Go with the flow

If you insist on bandying about some scientist’s name, then I think it should be a good one. And there aren’t many better for instant recognition as a proper scientist’s name than the consonant-rich Mihály Cs’kszentmihályi (pronounced mee-haley six-cent-mee-haley when you’re reading this paragraph aloud for laughs). Check him out at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mihaly_Csikszentmihalyi

Go with the flow

He’s the poster child for the study of “flow” – a general term for what people do when they’re simultaneously working and enjoying themselves, whether it’s writing a PC Pro column, building a new PC, debugging a network or chopping wood. Flow is all about letting your talent run wild, losing control in a faintly romantic or undisciplined way and then finding you’ve done something weird and really useful while you were in that exalted state.

It’s faintly irritating as an idea, especially if you’re of a sequential and cautious personality type, and yet very often it can be a lifesaver when the time comes to take extreme action: you can’t really “do” flow unless you’re already utterly soaked in the rules and pitfalls of a particular field of expertise. Which is, I suspect (and with the very best of intentions) the explanation for why the astonishing Vista file copy problem hasn’t yet gone away. In fact, at the time of writing – with Vista SP1 just into pre-release – there’s no sign Microsoft has even started to address the problem in any sensible or well-communicated manner.

Let’s break down what this is all about, and explain in the course of doing so why it made me think of that aged middle-European scientist with a long name and arcane speciality. At root, the problem is pretty straightforward: if you copy a file off a Vista machine of any performance level and hardware spec then you’ll see some shockingly poor performance figures. Several readers have snapshotted their copy dialogs and sent them to me in sheer incredulity, showing machines where they’d expect a file copy to take a few minutes, require days or hours. This is strictly a networked phenomenon: if you copy from some removable medium to your hard disk you’ll see more familiar and sensible rates of transfer, although the comparison isn’t straightforward.

My Vista test box for carrying around is a Lenovo ThinkPad Z61e with dual-core CPU and gigabit ethernet supported by the (not universally well-regarded, it has to be said) Broadcom NetXtreme chipset. Inside the machine I can see copy rates at around the 3-5MB/sec level, and at the very best I’ve seen 31MB/sec when talking across the LAN. In general use, my range of copy speeds varies from 10MB/sec (talking to a Dell Precision 360 via a Netgear FSM726S), right down to a truly appalling 60KB a second (yes, that’s “kilobytes”) when talking to an HP Netserver LP2000R with an Intel Pro/1000 MT network card through an antediluvian Netgear switch whose product number I couldn’t read through the thick patina of dust, crud and fluff. Clearly, this issue isn’t just about Vista, but rather it’s about the combination of devices and settings you’re talking to, and how much tuning and tweaking you can do to them.

Back to basics

In order to understand this, let’s talk a bit about the basics of networking. Each time I go through these topics, more people seem to click with the whole idea, so let’s start from the top. First of all, if you set yourself the task of learning about “the basics of ethernet”, you’ll find yourself waist-deep in a mire of fossilised data. Searching for original guides and basic design standards will leave you gawping at a lot of guff about segments, transceivers, CSMA/CD, thick and thin wire, and even some distinctly scary diagrams of people tapping into the company backbone using a sharpened metal spike straight out of Hellraiser. The original concept of ethernet has evolved, and the rules that govern what you’ll see and what you can change aren’t enshrined in these early standards documents.

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