Smart Users Toe the Line on Patches

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2005-10-14 Print this article Print

Opinion: Cumulative updates can be good and they can be bad, but a bad cumulative update is a disaster.

This weeks minor deluge of major patches to Windows reminds me of the complexity of the whole patching process, and the peril that comes with stepping out of line. Stepping out of line is just the right description for the Windows XP SP3 gang at Impatient with Microsofts reluctance to build a cumulative update for XP since SP2, this private body has tried to do the work itself. Its not something you should try at home.

Now there certainly have been a lot of updates since SP2, some of them significant. I find when I install a new system from install disks that it can take a very long time to update from Windows Update post-SP2. For a normal user, this can be a significant period of vulnerability. For that reason, Ive discussed the idea of creating an update-only mode for Windows, but for the present thats just an idea.

Click here to read why Windows 2000 exploits are raising worm attack fears.
It would be nice for Microsoft to maintain a running single major update that could be downloaded and run offline, and for Windows 2000 as well as Windows XP. For businesses there is an answer of sorts: Windows SUS (Server Update Services) Server could allow a network admin to keep computers off the Internet and update directly from the local update server (although that begs the question of what is protecting the SUS server). End users could individually download all the updates and apply them manually, or slipstream an SP2 installation so that it installs up-to-date, but this is far too complex and resource-intensive for normal users.

So has decided to maintain its own running update and call it SP3. First, just to get this out of the way, its use of logos and fonts is, at times, obviously reminiscent of Microsoft intellectual property, and the file it distributes is an illegal redistribution of Microsoft updates. Microsoft has a history of not vigorously pursuing such violations, but you should know its not Microsoft and its not from the official source.

The gateway link from to Softpedia, where the actual (195MB, as of today) ZIP file is, has a warning:
    Below is a link to a package of hotfixes that will possibly be in SP3. Its completely unofficial from Microsoft and is just a collection of fixes said to be in SP3 at some point.

    Let me make it clear that it is NOT Service Pack 3, but rather just fixes that will probably go into the official package from Microsoft when they start building SP3.


Personally, I think the awkward use of the phrase "unofficial from Microsoft" will be misleading to some people who will conclude that it is from Microsoft, but unofficial, rather than "not officially from Microsoft," which really means not official and not from Microsoft. Bottom line: This is from some schmoe, and you dont know who he is.

Microsoft finally acknowledged the presence of this unofficial update with a posting to one of its support newsgroups that advises users not to use the phony SP3.

Microsoft says in the posting that the faux SP3 not only has officially released updates, but "hotfixes" that Microsoft releases to much more limited crowds. claims that all the updates are downloaded directly from, but its hard to say whos telling the truth here, or if theres just a misunderstanding.

Personally, Id say its safer to take Microsofts advice, especially since the "official" advice on the "unofficial" update from its compiler is that you should not do any kind of mass update, but just install/reboot them one at a time. So all that the download has done is to save you some download convenience, potentially at the risk of downloading the wrong thing.

Remember, even if the guy is telling the truth, these are all the updates, not just the ones you need. Its hard to tell if you need any specific update in the ZIP file without extracting and running it. Big-time savings!

Real patch management vendors do this the right way, by maintaining a database of updates and testing systems to see if they need the update. You do have to trust the patch management vendor to do a good job of this—thats why you need to choose an established vendor with a track record (like this one).

But for the home or very small business user, such software is a luxury well beyond the budget. These hotfix hackers have a point, and Microsoft would do well to preempt them with more frequent "official" update rollups.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog. More from Larry Seltzer

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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