The Core Technologies Blog
Our Software // Windows Services // 24×7 Operation
Last month we released a new version of our popular run-anything-as-a-windows-service software, AlwaysUp. Everything was going smoothly — until we encountered a very alarming situation while testing the new software on Windows 10!
After downloading the new AlwaysUp installation executable with Microsoft Edge, the browser asserted that “AlwaysUp_Installer.exe is not commonly downloaded and may harm your computer”. WHAT??
Clicking the Actions button gave us the option to “Run Anyway”, and the installation completed without further incident, but the whole experience left our team worried and full of questions. Specifically:
- Why did this suddenly start happening?
- How will our customers react to Microsoft’s unfounded suspicions?
- And most importantly, how do we get rid of the chilling warnings?
SmartScreen Complains because our Software is “New”
Apparently we’re not the only developers tormented by SmartScreen. Warnings are common, especially for small software companies like ours. The “Criticism” section of the Wikipedia article on SmartScreen Filter says it best:
SmartScreen Filter creates a problem for small software vendors when they distribute an updated version of installation or binary files over the internet. Whenever an updated version is released, SmartScreen responds by stating that the file is not commonly downloaded and can therefore install harmful files on your system.
Only a Few Customers are Blocked by SmartScreen Filter
To date, only one customer has asked about SmartScreen’s warning. We had expected hundreds! Fortunately there are a few reasons why many customers aren’t being tripped up by Microsoft’s overly cautious approach:
- Our products are digitally signed for security and authenticity. SmartScreen takes this as a positive sign and is likely to avoid prompting all customers all the time.
- Prior to Windows 8, SmartScreen Filter was a part of Internet Explorer. Thus customers using Chrome or Firefox on Windows 7 and Server 2008 will never encounter SmartScreen warnings.
- After testing downloads on Windows 8, 10 and Windows Server 2012 and 2016, we only received warnings on Windows 10 with Edge.
So it seems that SmartScreen warnings are largely limited to customers using Internet Explorer or Edge. Metrics gathered from our website (via the incredibly useful StatCounter) tell us that only about 11% of all visitors are using those browsers:
Time (and Good Behavior) will Disarm SmartScreen Filter
We hoped for a simple solution: Inform Microsoft that our software is 100% safe and they would promptly update their SmartScreen database to remove all warnings. All would be right with the world. But SmartScreen doesn’t work like that.
SmartScreen is reputation based. Each time someone downloads our software package and declares that it is safe to install, that executable gains some positive reputation. Once enough people have successfully installed and the accumulated reputation crosses some magic threshold, the warnings disappear. Only an established track record of doing no harm will halt the SmartScreen dogs.
Indeed, after a couple of weeks the warnings for AlwaysUp version 10 seems to have gone away:
Version 10 of AlwaysUp, which runs any application as a Windows Service, was released last month. The major changes include:
- Improved compatibility with Microsoft’s latest OS, Windows Server 2016.
- Several annoying Data Execution Prevention (DEP) issues on Windows 8 & 10 were resolved.
- A new command line switch to grant the service user access to the current desktop was introduced.
- When stopping a group of services, an alert is no longer shown when a long-lived service exceeds the 1-minute time limit.
- If necessary, the service account is now granted full access to the window station and desktop objects when starting in the current session.
As usual, please review the version history for the full list of features, fixes and improvements included in this release.
Upgrading to AlwaysUp Version 10
As per our upgrade policy, customers who purchased AlwaysUp 9 (after September 2014) can upgrade to version 10 at no additional cost. Just download and install “over the top” to preserve your existing applications an all settings. Your registration code will continue to work.
If you bought AlwaysUp version 8 or earlier (before September 2014), you will need to upgrade to use version 10. Please purchase upgrades here — at a 50% discount.
Automatic software updates are usually very welcome. You get bug fixes, security enhancements and the latest and greatest features, all without lifting a finger!
But automatic updates have a dark side as well. What happens if an update, which usually involves shutting down the software, takes place at a “bad” time and interrupts the application when it is busy with an important task? Or worse — what if a newly updated version introduces a defect that causes the software to fail in the wee hours of the morning when no one is there to fix it? The potential for problems like these should give anyone operating a 24×7 environment serious pause when weighing the pros and cons of automatic updates!
Such is the dilemma facing our customers running OneDrive 24×7 as a Windows Service with AlwaysUp. As seen in the screenshot of the OneDrive installation procedure above, OneDrive is free to download and install updates whenever it likes. But perhaps we can do something about that…
OneDrive is Auto Updated by a Scheduled Task
A little detective work using Microsoft’s excellent autoruns utility led us to realize that OneDrive installs a scheduled task called OneDrive Standalone Update Task v2 to perform its updates. Here it is in the Task Scheduler — configured to run “OneDriveStandaloneUpdater.exe” once daily when the Administrator is logged on:
The task’s history confirms that the update check is indeed firing at a random time each day:
This is how OneDrive updates itself!
Disable the Scheduled Task to Prevent OneDrive Auto Updates
To prevent OneDrive from automatically updating itself, simply disable the scheduled task. Right-click on the entry in the Task Scheduler and select Disable from the context menu to do the trick:
With the task disabled, the auto-update will no longer run and you will be stuck with the version of OneDrive currently installed. Great!
Now please don’t forget to update OneDrive occasionally — to get those important bug fixes, security enhancements and exciting new features. But do so in a safe, controlled environment at a time of your choosing, when you can perform the necessary testing and avoid unwelcome surprises.
Google Drive Service Not Synchronizing Files on Windows
Last Thursday Jeremy Farber from Securis reported a problem with his Google Drive Windows Service:
Having an issue with Google Drive where the sync doesn’t seem to take place right away. Any thoughts on what would cause this? I really need the sync to happen like it would normally when a file hits the folder it syncs.
Now problems like this can be difficult to troubleshoot when the application is running invisibly in the background (in Session 0). We advised Jeremy to restart Google Drive in the current session — to show Drive’s tray icon and windows on his desktop.
But Drive still refused to sync. It threw up a curious error:
After some detective work, Jeremy found the problem. A recent automatic software update had broken the Drive desktop client!
Beta Version of Google Drive Released By Mistake
Here is what the king of search reported on its status dashboard at 2:41 PM Eastern:
We’re aware of a problem with Google Drive affecting a significant subset of users. The affected users are able to access Google Drive, but are seeing error messages and/or other unexpected behavior. We will provide an update by 3/16/17, 3:41 PM detailing when we expect to resolve the problem. Please note that this resolution time is an estimate and may change.
Some users of the Google Drive Sync client will be receiving the error message “Sorry, Backup and Sync needs to quit.”
We have identified the root cause of the issue and are implementing a potential fix now.
So it seems and a buggy version of the Drive desktop client (soon to be renamed “Backup and Sync”?) was inadvertently pushed out to thousands of computers. Ouch!
Thankfully the disruption only lasted until 7:22 PM EDT. Again, from the status page:
The problem with Google Drive should be resolved. We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your patience and continued support.
The Windows client will automatically update with this fixed version within the next 10 hours. Alternatively, affected users can download the updated version of the client from https://www.google.com/drive/download/. Affected Windows 10 users may be required to sign in to their Google account within the client.
A Cautionary Tale If You Need Google Drive To Stay Up 24/7!
Unfortunately this isn’t the first time that automatic updates have caused trouble for our customers using Google Drive. This article describes similar adventures that occurred in June of 2013.
But this most recent episode reminds us of the perils accompanying automatic updates. Despite the best of intentions, the same powerful system that distributes important security fixes and improvements will happily deliver corrosive bugs and destabilize your previously working software. For this reason, automatic software updates should be viewed with skepticism in professional environments where downtime is costly. Indeed, we recommend disabling updates for your mission-critical programs and scheduling manual upgrades during a safe maintenance window.
Sadly Google Drive doesn’t offer an easy way to avoid auto updates. Disabling a few scheduled tasks should stop the madness but we’ll do some digging and let you know if we come across a less intrusive method.
When you use AlwaysUp to launch your mission-critical application as a Windows Service, your program will likely run invisibly in the background (on the isolated Session 0). No windows or familiar tray icon will appear on your desktop — which can make it tricky to confirm that your application is truly running!
Fortunately the Windows Task Manager, which lists every application running on your computer, can come to the rescue. Follow these steps to find your application in Task Manager.
Find your Application’s PID in AlwaysUp
Each application that is running on your computer is backed by a “process”. And each process has a numeric identifier — a process ID, or PID for short.
To find the PID of the application that AlwaysUp has started, simply click the green “Running” circle to summon a helpful tooltip with the PID (and several other relevant tidbits):
Make note of the PID. It is 4728 in the screenshot above, which shows an installation running Dropbox as a service on Windows 10.
Find that PID in Task Manager
Next, let’s locate the process in Task Manager.
Start Task Manager by right-clicking on the Windows task bar and selecting Task Manager from the context menu:
If you see More details in the lower left of the window that comes up, click that text to reveal additional tabs:
Switch to the Details tab:
Note: We’re running on Windows 10, which lists all processes by default. If you are running on an older version — like Windows 7 or Server 2008 — you may have to click the Show processes from all users button (or checkbox) in the lower left to ensure that you see everything running on your PC:
Click on the PID column to sort. Then simply scroll to find your identifier from step one.
Here we’ve located our PID 4728, the instance of Dropbox started by AlwaysUp:
MetaTrader 4 (affectionately called MT4) is a very popular Forex trading platform. Several of our customers run the MT4 client as a Windows Service with AlwaysUp, ensuring that their trading platform operates continuously during trading hours.
Automatic Updates can cause Trouble!
MetaTrader will automatically update itself on your PC whenever the folks at MetaQuotes Software produce a new and improved version. This is a great feature when you start and run MT4 normally on your desktop, but the situation is a bit more complicated when MT4 is launched unattended in the background by software like AlwaysUp.
What happens if there is a problem updating and MT4 becomes corrupted?
Or suppose the update happens at an inconvenient time and causes you to miss an important trade?
Or maybe you’ve heard some horror stories about the new version and you want to stick with what you already have!
For these and other reasons, uncontrolled updates should be viewed with suspicion in your 24×7 environment. As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
Disable Auto-Updates when Starting MT4 from AlwaysUp
Fortunately there is an easy way to prevent MetaTrader from automatically updating itself. Simply invoke it with the “/skipupdate” command line parameter.
To achieve that in AlwaysUp:
Open your MT4 application settings in AlwaysUp (by double-clicking on the entry or selecting Application > Edit from the menu).
On the General tab, in the Arguments field, enter /skipupdate:
Save your settings.
That’s it. Next time AlwaysUp starts MT4, it will no longer attempt an update.
Now don’t forget to update MT4 manually every now and then — but at an appropriate time when the markets are closed.
Starting Microsoft OneDrive as a Windows Service with AlwaysUp is a great way to ensure that your important files are always up to date! The combination works well, but if you run into trouble, here are a few troubleshooting tips to help you get going:
1. Is the Latest Version of the OneDrive Sync Client Installed?
OneDrive usually updates itself automatically but we have seen situations where that didn’t happen. The software had to be manually updated.
To find the version of OneDrive installed on your system:
Stop OneDrive in AlwaysUp if it is running there.
Start OneDrive normally on your desktop by running this command:
OneDrive’s familiar “cloud” icon should appear in the task tray.
Right-click on the icon and select Settings from the menu:
Switch over to the About tab to reveal the version number:
With your version number in hand, please check the sync client release notes to see if you are running the most current build. If not, please download and install Microsoft’s latest version from here. (Be sure to reboot after installing to be safe!)
2. Is Windows is Up To Date?
OneDrive is deeply integrated with the operating system. Occasionally bugs in Windows can cause problems for OneDrive, resulting in some of the most spectacularly unhelpful error messages we have ever encountered:
If you are unlucky enough to encounter one of these “gems”, please ensure that all recommended updates have been applied to Windows. Updating eliminated the errors for at least two of our customers.
3. Does OneDrive Work Properly Without AlwaysUp?
At this point, let’s take AlwaysUp out of the equation. Are the files on your PC being synchronized with your cloud drive?
We suggest performing the following test:
Stop OneDrive in AlwaysUp, if necessary.
Start OneDrive normally on your desktop by running this command:
Windows Explorer may automatically open the folder with your shared files.
Copy a new file into the OneDrive folder on your PC. Here we’ve copied a picture from the thrilling 2016 World Rowing Junior Championships:
Log into your OneDrive account on the web.
After a few seconds, you should see the new file listed:
If you don’t see your new file, then something is wrong. You will not be able to run OneDrive as a Windows Service until you resolve the problem(s). Please consult this Microsoft support article which will help you to tackle the most common file synchronization issues.
These nine tips aimed at Windows 10 installations may also be of assistance.
4. Did you Follow our OneDrive Tutorial?
Now that all the previous steps have been completed, please double check that your OneDrive Windows Service has been configured as described in our step-by-step tutorial. In particular:
Step 6: Make sure that you have entered the correct username on the Logon tab. This should be the account where you have installed OneDrive; where you have logged in and run it successfully before. Using a brand new service account will not work because OneDrive has not been set up there.
Step 8: Check both of the Stop copies… boxes on the Startup tab. This is necessary to empower AlwaysUp to start OneDrive as a Windows Service if another copy is running on the PC (perhaps launched by another user).
4. OneDrive still Not Working with AlwaysUp?
And if after all that, your OneDrive Windows Service is not cooperating, please get in touch.
The wonderful world of Windows Services is filled with many obstacles! However, after a decade of experience, we have a few tricks up our sleeve to get you up and running ASAP.
Here are four ways to determine when your windows service last started.
Solution #1: Search the Windows Event Logs with PowerShell
The Windows Event Logs hold a wealth of information about your computer’s activities. Indeed, a new record is added to the System event log whenever a windows service starts or stops.
The easiest way to find your service’s most recent start time is to use a specially crafted PowerShell command to search the System event log. For example, the following line will return the last time the “Print Spooler” service was started:
(Get-EventLog -LogName “System” -Source “Service Control Manager” -EntryType “Information” -Message “*Print Spooler service*running*” -Newest 1).TimeGenerated
Be sure to replace “Print Spooler” with the display name of the service you are investigating!
Solution #2: Search the Windows Event Logs using the Event Viewer
Instead of running a PowerShell command, you can also search the Event Log manually.
To find the event log record showing when your service was last started:
Open the Event Viewer from the Control Panel (search for it by name).
In the left-hand column, navigate to Windows Logs > System:
Click Find… on the right to bring up the Find window. Enter the name of the service and click the Find Next button to highlight the first matching record in the middle panel. We have entered Spooler, for the Windows Spooler service:
If necessary, keep clicking the Find Next button until a record saying that your service has “entered the running state” comes up. The Source should be Service Control Manager, and the time your service started will be displayed in the Logged value. The screenshot show that the Print Spooler service last started at 8:04:55 AM on January 7th 2017:
Solution #3: Figure out when the Service’s Process was Started
Each running windows service is backed by an underlying process. 99.9% of the time, that process was launched immediately when the service started. So finding the process start time will give us the service start time.
To find out when the service’s process was started:
Determine the process identifier (PID) of the service’s process using the SC command. For a service named MyService, run:
sc queryex MyService
(Be sure to enclose the service name in quotes if it contains spaces.)
Here is the result for the Spooler service:
Make a note of the number on the PID line (1276 in the screenshot above).
Next, open a PowerShell window and run:
Get-Process | select name, id, starttime | select-string <PID>
where <PID> is the process identifier from step 1. The start time will come back in the result. Here is what we got for the spooler’s process (#1276):
Solution #4: Use the System Boot/Up Time (for Automatic Windows Services)
Most Windows Services start when your computer boots and run continuously, 24×7 in the background. For those services, the system boot time is a reasonable approximate.
You can run the built-in systeminfo command to discover when the system last started. Amongst the valuable information systeminfo returns, look for the “System Boot Time” line:
However, if you’re ever in a situation where you can’t remember the command to use, know that the Task Manager’s Performance tab shows how long the computer has been up (“Up time”). The system boot time is a simple calculation away.
So there are four easy ways to find out when your windows service started. Use whichever one best fits your situation. Good luck with your troubleshooting/investigation!
Right now your computer is probably running over a hundred programs! And with just a handful of CPUs available — certainly not enough to dedicate a whole CPU to each process — Windows has to perform some wizardry to give the illusion that each program has all the resources that it needs. Indeed, every few milliseconds the Operating System is deciding which of the many active processes should have exclusive use of the CPU for the next small slice of time, and it is doing this over and over again. This activity is called CPU Scheduling.
This article discusses how you can influence CPU scheduling to benefit all your windows services, as well as any application running as a windows service with AlwaysUp.
Give All Windows Services More CPU Time
While Windows manages CPU scheduling automatically, you can specify which types of tasks get more processing resources via a setting on the Control Panel. To find the setting:
Open Control Panel
Click System and Security
Click Advanced system settings on the left to open the System Properties window
Switch to the Advanced tab
In the Performance section, press the Settings… button to open the Performance Options window
Switch to the Advanced tab to reveal the Processor scheduling section.
Windows offers a single choice: Do you want to give preferential treatment to regular, foreground programs (like Word and Excel) or to background windows services? A desktop PC, actively driven by a person expecting his applications to be very responsive is better off choosing Programs. However your AlwaysUp-managed applications will likely perform better with the Background services option as they are being run in the background as Windows Services. Please apply that setting to your system if necessary.
Give your Important AlwaysUp Application More CPU Time
Windows performs priority based round robin CPU scheduling. Each process has an assigned priority (from idle to real-time) and Windows tries to assign available CPU cycles to the higher priority processes whenever it can. However, since almost all processes on the typical computer run with normal priority, the reality is that CPUs are offered equally to the majority of the active processes.
But why should the print spooler or the time synchronization service be given a CPU while your mission-critical application is left waiting in line?
Fortunately AlwaysUp can be configured to run your application at a higher priority, to ensure that it gets more processing power than less time-sensitive processes. To make the change, edit your application and find the Set the priority to setting on the General tab:
We recommend setting the priority to Above Normal or High to give your application preferential treatment.
Note: As Microsoft counsels, the Realtime option should be used with extreme caution as it may have unintended side effects.
Windows Server 2016 was quietly released on October 12th. This new operating system extends Microsoft’s reach into modern cloud technologies (with Nano Server and Docker) and introduces a host of under-the-hood improvements in security, networking and automation. This Technet article digs into the details.
Anything New for Window Services?
No — at least nothing that we could find.
Unlike Windows 8.1 or Windows Server 2008 R2, Windows Server 2016 was not accompanied by an update to the underlying Services API. There are no new capabilities available to applications built on top of those mission-critical functions supporting 24×7 operation.
Indeed, the reliable Services Control Panel application remains the same as we saw in the previous generation, Server 2012 R2:
Nevertheless, we were still very curious to see if any of our applications would run into trouble on Microsoft’s latest and greatest!
AlwaysUp Windows Services Work Well on Server 2016
We easily installed AlwaysUp 9.7 on our Server 2016 test machine. And with no major changes for Windows Services, it was no surprise to see AlwaysUp running applications like Dropbox, Box Sync and Skype reliably in the background:
Service Protector Monitors your Important Server 2016 Services
Our team encountered zero issues installing, running and evaluating Service Protector 5.3 over a two week period. Advanced features such as CPU hog detection, scheduled restarts and email alerts all operated without a hitch.
Our Free Utilities are Compatible with Windows Server 2016 Too
Thankfully Service Trigger Editor, ServiceTray, Switch to Session 0 and all our other products performed flawlessly on the new OS as well. No problems were found.
But Server 2016 Contains a Bug: No Keyboard and Mouse in Session 0
We discovered this problem when we tested Windows 10 last year, and it now appears to have taken hold on Microsoft’s Server operating systems as well. The folks in Redmond are aware of the bug and claim to have a fix but several of us who rely on Windows Services have been impatiently awaiting a resolution for over a year now.
So to sum up, we are pleased to report that our entire suite of applications is compatible with Windows Server 2016. Best of luck running Server 2016 in your business!
Additional Windows Server 2016 Information