Sunday, August 20, 2006

Technology Snake Oil Part 8: Service Pack Shell Game

If you could see my face, you would see shock, dumbfoundment, and disgust. It pains me to
even write about something as stupid as this, but it keeps rearing its head. The
majority of my recent clients and someone I talked to casually from another
company recently are relying on one poisonous meme, which seems to be spreading.
The very bad idea: "We never deploy anything until the first service pack is

Let's think about this for a second. If a vendor produced the
most perfect software ever conceived by mankind, there would never be a service
pack, thus none of these companies would ever deploy it. On the other hand, if I
release a really stinky version of some software that requires a service pack
after a week, it now meets this unassailable standard of deployability.

Two factors have led to this smelly idea. The first is just pure laziness on the
part of the decision makers who decide when things get deployed. Regardless of
the service pack level, you should always evaluate software on its merits. A
prescription like the Service Pack Shell Game ignores important factors in
software and tries to find a metric that indicates quality. This is not even
close. When Windows NT Service Pack 1 was released, it was a disaster. Service
Pack 2 basically rolled back all the changes that SP1 wrought. That's why, to
this day, you still see software that requires NT SP3, because that was the
first real service pack that actually fixed anything.

The other reason this is happening is both more subtle and dangerous. Have we really gotten to the
point where we distrust commercial software this much? It's because vendors have
consistently released software that is not ready for prime time and told us that
it's of shipping quality. Companies even apply this selection process to open
source software now. Open source has no marketing department pushing releases
out the door. Generally, open source software ships when it is ready. Thus, most
open source has fewer "service packs" than commercial software. Yet this same
flawed prescription is often applied to it. Software, no matter what the source,
should be vetted based on it's quality, which should be determined by (as much
as possible) objective means. Choosing a random metric like "after the first
service pack" guarantees you'll get hit-and-miss quality software.

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