Earlier this month my colleague George Ou blogged about system imaging and computer troubleshooting and how there could be a much easier solution than the tedious tuning and recovery procedures that IT pros often use to fix infected computers or slow systems. George proposed using system images to simplify the process, but there’s one problem to the plan. He wrote, “The one thing Microsoft should be criticized for is the fact that they sure don’t make it easy to use system imaging with their insistence on putting user data in to the same logical partition as the operating system… With the user data cleanly separated from the OS partition, the OS partition could simply be blown out and imaged over at any time in a matter of minutes and the computer would run as fast as the day the OS was freshly installed.  This would effectively solve any malware or sluggishness problems in one fell swoop and the user data wouldn’t have to be backed up or recovered whenever a system is imaged.”

Some TechRepublic members were not crazy about this idea. Member ds4211a responded, “With all the disk tools, anti virus and spyware software, etc., this is the best we can do? That doesn’t say much for the state of the software and tech industry. I’m just a regular guy who tries to keep a few PC’s running right. Why not just take some dynamite and blow the PC and Windows up and be done with it?”

Of course, the Linux geeks had their word. 🙂 Member marilynweate wrote, “This is a non issue in linux where YOU can decide at install to create separate data and OS partitions. Also, once installed the problems of malware are SO much less than windows.” Of course, not all Linux distros do this by default and that’s the whole issue. Anyone can choose to manually install the data on a separate partition  — in either Linux or Windows.

Another member, AlisaK2000, who works for a Geek Squad (Best Buy’s troubleshooting service) in New Jersey, reported, “If a machine is so infected that we are having to resort to registry editing or other drastic measures to get out resistant infections then we usually don’t waste our time and call the customer and tell them their machine is unsalvageable that they need to consider our back up service and go with a full format and reinstall. We wind up doing that more than the scanning and removal… formatting and reinstallation is more common than you’d think.” For that reason, AlisaK2000 said that the Geek Squad is now recommending exactly what George said — separating OS/programs from user data. Of course, the Geek Squad/Best Buy recommends buying a separate hard drive and putting all the user date on that one. That seems like overkill to me. It doesn’t make sense to use the entire 100-150 GB drive (the size that comes standard with most current PCs) just to store the OS and any installed programs.

All in all, I have to wholeheartedly agree with George (who also wrote a follow-up blog post). I have been installing system files and data files on separate partitions since Windows NT 4.0. I used to do it even before system imaging was popular. That way if Windows ever fizzled out, I could simply reinstall the OS and all of the data files would still be intact and unharmed. The downside was that I also had to reinstall apps and reconfigure the OS settings, and that took time, but it was better than losing data.

Now, with system imaging, you can make an image with the OS tweaked and optimized and with all of the necessary applications. And if it ever runs into problems or just gets slow, you can blow it away fairly quickly and be up and running with a clean OS in very little time. With the new system imaging tools that Microsoft is building into Vista, I think it would make perfect sense for the default installation of Windows to create separate partitions for the OS and the data files (the sizes of the partitions could be a prompt during the installation, with a minimum size for the system files). I think the time has come for Microsoft to make it happen. Do you agree?