Executive Summary:

Windows Vista SP1 compiles recent fixes, and a few new minor features. In fact, its lack of major new features brings it back in line with Microsoft's traditional service pack philosophy.

Microsoft has come clean on what exactly it intends to ship in Windows Vista SP1. Although some of the details are surprising, the most interesting aspect of this release is that Microsoft was right all along: Customers really don’t need to wait for SP1 to deploy Vista. That’s because, with Vista SP1, the company is returning to a more traditional view of what a service pack is. Here’s what you need to know about Vista SP1, which should be available around the time you read this.

Back to Basics
Although Microsoft halted the development of Vista to create Windows XP SP2 and imbued that release with a host of new features and functionality, most of which were security related, the software giant is using Vista’s first service pack to return to its original plan for Windows service packs. That is, Vista SP1 doesn’t include any major new features. Instead, it’s an aggregation of previously released fixes, though it does include some SP1-specific fixes and a few minor new features.

The reasons for this change in service-pack philosophy are legion, but the important point is that Microsoft is responding to both the needs of customers and to a changing world. Today, most of the company’s customers are connected to the Internet, so Microsoft can deliver fixes and functional updates via its Microsoft Update and Automatic Update services, as well as related online services such as Windows Live. This pervasive connectivity gives consumers a way to get the most recent updates on a regular basis, and even the smallest corporate environments can use Microsoft and third-party deployment tools to control what gets pushed down to user desktops.

Microsoft also uses its online updating technologies to deploy hardware and software compatibility updates to customers. This means that, over time, Vista’s compatibility is improving at a steady clip, so devices and applications that might have had problems in late 2006 are likely working fine today. The company continues to maintain that Vista is the most compatible OS it’s ever shipped and that Vista is getting better each month.

In this new world, service packs are less crucial because customers don’t have to wait for one to get important fixes and functional changes. But corporations that prefer to install updates in larger, single installations can still wait for service packs to obtain updates en masse.

What’s Included in Vista SP1
In “What You Need to Know About Instant Search Changes to Windows Vista SP1,” September 2007, InstantDoc ID 96602, I discussed the instant search changes that Microsoft has implemented in Vista SP1 in response to antitrust complaints from online giant Google. In addition to those changes, Microsoft will include the following in Vista SP1:

Hotfix rollup. As in previous service packs, Vista SP1 will include a rollup of previously released hotfixes, security fixes, and other updates.

Performance, compatibility, and reliability fixes. Vista SP1 will include many updates that improve the performance, compatibility, and reliability of the underlying system. Although some of these fixes were deployed via Microsoft Update to customers in August and October 2007, SP1 will also include some fixes that are unique to this service pack.

Support for emerging hardware and standards. With previous Windows versions, Microsoft would typically wait for a new Windows version before introducing new compatibility with emerging hardware and standards. But because of the lead time on the next Windows version, the company is addressing this need in SP1, which will add support for Wireless- N networking hardware, the exFAT file system, Secure Digital (SD) advanced direct memory access (DMA), network boot for EFI-based x64 systems, the Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP), and DirectX 10.1.

Functional improvements. Microsoft is also making several small, functional changes. The Bit- Locker full-disk encryption feature is being updated so that it can automatically protect non-system disks, as per the version in Windows Server 2008. Disk Defragmenter now includes a UI for choosing which volumes are automatically defragmented. Local printing from Terminal Services has been improved, as has the Network Diagnostics tool.

“Service Pack 1 doesn’t change the Vista value proposition,” Windows Client product manager Dave Zipkin told me in a recent briefing.

“There’s plumbing stuff, behind the walls … reliability stuff, based on Watson and online crash analysis data. We discovered where crashes were occurring in Vista. It turns out most of it was not in Microsoft code usually. We work with our ecosystem partners to address these areas. We look at the top hitters—it’s a huge tail—and move the dial. Sometimes this happens in standalone updates, while some \[improvements\] will wait for SP1.”

Realigning Client with Server
One of the more interesting aspects of SP1 is that the development of Vista and Server 2008 is now being realigned. You might recall that these two products were developed in tandem through the release to manufacturing (RTM) version of Vista in November 2006. Since then, however, Microsoft has internally coordinated Vista SP1 with Server 2008, so much so that these products will be finalized and released concurrently. Going forward, future Windows client and server service packs will also be aligned. So SP2 will apply to both Vista and Windows 2008 and will be the first Server 2008 service pack.

This realignment isn’t done for marketing reasons. Internally, both Vista SP1 and Server 2008 utilize the same kernel and other core substructures. So it makes sense to develop the products together. That way, each can benefit from the unique improvements that are made to the other.

What’s Missing in Vista SP1?
One major feature that Microsoft previously promised for Vista SP1 won’t be making it into the update: offline updating, or the ability to drag and drop the SP1 executable into an UPDATE folder in a Vista installation share and thus automatically slipstream or add that code to any future Vista installations. The good news, however, is that Microsoft is planning to make this capability available post-SP1. So any post-SP1 hot-fixes and service packs should support offline updating.

“Vista Service Pack 1 will not be able to be applied as an offline update to prestaged install images,” Zipkin explained. “But this will work as planned with future update, post-SP1 updates. We ran into some unexpected issues with the servicing stack, so we can’t do it for SP1. But we’re planning to add this capability for SP2, though we can’t make any promises. This will be a bigger issue around SP2 than it is now. We think this is a one-time thing. But you can still make your own slipstream DVD using the old ‘-integrate’ method as with XP if you want to.”

Deploying Vista SP1
Because Vista SP1 doesn’t support offline updating, the deployment picture will look familiar to anyone who has deployed service packs for previous Windows versions. You simply purchase a new copy of Vista after SP1 is released; you’ll receive a version that has SP1 slipstreamed in. Consumers and small businesses can download SP1 via Windows Update: It will be a 51MB to 55MB download, according to Microsoft, depending on the system. Compare that to XP SP2, which weighed in at about 110MB because of its many functional changes.

Administrators will typically want to download the standalone installer, which includes all 36 languages currently supported by Vista and works with any Vista disk. (There are separate x86 and x64 versions, actually.) The standalone installer will exceed 1GB in size.

Microsoft’s guidance for Vista SP1 deployments is no surprise: The company says that home users should install SP1 as soon as the update appears on Windows Update. So, too, should the smallest, unmanaged businesses (i.e., those not on an Active Directory infrastructure).

The arrival of SP1 shouldn’t change anything for Microsoft’s corporate customers. “Our business customers already have the tools and guidance they need to deploy Vista,” Zipkin said. “Some are waiting to deploy, but they can do some pre-SP1 work to hit the ground running. They can begin application compatibility testing on the SP1 beta or Vista gold \[RTM\] code, as the compatibility picture isn’t changing. There are architectural changes moving from XP to Vista, but that’s a remediation you will need to make with SP1 too. There’s no need to stall things because of SP1.”

Vista SP1’s Timing
Microsoft says it will ship the final version of Vista SP1 in first quarter 2008, alongside Server 2008 and about three months before the final XP service pack, SP3. Before that, the company will issue a broadly available, nearfinal version of the update via its MSDN and TechNet subscription services. This update will provide companies with a way to easily test the software before it’s available in final form.

Recommendations
With Vista, Microsoft had hoped to persuade its corporate customers not to wait for the first service pack before deploying the system. Now that we finally know what the company will include in Vista SP1, Microsoft’s advice suddenly makes sense. Vista SP1 doesn’t dramatically alter the Vista experience, so there’s no need to wait until SP1 before deploying Vista. That said, if your Vista deployment plans call for rolling out the OS after first quarter 2008, there’s no reason to step up the schedule because of SP1. There’s simply nothing dramatic here, and Vista SP1 is what Microsoft service packs used to be like. That’s a good thing for anyone who wished that the Windows client team at the software giant would take a page from the Windows Server playbook and proceed on a more measured and calm development path. With Vista SP1, it looks like that’s exactly what’s happening.