Exploring Windows’ Administrative Tools: Part 5

Fred Langa

Windows’ Services tool gives you very fine control over how and when your system services run.

The Services tool is one of Windows’ Administrative Tools, a suite of professional-quality, system-management utilities used to adjust and control many of the operating system’s essential functions and features.

Starting with XP, these tools are either built into Windows or are offered as free add-ons. This guide to using the Services tool is the fifth installment in our Windows Administrative Tools series.

Part One of the series explains what the tools are and how to make them easily available from the Windows Start menu.

Part Two discusses Windows’ Performance Monitor, which reports in real time what’s happening within the OS as programs run — or fail to run!

Part Three describes how to use Windows’ Memory Diagnostic tool to thoroughly test your system’s random-access memory.

Part Four shows you how to use Windows’ Task Scheduler to run almost any program automatically, at the time and in the way you choose.

For this article on the Windows Services tool, I’ll focus mostly on the Win7 version because that’s the OS most Windows Secrets readers are running. But don’t worry — Windows XP’s, Vista’s, and Win8’s Services tools are very similar.

So what’s a Windows “service,” anyway?

Windows, like most operating systems, is a collection of hundreds of smaller programs. Windows Services are some of those smaller programs; they’re a special kind of software that runs in the background and provides specific, low-level functions to the operating system — and to other programs.

To put it another way, services are the software that lies beneath the veneer of the user interface. Services do the real work of running your PC — including networking, power management, hardware detection, cryptography, print spooling, security, and hundreds of other essential functions and features.

Right now, your Windows system is probably running about 150 services. (I’ll show you how to take a look at them in a moment.) The number of services fluctuates, depending on what you’re doing and what software you’re running.

Many services operate in daisy-chain fashion; they depend on other services for their input and deliver their output to still other services. This concept of dependency chains — services depending on others in order to function — is a key troubleshooting concept we’ll come back to later.

Many services start at boot-up and run continuously until shutdown. Others run on demand, triggered directly by a program or indirectly by a user action. The number of services your system is running at any time (and what those services are doing) has a huge impact on system performance.

For example: Long, slow boot-ups often result from too many services trying to load and run at the same time, during system start-up.

Which brings us to the Services tool: It lets you explore and control the services running on your system.

Getting started with the Services tool

In XP through Win7, fire up Services by simply typing services.msc in the Start menu’s text-entry box. In Win8, type services.msc in the Charms bar’s Search box.

In all versions of Windows, you also can access the Services tool via Control Panel’s (icon view) Administrative Tools applet. Or, if you’ve been following this series, you’ve probably set up Administrative Tools in the Windows Start menu. You’ll find Services there, too.

Figure 1 shows a typical opening window for Windows 7’s Services (other Windows versions have similar displays). At the moment I grabbed this screen shot, my Win7 system was running 179 services.

List of running services

Figure 1. The Services tool (Win7's is shown) lists all the services currently running on your PC.

Note the two tabs — Extended and Standard — in the lower-left corner of the Services’ window. The Extended tab, open by default, provides an easy-to-read, full-text description of almost any service you select. If you want to save some room, select the Standard tab, which suppresses the separate full-text description.

In either view, you’ll find additional top-level information about the services in five columns: Name, Description, Status, Startup Type, and Log On As. (See Figure 2.) You can sort, or reverse-sort, each column by clicking its heading.

Services columns titles

Figure 2. These five columns (shown in Standard view) display essential, top-level information about each service.

  • Name is self-explanatory; it’s just the name of the service.
  • Description is usually the same descriptive text that appears in the Extended tab and is presented in linear (rather than paragraph) format.
  • Status shows whether the service has Started (i.e., is actually running and active).
  • Startup Type tells you how the service gets launched. I’ll explain the options later, but for now, note that changing a service’s Startup Type can be extremely useful in reducing boot times.
  • Log On As displays the type of account — local system accounts, network accounts, or specific users — that can access and control the service.

Exploring and editing individual services

Simply viewing your system’s services and their settings is 100 percent safe. But if you plan to make any changes to your services, ensure that your system backups are complete and current.

It’s easy to see more detail about any given service: Simply double-clicking its entry in the Services list opens its Properties window. (You can also right-click a given service and select Properties, in the traditional manner.)

Most systems will have a somewhat different list of services. So for this demonstration, let’s explore a service that’s installed by default in almost all Windows setups: Print Spooler — the service that queues documents for printing.

After exploring that nearly universal service, you can apply what you’ve learned to examining, performance-tuning, and/or troubleshooting other services running on your setup.

(BTW: If the Print Spooler service isn’t available on your system, no problem: just follow along using any general service. Pick one!)

To begin our exploration of Print Spooler, scroll down the Services list and double-click its entry (or the name of the alternative service of your choice). The Properties dialog will open with its General tab displayed.

Note the General tab’s Service status, highlighted in Figure 3. It tells you what the selected service is doing, and it offers buttons that let you control the service.

Print spooler status

Figure 3. The Service status area (circled) lets you directly start, stop, and — in some cases — pause a service.

On most systems, Print Spooler starts during Windows’ launch, so its status should be Started. Clicking Stop terminates the service; clicking Start initiates it.

Some services allow finer control — you can click Pause or Resume, as needed. As in the case of Print Spooler, if a service doesn’t allow pausing, the buttons will be grayed out (see Figure 3).

These Service status options can be useful when troubleshooting a Windows problem. If, for example, you suspect a given service is causing trouble, you can stop or pause it and observe the effect.

Before doing either, however, click the Dependencies tab, shown in Figure 4. This will let you see what other services might be affected by pausing or stopping a service.

Dependencies tab

Figure 4. The Dependencies tab shows other services the current service depends on — and which depend on it.

In my example, you can see that Print Spooler depends on the HTTP and RPC services. This is vital troubleshooting information: If you were having a problem with Print Spooler, you’d now know that the problem could be upstream, rooted in the HTTP or RPC services. Checking dependencies can help focus your troubleshooting on the most likely sources of trouble.

In Figure 4, you can also see that Fax services depend on Print Spooler. Identifying those services dependent on the current service helps avoid unintended downstream consequences. In this case, for example, if you stop Print Spooler, Fax services will fail.

An MS TechNet article, “View service dependencies,” will give you more info.

Typically, Windows tries to recover from services failures automatically. The Recovery tab (shown in Figure 5) lets you modify the default service-recovery actions.

Recovery tab

Figure 5. The Recovery tab lets you explore and change what Windows will do if a service fails.

Recovery options can be complex. The TechNet article, “Set up recovery actions to take place when a service fails,” contains complete information. Using Print Spooler as an example, here’s a quick overview:

  • By default, Windows will try to Restart the Service the first and second time Print Spooler fails.
  • Windows will Take No Action on third and subsequent Print Spooler failures.
  • Windows will wait one minute between restart attempts and one day before it resets the fail count and starts over.

You can change each of those variables. Click the pull-down menu for the First, Second, or Subsequent failures, and you’ll get the following options:

  • Take No Action
  • Restart the Service
  • Run a Program
  • Restart the Computer

If you select Run a Program or Restart the Computer, the grayed-out options — Restart Computer Options and Run Program (in the lower half of the Recovery Tab) — become available.

You also can change the numeric values for Reset the fail count and Restart service after as you wish.

The Log On tab, shown in Figure 6, lets you control the accounts that can access and use the service — i.e., local system accounts, network accounts, or specific users. Generally, this setting should be left alone, but if you want to delve into it, see the TechNet article, “Services permissions.”

Log On tab

Figure 6. By default, the Print Spooler service is set to Local System account.

And that brings us back to the General tab.

Modifying a service to reduce startup times

One of the most common and productive uses of Services is to reduce the time a PC takes to be ready to use. Not all services need to load during Windows boots. Preventing or delaying their start can improve boot times.

All Windows versions support three service Startup types: Automatic, Manual, and Disabled.

Automatic means the service starts on its own, at boot-up. That’s often a good thing. For example, you need core operating system services to start right away, and you certainly want your firewall and other security services up and running as soon as possible.

But other services aren’t that important. Setting the Startup type to Manual removes those less critical services from the boot process. Instead, they start when triggered by a program that depends on them — or indirectly due to a user action. Unfortunately, manual startups sometimes don’t work reliably, so use this option with care. Check the service’s dependencies to ensure you’re not affecting some other, essential service.

Disabled means the service won’t start at all. Any software that depends on that service will most likely not operate properly — or at all. Use this option only if the service is one you know you’ll never use. (For example, the Tablet PC Input Service is typically never needed on nontablet PCs.) And as with the Manual option, use the Dependencies tab to ensure that no essential software depends on the service you’re disabling.

Vista, Windows 7, and Win8 offer a fourth option: Automatic (Delayed Start). This starts the service automatically, but only after the operating system is fully booted.

The Automatic (Delayed Start) option can be extremely useful in reducing boot-up times for those services that allow the setting. Not all services do; in particular, Windows protects itself, and won’t let you set an essential service to Delayed Start, if that service needs to be in normal Automatic start mode.

Print Spooler is that kind of core service and usually should be left alone. But we can still use it to see where the Startup-type options are (see Figure 7).
Even though you can select Automatic (Delayed Start) in the Print Spooler properties, Windows won’t let you apply it.

Startup Type

Figure 7. Changing a service's Startup type can help reduce startup times, but it needs to be done with caution.

For more help on Startup types, the TechNet article, “Configure how a service is started,” has specifics.

Of course, if you make any change that doesn’t work out, you can always re-edit the service Properties to restore the original setting. A TechNet article lists the default settings for many Windows services.

Where to find additional information

What I’ve given you in this article just scratches the surface of Windows’ Services tool. Here are some good sources for additional information:

  • TechNet article, “Services Snap-in,” provides overview concepts, best practices, how-tos, and troubleshooting for Vista, Win7, Win8, and Windows Server.
  • Oddly, neither TechNet nor Microsoft.com offers much on XP’s Services tool. Check out the brief article, “Using the Microsoft Management Console” and the even-briefer page, “Using Services.”
  • Surprisingly, you find more help in XP’s built-in Help system. Click Start/Help and Support, then enter the search string Administrative tool reference A-Z. Open the A-Z reference tool and scroll down to Services.

For a real-life example of how to use the Services tool, see “Windows’ Services editor disables runaway code,” the first item in the Nov. 8 LangaList Plus column (paid section).

Used with caution, Services can put you in control of your PC like never before!

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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.