One patch does not mend all

The Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, female rejection, and Microsoft information dissemination. These are a few of the happy conundrums that can take up my weekend. And, like female rejection or the NYT crossword puzzle, Microsoft's strategy for imparting important information to its customers can be nigh inscrutable.

For example, Redmond is taking a barrage of big .50-caliber Barret's shots for its lack of communication with SBS (Small Business Server) customers. Pretend you're an SBS user. Let's even say you're a step ahead of many SBS customers and you've set up an SUS (Software Update Services) or WUS (Windows Update Services)/WSUS (Windows Server Update Services)/please-don't-make-fun-of-our-acronym server to manage automatic updates to clients as well as to your precious SBS box.

Now Microsoft releases the much-anticipated Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1. SBS 2003 happens to be partially based on Win2K3 code, although much of it also isn't. Win2K3 Server SP1 suddenly shows up on your SUS/WSUS update list. You put two and four together, come up with six-point-something, and decide to deploy the patch.

Pow! You've got problems. A short list includes your fax services failing, your DHCP probably keeling over dead, your Change IP Address tool collapsing in a smoking pile of goo, and any reinstallations of critical components becoming suddenly akin to slamming your forehead into the front grill of a Dodge Ram pickup. After you've regained consciousness, it's time to start zapping off nasty e-mails to Microsoft and the rest of the Microsoft-using world.

To be fair, Microsoft has some pretty good shots to fire back. An immediate response is that nobody should deploy a service pack without first testing its effects on a production system. Wise words -- only they're aimed at the wrong crowd. SBS customers use this version specifically because they don't have boatloads of cash to spend on extra servers or even extra systems administrators. Although most small businesses are smart enough to have SBS installed by the out-of-house IT technicians they employ whenever something breaks, the product is supposed to be easy and obvious enough for end-users to run on their own as long as they RT-the-fudging-M (read the fudging manual).

Microsoft's next defense is the more convoluted, brain-teasing one. Microsoft can point out that the SBS home page has a headline alerting its users to the imminent arrival of Small Business Server Service Pack 1 in a couple of months. That's not a new item. Therefore, Redmond can say that it alerted its SBS customers to wait for an SP specific to their platform.

But let's face it: Redmond really didn't. SUS and Automatic Windows Updates are critical tools for Microsoft, especially considering all the problems the company must fix over time. If Microsoft intends to continue following its established trend of automating these tools, then the company must regulate and test them. That's a pretty simple prescription. Admittedly, I'm hard-pressed to think of another instance where the service pack for one platform could be so easily mistaken for an appropriate service pack for another, but that's not to say it won't happen again.

For instance, Microsoft supposedly intends to build another version of Windows Server aimed at mid-market companies (apparently defined as companies with 250 to 750 users). Is this version another flavor of Win2K3, a new flavor of SBS 2003, or something entirely new? The company has also stated that other Microsoft product lines, including Office, will become part of the WSUS umbrella. That's about six different versions of one platform, which Microsoft intends to augment even further in the future with the addition of small-business accounting and even CRM. So far, Office patches and packs have been usable on any Office SKU, but that's certainly likely to change.

Making sure that the right information gets to its customers, especially in regard to support, is critical and entirely Microsoft's responsibility. Meanwhile, cover your bets before hitting the Install button.

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