Software updates: Patches and service packs

31 Jan, 2001 By: Michael Dakan

My December column generated quite a bit of feedback, most of it agreeing with my concerns about the fast pace of software upgrades. This month I'll discuss a related subject: how to control and manage the update patches and bug fixes that are also released rapidly. In December I talked about optional software version upgrades, but many patches are really mandatory fixes for software defects that cause crashes and lost functionality.

Patches and service packs

Patches are relatively small programs that address small problem areas in the operating system and software application, and service packs are collections of individual patches and more significant upgrades packaged together and deployed at one time. Individual patches can become a management nightmare as you attempt to track what's been installed on which workstation. Service packs make this upgrade process easier to manage.

In recent years, we've become accustomed to getting most software fixes and minor upgrades as service packs. However, new techniques for distributing and installing patches may lead to more individual patches released at a faster rate than the service packs. In addition, AutoCAD and its vertical application versions such as Architectural Desktop follow a staggered release cycle, so patches and service packs for plain AutoCAD are released first and versions for the vertical products appear some time later. All this adds to the management and documentation load that the CAD manager must juggle. To successfully deploy patches and service packs, it can be critical to track the order of the installations on each workstation.

When to install patches

The pace of patch releases is related, of course, to the rate at which new software upgrades are rushed to market. Often, reduced intervals between software releases result in reduced time for testing and quality assurance. In turn, patches are subject to even less beta testing than afforded larger releases and consequently can generate unforeseen problems when you install them.

The Internet offers a fast and convenient method for software developers to post patches and for users to download them. In several cases, companies released patches or service packs only to pull them from their Web site within a matter of days when unanticipated problems arose. They later replaced them with a new version.

Many software developers incorporate a Live Update feature in their programs. Users can query the software site for applicable updates and then download and install them automatically to their desktops. This feature is especially convenient for programs such as antivirus software, which needs only a few separate virus definition files updated to remain current.

But in more complex software situations, such as with an operating system or CAD program, you need a more careful and rigorous approach to deploying upgrades. A change in one small area of the program can easily break something else in a seemingly unrelated area. Your users will be tempted by automatic Internet notification of available updates of all sorts, and you need to have policies and procedures in place to deal with this. You don't want your users unilaterally downloading software patches until you've tested them and found them to be bug-free and effective for your use. When it comes to patch installation, it's prudent to wait a period of time and to monitor the experiences of other users before allowing widespread deployment in an office.

Can a computer take care of itself?
Sure it can. . .

Wow, that's a dream come true for CAD managers, and it's the promise made by BigFix, a Web-based service that counts Autodesk as one of its licensees. BigFix, an example of the next generation of the Live Update concept, is more appropriate for distributing smaller individual patches than service packs and major updates.

You download and install the BigFix software client for free and receive free subscriptions to various company sites that support it. Participating companies license BigFix server software so they can proactively distribute Fixlet messages and patches targeted at specific software defects. BigFix is now featured prominently on the Autodesk Web site, which urges users to download the client software and sign up.

When the participating company wants to distribute a patch, it places the Fixlet on its BigFix server site. BigFix client workstations query the Internet on a daily basis, access the subscription sites to find new Fixlets, and notify the client machine when new patches become available. The client computer can automatically install the patch using the Fixlet message.

In addition to the Autodesk Fixlet site, sites are set up for Windows 95/98/ 2000/ME, Tucows software, and some games. Users are also automatically subscribed to a Fixlet Central site that disseminates alarmist news flashes about a variety of reported security, privacy, and virus issues culled from the Internet.

I wouldn't want to be the CAD manager whose company uses BigFix the week that Microsoft releases a patch for Windows at the same time Autodesk sends out a patch for AutoCAD. The law of unintended consequences will sometimes dictate that one patch disables the other program in an unforeseeable way.

Patience is the key

In the face of this potential onslaught of patches and fixes, you must establish policies and procedures to maintain control over what gets installed on your workstations. Set up a workstation in the office on which you test patches before you release them to your user population.

If your company doesn't have time and/or hardware resources necessary to dedicate a workstation for this use, go slowly and monitor other users' experience. You can follow the messages on the news groups, ask colleagues in other firms, and use your local CAD user groups to research the safety of updates, service packs, and patches. You may not be on the leading edge of new features and repaired functions this way, but you won't be on the bleeding edge either.

The ability of the Internet to speedily deliver software improvements and fixes, and fixes to fixes, is welcome and appreciated by users and software developers alike, but it also requires an additional level of control and management on the part of CAD managers and system administrators.

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