Data Loss Threatens Fast Windows Systems

A mysterious problem affecting certain high-speed systems running Windows Me and possibly Windows 98 could cause data loss at shutdown, PC World has learned. Microsoft insists that the problem doesn't relate to its operating systems but has nonetheless released patches to address the problem.

During PC World Labs' testing of new high-speed systems this week, a vendor alerted PC World to Microsoft's warning of possible disk corruption occurring at shutdown on systems running 933 MHz and faster CPUs (from either Intel or AMD). The problem occurs only in very specific circumstances, apparently involving ATA100 hard disk drives with large physical caches.

According to Microsoft, the very fast systems sometimes power down before the contents of the large drive cache have been completely written to disk. In other words, the system shuts down before the OS can save what you were working on.

The vendor, which asks not to be named, says the problem had shown up only on new systems running the recently released Windows Millennium Edition. However, Microsoft says the shutdown issue could surface on Windows 98 systems, as well.

"It's not specific to any operating system but has to do with larger hard drive caches in combination with fast processors," says Greg Sullivan, lead product manager of Microsoft Windows Millennium Edition.

Microsoft on Thursday sent patches for both Windows 98 SE and Windows Me to vendors with systems at 933 MHz and higher.

While insisting the problem was not related to any specific OS, Microsoft acknowledges systems running Windows 2000 are not affected because that OS has a different shutdown architecture.

"We've done work in Windows 2000 to address this and prevent it from happening," Sullivan says.

Patches and Workarounds

Microsoft began working on the patches when its labs noticed the problem in 933 MHz and faster prototype systems that use ATA100 hard disk drives with a large physical cache. Sullivan did not specify exactly how large the cache had to be, but systems similar to those in which the problem surfaced have already shipped, leaving consumers at risk.

Microsoft will build the fix into copies of the operating system loaded on new systems, but is not releasing it to the public. If you're already running Windows 98 SE or Windows Me on a system with a 933-MHz or faster processor and a large-cache hard disk, Microsoft recommends you check with your PC vendor about availability of the patch.

In the meantime, vendors suggest turning off power management, which turns off the Windows Me automatic shutdown feature. Then you just need to save your work and wait a few seconds before you shut down, to avoid data loss.

PC World's Test Center turns off power management functions as part of standard testing procedure and has yet to encounter the shutdown flaw. Microsoft denies that Windows Me's power management enhancements may contribute to the shutdown problem.

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