The Core Technologies Blog
Our Software // Windows Services // 24×7 Operation
Why Windows Services Should Avoid Showing Popups/Dialog Boxes
Unlike a regular application (like Microsoft Word) that you launch from a desktop icon and actively work with to accomplish a specific task, a Windows Service is designed to start when your computer boots and run entirely in the background — even if you never log on.
Yet despite this design philosophy, there is no restriction that actually prevents a Windows Service from displaying windows and trying to interact with users logged on to the PC. Indeed, such “Interactive Services” were encouraged in Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, but Microsoft changed their tune in Windows Vista. In our opinion, a couple of glaring problems caused the folks in Redmond to reverse course and actively discourage Windows Services from trying to get the desktop user’s attention:
What happens when no one is logged on?
It is unclear what should happen when a Windows Service shows a prompt and no user is there to answer it. Holding up the action while waiting for someone to log on and click a button can be problematic for tasks designed to perform important tasks, 24/7.
What happens when several users are logged on?
When a service throws up a prompt, which of the multiple users logged on should be allowed to respond to that window? One? All?
These thorny issues should discourage anyone from writing an interactive service today!
But what is you have inherited a legacy service implemented under the more permissive Windows XP or Server 2003 rules? What if commercial realities force you to run an interactive application as a windows service with a service wrapper like AlwaysUp? How do you keep those services running without interruption, getting around annoying prompts that would otherwise stall an important process?
Three Ways to Automatically Dismiss Dialog Boxes and Popups
Write a Custom AutoIt Script
AutoIt is a free scripting language designed for automating the Windows GUI. With this powerful tool, you can easily write scripts to activate windows, click buttons, check boxes, enter text and much more.
For example, this AutoIt script clicks the “OK” button on a window named “OCR Error”:
; Try to bring the window to the top, to prepare it for input.
; Click the OK button in the window.
ControlClick("OCR Error", "OK", "");
Note that an AutoIt script can be compiled into an executable to run on any machine — even those without AutoIt installed.
Buy Buzof, the “Annoying Windows Eliminator”
Buzof is a commercial utility that makes it easy for non-programmers to automatically answer Windows prompts. Its point and click interface enables you to “train” the software to take the appropriate action on those annoying popups. Here is what Buzof looks like when configured to watch for four popups, clicking the “Yes” or “No” buttons:
Note that Buzof is really meant for clicking buttons and other simple actions. More complex situations, such as checking a box and subsequently clicking a button or typing in a user name, are beyond its abilities.
Develop your own Windows GUI Utility
If you are an experienced Windows programmer, then it won’t be too difficult to create your own solution. This may be a good investment of your time if using AutoIt or purchasing Buzof are not viable options.
How to Run your Automated Solution on the Isolated Session 0 Desktop
Once you have settled on a method to automatically dispatch the dialog boxes and popups, you must now set it up to run on the desktop where Windows Services run — in Session 0. There are a couple of ways to achieve this:
Run your Utility as a Windows Service
We recommend using our AlwaysUp application to run your chosen utility as a Windows Service. If you are using an AutoIt script, set it up to run periodically, perhaps once every minute. For Buzof, which should be started once and kept running continuously, any service wrapper (such as Microsoft’s Srvany) will perform the basic job.
Run your Utility with the Task Scheduler
Setup a basic scheduled task to start your solution. It will run entirely in Session 0.
Note that you can also launch your utility manually in Session 0 using Microsoft’s PsExec command line tool.
Best of luck keeping your Windows Services operating 24×7, without annoying interruptions!
Backups are an essential part of any professional system. Schedule them regularly or risk losing valuable data (and precious time) when a component fails.
But backing up a live system can often be tricky. The backup software must be “lock” each file to capture a consistent snapshot, and that exclusive access, though temporary, can cause another application to panic and throw up its hands in failure. Or the reverse can happen — an application can lock a file and prevent the backup software from capturing it. And what good is a backup if it doesn’t capture all your important data?
So it’s always best to have a “quiet” system when performing a backup. Close all non-essential applications in advance. But what about Windows Services? Unlike regular desktop programs, those shouldn’t be stopped indefinitely.
This is the dilemma faced by one of our customers. Backups run every weekend constantly fail because his windows service prevents the backup from accessing key files. He tried stopping the service before he left work on Friday evening and restarting it on Monday morning, but users complained loudly about the extended downtime.
The obvious solution is to have a much smaller downtime window for the windows service — only for the duration of the backup. Here is how to do so in an automated fashion, with a couple of well-timed scheduled tasks that leverage the useful NET command.
Part 1: Create a Scheduled Task to Stop your Windows Service before the Backup Starts
Start the Windows Task Scheduler by running taskschd.msc from a command prompt. (You can also find it in Control Panel by searching for “Schedule tasks”).
In the window that comes up, click Create Basic Task… on the right to launch the Create Basic Task Wizard:
Enter a name for your new task. Something like Stop service before backup starts should work nicely. Click Next > when you are done.
In the next couple of steps, we’ll specify when to stop the windows service. Since our backup occurs every Saturday at 10 PM, we’ll setup the task to shut down the service a minute before, at 9:59 PM:
Click Next > to proceed.
On the subsequent screen, select Start a program and click Next >:
Here is where we must specify the program to shut down the service. We’ll use the NET STOP command.
- Enter NET.EXE in the Program/Script line.
- And in the arguments field, enter
where <Service-Name> is the name of the service. We have used “Spooler” in this tutorial but you will obviously use your own service instead. Be sure to enclose that name in quotes if it contains a space!
Click Next > to continue.
We’re almost done! You should see a screen confirming your settings. Click Finish to record this new scheduled task.
Part 2: Create a Scheduled Task to Restart your Windows Service after the Backup Completes
Basically, repeat Part 1 but with the following changes:
When naming the task in Step 3, call it something like Restart service after the backup is done instead.
In Step 4, set the time so that the task will run AFTER the backup completes.
In Step 6, run the NET START command instead. That is, set the arguments field to
Here is what the ending summary screen should look like once you are done:
And that’s it. Since implementing this tactic a few weeks ago, our customer’s backups have been problem-free. We’re confident that the same solution will work for you!
We’re big fans of Oracle’s VirtualBox software. It’s powerful and free, and it enables our small company to efficiently test and validate our software on various versions of Windows without having to invest in costly, dedicated hardware.
However, we noticed a strange problem with VirtualBox last week. After following our tutorial to setup a VirtualBox Virtual Machine (VM) as a Windows Service with AlwaysUp, we noticed that even though the machine was working normally, the VirtualBox Manager application incorrectly listed the VM as “Powered Off”. But it had been on for more than 10 days!
And it wasn’t just the VirtualBox Manager. Even the powerful VBoxManage command line utility thought that our VM wasn’t running:
However, when we ran a command prompt in Session 0, VBoxManage saw the VM there:
So it seems that the VirtualBox tools can only see virtual machines running in the same session that they are in.
Therefore, we simply can’t rely on the state shown in the VirtualBox Manager application when running our VM in the background (in Session 0) with AlwaysUp.
Customer Theodore Bogucki recently reported strange behavior when running Dropbox as a windows service with AlwaysUp:
If I run Dropbox as a normal application, the CPU will run at about 10%. Following the directions to set up Dropbox in AlwaysUp as a service, I will get Dropbox running at 100% CPU and the file upload is extremely slow.
I am using the latest version of Dropbox and the latest version of AlwaysUp on a Windows 2012 R2 server.
What can be causing Dropbox to run amok like this when running as a windows service?
After some back and forth to investigate, Theodore determined that his antivirus program (Symantec Endpoint Protection) was conflicting with Dropbox — but only when running as a service! He said:
The Dropbox folders currently stores SQL backup files from my SQL server. I was able to fix the issue by adding an exclusion in SEP for the file extension used for the SQL backup files. I just as easily could have specified the folder to exclude.
Once this was done I stopped Dropbox on the desktop and started it using AlwaysUp and the CPU only spiked for minute or so while Dropbox started up and then settled down to its normal level. I also observed that network activity was the same as when Dropbox was running on the desktop.
If you are experiencing a similar problem, here are the instructions for excluding files and folders from scans in Symantec Endpoint Protection. A simple Google search should turn up the same information for other popular antivirus packages.
Finally, thanks to Theodore for bringing this problem (and the solution) to our attention!
The mystery: “The service did not start due to a login failure”
One of our customers reported a very strange problem last week. After about a day of running flawlessly, their windows service would suddenly fail to start after a reboot. The error reported by the Event Viewer hinted at a problem with the service user’s account:
Trying to start the service directly from the Windows Services Control Panel application produced the same unsatisfying result:
The service account’s password had not changed, and the user had no problem logging into the server interactively. Why was the windows service failing to login?
Luckily we were able to get the service going again by re-entering the user’s password:
When doing so, we noticed that the “Log on as a service” right had to be granted again. Very suspicious…
But a mere 24 hours later, the problem resurfaced! Once again, the service failed to start after a reboot.
The problem: Group Policy overwriting Local Policy
The message about the “Log on as a service” right lead us to the root of the problem.
Entering the password in services.msc updated the user’s rights in the machine’s Local Group Policy — a collection of settings that define how the system will behave for the PC’s users. However, since the user and server were part of a domain, those local settings were periodically overwritten by the domain’s group policy, which had not been updated with the new permission. And because the necessary permission “disappeared” on the machine, the service failed the next time it tried to start.
The solution: Modify the Domain Group Policy
To fix the problem, we must update the domain group policy and explicitly give the service user the “Log on as a service” right. To do so:
Start the Group Policy Management application.
Open Control Panel, navigate to System and Security > Administrative Tools, and double-click Group Policy Management on the left.
(Note: Don’t search for “group” in Control Panel. That will lead you to the “Edit group policy” link, which opens the local group policy!)
Find your default domain policy on the left. Right-click it and select Edit to bring up the Group Policy Management Editor window.
On the left, navigate to Computer Configuration > Policies > Windows Settings > Security Settings > Local Policies > User Rights Assignment and select
the Log on as a service entry on the right.
Double-click Log on as a service to bring up its Properties window.
Add the user running your windows service to the list and click OK to record the change.
Next time your domain policy is copied to your server, it will bring along the Log on as a service right for the user. You shouldn’t encounter the “logon failure” error again!
A closing note for the folks at Microsoft: A better error message please!
Instead of reporting the generic “logon failure”, why not be more precise and say something like “The user doesn’t have the necessary rights to start the service”? You could provide even more guidance by listing the missing rights.
The bottom line is a that a helpful error message highlighting the true problem would have led us straight to the solution and avoided a few anxious days for us and our client.
Start Software is an award-winning software development and consulting business with offices in the UK and Australia. They create easy-to-use software systems that their clients enjoy using and which deliver real benefits. The Start Software team are specialists in Alpha Anywhere, Alpha Five and Mobile Data Studio developments. Alpha Tracker – the latest addition to the Tracker family – is a web browser-based version of Tracker for asbestos surveyors, asbestos consultants and asbestos consultancy businesses of any size.
Start Software has been using AlwaysUp regularly since 2007.
Why does Start Software use AlwaysUp?
We have created a variety of software systems using Alpha Five and Alpha Anywhere from Alpha Software and Visual Basic from Microsoft. Many of these systems need to be “always up” – operating like 24x7x365 windows services. The AlwaysUp product enables us to deploy these applications with confidence that the services they provide will always be available to our customers.
How are you using AlwaysUp today?
We install AlwaysUp along with our software as a matter of course. We have more than 50 clients using AlwaysUp on Windows Server 2008 and Windows Server 2012 on a daily basis all around the world.
What are your favorite features of the software?
AlwaysUp is easy to install and configure, and has flexible options for the automatic restarting of applications (services) under a variety of conditions. Technical support provided by Core Technologies is also excellent and they are a joy to deal with.
Any other comments?
Our Tracker and Alpha Tracker systems have been used by asbestos consultancies to capture data about more than 25 million samples in buildings worldwide and so, indirectly, AlwaysUp is helping to manage this deadly substance across the globe.
Do you want to run a script or application every minute? And have you decided that creating an AlwaysUp Windows Service will be better than using the built-in Windows Task Scheduler? If yes, here are the key settings to specify with AlwaysUp.
Wait One Minute Before Restarting
By default, AlwaysUp will immediately restart your application whenever it exits. To have AlwaysUp “pause” for a minute before restarting, make the following changes on the Restart tab:
Avoid Verbose Event Logging on each Run/Restart
AlwaysUp is designed to record detailed information whenever your application exits and has to be restarted. This is often useful information for applications that should run continuously but the logging can become overwhelming when your application is stopping and restarting every minute!
Check the Minimize event logging as the application stops & starts on the Restart tab to avoid extra chatter as your application/script cycles each minute.
If you are interested in email notifications, be sure NOT to check the Whenever the application stops and has to be restarted box on the Email tab! If you do, expect to be inundated with emails as your application goes up and down every minute.
Recently, a few of our customers running Dropbox as a windows service with AlwaysUp have reported failures after manually updating to the latest version of Dropbox. These are happening because Dropbox changes the location of its executable file during the update. Let’s dig into the details and see how to fix the problem.
The Old Dropbox Location
Prior to version 3.5.58, released in April 2015, Dropbox stored its application executable file (Dropbox.exe) in a user-specific folder. If you installed Dropbox in the Administrator account, you could find the file in C:\Users\Administrator\AppData\Roaming\Dropbox\bin:
The New Dropbox Location
If you install a fresh copy of version 3.5.58 or later, you will notice that Dropbox.exe now lives underneath the Program Files folder, in C:\Program Files (x86)\Dropbox\Client (or C:\Program Files\Dropbox\Client on 32-bit versions of Windows):
We have already noted the new location in our step-by-step tutorial to guide future customers, but the story is more complicated for existing installations…
Upgrading Dropbox Changes its Location (and Breaks your AlwaysUp Configuration)
Unfortunately the impact of this change to the file locations isn’t limited to new installations. Manually updating an existing Dropbox installation will cause the files to be moved to the new folder. This isn’t a problem for Dropbox itself, but since AlwaysUp is blissfully unaware of the change, it will continue to run Dropbox.exe from its old location (as you originally specified in the Application field on the General tab):
Because the executable is no longer present there, AlwaysUp will fail to start Dropbox and report errors like this:
The Fix: Set the New Dropbox Location in AlwaysUp
Fortunately normal operation can be restored quite easily. Simply edit Dropbox in AlwaysUp and update the Application field on the General tab to specify the new path to the Dropbox executable (C:\Program Files (x86)\Dropbox\Client\Dropbox.exe):
Save your settings and AlwaysUp should be able to start Dropbox normally again!
PC Commander 4.0, our free tool that helps you manage your remote computers, is now available for download. This convenient software allows you to control your PC entirely from your web browser. Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Internet Explorer and even Microsoft’s new Edge browser are all supported.
Here are a few things you can do with PC Commander:
Securely access your PC
Type in the URL and specify your software-configured password to login to your computer. Note that you can setup PC Commander to use HTTPS to ensure that all communications are encrypted.
Understand what is running, restart your PC and more
After you login, the System page will present a general overview of what is running on (and how many user are logged on to) your computer. From there you can even restart your server — a very convenient feature if the PC is hung or cannot respond to an interactive login!
Manage all processes
The Processes page lists everything running on your computer. Easily see who started each process and how much CPU and memory is being consumed by each one. Click on a column’s title to sort the table by that column — very useful when looking for memory or CPU “hogs”!
Stop or modify any process
From the table of processes, click a name to “drill down” into a single process. From there you can stop the process or change its priority to give it more or less resources on the computer. You can also quickly find some information about the process at ProcessLibrary.com if you don’t recognize it…
Manage all Windows Services
Go to the Services page to see all windows services installed on your PC. The table shows which services are running (via the green circle on the left), how services are started and the user account that runs each service. Columns are sortable for your convenience and you can easily start, stop or restart any service directly from the table.
Start, stop or restart any Windows Service
Click into a specific service to see additional details about it. The full command line used to launch the service is shown, and all dependent services are identified. You can easily start, stop or restart your service from this page.
View all users logged in
The Users page lists all users currently logged on to the computer. With a couple of clicks, you can quickly disconnect an account to allow another user to log on.
Log off, disconnect or send a message to a user
Drill down into a specific user entry to see additional options. Send a message directly to a user’s screen to notify him that you are about to log him off!
Browse your hard drive and view/download any file
Open the Drives page to list all storage devices attached to your computer. Navigate to any folder and view or download any file you like! And you can see detailed information on a file by clicking on its name.
View the Windows Event Logs
The Event logs page comes in handy when you want to investigate system errors or see what your windows services are up to. Click on a log to review its detailed records in a friendly tabular format.
And that’s it! We hope that you will find this free software useful when managing your computers. Please be sure to get in touch if you have ideas on how we can make PC Commander even better for you.
We all know to fire up the Windows Task Manager when we want to terminate a process, see how much memory is being used or find that rogue program hogging the CPU, but do you know that Task Manager also shows important details of Windows Services? For some situations, the Task Manager, with its focus on what is actually running on the PC, is even more useful than the standard Services Control Panel!
Information about your PC’s services can be found in the Task Manager’s Services tab. If you don’t see any tabs across the top of the Task Manager window, click the More details link at the bottom to reveal them:
The services table shows all the windows services installed on your PC. Helpful columns show the description, status and group of each service. And, perhaps most importantly, services that are running will show the numeric process identifier (PID) of the process hosting the service. That PID is useful when you want to terminate an unresponsive service, boost its priority or perform other low-level operations.
Right-click an entry to summon the context menu offering several operations you can perform on the service:
Start, Stop or Restart your Windows Service
Take action on your service right here! No need to open services.msc, or run the NET START or NET STOP commands from a prompt.
Selecting this entry will open the Windows Services Control Panel. Note that you can also open Services by clicking on the Open Services link at the bottom of the window.
Choosing this entry opens your browser and searches for the service’s name and display name. For example, if you have selected the service named Spooler with display name Print Spooler, selecting “Search online” will open your browser and launch a convenient Bing search (or Google, if that is your default search engine) for Spooler Print Spooler:
Go to details
Selecting this entry, which is only available when your service is running, switches you to the Task Manager’s Details tab with the service’s underlying process highlighted.
For example, here is the VirtualBox service (VBoxService) running with PID 624 as we select “Go to details”:
We are immediately transported to the Details tab to provide us with more information on the process with PID 624 (named VBoxService.exe):
As you can see, Task Manager provides some decent tools for controlling your windows services. Be sure to fire it up next time you have to work with a service!