The Service-Pack Shuffle Ruffles a Lot of Feathers

FRAMINGHAM (03/15/2000) - Applying service packs regularly is a pain. And when they fail to fix the bugs they're supposed to fix - or worse, cause new problems - network managers begin to wonder if what they're really doing is substituting their hard work for vendor quality-assurance programs.

While by no means the only offenders, the network operating systems from Microsoft Corp. and Novell Inc. are good examples of the widespread phenomenon, according to users and industry analysts.

For example, Novell has released four support packs for NetWare 5 in the year and a half it has been on the market. Support Pack 3 fixed between 1,200 and 1,500 bugs, according to the company, although many were minor, such as screen misspellings or unnecessary error messages. Microsoft has issued six service packs for Windows NT 4 and is readying its first for Windows 2000.

The frequency of these releases raises questions in the minds of network managers: Should we apply the support pack now, or wait for other users to try it? And should we wait for the service pack to be rereleased before we install it on our network?

Take the case of Support Pack 3 for NetWare 5. It was meant to correct errors, but it also destroyed data on about 50 customers' networks, Novell acknowledges. The company is currently beta-testing another round of fixes and tells customers to expect a NetWare support pack next month.

Ian Bradley, assistant to the group IT manager at building products firm Cape plc in the U.K., lost data on a NetWare 5 network when he applied Support Pack 3 and had to rebuild the system from scratch. He's learned to wait for the rereleased "Version A" and to first try out the support pack on a test system before turning it loose on his 1,000-user production network.

"The rate that vendors are patching and repatching packs is ludicrous," says James Cimino, president of Bright Ideas, a consultancy in Edison, N.J. "It illustrates the pressure companies are under to release new products and shows that these companies aren't putting the money into quality control they should."

Users have also been vocal on Microsoft's and Novell's Internet forums.

"Ideally vendors should test [service packs] to ensure 100% reliability, but that's not realistic. Having said that, Novell should have done sufficient testing to identify the kinds of problems this service pack has caused. I am amazed this one passed any testing whatsoever," says Ed Partridge, IS manager for Zevex International in Salt Lake City.

Network World talked to a number of users like Partridge about whether service/support packs should be used to introduce new features, whether vendors are treating users as "quality-assurance guinea pigs" and how users should handle service packs in the future. Users say something needs to be done to make sure the software is ready for market and relatively bug-free.

Adding features with the fixes

Bug fixes aren't the only problem. Vendors will often hide software enhancements in their service packs. Service Pack 4 for Windows NT is among them. In addition to fixing bugs, the service pack added support for Web-based network management and utilities to increase the reliability of NT.

"Novell [and Microsoft] are not just fixing bugs in support packs, they are releasing features. That makes for very big and frequent support packs," says Chip DiComo, a network manager who supports about 4,000 users for global transportation company Hellmann Worldwide Logistics in Miami.

"Service packs should really be fixing issues, not adding feature enhancements," says Ward Cox, data processing programming lead at the University of Maryland College Park. "I'd like to see more point releases to do those feature adds." He manages 1,200 users on a heterogeneous NetWare 4.11/5.0 network.

Microsoft apparently agrees. It's last two service packs contained only bug fixes, according to Craig Veilinson, lead product manager for Windows 2000.

"Until last May, Microsoft saw service packs as a way to add new features, and we weren't able to deliver service packs on as regular a basis as customers wanted them." Microsoft also changed its testing of service packs. Now after each bug is fixed, the software is run through the entire testing suite, eliminating complications and conflicts, the company claims.

Cox is among those who believe service- pack quality has slipped, and he blames the increasing complexity of networks.

"One person may have server brand XY with hardware configuration AB, and someone may have brand FG and configuration JK," he says. "You can't do a completely comprehensive testing of the software, be it a new revision of the operating system or a software patch.

"That's why there is an inherent distrust in service packs,"he says. "Users may have experienced NT Service Pack 2. Or, they may remember the NetWare 4 support pack that clobbered Computer Associates' backup software."

Most users say that Novell and Microsoft are releasing service/support packs too early before they perform adequate quality- assurance testing.

"In an ideal world, there would be no need for service packs, as the product would work correctly when bought," says Grant Cobley, IT manager for IRPC Group Limited, a business services company in Hinkley, U.K.

Opinions regarding the relative merits of service packs from the different vendors are predictably mixed.

"Novell is a more stable environment than NT, even if it does come out with support packs," says DiComo. "I had an NT server blow up this afternoon after applying a service pack. I can install products on a NetWare server all day long and apply support packs, and I don't lose all my services like I do with NT."

Both DiComo and Cox adopt the vendors' advice to back up the network completely before applying a service/support pack. In NetWare, they also enable an option that lets them revert to previous conditions if problems occur.

Cobley doubles up his approach to service packs. He uses four measures to protect his network against harm from service/support packs. He tries the pack on a test network, he backs up his production network and if problems occur, he rolls back the support pack step by step.

And, his biggest insurance against failure is "waiting a few weeks after it's been released to make sure there are no issues before I apply it."

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