Windows XP SP3: T-Minus Four Weeks and Counting?

Industry watchers speculate that the third service pack for Windows XP -- complete with security-related features -- could appear soon

Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Vista operating environment has been available for more than a year, has at least one service pack under its belt, and still isn't seeing the deployment uptick in the enterprise that it might have hoped for. By contrast, Windows XP, which turns seven years old later this year, continues to be a popular enterprise performer.

This is in spite of the fact that deploying Windows XP in enterprise environments is an increasingly iffy proposition. Microsoft shipped its last Windows XP service pack (SP2) nearly four years ago (August 2004. Since then, the software giant has released more than 100 security updates or hot fixes, along with a number of related, non-critical updates. Deploying these updates is now much easier than it was seven years ago -- thanks to Microsoft's array of software update technologies -- but bringing an SP2-vintage Windows XP installations up to snuff still requires considerable updating and multiple reboots.

That's why many enterprise customers are eagerly awaiting Microsoft's upcoming Windows XP SP3 release, which -- if recent communications from Redmond are accurate -- is getting ever closer to release.

Last week, Microsoft released a new refresh (build 5508) of its SP3 Release Candidate (RC) 2 code base. Redmond's SP3 RC2 refresh is its latest pre-RTM release and prompted many industry watchers to speculate that SP3 -- widely expected to ship sometime during the first half of 2008 -- could appear in the next few weeks.

Microsoft, for its part, remains mum on the subject.

"The purpose of RC2 Refresh is to validate improvements to the Windows Update experience with Service Pack 3," said Microsoft's Chris Keroack in a forum posting. "Beyond fixes for common Windows Update issues and the inclusion of support for HD Audio, there are no substantial differences between this beta release … and [build 3311 of] XP SP3 RC2."

The missing XP SP3 release probably isn't that much of an issue for enterprise IT organizations. It isn't as though organizations are deploying vanilla Windows XP SP2 installs and then updating them on dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of desktops across the enterprise. In most cases, IT managers build a known good Windows XP SP2 image, complete with all important updates, and then deploy that. Even SP3's streamlined installation routine (which doesn't require a product key during install) won't be a factor in most cases, given the popularity of canned images in most environments.

Likewise, enterprise IT organizations will probably not adopt and deploy SP3 immediately anyway. If history repeats itself, most IT organizations will watch and wait to see how SP3 shakes out in practice before deploying it.

Nevertheless, XP SP3 will almost certainly be embraced -- and deployed -- in the enterprise. For one thing, it's said to run faster -- as much as 10 percent faster, according to some independent tests -- than the vanilla Windows XP SP2 code base. All in all, it introduces a reported 1,073 fixes in addition to the acknowledged patches or updates that it incorporates.

Second, and more important, it introduces support for Network Access Protection (NAP), a feature Microsoft first delivered last year with Windows Vista. NAP defines and enforces policies for system health, effectively preventing noncompliant systems from accessing enterprise networks. In the back end, NAP requires Windows Server 2008.

In addition to a bevy of bug fixes, NAP, and a streamlined installation routine: XP SP3 also introduces support for black-hole router detection, another feature that Microsoft first delivered with Windows Vista.

XP SP3 is important for another reason: Microsoft's XP SP2 support schedule is creeping ever-closer to its end-of-life milestone. Mainstream support for Windows XP Service Pack 2 is scheduled to end on April 14, 2009.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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