Windows NT Service Pack 4 Expected Soon

According to most sources, Microsoft's long-awaited Service Pack 4 (SP4) for Windows NT is due to appear sometime during the third quarter. Aside from patching residual bugs with the Windows NT operating system, SP4 will likely be a requirement for administrators looking to migrate Windows NT 4.0 machines to Windows NT 5.0 when it becomes available.

A service pack is an operating system upgrade created by Microsoft to correct problems or introduce new functionality into Windows NT.

Microsoft released Service Pack 3 (SP3), the last major service pack update to the Windows NT operating system, in May 1997. The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant managed to defray the release of SP4 by releasing the first Windows NT Option Pack in November 1997. SP3 was the first service pack released after an extended beta period, and SP4 follows in that tradition. SP4's final appearance is ultimately contingent upon the results of a beta process that began in April 1998.

Among analysts, the general consensus is that Microsoft's service pack beta program has been successful.

"The beta program appears to be working," notes Rob Enderle, a senior analyst with consultancy the Giga Information Group (Santa Clara, Calif.). "The beta program has improved the overall quality of these service packs dramatically, they don't seem to be blowing up on people anymore, at least to the extent that they did before they had the beta program in place," he observes.

Although Microsoft publicly indicated in late 1997 that future service pack releases would include only code fixes and core technology updates, SP4 will include a number of new technologies that were originally not slated to appear until Windows NT 5.0 shipped.

Likely new features slated for inclusion in SP4 are support for DCOM-over-HTTP, a feature that lets object components communicate over HTTP, over networks and through firewalls; a new Microsoft Management Console-compliant graphical Security Configuration Editor program that allows administrators to lock down client workstations and servers; and APIs for Web Based Enterprise Management, an initiative that seeks to enable system and network management over the Internet.

When SP4 finally appears, it will incorporate bug fixes previously available only as Windows NT hotfixes -- in addition to a number of other Windows NT fixes related to operating system performance, stability and security, says a source familiar with the beta. "I hear that this is a very limited beta release that will go to production quickly as some of the bugs in NT 4 are causing Microsoft some significant problems," the source confirms.

Administrators with NetWare or NDS for Windows NT in their environments should exercise caution when deploying SP4, says David Chappell, a principal with Chappell & Associates, a Minneapolis-based consultancy that specializes in distributed computing and object technology. According to Chappell, the Security Configuration Editor that ships with SP4 may make changes to critical Windows NT system files that might cause NDS to cease functioning properly in many environments.

Officials from Novell acknowledge that the Orem, Utah-based networking specialist is currently scrutinizing the SP4 beta release in its testing center to assess the possibility of potential problems.

Also expected in SP4 are fixes for minor Year 2000-compliance problems recently discovered in Windows NT, such as NT's inability to recognize the Year 2000 as a leap year.