Those of us whose history goes back to Windows NT remember when a service pack was exactly what its name suggests – no new features, just bug fixes, thoroughly tested (usually) – and when application of the latest service pack was no big deal (application of any other updates was not normally required, unless addressing a specific issues). Today the landscape is different, with irregular service packs often bringing major operating system changes and requiring extensive testing, and frequent updates issued on the second Tuesday of almost every month.
A couple of weeks ago I was at a Microsoft event where one of the presenters (Microsoft UK’s James O’Neill) suggested that service packs are irrelevant and that they actually serve to put some people off deploying new operating system releases. To be fair to James, he was specifically talking about the “don’t deploy until the first service pack has shipped” doubters and to some extent he is right – the many updates that are applied to a Windows Vista installation today have provided numerous incremental improvements to the operating system since the original RTM last year. Even so, I can’t help thinking that Microsoft has muddied the water to some extent – I always understood that service packs had a higher level of integration testing than individual updates but it seems the current Microsoft advice is to apply all applicable “patch Tuesday” updates but only to apply other hotfixes (those updates produced to patch a specific customer scenario) where they are absolutely necessary.
Regardless of this confusion around the different forms of update, service packs are not dead – far from it – with both Windows Vista SP1 and Windows XP SP3 in beta at the time of writing. Although largely update rollups, these service packs do introduce some new features (new networking features for XP, and a kernel change for Vista to bring it in line with Windows Server 2008) but I’ve been of the opinion for some time now that XP SP3 is long overdue.
Going forward, it’s interesting to note that Windows Server 2008 is expected to launch with SP1 included. If that sounds odd, remember that both Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 were originally both codenamed Longhorn and that they are very closely related – it’s anticipated that the next Windows service pack (let’s call it SP2 for the sake of argument) will be equally applicable to both the client and server operating system releases.