Microsoft's Software Update Services are free

To those of us who live in the Windows environment, it sometimes feels like a warm, familiar blanket. But with all the patches we have to apply, it looks more like a crazy quilt.

As one way to deal with this more-or-less weekly chore, I touched six months ago upon Microsoft Corp.'s SUS (Software Update Services) 1.0. SUS is a free utility that downloads all available Microsoft patches to one or more enterprise servers. You then select the fixes your servers will push out to clients. End-users never run Windows Update on their own.

The recent release of Service Pack 1 for SUS makes the freebie all the more attractive. The update makes SUS compatible with Windows 2000 domain controllers and Small Business Server. What's more, the separate SUS Feature Pack integrates the update utility with Microsoft's SMS (Systems Management Server), a tool that inventories and manages machines in the enterprise.

Independent software vendors who make competing products say SUS is worth every penny of what it costs. So, you may want alternatives.

Patchlink Corp.: Sean Moshir, CEO of Patchlink points out that SUS updates only Windows 2000 and XP. His company's cross-platform Update 4.0 software adds support for Windows 95, 98, Me, and NT, as well as Unix, Linux, AIX, Solaris, and NetWare. Additionally, "Microsoft only offers Microsoft patches," Moshir says. Update 4.0 automates more than 200 vendors' upgrades, including those of McAfee, Sophos PLC, and Symantec Corp. The product costs US$1,295 for a server version, plus about $11 per machine per year (at a volume of 1,000 seats).

BigFix Inc.: SUS is slow, lacks extensibility, and can't easily target individual client machines for specific patches, says Steve Larsen, CEO of BigFix. By contrast, BigFix Enterprise sends only small delta files across your network and is configurable with numerous modules. It's $2,500 for a server plus $10 per machine annually for its Patch Manager component.

Patchlink and BigFix, as with SUS, install "agents" on each client PC for monitoring. Companies that instead use a remote scanning approach include:

Shavlik Technologies LLC: HFNetChk Pro can group PCs by domain or IP address. It's US$16 per seat, or use the free, "light" starter version.

St. Bernard Software Inc.: UpdateExpert boasts support for over 1,000 patches that SUS doesn't. It costs about US$9 per year.

Gravity Storm Inc.: Service Pack Manager patches Windows NT/2000/XP plus Exchange, Outlook, etc. It's about US$20.

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