The Monster in the Machine.

My computer was sick. It was slow starting up, the browser seemed to hang for no apparent reason – only to release and continue maybe minutes later. Page download times were inordinately long. Graphic sequences were not being displayed smoothly, sound was being broken up into staccato bursts. And periodically the system would hang completely – only to start running again minutes later if I was lucky. Under these circumstances, it was hardly possible to switch off normally; it usually meant a grab for the “Reset” button. All in all, a real mess. Not at all what you would expect from a dual-core Pentium system!

Of course, the symptoms all disappeared again when the machine was restarted, which was not much help at all.

So, I decided to play it differently. The first program I started after switch-on was Task Manager. From there I could keep a check on processor workload as things progressed. The first thing I noticed was that a program called “vsmon.exe” was sometimes using a lot of power, but would normally then reduce its consumption to a more reasonable 2% or so. Until one day recently, when it really got bad, and it showed 57% with no inclination whatsoever to reduce that figure.

Just to put this into perspective – this one program was consuming the complete resources of one of the two processor cores, plus a fair slice of the remaining one. This was just not on! One fast reboot later, and I hit Google with the demand “VSMON.EXE”.

And there we had it. A very long list of like sufferers with exactly the same problem!

For background information, vsmon.exe belongs to a program called Zone Alarm, which is a personal Firewall, and which I had been using very happily for many years. Unfortunately, Zone Alarm, which was originally developed by Zone Labs, was taken over by another company called Check Point in March 2004, and it all began to go downhill from there.

As if to put their own stamp on the product, the user interface was changed, which meant a new learning curve for an existing product. Not very friendly, and totally unnecessary – the old interface was just fine.

New updates just didn’t want to go away. You were given the option of deferring the next reminder for up to 60 days, but – sure as eggs are eggs – at the end of the chosen period it would be sitting there again, demanding attention. It was no longer ‘Freeware’, it had morphed into ‘Nagware’.

The next update did away with the tray icon that I always relied on to indicate Internet traffic –  in (green), and out (red), –  of my computer. That was a sad day for me, for that item was the main reason I was using the program in the first place. I didn’t actually need a firewall at all – there was one already built into the router. However, I decided to accept the loss and manage without, until the computer performance started to decline radically. Then it just had to go!

For those of you needing a personal Firewall, (which you will still need if you want to keep a check on the programs in your computer trying to access the Internet), I strongly recommend a visit to http://www.matousec.com/projects/proactive-security-challenge/results.php

Matousec has done a thorough test of available firewalls, and published their results for all to see. There are 4 free firewalls rated “Excellent” or better, and Zone Alarm does not figure in that number. On the contrary, it only merits the rating “Good”, and warrants a “Not Recomended” verdict.

So, Check Point has taken an award-winning firewall as a going concern, and turned it into a computer-eating monster. I wonder why?

No matter, my computer is as happy as a sandboy without it.

By the way, if anybody knows of a freeware program to produce a tray icon showing Internet traffic in and out of the computer, I would love to have it. Please give the address in a comment!. Thank you.

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