Windows Vista : Recovering Systems (part 3) - Dealing with total system instability

11/17/2012 1:07:41 AM

3. Level 3: Dealing with total system instability

Every now and then, you will run into major system issues — systems won't start, boot sectors on drives will be damaged, or Windows will be completely corrupted. When this happens, you need to rely on Vista's more advanced recovery tools. That's where the Windows Recovery Environment (WinRE) comes in. WinRE is a self-contained operating environment based on Windows PE that can be used to give you access to non-working systems. As such, it includes a series of different tools that can be relied on to recover these systems. The tools in WinRE include:

  • Startup Repair that can automatically repair some problems that prevent Windows from booting up properly.

  • System Restore, which has been discussed at length.

  • Windows Complete PC Restore, which lets you restore a complete PC image.

  • Windows Memory Diagnostic Tool, which can verify RAM to identify potential problems.

  • Command Prompt, which then lets you run any commands against the PC and access common tools, such as Regedit.

In addition, WinRE gives you access to the shutdown and restart options for the system.

Working with the Windows Recovery Environment

WinRE is available in two flavors. The first is off the Windows Installation DVD. When you boot with this DVD, Windows Setup displays the initial setup screen where you choose the language and regional options for the installation. Then it moves you into the Install now screen. At this point in time, you can click on Repair your computer in the lower left-hand corner of the screen to access WinRE. After WinRE is launched, it looks for existing Windows installations on the system disk. At this point, you can load additional drivers if needed, or simply proceed to the System Recovery Options screen, shown in Figure 14, by clicking Next.


Remember that you should spend only a certain amount of time on system recovery before you simply move on to system re-imaging. For example, if your imaging process only takes 30 minutes and you have implemented the folder redirection/roaming profile strategy  then it makes little sense to spend 30 minutes or more troubleshooting a serious system problem. Just re-image the PC and move on. However, if the problem is recurring, then you will need to spend time identifying its root cause. In that case, you might want to give the user a different PC so that they can continue with their work as you identify the cause of the issue.

Figure 14. Using WinRE to repair a broken system

When it is installed on the system, WinRE can sometimes launch without assistance, although this is certainly a behavior to which you do not want to expose users. This happens when there is a boot failure. Windows detects the failure and then launches WinRE to perform automated repairs. But in some cases, the automated repair mode will not work. This includes:

  • Partition Table damage or lost boot sectors on a system disk

  • Missing or damaged Boot Manager (bootmgr.exe)

  • Missing or damaged Boot Configuration Data

Running Memory Diagnostics

One of the most common problems users face with PC is corrupt memory modules. When you use a corrupt memory module, information stored within memory cannot be retrieved. This often causes Windows to fail because the missing information destabilizes the OS. For this reason, the WinRE environment includes a Windows Memory Diagnostics Tool (WMDT). Use WinRE to launch this tool. When you launch it (see Figure 15), WMDT will reboot the system and perform a memory scan, identifying potential bad memory blocks and mark them as such so that the system does not use them anymore (see Figure 16).

This is a stopgap measure at best and should be used mostly to identify bad memory blocks. Replace the bad memory modules as soon as possible.

Figure 15. Launching a Memory Diagnostics scan

Figure 16. Scanning memory for bad blocks

Using Startup Repair

Startup Repair is an automated tool that scans unbootable systems and automatically repairs them. It corrects issues, such as corrupt registry hives, missing system files and drivers, disk boot sector corruptions, and other startup issues.

To use it, launch WinRE and select Startup Repair. This launches a window that automatically scans the system for boot issues (shown in Figure 17) and then generates a report (shown in Figure 18). The report is generated whether or not Startup Repair finds issues. If you choose not to view the report after Startup Repair is run, you can always view it later. It is located in %WINDIR%\System32\LogFiles\Srt. Startup Repair files are named SrtTrail.txt.

Figure 17. Running Startup Repair

Figure 18. Viewing a Startup Repair report

Working with Boot Configuration Data

When these tools do not resolve the issue, then you can try the more advanced recovery tools found in Windows Vista. One of these is the Boot Recovery tool (bootrec.exe). This tool can be used to repair damaged boot records on disks, missing or corrupt boot sectors, or even corrupt Boot Configuration Data (BCD) stores. With Windows Vista, Microsoft replaced the traditional Boot.ini file with a new BCD store. This store is now used to tell Vista where OS partitions can be found on a disk.

The Boot Recovery tool is accessed through WinRE. When in the System Recovery Options screen, select Command Prompt. Then, once the Command Prompt is launched, type:

bootrec /?

This will display the options for the command. Several options are available. Each is listed in Table 1.

Table 1. Boot Recovery Tool Options

Using this option writes a new master boot record on the system disk. It does not overwrite the existing partition table, but sets the disk so that Vista can start.

Using this option writes a new boot sector to the system disk. For example, if you install another OS onto a system where Vista is already installed, then the Boot Manager (bootmgr.exe) may have been replaced. This option repairs this issue.

Using this option rebuilds the Boot Configuration Data store. During the rebuild operation, it lets you choose which compatible OS partition to add to the BCD.

Using this option scans all disks to locate a Vista installation. Use this option after you have used the /RebuildBCD option to completely recreate the BCD store.

Microsoft also released a BCD store editor: bcdedit.exe. This tool includes a lot of different capabilities, all of which are very useful when you need to repair nonstarting systems. Table 2 outlines the options you can use with bcdedit.exe.

Table 2. Boot Data Configuration Editor Options

BCD StoreCreates a new empty BCD store

BCD StoreExports the contents of the BCD store to a file

BCD StoreRestores BCD store contents from previously exported data

BCD StoreIndicates which BCD store to use

BCD Store EntriesCopies a specific entry in the BCD store

BCD Store EntriesCreates a new BCD store entry

BCD Store EntriesDeletes a BCD store entry

BCD Store Entry SettingsDeletes a specific element in an entry

BCD Store Entry SettingsSets a value for an entry

Output ControlLists entries in a BCD store

Output ControlTurns on verbose mode

Boot Manager ControlsUsed to create a boot configuration order, but only for the next boot process

Boot Manager ControlsSpecifies the default entry to use when booting

Boot Manager ControlsSpecifies the order in which options are displayed to users

Boot Manager ControlsIndicates the timeout value for a boot option

Boot Manager ControlsSpecifies the order in which options are displayed in boot management tools

Emergency Management Services (EMS)Enables or disables EMS booting for an entry

EMSEnables or disables EMS booting for a boot entry

EMSSets global EMS values

DebuggingEnables or disables debugging for an entry

DebuggingEnables or disables global debugging settings

DebuggingEnables or disables kernel debugging settings

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