Flame war: The great Windows 7 debate

InfoWorld's Randall C. Kennedy and OSNews' Thom Holwerda go head to head over how to assess Windows 7's changes

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Seriously, if you're going to criticize me for supposedly making unsupportable statements about Windows 7, I'd like to see you defend your own statements. Show me your data that proves that Vista's performance has improved measurably since RTM. I've got reams of results to the contrary, so by all means, let's see what you've got.

BTW, pink ponies? Rainbows? Must be the techno -- it's messing with your head. I strongly advise a strict regimen of classic American rock 'n' roll. Begin with Side 1 of Boston's eponymous debut album ...

Thom to Randall:
Whatever you think of Win 7's changes, your thread count metric misses them

It is wholly and completely irrelevant to the discussion at hand whether or not a certain change in the kernel only affects certain customers, but not regular consumers. Even if a change affected only Major Tom, the end result is still that your thread count metric should notice it. Seeing that it doesn't notice the changes that I highlighted, it seems pretty clear to me that your thread-count metric is flawed. That's just my opinion, though. We'll see what our respective readerships think.

This is unrelated to whether or not the changes that I mentioned really are, as you say, relevant only to datacenters. The improvements made to the kernel that allow it to scale up to 256 processors are bound to be accompanied by changes to SMP in and of itself, which most certainly does affect basically every newly bought computer today (apart from the mobile Intel Atom, are there even single-core machines being sold?). Changes in the memory manager obviously affect customers, too, since memory management is one of the most basic and important functions of a kernel.

But the change that is most certainly going to affect every user of Windows is MinWin (by lack of a better name). By eliminating upward calls and by untangling the web of dependencies in the very core of Windows, Microsoft will be able to make changes to these core elements in an easier fashion, without causing as much breakage in parts higher up the stack. I don't know in what possible universe that is not seen as an improvement. This could benefit every user -- maybe not right away, but it will, in the future.

Let's move on to the next point you wish to discuss. I'll be clear: I don't need to prove that Vista's performance has improved between RTM and now. Others have already done so for me, and I trust those people a whole lot more than my own perceptions.

For instance, a major source of problems during Vista's early days was the instability and immaturity of Vista's graphics drivers, which needed to conform to a new driver model (compared to XP). Benchmarks suggest that these problems have been ironed out, and that Vista's graphics performance has increased (as of SP1) to the level of Windows XP -- this was written in May 2008, and we've already seen more updates and fixes since then.

Another much more detailed and elaborate benchmark comes from AnandTech, which professionally benchmarked Vista SP1 after its release, and concluded that it improved boot/shutdown times and fixed the extremely aggravating and utterly brain-dead "file copying bug," a bug that contributed to a large degree to the overall feeling that Vista was slow. They also note that Vista's performance had improved steadily during the first year after its release, with bug fixes, patches, and other updates.

There are countless other reviews and reports that clearly state that Vista has improved over time, but I won't detail them all. These articles are mostly published after the release of SP1, so they do not take the patches and updates since then into account. These are just some random plucks off the Net; there are many more.

Add to this my own personal experiences -- I run Vista on my Aspire One netbook these days, something which would've caused me nightmares during the RTM days. In addition, even some of the most avid Vista detractors on OSNews have admitted that Vista has indeed seen performance improvements since its release.

I'm ready to move to the next point on your list.

Randall to Thom:
Win 7 performance tests show it's the same as Vista -- so where's the change?

On the subject of benchmarking, if you take a moment to step outside your personal experience space of gaming and enthusiast computing, you'll discover that real-world performance means more than frame rates and 3DMarks. It means the ability to process potentially complex workloads efficiently and without undue penalty from the supporting operating system.

This is why Windows XP has lingered so long in enterprise computing circles, while Vista has been soundly rejected: Because Vista placed such an undue burden on systems that it made it nearly impossible to support the complex workloads that make up the typical enterprise computing stack.

Simply put, it overwhelmed the hardware available at the time of its launch, forcing customers to choose between wasting CPU upgrade cycles on superfluous features, like DRM and content protection, or putting them to work improving the performance and end-user experience of their business-critical applications. And I think we can all agree on where IT decided to focus those finite resources.

Here's a statistic for you: At a fundamental level, Windows Vista is 40 percent slower than Windows XP on common business productivity tasks.

This isn't conjecture. It isn't speculation. It's cold, hard fact based on extensive testing of both OS and their respective recent Service Pack iterations: Windows XP Service Pack 3 and Windows Vista Service Pack 1.

Here's the original research work that backs this up: "Vista SP1 a performance dud," "Windows XP SP3 yields performance gains," and "How to make Vista run like XP (sort of)."

Note that I say "at a fundamental level." The truth is that, if you strip away all of the Vista features -- disable all the new services (Search, SuperFetch, MMCS), turn off all the new UI goodies (Aero, compositing), and terminate every noncritical process -- Windows Vista is still 40 percent slower than Windows XP. In fact, no matter what you try, you will never manage to tune Vista so that it performs like Windows XP on identical hardware. Never. It's simply not possible.

Why? Kernel complexity. Those extra 39 to 41 execution threads (96 to 97 versus 56 to 57 on XP) translate into a kind of performance anchor around Vista's neck, causing even a stripped-down, bare-bones implementation to perform at degradation levels that approach disabling a core or drop a gigabyte or two of memory. It's why XP is roughly 18 percent slower than Windows 2000 (due to its 22 additional kernel threads). And it's also why Windows 7 performs almost identically to Vista (no significant increase in kernel complexity -- yippee!).

In fact, if you look at the history of the NT kernel, and you map the increase in thread count against the decrease in performance (relative to the previous iteration), you come up with a nice little ratio that fits the data almost perfectly: For every additional execution thread added to the kernel, linear performance decreases by 1.0 to 1.2 percent.

Again, this isn't speculation. It isn't conjecture. It's an observation made over several generations of the NT OS, a convenient rule of thumb that has yet to be disproved. And I do hope that both our reader communities will accept my not-so-subtle challenge to disprove the kernel thread rule by downloading the free tools and resources of the Windows Sentinel project.

Some more raw data to put things into perspective: the exo.performance.network's iWorldTest community benchmarks and "Fat, fatter, fattest: Microsoft's kings of bloat."

So, to wrap up today's lesson:

1. Performance means more than gaming and gamer-centric benchmarks.
2. Vista is measurably slower than Windows XP at a fundamental level, just as XP is slower than Windows 2000 at a fundamental level.
3. Techno sucks -- long live rock 'n' roll!

Thom to Randall:
Vista isn't the issue; thread count is the issue. And you're off base on MinWin

You're not going to get any counterarguments from me regarding the fact that businesses and large enterprises won't like Vista over XP. Vista obviously requires better hardware than XP, and it may certainly perform slower than XP in some, or many, workload scenarios that are important to businesses.

Meaning they will have to spend more money to get the same results, and that makes no sense.

However, that's not what our two original articles were about, and it's most certainly not what our current point of debate -- Vista's improved performance over time -- is all about. So while you may have a good point on Vista requiring more hardware, or performing worse on the same hardware than Windows XP does, it's irrelevant to this discussion. We're comparing Vista-now to Vista-RTM -- not to XP.

But I see we're getting back to the thread-count point. I'm afraid we're going to lose our readers this way. I continue to stick by my original point, namely that the number of threads says nothing about the amount of changes made to the kernel. Like I detailed before, any change in thread count could lead to any possible outcome -- increased or lowered performance or simply no gain or loss at all. The fact that your thread-count metric did not pick up any of the significant changes detailed by Mark Russinovich and Eric Traut clearly shows how useless a metric the thread count statistic is. That's going to be my final word on thread count, as we have both done our thing. Let's leave it up to our readers to decide which argument makes more sense to them.

Let's move on the next point on the list, and this time, I'll pick one.

How is it possible that someone who claims to know so much about the NT kernel appears to be so blatantly ignorant about the concept of MinWin, even though both Traut and Russinovich detailed the concept in such a crystal-clear way? Let me quote my own article:

"Kennedy is so wrong about MinWin, I'm again at a loss as to where to start. Despite a number of fairly clear explanations from Microsoft (most notably, by Mark Russinovich), Kennedy shows a clear lack of understanding on what MinWin actually is. Microsoft never promised a 'clean break'; it never promised a 'new kernel.' Microsoft has been very clear: MinWin is not a new kernel. It is not a streamlined NT kernel. In fact, it is the NT kernel. The only thing Microsoft did was reorganize parts of it to make it cleaner, and to make sure they had a small core without any outward calls, so that they could make changes to the Windows kernel without causing massive breakage."

I'm very interested to hear about where you got the clean break and new kernel stuff from. Really, I am.

Randall to Thom:
Sorry, but the MinWin criticisms are simply wrong, based on misreading what I actually said

I was waiting for the MinWin topic to come up. Never in my 20-plus years as an author, analyst, and software developer have I seen so many make so much out of so little: a single sentence, taken out of context and without regard for anything I had written before. Yet the Windows fanboys pounced, thinking, "Aha! We've got him!"

Well, time to burst your bubble on this one. Please take a moment to review this Windows Sentinel blog entry -- posted by yours truly -- way back in June 2008.

Note the title: "The myth of 'MinWin' and a thinner Windows 7."  As you can see, I was the first major media pundit to report on the fallacies surrounding the MinWin hype. In that post, I explained why replacing the Windows NT kernel with something newer and lighter was impractical, and how those who believed in such a creature were speaking out of ignorance and/or were misinterpreting the Eric Traut demo. In point of fact, I believe you actually linked to this piece from OSNews.

Regardless, at the time that I published the above blog post, people were already calling me a quack. Not for believing in a clean break with Windows 7, mind you, but rather for denying such a break would occur when so many were reporting the opposite. The simple truth is that I was publicly chastised five months ago for not drinking the media-hype-fueled MinWin Kool-Aid. So, for these same zealots to now accuse me of being somehow "confused" on the issue is both disingenuous and, in the case of my regular readers, downright slanderous.

But hey, an opportunity is an opportunity, and if your goal is to discredit someone at any cost (the true mantra of the zealot), then any gaffe -- even a fabricated one -- is simply too good to pass up. That you and your compatriots seized on this one sentence and sought to turn a molehill into a mountain speaks volumes about your agenda.

Note: If you were trying to be objective -- and I think we've established that objectivity was never your goal -- you would have looked into my larger body of work on the subject before rushing to judgment. At least that's what a real journalist would have done. But then again, you're not really a journalist, are you, Thom? You're more of a fanboy who somehow managed to secure himself a bully pulpit from which to spout his unsubstantiated blather.

Bottom line: It was to these users -- the original MinWin true believers and anyone they may have inadvertently influenced -- that my comments in the latter article were directed. I was speaking to the confused masses and reality-deniers to whom "MinWin" still meant "new kernel." My goal was to prove to them, once and for all, that Windows 7 was indeed based on the Vista kernel architecture -- not some new "clean break" kernel that they may have heard about during the months of rampant hype and speculation leading up to the PDC.

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