Software

Have you been burned by a service pack?

Service packs used to be an admin's best friend, addressing scores of problems in one fell swoop. But as Ed Bott points out, the Microsoft SP track record has gotten a little shaky. See what members had to say about their service pack strategies.


Once upon a time, administrators couldn't wait to get their hands on a Microsoft service pack. New SPs were well tested and practically guaranteed to fix a multitude of problems. These days, however, savvy Windows managers think twice when it comes to service packs.

The Windows team committed a well-publicized gaffe a few years back when it released a service pack for Windows NT that broke Lotus Notes and other Winsock-based applications. (Read Microsoft's Service Pack 6 FAQ for the gory details.) The worst offender, though, is Microsoft's Office group, which issued two service releases for Office 97 and then had to supply patches for both shortly after their initial release. More recently, a pair of Office 2000 service releases have given administrators fits. Service Pack 2, for instance, incorporates the Outlook E-Mail Security Update, which makes it nearly impossible to open many widely used attachments and can’t be uninstalled. (And no, that's not a typo. After three service releases in four years, the Office team suddenly changed the label to service pack.)

I heard from several angry Office administrators who won't allow Office 2000 Service Pack 2 anywhere near their users' machines. One TechRepublic member, InfoHungryNewbie, admitted, "I jumped the gun and installed Office SP-2 and have regretted it ever since. Luckily, my office does not revolve around sending and receiving certain files that Microsoft thought we no longer needed to receive."

TechRepublic member pwyatt has a foolproof strategy for dealing with Office updates: "I wait to see what Woody's Office Watch (WOW) says. They do the testing, find all the snags, and let me know what the risk is—go or no go." Woody Leonhard's credentials as an Office expert are formidable, and the WOW special report on SP-2 is essential reading. (Full disclosure: Woody and I coauthored Que's Special Edition Using Microsoft Office 2000.)

What about Windows? Although Microsoft's OS team has a much better track record, the overwhelming majority of respondents believe in waiting for service packs to prove themselves in the field. TechRepublic member Ctaylor said, "I trust Windows service packs much more than those from the Office team, but I still think it is worthwhile to assess whether or not what is fixed makes sense for you. In a corporate environment, it is a good idea to apply OS service packs only after they have been out for a month or two and any problems have surfaced."

Several TechRepublic members suggested installing service releases on one or more test machines first. In a well-managed shop, that idea makes sense. TechRepublic member rziminski described his company's approach this way: "Our group uses pretty much the same hardware, and our IT department rolls out a standard software package for the desktop. So we take a test machine, install [the SP] right away, and test it as much as reasonably possible. The trick here is getting an end user on the machine and seeing what they do. If the testing goes well, then we will deploy the SP via SMS. However, you can count on something, somewhere blowing up, so be prepared to roll back a machine or two."

Finally, one small but vocal faction argued for the classic "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach. TechRepublic member chris27, for instance, said, "Unless there is a significant reason to install the SP, why do it? I research the exact reason for the SP prior to installing it because it may not even affect my machines, so why take the chance of bandaging up something that could cause an explosion."

I don't agree with that philosophy. In general, service packs roll up dozens, even hundreds of changes. Barring major problems, installing a service pack is far easier and safer than messing with all those hotfixes.

A big thanks to all the respondents who contributed to this week's column.

Here's Ed's new Challenge
By now you've probably heard that Microsoft plans to roll out a controversial "product activation" scheme with Windows XP. In the final version of the new operating system, end users will have 30 days to contact Microsoft—over the Internet, by phone, or by snail mail—to get an activation code that allows them to continue using the product. The activation process stores details about the user's hardware configuration to prevent installing a second copy on a second machine. Have you read about this scheme? What do you think of it? Most importantly, will it affect your plans to buy and deploy Windows XP? If you've got an opinion, click here to share it with fellow TechRepublic members. Rants are welcome, but the best responses will be backed up with solid information and a well-reasoned point of view. If I use your remarks in the column, you'll earn a share of 2,001 TechPoints I've set aside for this week's Microsoft Challenge.
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