Get a handle on service pack and hotfix complexity

The problem with service packs is that every new service pack rolls up all the previous service packs and intermediate hotfixes, but not every system needs a complete service pack upgrade. The old adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" holds true in a production environment, and systems administrators are reluctant to touch a production machine that is stable. Therefore, systems administrators tend to install the necessary hotfixes and nothing more.

Adding hotfixes as necessary can often lead to a confusing mishmash of systems with different OS-revision levels in large environments. This mishmash causes a huge maintenance headache. Before you can troubleshoot, you need to determine the system's service packs and hotfixes. If you think the simple answer is to keep all your systems at the same service pack level, then you need to read the previous paragraph again. Even if keeping all your systems at the same service pack level were advisable, it isn't simple. In the 4 months between the release of Service Pack 4 (SP4) and the beta testing of SP5, Microsoft released 13 hotfixes for SP4.

To help systems administrators get a handle on service pack and hotfix complexity, I looked at utilities designed to check systems for service pack and hotfix levels. I tested and compared two service pack management utilities: Gravity Storm Software's Service Pack Manager 4.03 and MTE Software's SPQuery 3.0. Neither of these products can remotely apply service packs, but they can apply hotfixes.

Service Pack Manager 4.03
Service Pack Manager can recognize and update hotfix files for all Windows NT 4.0 service packs (i.e., SP1 to SP5) and for most NT 3.51 service packs (i.e., SP2 to SP5). The user interface (UI) is straightforward and simple to use, but the UI lacks conformity with the Windows CUA and support for right-click context menus. The absence of a standard menu bar and the inability to resize the display window make learning to use Service Pack Manager more difficult than necessary. Even with the 1600 * 1200 display that I used, Service Pack Manager used only 20 percent of the available screen real estate and required scroll bars to view all the information in two of the three panes. I was unable to resize the panes within the application enough to get what I needed out of the windows.

After launching Service Pack Manager, it began to enumerate the NT domains and network systems. Even on my small test network (with 12 NT systems), this enumeration took 4 to 5 minutes. To speed things up, I shut down all but five machines (running SP1, SP3, SP4, and SP5) and the enumeration process dropped to approximately 1 minute. The software had no setting to tell it to enumerate on demand rather than on launch. The NetQuery feature can go out and examine selected domains or systems on demand, but Service Pack Manager always enumerates the network on launch. Keep this in mind because on a large network with dozens or hundreds of machines, enumeration can take quite a while.

Service Pack Manager correctly identified each machine's specific service pack and hotfixes. The software showed me all the available hotfixes for each service pack except for NT 4.0's SP5, which Microsoft had just shipped. Even Microsoft usually doesn't release a hotfix within 24 hours of a service pack's release. (Note that I say usually.)

After I selected a hotfix, Service Pack Manager automatically downloaded it from the FTP site and stored the hotfix locally in its distribution directory. Service Pack Manager marked the selected hotfixes Downloaded on the display. To remotely install a hotfix, I selected a hotfix and the target system, then clicked the Install option on the menu bar. Service Pack Manager marked hotfixes that later hotfixes had made obsolete as obsolete. And when I attempted to install a hotfix on a system that already had a later service pack, the application alerted me and the installation failed.

The Service Pack Manager Information tab, which Screen 1 shows, lists the available service packs and hotfixes. The Information tab also includes a built-in Web browser that links to the Microsoft Web site with hotfix and service pack information. When browsing this site, I found the inability to resize the application quite an annoyance. Browsing a Web site in a little window within Service Pack Manager was an unpleasant experience.

The reporting facility within Service Pack Manager was minimalist. The reports I generated gave me stripped-down information that listed the computer, OS, PDC or BDC servers when applicable, installed service packs and hotfixes, and service packs' and hotfixes' release dates. Service Pack Manager wrongly reported a January 6, 1999, release date for SP5, but this flaw isn't significant.

Gravity Storm Software offers two licensing options that let you manage many machines. They include a $145 single machine license that lets you manage unlimited systems and a $345 enterprise license that lets you manage unlimited machines in a physical site from an unlimited number of machines.

The single-management-console requirement of the single machine license concerns me. A license that lets systems administrators launch an instance from any network system serves systems administrators better than a license that restricts them to a specific console. Still, if your network contains NT 4.0 or NT 3.51 with early service packs, Service Pack Manager is an adequate tool to track system configurations.

SPQuery 3.0
With SPQuery, I was able to configure the software to enumerate NT domains at launch. To start the enumeration process, the default needed only an explicit command (i.e., clicking Enumerate).

During my testing, I found that SPQuery lacked the ability to deal with NT versions earlier than NT 4.0 with SP3. In addition, SPQuery failed to mark systems as unqueried to show that it hadn't enumerated them or identified the service pack level. SPQuery's developer told me that the next version will fix these problems. The product's next version won't support service packs or OS versions earlier than NT 4.0 with SP3, but it will identify the systems with earlier service packs installed.

I conducted my SPQuery testing the week that Microsoft released SP5, and I discovered a bug in the product's SP5 recognition. The application gave the same erroneous message that it gave for pre-SP3 machines. The developer said this problem didn't occur with the SP5 beta and the company would fix this bug as soon as possible.

After I upgraded an SP4 machine to SP5, the bug appeared in a slightly different fashion. When I explicitly checked the machine, the program reported the machine as unqueried and displayed the information that applied to the machine with SP4 installed. The next release will also fix this bug. You can now download a fix from http://www.mtesoft.com/ files/SP.LST that lets you query machines with SP1, SP2, and SP5. You need to follow the directions posted on the MTE Software home page to perform the update.

I found the SPQuery interface much easier to use than Service Pack Manager's interface. Although the SPQuery and Service Pack Manager interfaces look similar, SPQuery uses the standard Windows conventions for its UI behavior. The program also includes right-click actions almost everywhere. For example, I right-clicked a machine to query it, then right-clicked the appropriate hotfix to download it. After installing the hotfix remotely, I right-clicked the hotfix in the machine's context menu for an expanded context menu, which included an option to display the files that the hotfix replaced. Aside from the intuitive simplicity of SPQuery's interface, the product's ability to track hotfix changes to files is invaluable in troubleshooting.

SPQuery and Service Pack Manager behave similarly. As with Service Pack Manager, SPQuery identifies all the machines in the targeted network or domain, identifies the systems' service packs and hotfixes, and lets you download and apply hotfixes.

SPQuery expands on these basic functions and lets you create Profiles that determine the machines' hotfixes. You can run these Profiles against an individual machine, machines that you select, or an entire domain. SPQuery can also look at each machine that you query and provide a list of unapplied hotfixes.

Clicking SPQuery's Hotfix Info option, which Screen 2 shows, brought up a list of the hotfixes in SP3 and SP4. After selecting a hotfix, I could right-click the option to download it, or I had the option to get information about the hotfix. Selecting the Information option from the Hotfix Info dialog box, I brought up the appropriate Microsoft Web page within the application's browser window. Because you can resize the application window, SPQuery made browsing the Microsoft Web site more pleasant than using Service Pack Manager. The download action isn't modal, so you can launch the download and browse the Web page simultaneously. As an added bonus, SPQuery's HTML Help file includes a reference to the Hotfix Central site (http://www.mtesoft.com/sphf.html) if you can't access the Microsoft Web site. This MTE Software site has a comprehensive list of information about each hotfix (e.g., what the hotfix will fix, a summary of the Microsoft information).

SPQuery is available in two license models. The single-machine license lets you manage unlimited systems for $189. The corporate site license lets you install SPQuery on as many machines as you want and manage all machines within one physical site for $595. If your site-management needs include NT 4.0 with SP3 or later, then SPQuery is a good choice.

Pick and Choose
You can download both products as full-featured 30-day demos. You'll want to take a look at both applications unless you have a specific need for a feature found in only one product. Both products require that you understand the mechanics of service pack and hotfix installation, although SPQuery provides a better Help engine to explain installation information. If I needed to pick one product, I'd give the nod to SPQuery.

Service Pack Manager 4.03
Contact: Gravity Storm Software * 800-414-4268
Web: http://home.san.rr.com/gravitystorm
Price: $145 for a single machine license to manage unlimited systems; $345 for an enterprise license to manage unlimited systems in a site
System Requirements: Pentium 133MHz processor or better, Windows NT Workstation 4.0 with Service Pack 3 or later, or NT Server 4.0 with Service Pack 3 or later, 32MB of RAM, 28.8Kbps Internet connection or better, Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0
SPQuery 3.0
Contact: MTE Software * 619-292-2050
Web: http://www.mtesoft.com
Price: $189 to manage unlimited systems from a single system; $595 to manage all systems in a site from unlimited systems
System Requirements: Windows NT Workstation 4.0 with Service Pack 3 or later, or NT Server 4.0 with Service Pack 3 or later, Internet connection, Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.02 or later