Langa Letter: Make Windows XP Self-Maintaining - InformationWeek
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10/23/2003
11:18 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: Make Windows XP Self-Maintaining

Fred Langa explains how to automate Windows XP tools and tasks that normally require manual intervention.

It started as a small, offhand remark. As part of a discussion on another topic, I wrote, "I let my system do a full automated defrag every night (via Task Scheduler)...." To my surprise, I got a flood of reader E-mail, all along the lines of this example:

I'm using WinXP Pro and I managed to schedule a Defrag using the Task Scheduler, but at best it only opens the Defrag application but doesn't automatically start the Defrag process. How do you automatically start the defrag process using the Task Scheduler? I found one article somewhere in MS Knowledge Base stating that the Defrag application requires user intervention to actually start it.
-- Charlie

The problem isn't in Defrag, which is indeed fully schedulable, but rather in the inconsistent way that Microsoft built front ends for XP's self-maintenance tools. For instance, XP includes a complete, automated "Wizard" for its Backup applet; the Wizard walks you through the process of setting up fully-automated backups via Task Scheduler. But there's no similar Wizard or built-in hooks to Task Scheduler for other tools, like Defrag.

This can create a kind of vicious circle of underuse for those latter tools. For example, Defrag can take hours to run, especially if it hasn't been run in a while. If the only obvious way to run it is to trigger it manually, many users won't bother because it's inconvenient and ties up the PC for lengthy periods. Over time, the PC's files become more and more fragmented--scattered around the hard drive, piecemeal, instead of being stored in neatly contiguous wholes--which leads to a loss in drive responsiveness, extra wear, extra noise, and heat; and which can make some file-recovery operations (such as undeletes) less reliable. Because the drive is getting more and more fragmented, running Defrag would now take even longer to run, so the users put it off even more--on and on.

In contrast, when Defrag is used regularly, it usually only takes minutes, not hours, to run to completion, restoring normal performance and reducing wear, noise, and file-recovery problems. But that first use of Defrag can actually take several hours, so you'd think that Microsoft would have made it easy to run Defrag as an automated task, say, in the middle of the night when the PC wasn't in use and when it wouldn't matter if it took a while to complete.

Microsoft didn't, but we will. Indeed, it's possible to fully automate Defrag and myriad other tasks in XP that don't have a built-in scheduler.

In the rest of this article, we'll start with the basics to make sure everyone, even those new to Windows, are on board. But we'll end with some advanced ideas that can let your PC perform multiple automated unattended maintenance tasks of arbitrary complexity, and in whatever sequence you choose--and all for free, using only the tools built into XP. For example, if you want to have your PC automatically wake itself up every night at 3 a.m., clean up your hard drive, backup all your files, defrag every disk or partition in your system, and then go back to sleep--no problem! In fact, it's easy.

Let me show you how simple it can be, using Defrag as the working example.

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