Updated July 3, 1997

Heard on the Net --

WinNT Service Packs: Spawn of the Devil?

SERVICE PACKS ARE supposed to bring relief, casting out the demons that sometimes reside in your software.

But experience with the two latest service packs for Windows NT 4.0, Service Pack 2 and Service Pack 3, may have led people to see whether their spell-checker contains Mephistopheles.*

For those of you who haven't made their acquaintance yet, Service Packs are interim releases for software, usually a bundle of bug fixes and new drivers. Since Windows NT has been touted as the robust, reliable operating system for mission-critical systems, Microsoft has been diligent about releasing the fixes.

The current version of NT, 4.0, saw Service Pack 2 in January, and Service Pack 3 in May. Each of them contained over 100 bug fixes. They also contained a few unpleasant surprises, much as Linda Blair had for the unlucky priests in "The Exorcist."

Service Pack 2 hadn't been out long before screams of anguish could be heard coming from places like microsoft.public.windowsnt.misc. If you installed SP2 on a system that had anti-virus software running, anytime you accessed your CD-ROM or floppy drive your system would crash. "How could something like this be missed during beta testing?" was the lament of the poor souls.

Also vexing for SP2 was a problem that affected remote access services. And to add insult to injury, some of the distribution files that you could download from the Microsoft FTP site were corrupted, and if you attempted to install SP2 to other machines over a network, the installation would be corrupted. Hot fixes for these bugs were all rushed to release.

After the groundswell of criticism, Microsoft promised that more extensive testing would be done of the next release, Service Pack 3. There won't be as many problems with this one. Well, the pack came out in mid-May, and here is what is being said:

  • developers who use Visual Basic 5 report major problems after installing the Service Pack. On BugNet's InfoWorld forum, one user recounts that a Microsoft Support technician told him over the phone to remove the Service Pack because of incompatibility issues between the two.
  • According to Creative Labs, SP3 may have inadvertently used some older drivers for some of their cards, temporarily disabling them.
  • Some tape drives were no longer recognized after SP3 was installed.
  • Problems saving to a folder shared with a Windows 95 computer were reported.
  • Problems using SPX to communicate with a database on a Microsoft SQL server.
  • Problems with Internet Explorer 3.02 loading Java applets if colors are set to TrueColor.

These are bugs that weren't there prior to the installation of SP3, so we can presume that they were caused by it. And while there was nothing as crippling as the anti-virus problem, SP3 was certainly not sinless.

Note that, contrary to many rumors about Microsoft's business practices (the old saying "The job's not done till Lotus doesn't run" comes to mind) many of the affected programs belong to Microsoft. And, to be fair, people who install a Service Pack successfully and see their problems disappear rarely post on the news group merely to join the choir singing the praises of SP2 or SP3.

Most stories that touch on the subject of good and evil end with a moral, leaving something to reinforce the lessons you've just learned. This one ends with three, in regard to service packs:

  • If it's not broke, don't fix it.
  • Don't be the first to install a service pack. Let others do the dirty work.
  • Keep reading BugNet to keep track of all the bugs in future service packs.

-- By Bruce Kratofil

* By the way, he's in Word 7.

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