Spring Cleaning

Spring always seems to take forever to reach New England.  This is nothing new; I’m in agreement with a traditional mode of thinking here that there really isn’t a “Spring”, there is Winter and Summer, and in between “Mud Season”.

But there are cobwebs to be cleared, always.  Like those in the computer.

While I’m not speaking literally, consider the degradation of the state of our computers, or “bit rot”.  It represents a real phenomenon; the concept of entropy turns out to apply to ordered data in our storage systems and to our own organizational structures.

I’ve always followed the advice that I give to others: upgrade your software early and often.  I’m usually first out of the block for new OSs for my client machines (not servers – but that’s another story).  That’s rather extreme – I don’t suggest this for most people – but falling a few versions behind is a significant problem.

I get surprised at unintended consequences, though, as with how upgrading software feels like spring cleaning, but it’s not.  In fact, software upgrades generally leave as much as possible from the previous state as possible.  That’s prudent – you make fewer decisions about deleting things, you decrease risk.  But just because you moved in new furniture doesn’t mean you don’t have cobwebs that pop up.

You’re thinking that there’s a practical story here, and you’re right: whenever I take a machine and “clean it”, it ends up running faster.  Yes, more speedy.  Why?

It’s about ordering of data: if you back a computer up and then restore the backup – especially if you back up and reinstall the OS and the Applications from the original media, followed by only using your backup to restore your data – you’re moving everything back onto the computer into a state where you’ve gotten rid of all the old stuff that you never use anymore, and you’re writing from the beginning of your disk, one block right after another.  Which means that when you go to read the data, it’s all effectively faster to access because it’s been reorganized.

This used to be called “defragmentation”.  Most OSs do this automatically now, or don’t actually need what the defrag applications did, but what they do need is a external process (you) to make decisions about what is no longer needed, and have the computer clean off the disk and rebuild.  There’s nothing like doing the living room by moving all the stuff in there out and cleaning everything before moving the stuff back in – you’ll probably find stuff you don’t want to move anymore, but the real value is just getting to the bare floor and going from there.

I used to think that the slowing of computers primarily related to new software functionality, new web applications, and more intensive use.  I still believe that these are factors.  However, I’m constantly surprised about how much of an impact a full cleaning cycle has on my supposedly well-maintained machines, and take stock at how it’s good to simplify the environment from time to time.

Speaking of the (physical) living room…

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