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Windows service pack tool draws early praise

Windows customers say they were pleased to learn that they can now use Software Update Services (SUS) to distribute service packs, but many say they wish Microsoft had given them advance notice of the new capabilities.

Microsoft's customers like freebies and conveniences, but they also like to be forewarned when something is about to come down their pipes and end up on their servers.

Without advance notice, Microsoft on Wednesday night made it possible for customers to use Software Update Services (SUS) to distribute service packs, instead of requiring a separate patch management system or Active Directory group policy. Customers who have checked their Windows updates since then have found they received copies of Service Pack 4 for Windows 2000 and Service Pack 1 for XP.

For many, the ability to get service packs via SUS is a nice change. "Microsoft's original party line was you would have to use [Systems Management Server] to push out service packs or use Active Directory and group policy," said Jeremy Moskowitz, an independent consultant based in Wilmington, Del.

"The only thing it costs you is a little more disk space on the server," Moskowitz said. "You do have to approve the update before it is sent to the client."

Indeed, at least one customer learned about the changes when he observed that his company firewall experienced a substantial download Wednesday evening that contained Windows 2000 Service Pack 4 and XP Service Pack 1.

He said he wasn't told by Microsoft in advance that its policy was changing. "As the service pack size has an impact on the available disk space, it would have been nice," the customer said.

Another customer said he was irked about not being told of the changes.

"I would have preferred that Microsoft made more of an announcement, and made this an option," said Ian Hayes, a network manager at Bloodhound Inc., a Research Triangle Park, N.C.-based application service provider that processes health and insurance claims.

"It won't be too useful for us because I'm stuck on SP2 because of the in-house code, and with SUS, it's an all or nothing thing," Hayes said. "I'm not going to push service packs out with SUS because the amount of traffic I'd have to pass would be incredible. Windows SP4 is 125 megabytes."

All customers were just learning about the changes on Thursday morning, and a smattering of them had already begun to post their comments to news groups. One member of Microsoft's SUS team quickly addressed the user concerns through a post in the SUS news group. Don Cottam, a software test engineer at Microsoft, acknowledged that Microsoft could have done a better job alerting users to the upcoming changes.

To the point that customers didn't receive ample notification, Cottam said there has been some discussion in the news groups about how to communicate the change, but Microsoft didn't want to create a situation in which it named a date for the change and then did not meet expectations.

Microsoft could not send an e-mail to SUS customers directly because it never required users to register for the utility, he said.

Responding to some customers who wanted to know whether they could turn the feature off, Cottam said no. He said the only way to do that would be to produce two versions of SUS, one with the service packs and one without. To do that would be too time-consuming and would distract the product team from working on the next version of SUS.

Cottam said the feature was activated because "every customer that we've talked to, either in person, [at] conferences, on the phone or through e-mail, has expressed extreme wishes to see service packs delivered through SUS."

Cottam said that downloading the service packs won't be fast, particularly on a slow connection. There won't be any way around the slow delivery for this version of SUS, but in the next version, customers will be able to identify exactly what content they want, so they don't have to receive what they don't need, he said.

"Again, service packs have been such a high-volume request that we feel that the majority of our customers are willing to put up with the pain of the download once every few months," Cottam said.

Analysts say the severity of the recent attacks has made customers more interested in getting their patches installed quickly. Some are willing to do things they wouldn't consider before, such as installing a patch without full testing and taking the risk that it will break an application.


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