A common joke about IT support is about the question "have you tried turning it off and on again?". The truth is it's not as much of a joke as you may think.
Part of the "secret" to solving IT related problems is it’s mostly a process of elimination. Working through an issue involves the following types of steps & questions:
- Is the problem something that can be replicated?
- If it is, what are the steps you follow in order to make the problem occur?
- If it can’t be replicated perhaps it was a once off issue
- What changed between when this wasn't a problem and now? Did some hardware or software get installed or removed?
- Is this affecting only you or multiple people?
- Is the problem location specific? Does it happen only at work or when working elsewhere?
- Is there a pattern to the problem?
- Have you tried turning it off and then on again?
It's that last one that gets people almost every time. So why is this an important question and why do we ask it?
A system restart allows us to start with a steady or known state of operation. Let’s consider your computer is like a sandpit at a kindergarten. As you install new programs you’re introducing new kids into the sandpit, all of whom will play by slightly different rules. And they bring their own toys in with them too (buckets, spades, forks, trucks - different drivers, software libraries, requirements for differing versions of other components etc) and sometimes these toys can clash with one another – the tines of a fork will get caught in the blade of a spade (for example).
When the sandpit gets too full, or if someone brings a cat into the sandpit (shock horror!), you can get unwanted results - toys clash or bits fall off, kids get sand in their eyes, bodies bump into each other, the cat thinks it's sitting in kitty litter - you get the idea.
In order to have a nice play area once again it's necessary to get everybody out of the sandpit, remove all the toys (and the cat deposits), run a rake through the sand to make sure there's nothing hiding underneath the surface, and then let the kids get back into the sandpit in a controlled manner to start to play nicely once again.
The problem isn't so much the sandpit - it's the various kids, toys and pets that are in the sandpit. With only a few in there you're not likely to have problems, but as you add more, over time, things can get a bit messy and you're more likely to have issues.
Microsoft make great operating systems (sandpits) - they're not perfect but they are very good and getting better all the time. The expectation is that a new operating system will perform perfectly and you won’t have any problems when it’s installed on new hardware. The reality is all too different - that as soon as you install software applications, plug hardware devices in (including connecting to printers) you’re introducing the opportunity for things to break, even if they’re from the same manufacturer.
Typically a fault will result in an error message being displayed, an application being shut down and you needing to restart that bit of work again – it's annoying but nothing fatal. You might lose a file or a few minutes work, or simply need to start that program again. This is where you’ve been making a nice sandcastle, Sean is getting a bit excited with “brrrrmmm”ing his truck and he knocks into the most recent bit of the castle you’ve made – frustrating but it’s not that serious so you stick your tongue out at him and get back to building.
When these get really bad we can experience what’s colloquially called a “Blue Screen Of Death”, or “BSOD”. These occur when there’s a major problem and the operating system shuts itself down as a protective mechanism – it's then a matter of interpreting the information on the screen and any logging files created to work out what went wrong. One we see often see is an access violation error (Stop 0xC0000005) - this is when Johnny tries to grab the spade that Mary is using and she doesn’t want to share with him, so gives him a whack with the spade! Tears erupt and the teacher sees Johnny prepare to grab a handful of sand to throw back at Mary. To avoid further damage the teacher immediately pulls everyone out of the sandpit and calms things down.
So, after having experienced this clash once before, as the teacher sees things start to get really busy in the sandpit once again they will get everybody’s attention ahead of the next battle and “reboot” the sandpit just to calm things down and start again with a clean slate. In “computer land” this might be at the end of a really busy day where, rather than just lock your screen and head home you might instead restart the computer, or simply shut it down and start up fresh the next morning. Or a really busy machine with many different programs being used this may even be done at lunch time, just so you can get back into the swing of things after lunch with a clean start.
Sometimes you just know that whenever Sarah has been playing in a spot with her fork, and Claire gets into the sandpit near her, things will get less than pleasant, so you need to make sure that they are kept at a distance. This can happen to you where you know that if you’ve been using your favourite photo editing software, and want to then play with spreadsheets, you need to do a quick restart because your photo editing software takes its cat into the sandpit with it and there’s always some “memory leaks” left behind which will make calculations less than pleasant. If Sarah or Claire were the only one in the sandpit it wouldn’t be an issue, but since they come from different families and play by different rules – well I’m sure you’re getting the picture now.
From a support perspective we need to be able to start working out what the problems might be without the threat of stepping in anything Sarah’s cat has left behind, stepping on Sean’s truck or tripping over Mary’s spade. This is why we ask you if you’ve restarted the computer and still experienced the problem at hand. If the answer is “yes” then we go about checking further with the rake, metal detector etc. It can sometimes take a while to work out what the issue is.
Then there’s those times when the sandpit has been kept very busy for quite some time, “rebooted” a lot, survived many cat attacks, and there was that time Isaac didn’t get out in time and, well, that patch of sand isn’t very pleasant now. In these times it can be wise to remove all the sand and replace it with some fresh sand – a rebuild. We’ll suggest this for computers that are just not demonstrating the right behaviour and need to be setup from scratch in order to be a nice place to play again.
So the next time you’re asked “have you tried turning it off and on again?” it’s not an attempt to mimic Roy Trenneman, it’s simply our way of working the problem from a relatively clean starting position.