Hello!  I haven't updated this blog in a while; work and other events have conspired to keep me from writing.  Also, blogs.msdn.com moved internally from .Text to Telligent Community Server, and my CSS markup was an unfortunate casualty of the move, so I'm working on redesigning the blog's visual appearance.  More entries will be coming eventually.  :)

   In the meantime, I want to defuse a long-standing controversy -- the /prefetch flag.

 

   With modern computing, the absolute worst thing you can ever do for performance is having to touch the hard drive -- or any non-memory storage for that matter.  The fastest hard drives on earth are still horridly slow compared to a PC's main memory; even with solid state drives, in order to access the drive, one has to jump into system code and drivers, and this will push your own program's code out of the CPU's L2 cache.  (This is called a locality loss.)  There's two typical reasons one has to touch the disk -- the first is when the application requests it explicitly (Word asks the OS to load blog.doc into memory), and the other is a "hard fault" -- when the application tries to use memory that has been paged out to disk via "virtual memory" and needs to be paged back in.

   Now, imagine that a DVD player program always starts playback by loading a DLL to decode MPEG-2 video.  Wouldn't it be nice if we could attempt to pre-load the MPEG-2 DLL whenever we loaded the DVD player's EXE?  That way, when it tries to run code on that DLL, one doesn't have to hard fault and go to disk for it!   This is what a prefetcher does: it tracks what code pages are used by an application, and the next time that application loads, it loads those pages in advance as soon as it's got some idle time.  A prefetcher was added to Windows in XP, and is vastly improved in Windows Longhorn.

   XP systems have a Prefetch directory underneath the windows root directory, full of .pf files -- these are lists of pages to load.  The file names are generated from hashing the EXE to load -- whenever you load the EXE, we hash, see if there's a matching (exename)-(hash).pf file in the prefetch directory, and if so we load those pages.  (If it doesn't exist, we track what pages it loads, create that file, and pick a handful of them to save to it.)  So, first off, it is a bad idea to periodically clean out that folder as some tech sites suggest.  For one thing, XP will just re-create that data anyways; secondly, it trims the files anyways if there's ever more than 128 of them so that it doesn't needlessly consume space.  So not only is deleting the directory totally unnecessary, but you're also putting a temporary dent in your PC's performance.

   Secondly, one can specify a /prefetch:# flag when launching an app.  Many people have noticed that auto-generated shortcuts to Windows Media Player do this, and the number varies depending on what it does.  For example, the shortcut used by the shell when you double-click a WMV file to play it has one prefetch number; the auto-run shortcut to play or rip music that appears when you insert a music CD have other numbers.  Some sites have guessed that this switch turns on prefetching, and suggest that you add that to every executable you care about -- this has appeared on so many, many, many sites to be urban legend.  Other sites write this off as garbage and guess that it's a switch specific to Media Player, guessing from references to prefetching in the Windows driver subsystem.  Both guesses are incorrect.

   The /prefetch:# flag is looked at by the OS when we create the process -- however, it has one (and only one) purpose.  We add the passed number to the hash.  Why?  WMP is a multipurpose application and may do many different things.  The DLLs and code that it touches will be very different when playing a WMV than when playing a DVD, or when ripping a CD, or when listening to a Shoutcast stream, or any of the other things that WMP can do.  If we only had one hash for WMP, then the prefetch would only be correct for one such use.  Having incorrect prefetch data would not be a fatal error -- it'd just load pages into memory that'd never get used, and then get swapped back out to disk as soon as possible.  Still, it's counterproductive.  By specifying a /prefetch:# flag with a different number for each "mode" that WMP can do, each mode gets its own separate hash file, and thus we properly prefetch.  (This behavior isn't specific to WMP -- it does the same for any app.)

   This flag is looked at when we create the first thread in the process, but it is not removed by CreateProcess from the command line, so any app that chokes on unrecognized command line parameters will not work with it.  This is why so many people notice that Kazaa and other apps crash or otherwise refuse to start when it's added.  Of course, WMP knows that it may be there, and just silently ignores its existence.

   I suspect that the "add /prefetch:1 to make rocket go now" urban legend will never die, though.  I know that at least one major company ships products with it in their shortcuts, without ever asking us... just for good measure, I guess.  :-P  All it does is change your hash number -- the OS is doing exactly the same thing it did before, and just saving the prefetch pages to a different file.

   (ATTENTION: This is merely an informative article; this information is completely unsupported, and the functionality may change or disappear entirely in future versions of Windows or service packs.  Furthermore, it is merely a hint for the XP prefetcher, and it may choose to ignore it if it wishes.)