The beta program for a key Windows patch management tool that was postponed just before it was to get under way last September will begin in January, a Microsoft executive said.
Software Update Services (SUS) 2.0 is a much-anticipated new version of a utility that comes bundled with Windows Server. An initial beta for SUS 2.0 was originally planned as something akin to an alpha test. "It was just a desire to get some initial feedback," said Steve Anderson, a director in Windows Server product marketing at Microsoft. Anderson's group now oversees the company's patch management technologies.
Instead, he said, the response to the program was so overwhelming that Microsoft decided to pull back and prepare a more formal beta program. SUS 2.0 is expected to become available in the first half of 2004.
More than 500,000 customers have downloaded SUS 1.0, though Microsoft hasn't yet started tracking how many SUS clients are connecting back to Windows Update site to download patches. The company did little to market SUS prior to this year, but the technology is taking on great significance because security and patch management has becomes a top priority for many.
User demand caught MS off guard
Given that security is such a big deal, at least one expert expressed surprise that Microsoft would be so caught off guard by an overwhelming response to its initial beta. "I would think [Microsoft] would have had a closer handle on the pulse," said Larry Duncan, principal consultant at Collective Technologies, Nashville, Tenn. Nevertheless, Duncan said that, even though the software will be overdue, he appreciates Microsoft's effort to make SUS a useful tool.
And considering the level of interest in SUS, experts would also like to get official word about the technology's evolution straight from the horse's mouth. "I would like to hear Microsoft make more of a public statement," said Rod Trent, a consultant and expert on Microsoft's management software, as well as editor of MyITForum.com.
In anticipation of the beta, Anderson gave a refresher of what customers can expect in SUS 2.0. He said that there are four major improvements.
The initial version of SUS merely patched the Windows operating system. The first major improvement is the ability to go beyond the operating system and patch Windows' application content. This will be done through a feature called Microsoft Update, as opposed to Windows Update, which Microsoft cannot use for this purpose because of the software maker's antitrust settlement with the federal government. By the end of 2004, he said, the goal is to have all of the patches for these applications on the Microsoft Update site.
Number of installers being trimmed
As Microsoft said earlier this year, the company is boiling down the number of installers it currently uses -- from four to two. Microsoft Installer for Windows (MSI 3.0) is currently in beta and will be released at the same time as SUS 2.0. There will also be one application installer. One improvement to these technologies is the ability to uninstall patches, he said.
A third improvement will be the ability to give IT administrators' better control over choosing their content. In SUS 2.0, administrators can choose the language and content they want, whereas today, anything connected to a SUS Server gets patched. The level of basic targeting with SUS still won't be as fine-grained as an IT administrator gets with Microsoft's desktop management software, Systems Management Server 2003, Anderson said. This is one of the main differentiators between the patch manager and SMS, which just began shipping in its latest version earlier this month.
Also, patches will be reduced in size by up to 90% using the Delta patching technology described by Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer at the company's annual partner conference in October.
"Until now, when a certain update needed to be applied to a file or library, we rewrote the whole library to the file," Anderson said. "This new technology does a bit-by-bit inspection, so it only updates code that needs to be updated, not the entire file."
Support for 'bandwidth throttling'
Delta patching will also support another feature called bandwidth throttling. This lets network administrators determine whether to make SUS bits a high or low priority, based on the amount of traffic on a network. "This way, you are not slamming your network with patches and updates when you are trying to conduct business," he said.
Delta patching is a feature that appeals to many IT administrators.
"Reducing the size of the package is huge," said Roger Wilding, a senior technical engineer at CNF, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based transportation and shipping company. He said that even though there are other ways to move large packages over slow links, reducing the package size is a big improvement.
Finally, Microsoft is adding some reporting features to SUS 2.0, Anderson said. Today, administrators cannot tell after they've deployed updates whether their efforts were successful. SUS 2.0 will have a basic reporting engine so that, when patches are deployed, administrators will be alerted that an installation was successful. Alternately, a user will be notified when it's time to reboot.
SUS will also support remote install features, so an administrator can deploy a SUS server in a remote office as well as at headquarters. Patches can be picked up by the local server if necessary, he said.
Integration with SMS 2003
Questions continue to arise about the level of integration SUS will have with SMS 2003. Anderson said that Microsoft will continue to deliver a baseline of core functions in SUS, but if customers require more capabilities, they will need to move up to SMS.
Today, SMS 2.0 and SUS 1.0 are built on completely different architectures, but Microsoft plans to build SMS on top of SUS so there is a common architecture and experience. Customers will see some tighter integration when SUS becomes available in the first half of next year, and when SMS Service Pack 1.0 is available next summer, Anderson said.
"At their technical core, they will still be built on different code, but we are moving to one architecture for the entire thing," he said.
Other management packages will also be able to work with SUS in the same fashion as SMS, he said.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Article: Beta for SUS 2.0 on hold for now
Resource: The Desktop Administrator