In digging further into my BSOD from Thursday, August 7, using the Windows Debugger I observed that the ultimate cause was a module named pctsSvc.exe (see attached screenshot below). A quick process lookup informs me that this is part of PC Tools Spyware Doctor runtime environment. Additional research on Windows crashes related to this module indicates that a remove/reinstall maneuver often addresses the problem (see this PC Tools forum thread for more info).
Although the Bluescreen error message indicated a problem with invalid memory access, inspecting the minidump with windbg.exe turns out to be a little more informative.
As I was researching this topic, I noticed lots of people having problems with Spyware Doctor, much of which related to extreme CPU (100%) and memory consumption. In many cases, problems of unbearably slow performance appear related to insufficient RAM on a system. In fact, many users who reported these problems were running XP or Vista with less than 1 GB of RAM. One of my takeaways from this research is that a modern, secure runtime environment requires at least 2 GB of RAM (you can get away with 1 GB with XP, but apparently not with Vista–at least, not if you want to run a capable firewall, antivirus, antispyware, and other such tools without experiencing system slowdowns or stability problems). From that perspective, reading through the PC Tools forum thread linked in the preceding paragraph is a sobering, eye-opening experience.
I can’t say yet if this latest attempt at a system fix will prevent me from having to replace my motherboard or not. For sure, this research certainly adds more poignancy to my earlier blog “Best-of Breed Apps Aren’t Always Best for Vista.” In fact, it indicates that system problems of some kind appear inevitable on some systems for just about every real-time monitor/inspector facility like those associated with firewalls, anti-virus, anti-spyware, and other security tools. Again, I’m also reminded that coordination and cooperation among different kinds of tools may be presumed to be more likely for the components that make up an Internet security suite from a single vendor, as compared to a collection of tools from different makers.
I also find myself wondering if the order of installation for independent tools matters as much as the choice of the individual tools that users try to run simultaneously. When faced with the Gordian knot on his travels, Alexander the Great undid the tangle by slashing the whole thing away with his sword rather than trying to pick through its coils. I’m starting to wonder if bagging the need for concern about what bits and pieces to combine in what order, and saying “chuck it all” in exchange for something like BitDefender, Norton, Panda, and so forth might not make the most sense. For interesting discussions of “best in class” security suites see the coverage at Consumersearch, the Home PC Firewall Guide (check out http://www.firewallguide.com/bestreviews.htm for pointers to current comparative reviews), or even the VB100 rated items at Virus Bulletin.