A Patching Procedure For the Little Guy

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2003-07-06

A Patching Procedure For the Little Guy

There are a couple of conflicting truisms of computing: Always apply the latest updates and security fixes; and if it aint broke, dont fix it. The difference is clear when you consider the overhaul of your operating system that will come with Windows 2000 Service Pack 4.

Of course, we all have to take some risks now and then.

Why wouldnt you apply a bug fix, a security update or a Service Pack? Microsoft supplies for each a usually long list of fixed problems, so assuming that any reported problem concerns you in the least bit, you have a strong interest in applying the approved fix.

At the same time, you may be concerned that the fix will cause its own problems, something that can happen with updates of any kind, from the OS to any and all software programs. With this possibility in mind, you will need a way to back your way out of the update in case something goes wrong.

What does this mean? In brief, always back your system up before applying a major system change.

Happily, making a good backup isnt all that hard anymore, and doing a complete job isnt that much harder. All you need is disk space, and thats about as expensive as MCI stock these days.

As we all know, backing up our data is important, and of course, we should do it regularly. However, thats not what Im dealing with here. In this case, the backup is all about reserving your system configuration and operating system files, and making sure the system will run in the event of a retreat.

Here are some tips to prepare yourself for the SP4 installation and protect your configuration in case of a bad result:

The Quickie Approach

The first, most obvious way to be on guard is to note that all recent Microsoft Windows patches come with uninstall procedures. During installation, you must approve that the Service Pack installer archive the files that it will replace, and this action can take up a fair chunk of disk space. But in most cases, if something goes wrong, you can just go to the Control Panels Add/Remove Programs list to uninstall the Service Pack or update.

Another quick way to protect yourself, if youre running Windows ME or Windows XP, is to create a system restore point with the System Restore function. This feature saves and restores the operating systems configuration and files. This process also can require a substantial amount of space.

In fact, many operations in addition to the Service Pack installations, will create restore points automatically. But just as we sometimes press an elevator button twice, its comforting to create your own set to be sure. In Windows XP this can be found in Start->All Programs->Accessories->System Tools->System Restore.

Alternatively, if you have Windows 2000 or something later, you can select the "Last Known Good Configuration" option at the Boot menu. I dont think this feature performs as complete a restoration, still it may get you past a boot problem.

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Patching Procedures For Little


The Full Manual Backup

Some folks may be tempted to manually back up only the parts of the operating system that could be adversely affected by a Service Pack installation or patch. Microsoft even offers an article on how to do this. The long and short of the procedure is to use the Windows Backup program (or a good third-party program) to back up the System State (basically the Registry; this is an explicit item in the Windows Backup program).

Next, backup the Boot Partition, which contains the earliest parts of the operating system boot, such as boot.ini and ntldr; as well as the system partition, which contains Windows itself. Remember, for the purposes of backing out of a configuration change, you dont really need to backup to tape. Instead, you just need sufficient space on a hard drive to hold the backup data.

For more tips on backing up and recovering data after an attack or disaster, see Microsofts article on the subject.

Complete Coverage

For those who want more solid protection, the answer is to use a disk imaging program such as Symantec Corp.s Norton Ghost or PowerQuest Corp.s Drive Image.

Ive recently noticed that some people have grown discouraged about backing up. The complain that drives are so large these days that theres no effective backup medium. They have a point.

Still, if you just want an accessible backup in case of a configuration disaster and dont care to keep backups off-site, just stick another drive in the box and image your system. This works perfectly and hard drives are so cheap nowadays that this may be the most economical solution.

On the other hand, there have been a number of reports of things going wrong when installing the Service Pack, and sometimes it can be tricky to restore everything that was changed in the process. Even if you have a proper backup procedure in place with tape or online backup, creating a disk image before a major configuration change is the preferred practice. It offers the ultimate in coverage just in case something goes wrong; for example, if the system fails at the earliest stages of boot.

Fear of applying service packs and patches is basically a fear of the unknown. Still with a bit of time (and maybe a little money) you can protect yourself against almost anything that might go wrong.

Security Supersite Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

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