Bay City Blog

Why Do Computers Fail?

By: Trevor Moon

Ever wondered what goes on inside your computer, or why it doesn't always do what you expect?   Like a magic genie, just give your command and off it goes to do the work to edit that document, run your calculation, change that picture, or play a movie. Inside the computer are millions of parts and thousands of programs all working together to fulfil your wish.  Unfortunately a failure in even one small part or in a program will cause errors or crash the computer.

The complexity in a modern PC is almost impossible for the brain to comprehend. Try getting your head around the scale of the current desktop computer system as represented by the following statistics.

  • When the first microprocessor chip was introduced by Intel in 1975 it had 2,300 transistors, the current versions have more than 500 million.
  • The Hard Drive in your computer, which stores all your programs and files, is an electro- mechanical device that spins at around 7200 revolutions per minute. The read/write head floats above the spinning disk at a height of only 3 nanometres.  By way of comparison, if the disk were the size of the earth then the head would float only 25 cm above the earth. Not much space for error!
  • A typical Windows 7 computer has more than 80,000 program files and over 200,000 individual program settings which are stored in the computer "registry".  Errors in any of these files or settings can cause the computer to malfunction.
  • Windows 7 can work with thousands of different pieces of hardware and comes with in built support for more than 5000 different types of hardware from files stored in its library.   These hardware files are called drivers.


Thankfully, computer systems are relatively reliable despite their complexity.    Lets then look briefly at some of key components inside the computer and where problems can occur.

The  Central Processing Unit.
Also called the CPU or brains of the whole system.   These are now incredibly tiny and powerful.  Smaller components means the computer can be faster, more capable and use less power. Fortunately the central processing unit is one of the most reliable parts of the computer and can be expected to last years, even with 24 hour operation. Usually other parts of the computer will fail before the central processor does.

The Hard Disk.
The hard disk is the permanent memory store insider the computer.  Being electro- mechanical it is more prone to error than the non moving or so called "Solid State" parts such as the CPU.  Unfortunately hard disk failure will result in loss of your data, so it is a major catastrophe when it does fail. That is why it is so important to constantly save your data to a back up device.   Minor hard disk failures can also cause glitches in the programs which can look like software faults.

Operating System
The operating system is like the autonomous nerve control system of the brain keeping a watch on everything and keeping things organised.  With the Windows operating system,  Microsoft has invested billions of dollars in time and effort  to ensure the software is reliable. Microsoft has an army of testers, to try out every function and combination of functions to find mistakes and correct these before the product is launched.   Even after launch continual updates are used to correct errors when they are found.

Microsoft has also built in a range of self checking and correcting features into Windows 7 that automatically fix common errors when they occur.  The system configuration is automatically backed up on a regular basis and when any changes or updates are made to the computer. In the event of a failure of the system settings the previous state of the computer can be restored.

Other Hardware.
The great strength of the Microsoft Windows system is its ability to support a wide range of hardware and software from thousands of suppliers.   This gives the Microsoft windows system its incredible flexibility to suit a wide range of needs, and also fosters competition amongst hardware suppliers which keeps prices down.    It is a considerable challenge for both hardware suppliers and Microsoft to keep the system functioning smoothly when supporting a huge range of different types of components.

Considering the millions of parts, program files, settings and hardware types that make up a modern computer it's no wonder they sometimes fail.  In next month's  article we will talk about what the average user can do to help overcome computer problems and seek appropriate help when problems do occur.

How do viruses and trojans get into my computer ? 

At Bay City Computers there are two questions most people ask after they become infected by a nasty virus or trojan. They are:

  • how do these threats get into my computer? and
  • what motivates people to create these threats? 

We will answer the second question first because it puts the situation in perspective.  Threats these days are developed by major crime syndicates who engage in deception and fraud to steal your money or information which they can then trade with other criminals for money. 

Criminals are now engaging in what is termed "Social Engineering" which is basically a term used to describe the tricks used to deceive you into clicking on a link on a web site or opening an email which leads to your computer being infected.  

About 95% of email today consists of SPAM and many of these are scams. These scams make use of social engineering or trickery. If an email looks suspicious then it probably is.  Here are our eight tell tale signs that an email is fake.

  • You don't know the sender
  • You do know the sender but the message is out of character for that person or organisation
  • The message is alarmist saying that your account on facebook or the bank or your hotmail has been compromised and you need to confirm your password details.
  • They offer money or prizes.
  • They offer Viagra, or cheap drugs
  • They include a current popular topic for example using Michael Jackson in the heading about the time of his death.
  • Bad grammar or deliberate misspelling.
  • The email contains an attachment.

One of the worst infections that we have seen a lot of recently are rogue security software scams.   Rogue security software pretends to offer security warnings and ask you to pay for subscriptions to buy their so called software.   These rogue infections will shut down your existing security software and are difficult to turn off or hide.    These scams can appear in email, online advertisements, your social networking site, search engine results, or even in pop-up windows on your computer. They are made to appear like Windows error messages but they are not.

Another source of criminal activities are Phishing attacks which attempt to fool you into giving up confidential information by creating fake websites that mimic those from well-known companies. Westpac and NAB are Australian companies that are commonly targeted.  Emails are sent by the scammers directing you to these fake websites.  

Here are our top tips to avoid falling victim to these scams.

  • Never open an email that looks suspicious - see our top 8 tips for spotting dodgy emails above.
  • Remember banks and other financial institutions will never send an email asking you to change account information. Only respond to letters from banks sent in the post.
  • Never rush into doing anything. If you do open an email purportedly from the tax department or some other authority, don't be bullied into responding simply because you're given a deadline and threatened with some kind of penalty.
  • Phone the person or company who sent the email and check whether they actually sent the email.  Be sure you get the phone number from another correspondence or your phone book, not from the email or website.
  • Install good, up-to-date security software like Trend Micro™ Titanium™ that blocks phishing attacks and advises you of the danger.

With all the incredible advances in speed and performance of computers over the past twenty years it is worth asking the question of how much time and effort is actually saved by the use of all this technology? Ideally it would be great  to have an  automatic, computer driven robot device that you could magically feed all your  work to in the morning, go out to play golf then have a long lunch and return in the afternoon to find everything completed.  

This kind of vision of a work saving automaton has been the driving force behind much of the technology developed in the information world since 1946 when the first electronic computer was developed. Although incredible advances have been made over this period, a big gap still remains between the dream and the reality.   

You would think that with all the claims made for time savings and efficiency that there would be some kind of money back guarantee if the new widget you have just purchased fails to live up to the manufacturers promise. A bit like the advertising for the latest fitness machine promising a full six pack and ten kilo weight loss in six weeks if you buy the fantastic new Fat Blaster gizmo from ACME and Co. The dream remains despite the difficulty in proving the claims, because it really depends on how much productive effort is put into actually using the new gizmo. Often it is easier to believe there is a quick fix rather than consider the computer (or fitness machine)  as tool that requires skill and effort to gain the most benefit. 

As a pragmatic business person you may say that provided the spending on the new piece of technology will actually saves us labour cost then it is a viable decision.  One question you may ask is that given we do spend money, what level of overall efficiency do we gain?   Well some very bright brains at the Australian Productivity Commission did look into this issue back in 2003. They reported on the rapid uptake of computers in business over the period 1993 to 2000 and looked into how much our productivity improved as a result of this increase in spending on IT. A copy of the paper can be found here

In the period 1993 to 2000 computer use increased from 40% to 80% and internet use rose from 30 to 70% across Australian businesses. Today computer and internet use has grown to almost 100% and you would have a hard time finding a business that doesn't run without one. The Productivity commission concluded that all the investment in IT did have a measurable influence on productivity. 

How much you would ask?  Well, wait for it, the answer they arrived at, was two tenths of one per cent annual increase in productivity.   This figure looks completely underwhelming.  It seems like almost a waste of time to continue to spend on IT based on these numbers. To put this in context it is a relatively small proportion of the overall increase in productivity of 1.8% pa over the same period.  

The Productivity Commission did qualify these figures saying that their measurements take a very broad view and that in fact there may be other reasons why businesses continue to invest in IT. One reason is that IT enables overall changes in processes and procedures and assist with reorganisations and improve the management of the business.  In another qualification the Productivity Commission said that often the benefits of IT can take time to have an influence. The Commission also found that the finance and insurance sector benefited most from IT investment. This does make sense given that finance and insurance staff spend most of their day processing information and would be expected benefit the most from computer automation.

In my experience I have seen business benefit enormously from the introduction of new technology when they have also changed and improved the operations processes and invested in staff training and ongoing support. So it's not just about the equipment or the software but how effectively the systems are used. It's a bit like the ACME FAT Blaster machine - you need to use it to get the benefit

The main message is that if your business is implementing a new IT system then it must be tested, the processes in your organisation changed, the staff trained up and the IT company is ready to provide ongoing support. This means that the IT company must move beyond just selling and installing the equipment and software. They must also take some responsibility for making sure your business obtains the full benefit.

I would be interested in hearing your stories of computers either making a big improvement  to your business or not lived up to expectations.   Does the finding of the Productivity Commission seem true or are there hidden benefits in using computers?