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Ahead of the Service Pack

Management software that helps you track your OS's status

How can you track which service packs or hotfixes your computers run? How can you install a required service pack on multiple machines with the least amount of hassle?

Gravity Storm Software's Service Pack Manager 4.4 and St. Bernard Software's SPQuery 4.0 can query other systems on your network, letting you easily see the OS version as well as installed service packs and hotfixes on each Windows 2000 or Windows NT computer. These products also let you install new service packs and hotfixes on your network computers from a central location.

The Test Network
My test network consisted of one Win2K server (running no service packs) and six NT 4.0 servers and workstations (three workstations and two servers running Service Pack 4—SP4—and one workstation running SP1). To test the programs, I installed each on one of the workstations running SP4, then attempted to remotely upgrade each of the NT machines to either SP5 with a few post-service pack hotfixes or to SP6a. I also wanted to see how well the products handled Win2K SP1. I began the tests for each program with a clean installation of the OS and the indicated service packs on all my machines.

The Final Analysis
I preferred Service Pack Manager's simple user interface (UI), easy access to related administrative tasks (e.g., sending administrative alerts, checking available disk space), and installation status display. However, I liked SPQuery's ability to determine a specific hotfix's presence on my computers without setting up a special hotfix list (aka profile). I also appreciated that SPQuery let me continue working with the program while it installed a service pack on another machine. This capability is especially important because the program doesn't let you install service packs to different types of OSs (e.g., NT Workstation, NT Server) simultaneously. SPQuery's printed documentation and online Help were better than Service Pack Manager's, although I would have liked more detailed information in a couple of places.

For companies that have many computers and are concerned about price, Service Pack Manager, with its very reasonable cost for unlimited licenses, seems the logical choice. (For more information about licensing costs, see each vendor's Web site.) If documentation and telephone technical support are more important to you than price, SPQuery might be the better choice. You'll find either product useful if you're responsible for maintaining service packs and hotfixes on many computers.

Service Pack Manager 4.4
Service Pack Manager's setup process was simple. The program requires NT SP3 or later, Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 4.0 or later, and a display with a minimum 800 x 600 resolution and at least 256 colors. Service Pack Manager's UI is also simple; context-sensitive menus were available for many of the computer and hotfix lists. I could also easily view important information (e.g., service pack installation date, hotfix description and issue date) about installed service packs and hotfixes.

Querying a domain, a computer, or a combination of domains and computers was simple and fast. I selected the check box next to the domain or computer icon in the Status tab's left pane, as Figure 1, page 111, shows. Then, I clicked NetQuery on the toolbar. The program showed the query results in a list in the top right pane of the UI. From that list, I could quickly see which NT version, encryption type, OS type (Workstation or Server), and service pack was installed on each of the queried computers. I could also print detailed query results or save the results to a file.

First, I decided to install SP6a onto two NT workstations and an NT server, all running SP4. I selected the computers from the system list in the UI's left pane. I found a tabbed dialog box that lists service packs and hotfixes in the program window's bottom right pane. I went to the Available Service Packs tab and selected SP6a from the tab's list. Right-clicking a service pack in the list opens a context-sensitive menu that lets you set the location of the service pack executable file, send an administrative alert, or install the service pack. (The option to send an administrative alert is helpful because it lets you inform users that a service pack upgrade is about to occur and that they should close any open programs and documents.) I specified the location of SP6a and installed the service pack. The installation went well.

Service Pack Manager 4.4 doesn't support Win2K. However, during my review, Gravity Storm released Service Pack Manager 2000, which includes Win2K functionality. Although the vendor sent me a copy of the new version, I didn't receive the updated product in time to fully test it. I did, however, use Service Pack Manager 2000 to install SP1 on my Win2K machine, and the installation process went as smoothly as it had on the NT machines.

A service pack installation dialog box appears automatically and displays installation status information. A progress bar near the bottom of the dialog box shows the service pack executable being transferred to the remote computer, and a list above the bar shows the installation's current action. This status information is another useful feature that lets you monitor the progress of each computer and quickly identify any computers that are having problems. However, after you start an installation, you must wait for the entire process to finish before you can do anything else in the program.

Next, I decided to schedule an SP5 installation. When I selected the Scheduled SP installation check box in the installation dialog box, the program let me choose when to install the service pack. The installation dialog box then displayed that date and time as well as a countdown timer with the number of hours, minutes, and seconds until installation. The scheduled installation went off without a hitch. However, I couldn't perform any other installations or access any other part of the program until the installation was completed.

After testing the service pack installations, the next thing to try was hotfix installation. I wanted to install three Y2K hotfixes to the computers running NT SP5. I located the machines in the query results list in the UI's top right pane, and I highlighted one machine to see a list of available hotfixes. Then, I selected the check boxes for all the NT SP5 computers in the list in the left pane. I then went to the Available Hotfixes tab in the bottom right corner of the window. This tab displayed a list of available hotfixes for the highlighted computer. Hotfixes with a yellow light had been downloaded, and those with a green light had been installed. I could right-click a hotfix to open a context-sensitive menu with options to view detailed information (i.e., a Microsoft article) and to download or install the selected hotfix.

How do you know whether a remote computer has enough disk space for the service pack installation or whether programs that must not be interrupted are running on the remote computer? Service Pack Manager has answers for these questions and others. When I right-clicked a computer in the left-pane list, the program opened a context-sensitive menu with options to query that computer, check disk space, send an administrative alert, view running processes, run the NT Diagnostics utility, or view the event log for that computer.

Service Pack Manager offers several other useful program windows. The Information tab lists available service packs and hotfixes; the tab also includes an embedded browser. When I clicked a service pack, the program gave me a list of service pack-related hotfixes and brought up the Microsoft Web site, which gave me the service pack details. When I clicked a hotfix, the program's browser opened a Microsoft article about that hotfix. The hotfix list lets you download hotfixes and see which hotfixes you have already downloaded.

The Profiler tab lets you define a hotfix profile and compare queried computers with that profile. Service Pack Manager displays the results in a tree list on the tab's right side, letting you quickly determine which hotfixes from the profile aren't yet installed on the selected computers. You can print the profile results list. I compared the program's included Y2K profile with the computers in my test network, and Service Pack Manager correctly identified the computers without the profiled hotfixes.

The Options tab lets you change the settings for Internet connections (e.g., hotfix download sites), the destination folder for downloaded hotfixes, proxy credentials for hotfix downloads, and the schedule for downloading the program's hotfix database. You can also select which OS types (i.e., NT Workstation, NT Server, or both) the program displays in the network enumerations on the Status tab.

Documentation wasn't as useful as I'd hoped. The product doesn't include a printed manual, and the only online Help is a README file and a few HTML pages that the program's built-in Web browser displays when you click Help. The HTML pages provided useful information, but I would rather have had a separate searchable Help. The UI, however, was much more helpful: I could easily locate information, and standard operations such as service pack and hotfix installations were straightforward and simple.

You can use Gravity Storm's free service to update Service Pack Manager's internal service pack and hotfix database. You can perform this update manually or by clicking the WebQuery button on the Information tab's toolbar. Gravity Storm also lets you purchase a maintenance program, which includes program updates and upgrades for one year. The vendor offers email technical support, which claims a 12-hour response time. Telephone support is limited to special situations. Email support was responsive and helpful, but complete telephone support would have been useful.

Service Pack Manager's simple UI and informative status displays make the product a good choice for administrators who aren't familiar with service pack installations. Better documentation would be helpful. Like SPQuery, Service Pack Manager offers easy access to detailed service pack and hotfix information from Microsoft's Web site. I liked being able to install service packs to both servers and workstations at the same time. The product not only helps with service pack and hotfix installations but also gives you many helpful administrative tools (e.g., options to send administrative alerts, a tool to check available disk space) for a reasonable price. (Prices for Service Pack Manager 2000 are higher than prices for version 4.4, although the new version's prices are still comparable with those for the other reviewed product. See Gravity Storm's Web site for a detailed price list.)

Service Pack Manager 4.4
Contact:Gravity Storm Software * 910-792-9100 or 800-414-4268
Price: Contact vendor
Decision Summary:
Pros: Simple user interface; easy-to-locate information; displays current status of service pack installations; built-in browser access to hotfix information; compares computers with common profile
Cons: Disappointing documentation; user must wait for entire service pack installation before using the program; limited telephone tech support

SPQuery 4.0
SPQuery installation was smooth. The setup program asked me for a license key, which the purchased product includes. The license key determines the number of computers that SPQuery lets you manage simultaneously. SPQuery requires 7MB of disk space, NT 4.0 SP4 or later, and IE 4.0 or later. I recommend that you use a later version of IE because the Help file wouldn't open with my IE 4.0 version of HTML Help. When I spoke to technical support about this problem, the representative suggested that I download the HTML Help Update from St. Bernard Software's FTP site at .exe. Because SPQuery's program window contains so much information, I recommend a display resolution of at least 800 x 600.

I retrieved a list of the systems on my test network. After I right-clicked the domain name in the Network list at the top left corner of the Machine status view, I could query the entire domain or selected computers. I decided to query the domain, although querying the domain on a network with many computers might take more time than you want to spend. When I selected a domain, a list to the right of the Network list displayed the OS version and service pack information for each computer in that domain. When I looked carefully at the list of computers and their currently installed service packs, I noticed that the program didn't correctly detect the computers running SP6 rather than SP6a. The SP6 machines showed up as having no service pack installed. The vendor told me that the problem will be corrected in version 4.1, which should be available by the time you read this review. The vendor also sent me an alpha version of SPQuery 4.1, and it did indeed fix the bug.

The program's service pack installation features worked well. I opened the Service Packs menu and selected Install Service Pack, which opened the Install Service Pack dialog box. This dialog box provides a list of available service packs for Win2K; NT Server; NT Server 4.0, Terminal Server Edition (WTS); and NT Workstation systems. When I selected a service pack, the program displayed a list of computers with an appropriate (i.e., earlier) service pack version and OS version (e.g., NT Server 4.0 for NT Server service packs). This procedure prevents you from accidentally downgrading a machine (e.g., from SP6a to SP5), but it also prevents you from simultaneously installing a service pack on NT Server and NT Workstation computers. With the exception of WTS service packs, NT Server and NT Work-station service packs are identical, so this constraint seemed unnecessary. SPQuery also let me choose a central location for each service pack executable file.

I installed SP6a on two NT workstations running SP4 and one NT server running SP4, and I installed SP1 on my Win2K machine. The installation worked well, except on the computer running SPQuery. After copying the files, Windows attempted to reboot, but couldn't because either the SPQuery program or OLEChannelWnd wouldn't respond to the End Task request. I easily contacted a knowledgeable technical support operator at St. Bernard Software, who acknowledged the problem and said that it would be fixed in version 4.1. However, the alpha version of SPQuery 4.1 didn't fix this bug.

I also used the product's scheduling feature to schedule overnight installations of SP5 on the other three NT computers (i.e., NT Workstation with SP1, NT Workstation with SP4, and NT Server with SP4) in my test network. The program copied the service pack executable file to a temporary folder on the destination computers, then used the remote systems' built-in scheduling service to execute the service pack at the specified time. When I came back to the computers the next day, SPQuery had successfully installed the service packs.

Next, I tested hotfix installation. When I selected a computer from the Network list, the product displayed a list of available hotfixes for that machine, as Figure 2 shows. I could right-click a hotfix from this list to install or download the hotfix to selected machines from the Network list. I liked that I could simultaneously install one or more hotfixes to multiple computers, regardless of the machines' OS. To test this capability, I installed a couple of TCP/IP-related security hotfixes to the NT servers and NT workstations running SP5. The hotfixes installed without a problem, and the hotfix list displayed a green light next to the service pack.

You can select a hotfix from the available hotfix list and click the toolbar's Hotfix Info button. The program's built-in Web browser then opens a Web page that displays a Microsoft article about the hotfix. I found this easy access to information helpful.

In the Report Options tabbed dialog box at the bottom left of the UI, the Hotfixes tab offered options to let me view computers with selected hotfixes; the Missing tab let me view systems without selected hotfixes. I could use the Profiles tab to store a list of several hotfixes from various service packs, then compare selected computers to see whether they matched that profile. SPQuery displayed in the Report window all the results from these tabs; I could print the results or save them to a Comma Separated Values (CSV) file.

I was a little disappointed with the UI, which seemed crowded. At first, I had difficulty finding the information I needed. I also wanted feedback about the status of current and scheduled installations. The program let me continue working as soon as a service pack transfer was completed, which was a helpful ability. I was pleased that the product offered both printed documentation and searchable online Help, although the documentation wasn't as detailed as I would have liked.

When you purchase SPQuery, you have the option of purchasing a 1-year maintenance program that provides updates, upgrades, and unlimited telephone and email technical support. You can purchase additional maintenance programs if you want to continue the support after the first year. The program also has a built-in feature that automatically checks the St. Bernard Software FTP site for the availability of an updated service pack and hotfix database. The presence of an update on the vendor's FTP site activates the program toolbar's Update button, which you can then click to download the database. When I installed SPQuery, the program wouldn't let me perform an SP6a upgrade because the program's database thought that SP6a needed to be upgraded manually. After I downloaded an updated database, the program successfully upgraded the computers to SP6a.

SPQuery is a helpful program that simplifies access to detailed service pack and hotfix information from Microsoft's Web site. I wanted a more user-friendly UI, but the online and printed documentation helped answer the questions I had about the interface. I'd prefer the ability to perform service pack updates simultaneously on servers and workstations, and service pack-installation progress information would have been useful as well. However, if you're familiar with service pack installations and would rather perform upgrades based on OS type (e.g., upgrade all your servers simultaneously), this product is a worthwhile investment.

SPQuery 4.0
Contact:St. Bernard Software * 858-676-2277 or
Price: Starts at $610 for 100 computers; $90 for maintenance program for 100 computers
for 1 year
Decision Summary:
Pros: Easy built-in browser access to hotfix and service pack information; printed documentation and searchable online Help; ability to compare a list of computers with a common profile
Cons: Crowded user interface; no schedule feedback or installation progress information; can't install to both Windows NT Server and NT Workstation at the same time
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