs (especially for components integrated on the motherboard) and their drivers will be a few months behind the manufacturer’s stock drivers. In these cases, you should read the documentation closely and compare the notes and file sizes on the last few releases to learn whether the difference is just the OEM brand logos.

Before installing the new drivers on a test machine, you need to ensure you have a fresh rescue disk, a backup of your registry, and functioning install disks for your current driver release. If you are updating any motherboard or CD-ROM drivers, I would consider copying the files to the hard drive in case the CD-ROM and/or floppy drive stop working. Have both OEM and manufacturer driver files on hand, even if you can’t find a difference.

Now, follow the instructions for the drivers and watch closely. Reboot the machine a few times, running all the mission-critical applications that may be affected and check for idiosyncrasies. If possible, leave the machine on for extended periods of time running various apps and monitor the available resources for new memory leaks or problems. (Hey, not only old drivers have bugs). Be double paranoid over print servers and the like. I recommend full backups where available or having an alternate print server waiting in the wings should something go wrong.

What to do when things go wrong
If, heaven forbid, something does go wrong, follow the manufacturer’s instructions on removing the drivers. If there are “helper” applications (color managers, plug-ins, etc.) you will probably need to ensure that they are uninstalled completely. In some cases, you may need to go back to “generic” drivers or entirely remove the device from your OS to reinstall the drivers. Worst-case scenarios could require you to restore the old registry and/or physically remove and replace the device from your system. This is why you use a test system, to test things.

There is one other reason to quit playing “Quake” and upgrade drivers: user confidence—especially for the paranoid and/or clueless. You spend five minutes adding a new (tested) driver to their machine and they get the warm fuzzy feeling that someone is watching out for them. It also gives you or your support personnel a chance to check for “user misconfigurations” like deactivated antivirus software without looking like Big Brother. Users just seem more receptive to having their PC settings tweaked during an upgrade “for their own good” as opposed to a Big Brother-esque thought control exercise.

All in all, if you spend a little time testing driver updates before implementing them, you should have a nice, quiet upgrade sequence that won’t tax you too much or remind people why they keep IT around. After all, THEY wouldn’t have thought to update the drivers.

James McPherson is a network administrator for a nationwide ISP.

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