Cumulative Patches: Help or Hindrance?

Is Microsoft's practice of bunching patches together a great convenience for users, a denial of control for administrators or just "patch marketing?" There's an argument for all three.

In the wake of Microsofts release last week of a series of "cumulative" patches to address a large number of serious security issues, the security community is debating the merits of Microsofts approach.

One patch, for example, coded MS04-011 by Microsoft, was rated "critical" by the company. Like all of the patches released the same day, the MS04-011 patch is a cumulative patch, including fixes for a large number of vulnerabilities—14, to be specific—some more critical than others. But others were rated just "important" or "moderate" or even "low," depending on the platform.

Some administrators have been complaining that the bunching together of patches in this way limits their options. For years, many have complained that they hesitate to apply patches to functioning systems without proper testing. By including so many patches in one package, cumulative patches multiply the number of changes to the system.

By the same token, they limit the number of test cases—forcibly—for those who do want to test. But if something goes wrong with a patched system, the only option may be to remove the entire cumulative patch when only one part of it is causing problems. There are already reports of some users experiencing problems that can only be fixed by removing an entire patch.

In the past, and with many other vendors and open-source projects, individual patches are available to address individual issues. This is certainly the most flexible option for sophisticated administrators. But is it the best option for less sophisticated users? This isnt as clear. Less experienced users could be intimidated by 20 or more patches appearing suddenly.

Others assert that Microsoft, by consolidating the patches into just a few super-patches, is trying to make it appear that there are fewer problems than there really are. As Jupiter Researchs Joe Wilcox puts it, "Issuing 17 alerts, as opposed to four, makes it harder for Microsoft executives to count up the number of alerts as use the counting and evidence security is improving."

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Microsoft would argue that the consolidated patches make patching easier, and that is better for all. Certainly its better for everyone if the patches are widely and quickly deployed. But if the future of patching, as Microsoft itself has argued, is in automated methods, such as Windows Automatic Updates and patch management systems such as St. Bernard Softwares UpdateEXPERT, then cumulative patches add little to usability. An automated tool can certainly handle 20 patches as easily as four—and better if uninstallation is a consideration.

Microsoft used to offer individual hotfixes as an option for administrators in some cases, even if "roll-ups" or service packs later became available. Providing both again would answer all criticisms.

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