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Sunday, September 16, 2012

The sneak thief of space (and time)

You're probably one of those people whose eyes glaze over when you hear geek-speak, but hang in with me on this one.

   I was having a problem. A really big one.

   My big computer, Fat Boy, has a startup hard drive plus three other internal drives; vast disk space required for the old days when I was editing video. I bought it five years ago, very expensively, but it is still competitive with what's now standard, so it has served me well.

   The startup drive came with the basic system. That's all I wanted. Over the five years, as you can imagine, the amount of space available on it gradually went down.

   It's a bit like when you move into a new house, or office. It starts empty and you add to it and customise it. Some people have the enviable ability to plan that space ruthlessly and it never becomes cluttered. If that's you, I'm jealous as hell, because it's a trait I admire deeply, but this story may still be relevant to you, so keep reading. This could still save you a fortune.

   Yes, I'm one of the hoarder types, but not like the ones you see on those scary TV programmes. Call me messy. There's method
known only to me in my madness, or so I keep telling myself.

   The point is, over five years, the drive space on the startup disk slowly but inexorably went down, like the space in my study at the university for the thirty years I occupied it. There seemed nothing unusual in that. It's a variation on Parkinson's Law and has widespread application outside computing. Have a look in the third drawer of the kitchen cabinet. See?

   For practically all that time, the drive-space thing didn't matter. There was enough left, though installing a few big programs did eat up big chunks of space. I was constantly offloading whatever I could to the other drives.

   Then came the time, only very recently, when I noticed something alarming. Each day, the hard-won disk space available was vanishing at an exponential rate.

   OK, I thought, I have a couple of heavy-user programs I can shift to other drives, and I can prune what's on the startup drive in other ways, just like you can take stuff you don't use too much and store it in the garage. (No! You can't possibly throw it away. Who  knows, you might need a belt with a broken buckle – that's good leather, that is.)

   Because of the zooming rate of disk space lost on the vitally important startup drive, I got ruthless, and did some serious disk housekeeping. At last, a few days ago, there was a safe margin of space on it. Not a lot, but safe for operation.

   The next morning I was stunned. Almost all that space had disappeared, and my computer's kernel was having a right old panic, telling me to get my act together and find some space or it would self-destruct, creating a black hole that would consume the entire universe and Mitt Romney, and finally disappear up its own arsenal of misbegotten source code.

   So it was seriously seriously serious. Substitute a googleplex of seriousnesses there if you like. The fact was that the overnight loss was vastly bigger than I could possibly be responsible for. I had done all I could to make space. Was it some virus?

   I did what any sensible person would. I turned to the oracle. Google.

   Predictably, most of its suggestions were useless. But as I was about to give up, right near the bottom of the last page on the last relevant site I found, the author explained that he had had exactly my problem, and had solved it.

   This guy was using the same free anti-virus program I was, the one I had been relying on for all these years. It turns out that it constantly writes small files for just about every separate one on your drive, which in most cases approaches a million. It should have been deleting those when no longer useful, but it wasn't.

   When he uninstalled the program, his world changed. It released massive amounts of space occupied by the combined size of small, hidden, individual packets of data that it had been saving and storing for years.

   The scales fell off my eyes – I, who had been using all sorts of computers for thirty+ years and thought I knew a bit about them. It never occurred to me that in the background, my free, tried-and-true antivirus program, busily protecting my main computer from the enemy, could be guilty of a grievous offence.

   So, with hope in my heart, I backed up the vital files on my drive, and did the same as my advisor. The anti-virus program took a long while to uninstall, and I was happy about that, because it meant that it was deleting many, many files. I had an open window and watched in amazement as the drive space mounted in gigabytes:

   10...25...75...140...250...400...finally, 574.99 gigabytes – out of a 750 gigabyte hard drive. Three quarters of the entire disk was now released. It was a glorious sight – a thing of beauty to behold.

   Hello... are you still there? No, I see several of you are snoring peacefully. That's OK. Still, you must be wondering, how could I possibly not notice all this happening long before?

   I'll tell you. It's a bit like life. You don't know
for a very long time that your body is accumulating sludge and unwanted particles and dangerous things, because it works OK and you are used to how it feels. 

   Then may come a crisis and if you're lucky, you find out what's wrong.

   In this case, I got lucky, turning up the one scrap of vital information I needed to rescue my whole system. My startup drive is at peace.

The offending program was Symantec iAntivirus for Mac. It's a free program and does its job, but the version I had was not deleting hundreds of thousands of little undetectable files that were past their use-by date. Maybe Symantic has solved this. It should have, surely.
   If you are on a PC, don't think that a similar thing can't happen with your anti-virus program (or some others). An easy way to find out is to check the drive space, uninstall the program, recheck the drive space, download the latest version of the program and reinstall.


  1. What an extraordinary tale. I dazed not an instant.

    Fat Boy was the name of a computer I once used to hear about. Was it in Byte magazine?

    Thin Boy is starting to lure me. A Mac Book Air to you followers of Steve Jobs or an Ultra Book on the other side of the fence. Imagine a computer with NO moving parts! I can throw it across the room when I'm frustrated - not to mention the blinding speed of a solid state drive (SSD)

    1. Hi, Dave. The full-sized totally solid state computer just had to come. I still have a little netbook. A hard drive with moving parts will be looked on as an object of curiosity within 20 years. I'd love one of those new ones, just to play with.

      I just named it that because it was the biggest computer I ever had.

  2. Thanks for this. I showed it to Michael who had had problems with Symantec for different reasons. I'm glad you solved the problem!

    Julie M

  3. that's good advice you're sharing there. i'm sure.

    but, more importantly, look! you have a picture of a panda on your tool-bar thingy!

    thanks again for making me smile.

    1. Hah hah! PandoCalendar is a very old calendar program that they 'improved' with bells and whistles, and ruined by doing so – and this old version is not too happy with current operating systems. What it's really good for in its old iteration [this one] is to find the day of the week going back a century or more that someone was born. There is a limit because of changes to the calendar itself. But if an old rellie of yours was born on 18 June 1908, then it was a Thursday. How 'bout that? :)

    2. So, as well as looking cute, panda has a job to do Fancy that! What an important job too - keeping track of the days of birth for those old rellies!

  4. Your're just too clever by half!

    I have to wait for a son to two to visit to see why my "steam driven computer" to quote them, seems to build up its head of steam ever slower. (Glad I have the dementia proof iPad). Anne

    1. The bonus is that the startup time has improved by at least 900%. No kidding. Not quite as fast as the iPad, but staggering cf what it was. I gather when it was starting up before, it was adding thousands of little files to correspond with every one opened, hence sucking dry my disk space.

      Doncha love geek-talk?

    2. I do. I find myself nodding sagely Anne


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