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Windows Operating Systems Software Security IT Technology

The Very Worst Uses of Windows 816

bigplrbear writes "I found an interesting article revealing the many places that Microsoft products reside, and what they're used for, ranging from elevators to ticket scanners." From the article: "Thanks to VMWare Windows is spreading throughout the datacenter. And, of course, there is only one operating system to use if you are dependent on Microsoft apps like Outlook, Word, and Excel. While I have joined the chorus of security folks who rail against the Microsoft Monoculture I still cannot believe some of the uses for Windows. Some of them are just downright silly, some you may claim are criminally negligent." Note: I'm making no claim of criminal negligence!
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The Very Worst Uses of Windows

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  • by Dice ( 109560 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @08:16PM (#24145777)

    What, you mean other than as a desktop OS?

    • Re:Obligatory... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by dlanod ( 979538 ) on Friday July 11, 2008 @12:59AM (#24148379)

      It's worse for use as a desktop OS than some of the other examples in that list. Building controls, manufacturing controls and SCADA networks are, for instance, examples where Windows is actually passable. Why? A very controlled environment and lack of Internet connectivity. The main source of memory leaks and degradation over time is third-party sources, whether applications or drivers. Windows still has a significant number of inherent security flaws, but in these applications the systems should not be connected to the general Internet. This makes it a lot more difficult for an attacker to access the system.

      The control over installed third-party systems and lack of external systems connectivity means that Windows tends to be a lot more stable in these environments than on an average desktop PC. The greatly reduces the potential for the jokes about "viruses" and "Trojans" on these systems the author joked about. It's not necessarily the best tool, as a custom Unix or Linux OS can provide much better general uptime and the ability to potentially fix any issues yourself, but it can be an adequate tool.

  • Medical equipment (Score:4, Informative)

    by jawtheshark ( 198669 ) * <> on Thursday July 10, 2008 @08:19PM (#24145801) Homepage Journal

    Medical equipment: I confirm. My cousin is an engineer for General Electric, Medical section. As far as I know he services cardiac echography equipment. From what he told me, they all run Windows. Of course, this isn't life threatening, but I do know he's hardware guy and it wouldn't be the first time he calls me for a software problem in his job.

    While not in this case, a BSOD may mean real "D" these days in a hospital.... Sad, but true...

    • by Eudial ( 590661 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @08:25PM (#24145873)

      Medical equipment: I confirm. My cousin is an engineer for General Electric, Medical section. As far as I know he services cardiac echography equipment. From what he told me, they all run Windows. Of course, this isn't life threatening, but I do know he's hardware guy and it wouldn't be the first time he calls me for a software problem in his job.

      While not in this case, a BSOD may mean real "D" these days in a hospital.... Sad, but true...

      While I agree this is questionable, I don't think they are connected to the internets (at least I hope not). So, the whole virus/worm fear is probably irrational.

      • Re:Medical equipment (Score:4, Informative)

        by jawtheshark ( 198669 ) * <> on Thursday July 10, 2008 @08:32PM (#24145947) Homepage Journal

        Well, I certainly hope so. From what I hear those machines are indeed standalone. However, you just need one doctor with a laptop that is infected connecting directly to such a machine and mayhem ensues. Are they allowed to do that? Probably not.... Will they do it? Probably yes... :-(

        Also note I was marked Overrated, just for confirming the article by personal experience. *sigh*

        • Re:Medical equipment (Score:5, Informative)

          by jacquems ( 610184 ) <> on Friday July 11, 2008 @03:13AM (#24149131)

          Well, I certainly hope so. From what I hear those machines are indeed standalone. However, you just need one doctor with a laptop that is infected connecting directly to such a machine and mayhem ensues. Are they allowed to do that? Probably not.... Will they do it? Probably yes... :-(

          You would be surprised how much medical equipment is connected to the internet. My mother is a CT tech who works the night shift (in the USA). Rather than have a radiologist at each hospital all night to interpret the scans, they have one radiologist receive all the scans from all the hospitals in their group over the internet. The CT scan system is online: it takes the scans, stores them digitally, and then transfers the files to wherever they need to go.

          They supposedly have a firewall and a VPN, but their IT department is not so bright, so I wouldn't count on them to be able to configure it correctly. I have heard tales of spyware infections of the CT scan terminal due to employee web surfing, and an employee who was (incorrectly) accused of viewing porn sites on the job.

          Even when medical equipment is not directly connected to the internet, you can be pretty sure that patient records are stored on internet-connected machines (for things like sharing records between hospitals in the same system, etc.). It may not be directly life-threatening, but it certainly is a huge privacy concern.

      • Re:Medical equipment (Score:4, Informative)

        by von_rick ( 944421 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @08:36PM (#24145987) Homepage

        While I agree this is questionable, I don't think they are connected to the internets (at least I hope not). So, the whole virus/worm fear is probably irrational.

        There are several monitoring devices that transmit wirelessly from the procedure rooms to control rooms. We use wireless network to transmit blood pressure and heart rate information from MRI scanning room to the control computer. The control computer is connected to the centralized medical records server which is "supposed to be" super secure. But if it is broken into, you can pretty much control the communication with monitoring devices. Hope it doesn't happen.

      • Re:Medical equipment (Score:4, Informative)

        by reddburn ( 1109121 ) <> on Thursday July 10, 2008 @09:49PM (#24146719)
        They are connected to the intranet - most E.R. docs use PDA's running software that can retrieve info from these machines, order prescriptions & tests, etc.
    • by TuxTWAP ( 527410 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @08:48PM (#24146119)
      During the birth of my first daughter, the fetal heart monitor was connected to a Windows box. Trust me, the last thing you want to see in the middle of a long, difficult and painful birth is a BSOD...especially when the doctor is desperately searching for a heartbeat.
    • Re:Medical equipment (Score:5, Interesting)

      by rmullen ( 1258212 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @09:16PM (#24146403)
      I can confirm this as well. I was in the Massachusetts General Hospital laying in an fMRI tube because I was participating in a psychology study (and getting compensated financially). After a few minutes of inactivity I wondered when things would start happening - they soon extricated me from the tube. Turns out the cause of the problem was that the Siemens machine running Embedded Windows (as proven by a prominently-affixed license sticker) had locked up while I was entubed, and they had to reboot. After that it worked fine, and the fMRI went off without a hitch.
    • Re:Medical equipment (Score:5, Interesting)

      by mnmn ( 145599 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @09:31PM (#24146517) Homepage
      As a relatively less scary story, the last bottle-making company I worked for (was bought out by Silgan Plastics) had these expensive plastic moulding machines bought at a high price from Italy. I was called in because the maintenance guy had been instructed to replace a PCI nic and couldn't do it. I opened the cabinet and lo and behold, there's an XP desktop sitting there with cheap Dell keyboard and mouse. The harddisk and motherboard had been bolted onto the metallic plates (no real case).

      I had worked for over a year as the only IT guy without knowing there were hoards of Windows desktops on the factory floor, with expensive maintenance contracts that brought in people to work on them.
    • by presentt ( 863462 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @09:45PM (#24146659) Homepage Journal

      Similarly, I believe an MRI machine at my local hospital runs Windows.

      While getting an MRI of my knee after an injury, the tech gave me a pair of headphones to listen to music from a CD I brought in, which was piped in from the control room along with audio from the technician ("almost done, dolly, just one more scan")

      About halfway through the second track, the music abruptly switchd to the "BUHBUHBUHBUHBUHBUHBUHBUHBUHNNNNNN" sound of Windows freaking out, followed by silence, and then by the Windows startup sound. The MRI seemed to keep running, but at least the communications were using Windows.

    • by Randall311 ( 866824 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @10:59PM (#24147413) Homepage
      Agreed. Windows should have no place running medical equipment. There should be embedded, thoroughly tested solutions that use some sort of real-time kernel, and it should be the law. How the hell could they think of using Windows on a piece of equipment that needs to be running to save people's lives? It's asinine and scary as hell! The timings on many of these medical devices need to be guaranteed. Running a full OS on these devices is overkill, and it opens the device up to any problems of said OS... and we all know the laundry list of problems Windows has. Let's get some VxWorks or Linux RT up in here!
    • Re:Medical equipment (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Hal_Porter ( 817932 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @11:25PM (#24147629)

      I worked on an X Ray system that run Windows 2000. There was actually an earlier Linux version but the customers wanted Windows for some reason. I'm not sure why, installing applications on a X Ray system seems to me to be incredibly unwise.

      But it wasn't as bad a decision as you think. The actually X ray and display was essentially a separate machine. There was a PCI bus driven by the Windows box but everything was set up so that if the Windows side crashed the X Ray would continue to work. There was a dedicated monitor and the UI could be handled either with a mouse or with dedicated buttons. One of the tests was that you could continue to use the system while Windows rebooted from a BSOD. Or failed to reboot actually, we'd overwrite the MBR and the dereference a null pointer in kernel mode WinDbg which would trash the machine irrevocably.

      Essentially all desktop stuff is crap compared to well designed embedded systems. Embedded systems, at least good ones, don't call malloc except at initialization to avoid memory fragmentation. The code is much simpler - the X ray system would initialize the hardware and then sit in a loop waiting for commands from the hard keys. Code coverage was 100%, and the actual code was tiny, only a few 10s of kilobytes. The embedded system didn't have a filesystem and didn't do any dynamic loading - an image was booted from flash and that was it. The hardware was absolutley sealed, unlike in a desktop environment where people can install a $5 webcam with buggy drivers. There was even a hardkey to disable UI events from Windows - from Windows POV the UI device would be unplugged, just in case the Windows UI application went apeshit and overloaded the embedded side with bogus UI events. People worked out worst case interrupt latency and used vxWorks, a very light weight OS. All the critical stuff worked in this environment or was in hardware.

      Essentially the Windows PC was a glorified Human Interface device but everything was set up so the hard buttons were a more convenient system anyway. So people actually doing X Rays would use those. The point of all this was that we couldn't prove the desktop stuff was reliable so we worked on the assumption that it wasn't.

  • by diggitzz ( 615742 ) <> on Thursday July 10, 2008 @08:21PM (#24145831) Homepage

    And, of course, there is only one operating system to use if you are dependent on Microsoft apps like Outlook, Word, and Excel.

    Mac OS X?

  • Plants (Score:5, Informative)

    by barik ( 160226 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @08:23PM (#24145853) Homepage

    Most plants are running on PLCs, but their user interfaces HMI are pretty much all running some form of Windows. Common ones include Proficy iFIX (by GE), RSView (Rockwell), and WonderWare InTouch (Wonderware) on either Windows XP, Windows 2000/2003 or some form of Windows Embedded.

    It is actually incredibly difficult to find mature HMI software that is available for Linux.

    • Re:Plants (Score:5, Funny)

      by clarkkent09 ( 1104833 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @08:31PM (#24145937)
      Yeah, but that's because photosynthesis software only runs on Windows
    • Re:Plants (Score:4, Informative)

      by __aaqvdr516 ( 975138 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @09:20PM (#24146433)
      I'm not an expert, but I do admin a small network at a power plant and am an I&E tech. While we do have mostly Windows machines for admin tasks, all of our process instruments report to separate dedicated hardware and are interfaced with QNX. The windows machines only poll data and are the developing station for code to be pushed to the process controllers. All interfacing with process controls are through QNX. This is true for all power plants currently owned by the company I work for.
  • by neokushan ( 932374 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @08:23PM (#24145861)

    I'm all for having a "lol" at stupidly overcomplicated systems being used for the most mundane of tasks, but this article is a little sketchy on some of the details.
    For example, one line states "Why not program some stripped down embedded system for that task?" when it doesn't even indicate what version of Windows the system he's talking about uses - there IS an embedded version of Windows available for such tasks, you know.
    The article is still a good read, though, but I'd take what it's saying with a pinch of salt and don't just immediately start bashing Microsoft, after all it's not their fault if a sysadmin makes a stupid design choice or 10.

    • Ho ho ho! *snort* (Score:3, Informative)

      it doesn't even indicate what version of Windows the system he's talking about uses - there IS an embedded version of Windows available for such tasks, you know.

      I presume you mean Windows CE?

      I'm on a team that (among other things) makes BSPs for Windows CE. Did you know that every single driver in CE5 runs in user mode? Ayup. They're simple DLL files that device.exe launches and runs as threads. Just at a slightly higher priority than Pocket Word.

      Think about that a moment.

      The drivers crash just like programs too. They just...bail. Suddenly the device the DLL is providing an interface to is simply gone. They don't run in supervisor mode, so they are sus

  • Public BSODs (Score:5, Informative)

    by amdpox ( 1308283 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @08:28PM (#24145901)
    I've seen quite a few... every ticket machine at Melbourne Airport one day was going through a BSOD-reboot loop, placed quite a workload on the human employees. I really don't understand how any company who's done a tiny bit of research could think Windows is an appropriate platform for something that should really be running a custom embedded system like a cut-down *nix.
  • Power draw (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pjt48108 ( 321212 ) <{pjt48108} {at} {}> on Thursday July 10, 2008 @08:31PM (#24145929) Homepage

    Another problem with overbloated systems running simple tasks is the huge draw of electricity. How much power could we save (and, therefore, money) by using bloated systems less for simple things?

    An obvious observation, but I thought I'd make it.

  • by stephanruby ( 542433 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @08:32PM (#24145941)

    I nominate the Diebold Windows CE (Visual Basic for Applications) voting machines to the list.

    After all, Diebold could have done worse and used Windows XP, or Windows Vista (not that it was out at the time), but I still nominate Diebold to the list for having chosen VBA (not that there is anything wrong with VBA, VBA has its uses -- it's just that it's really a poor choice for making supposedly secure and transparent voting machines).

  • by JonWan ( 456212 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @08:37PM (#24146009)

    Yep, The prison where I worked as a guard for a while changed their control center from mechanical switches to a PC running XP. I worked the control center a lot and the "upgrade" sucked. You had to page thru several screens to see all the doors and the touch screen was too sensitive. You could open 2 doors or the wrong door by accident. The interlock system was suppose to prevent that by requiring you to use both hands to open doors, but it proved to be impossible to use so it was disabled. the OS was always crashing (likely the shitty program) and you had to wait for the system to reboot before you could open doors without the keys.

  • The worst i've seen (Score:5, Interesting)

    by blhack ( 921171 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @08:47PM (#24146105)

    In Phoenix we have a power company called APS. In some of the gas stations there are kiosks that allow you to pay your bill using Cash. I was walking through a circle K the other day, and to my horror i saw this:

    link []

    Sorry about the shitty image quality...I took it using my crackberry.

    Yes, that is a dialog box politely informing you that you have been Trojaned.

  • by Lumenary7204 ( 706407 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @08:48PM (#24146117)

    A good chunk of the Command and Control systems on most modern (or most recently refitted) naval vessels in the United States' inventory run on Windows technology.

    It kinda gives me the shivers knowing that one of our ships could be sunk by an "inbound" because the point defense system is suffering a BSOD...

    • by jd ( 1658 ) <> on Thursday July 10, 2008 @10:02PM (#24146859) Homepage Journal
      There is an example of systems failure causing the loss of a ship - although I do not believe Microsoft was at fault. (I'll blame them anyway, to be consistent.) That example was HMS Sheffield, in the Falkland's War, which was hit by an exocet missile despite having the ability to shoot them down. The point defense systems were confused by too many objects on the RADAR.

      That blunder in systems design cost lives. A great many lives. Totally needlessly. Don't imagine it can't happen to the US navy, because if they rely on unstable software on mission critical systems, it will.

      Another non-Microsoft example of why software should be treated with a bit more care was the Boeing 767 that "landed" at Heathrow after all onboard computers shut down in flight. The pilots were damn good and damn lucky, but luck aside, why the hell were there no backup computer systems or failover strategies? Why did the pilots have to "fly" with no engines, no instrumentation and very nearly no controls?

      But when you combine this kind of insanely poor systems design with Microsoft's unreliability and long boot times, you have something that is asking for trouble. Problem is, if you ask for trouble nicely enough, trouble is happy to oblige.

  • by roc97007 ( 608802 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @08:52PM (#24146171) Journal

    Windows for Warships

  • Bank Machines (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Lumenary7204 ( 706407 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @09:01PM (#24146253)

    Also, a few months ago I stopped at a bank machine to withdraw some cash.

    So I entered my PIN and withdrawal amount. While waiting for the magic money machine to do its thing, I idly tapped my fingers in random patterns on the touch screen.

    Suddenly, a standard Windows XP taskbar and Start button appeared.

    Being curious, I tapped the Start button. Kinda freaked me out when a complete Start Menu appeared. Everything was there, including Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, and Windows Media Player.

    I can't believe that neither the ATM machine manufacturer nor the bank put any effort into building a custom, stripped-down image to run the bank's cash machines...

  • by fahrvergnugen ( 228539 ) <> on Thursday July 10, 2008 @09:01PM (#24146257) Homepage

    When drinking one night with a former roller coaster technician who had decided to get into the less stressful job of datacenter ops, I found out something terrifying about a famous (and, it should be said, injury/fatality-free as far as I know) catch & release roller coaster.

    The coaster is designed such that the train car is loaded at a station. Then a tractor mechanism pulls it backward, up to the top of a steep incline. Once at the top, the mechanism releases the car, and the train goes rocketing through the station, through a series of tight loops and twists, and then coasts up an identical steep incline on the other end. There another mechanism catches the car, drags it all the way to the top, and then lets go, sending the car back through the series of loops and twists in reverse. The car decelerates up the incline back on the original side, is caught once again, and returned gently to the station for boarding.

    All of these catch mechanisms need to know the velocity and weight of the train car in order to properly catch and decelerate it without hurting any of the occupants. Those values will change with every load of passengers, due to people's varying weights and their distribution around the car, so they have to be calculated on the fly.

    The software that does this, the engineer swore to me, runs on...

    Windows 3.11.

    This knowledge made future rides on that particular coaster a hell of a lot more scary.

    • by GroeFaZ ( 850443 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @09:37PM (#24146573)
      Well duh, a roller coaster is supposed to scare the living hell out of you. A geek might not be overly impressed by experiencing the effects of gravity and inertia (and might even carry a chess board with glued-on pieces), but knowing that thing runs on Windows 3.11! The horror!
    • by tjstork ( 137384 ) <todd.bandrowsky@gma i l .com> on Thursday July 10, 2008 @09:52PM (#24146747) Homepage Journal

      Windows 3.11 wasn't a truly multitasking operating system, so that, if an application was doing something in between Windows messages, it genuinely owned the whole machine. If you are doing a near real time system, you probably don't want to lose a time slot in the middle of a roller coaster ride so that some other daemon could fire off and do something else. So yeah, Windows 3.11 might actually work rather well, so long as the application wasn't trying to allocate too many resource handles.

      Actually, I wonder why MS wouldn't release a non-preemptive Windows, just for this purpose. It would be a lot more reliable for some applications.

  • by erroneus ( 253617 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @09:03PM (#24146269) Homepage

    I have no reservations about it. Given the constant stream of complaints that Bill Gates himself had about the quality and stability of Windows, I'd say it is pretty safe to assume that Microsoft is WELL aware of problems with Windows. And for Microsoft to actively push their OS as a platform upon which important, significant and even critical systems and services are run without disclosing the KNOWN risks of using Windows under such circumstances is criminal negligence or even worse.

    Once again, resorting to the old "car analogy", if an auto manufacturer were caught pushing their dressed-up SUVs as actual ATVs, I think it's safe to say that various consumer protection agencies and possibly the department of justice might get involved.

    How does Microsoft get away with this? Simple -- they are the only game in town and as such is typically viewed as "the best we have." To complain that the best is not good enough would be considered by most to be a wasted effort.

    "Critical Mass"

    Microsoft achieved it and now most tech people know only Microsoft Windows and will deploy only Microsoft Windows for any given task.

    It's good that some people like the NYSE has found Windows lacking and that better alternatives exist for their specialized tasks.

    I don't think anyone will argue that Windows on the desktop is acceptable for a lot of people, especially those people who don't have people like me to help them use other systems. If they are on their own, trying to use Linux or even MacOS might leave them out in the cold or under rather EXPENSIVE support costs. (A lone user can barely throw a stone without hitting someone who can deftly advise them to reboot and reinstall.)

    But to put Windows in SPECIALIZED applications and devices makes no sense. "Compatibility" isn't an issue there. "Usability" isn't an issue there. "Stability" and "reliability" are often the most important considerations with cost as a third or fourth. (I don't have a second most important consideration, but I'm pretty sure the fifth is "profit!!")

  • by QuantumRiff ( 120817 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @09:22PM (#24146449)
    Every 2nd Wednesday of the month, instead of playing a TV program, I can hear it, but see a windows XP desktop, with a minimized window of the video playing, and a notice that updates are ready to install. That usually sticks around until late afternoon, or early evening, when someone finally either installs the patches and reboots, or just restores the minimized screen..
  • by STFS ( 671004 ) on Thursday July 10, 2008 @09:39PM (#24146607) Homepage
    ... well ok, not quite, but still! There's an ATM at my school which embodies the mother of all WTFs in my oppinion. It's a DIEBOLD ATM with a _headphone jack_ which usually displays the Windows XP login screen with a big error message saying that the bank domain is not available! If you think I'm making this up I wish to present to you... the evidence: []
  • by hoofie ( 201045 ) <[moc.mikdnaemearg] [ta] [emearg]> on Thursday July 10, 2008 @11:36PM (#24147727)
    The writer of this article is making an assumption and then wandering around to find ANY justification. His specific example Number 5 [Train control] - he basically 'thinks' that a train is controlled by Window based on a converesation with someone and then looks for a justification for his opinion. No-where in the PDF he links does it say the train control system runs on Windows. It does say that the external plug-in management software is based on Windows [on a laptop I presume] but so what ? - that's common for many out-of-band management tools. I'm no windows fan at all [I think in the embedded sphere it's not advisable] but this article smacks of sensationalist and badly-researched reporting.

The unfacts, did we have them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude.