Service packs vs. rollups: The fix is in

Some Microsoft customers clamor for Windows service packs that cover every imaginable fix, but experts warn that they should be careful what they wish for. In end-of-life cases like Windows 2000 Server, a rollup may be all they need.

As Windows 2000 Server heads into its final months of mainstream support, many IT administrators wanted, or even felt they deserved, a final service pack for the operating system. Instead, Microsoft said last month that it plans to issue an update rollup that includes all the major security fixes to date.

That may be a disappointment for

Customers want predictability.


Mike Cherry, analyst,

Directions on Microsoft

,
some. In a recent poll of 166 SearchWin2000.com members, 89% said they think Microsoft should release a SP5 for Windows 2000 Server instead of a rollup.

But a rollup may be all they need, some experts said. The value of a service pack versus a rollup depends on a customer's situation, and the fact is that many people have a different idea of what each should contain, or how many service packs or rollups should be included as part of the life of an operating system.

Service packs are viewed by many customers as a way to boost an operating system up to a particular state. But large customers view them as a tremendous amount of work to deploy, said Peter Houston, a senior director at Microsoft.

Microsoft defines a service pack as "a tested, cumulative set of all hotfixes, security updates, critical updates and updates. Service packs may also contain additional features for problems that are found internally since the release of the product and a limited number of customer-requested design changes or features."

An update rollup is defined as "a tested, cumulative set of hotfixes, security updates, critical updates, and updates that are packaged for easy deployment. A rollup generally targets a specific area, such as security, or a component of a product."

Rollups serve a purpose

"It would be convenient to have a one big pack before it goes out of business," said Jon Hurd, a network analyst for the city of Redmond, Wash. "But rollups are just as good as long as they are timely and you install them in a timely manner."

Microsoft's Houston said he suspects that IT administrators who really want the service pack may not be 100% sure

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about the differences between the two. Service packs include every fix that has been made since the prior service pack.

Customers do a lot of pre-deployment testing and there is always a risk of one of these fixes causing a problem, Houston said. Microsoft decided to issue a rollup and include all the most important security updates since its most recent service pack for Windows 2000 Server SP4.

"Our overall goal is to help [customers] stay secure with the minimum amount of disruption," Houston said. "They've had Win2k stable for a long time and they place a priority on stability."

Microsoft doesn't have a set schedule for what it will deliver while a product is in its mainstream or extended support phases and there is no set number of service packs promised for each release. Service packs are not generally issued once mainstream support for a product ends, which is normally five years after the date of general availability or for two years after the successor product is released. Extended support typically lasts for five years after the mainstream support ends, or two years after the second successor product is released, according to Microsoft.

An issue of customer demand

Houston said the monthly security updates help keep customers updated on a regular basis. Another factor that plays into the service pack versus rollup decision has to do with the types of requests Microsoft gets from customers.

"We find that every year or two after we release the next product, the number of [requests for] fixes drops dramatically, and they tend to be customized in nature," he said. "Customers usually get to a certain state and then only apply those fixes they need. With an update rollup, they can still do that."

One advantage to releasing a rollup is that it will be available faster than a service pack, experts said. "XP SP2 took two years to come out, and you don't want to go through that again," said Susan Bradley, an IT expert and Microsoft MVP at Tamiyasu, Smith, Horn and Braun, a Fresno, Calif., accounting firm.

Mike Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, in Kirkland, Wash., said he thinks it would be best for IT administrators if service packs had no features, and if Microsoft would produce a schedule that told customers in advance when rollups and fixes are due.

"Customers want predictability," Cherry said. "Microsoft should put out a service pack six months after the product comes out, maybe a second service pack on the one-year anniversary. In between Service Pack 1 and the last service pack, I would take update rollups."

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