Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Software should not be able to break itself this badly.

I don't know how to feel about this. I'm simultaneously pissed off and embarrassed. I just got finished making a jackass out of myself thanks to some evil software.


I am an IT professional. I figure out people's computer problems and fix them. I think I'm fairly good at it. A friend of a friend has a business and I sometimes come over to help them out with computer problems that they aren't able to figure out themselves. They can get a lot done on their own, but sometimes it's more efficient to just ask me to do something. They pay me to do this. Tonight they asked me to come over and figure out how to get rid of a virus on their computer and install Norton Internet Security. Sounds easy.

The Work

The first problem was that they had some unknown amount of malware on their computer, including at least one trojan and/or something claiming to be a trojan that was in fact something else. Anyway, they could have gotten this taken care of themselves if they would have been able to get Norton Internet Security to install, but it was quitting at the end of the installation with an uninformative error saying it failed to install. So that's what I came to fix. I figured out eventually that it wasn't installing properly because there were parts of a previous version of NIS still installed and NIS doesn't like that. I should mention that this is such a well known problem, that Norton actually has a tool you can download specifically designed to completely uninstall NIS from your PC before starting a new install. So that's what I did, I used this tool to uninstall, then I went ahead with the new install and it worked fine. Everything is groovy, I am good at my job. Sweet.

The Fuck Up

After NIS gets up and running ( after a modest number of reboots, etc. ) everything seems to be working fine. I run a scan on the PC to start looking for viruses, etc, and it runs as one would expect. I notice that the LiveUpdate service is running in the background, which means that NIS is getting new virus definitions and patches and such, so I decide to 'pause' the PC scan until this is finished. After hitting pause, NIS informs me that 2 problems were found and fixed and that it would require a reboot to finish the fix. I click 'restart'. When Windows comes back up, it is a joke of an operating system. For starters, it takes 2 to 3 times as long for Windows to start and when it finally comes up, I realize that a lot of things are missing. There is no Start Menu or Task Bar. Most of the programs do not run. This is surreal. I start hunting around and trying different things including rebooting more times and I eventually determine that no essential system services are running. Further investigation shows that svchost.exe is missing. Services refuse to start. WTF? My theory is that NIS somehow quarantined or mangled svchost.exe to the point where Windows didn't know where to find it. And once that was accomplished there was no getting it back. It was now impossible to get NIS or anything else useful to run. I could get explorer.exe windows and other admin stuff like the Control Panel and msconfig and all that stuff, but there was no way I could find to get those services to come back up. When I clicked 'start' to start the service I'd get a 'file cannot be found' error message. Anyway, I banged my head for an hour, including biting my nails while they looked for their Windows installation disc, which of course had gone missing.

Lack of Conclusion

Essentially I got to the point where I couldn't get any further without somehow repairing the operating system and with the Windows installation CD gone, I was stuck. I was 100% positive that the user's important files were still all present and intact. I could browse the file system freely, but there was no way to use the files since apps wouldn't run and there was no way to transfer them somewhere else since there was no network access and I didn't have my external hard-drive enclosure. Not that backing up the files would have done any good, since I couldn't actually re-install the OS anyways. It was getting late so I just admitted that I was stuck and apologized and left. They said they'd just take it into Microcenter in the morning. Needless to say, I didn't accept any money from them for ruining their computer and thereby their ability to work, pay bills, etc.

What Now?

I just don't know what I'm supposed to feel about this. I mean on the one hand I feel heavy, heavy shame. I messed the PC and it just happens to be vital to their business. Before I got there, they had viruses, yes, but they could also use the PC normally - you know Internet, QuickBooks. After I left the PC was essentially useless. It would boot up into a joke of an operating system and taunt them with their precious files, but not let them actually do anything.

On the other hand, I feel really mad. I mean, I didn't really do anything that even had a whiff of a chance that something this catastrophic could happen. I was practically standing up and brushing my hands together in triumph before I rebooted the computer that last time. How can it be that software can fuck itself up so badly without even a hint that this was about to happen. I don't feel like I did anything wrong or could have foreseen this. And I see myself as a pretty savvy IT person. I've tangled with and mastered Norton products before. I feel like it's the software's fault, but at the same time I feel like I have to take the blame and I'm really losing face here. That is outrageous, honestly.