From the desk of: Sam C. Chan

Memo on XP SP3 Upgrade

November 5, 2011  

This addresses the common scenario of upgrading very old XP stations from SP2 to SP3. It is not to be installed in a haphazard manner, as it is potentially disruptive in a typical production system, at this juncture. Especially, when so many sensible alternatives are available. My analysis:

  • hardware resource requirements
    • SP3 code is significantly bulkier, thus consumes more memory& disk space
    • during upgrade process, 2G of hard disk space is required for temp files, etc.
    • after installation, it takes up 1.2G ~ 1.8G of additional disk space, half of which is due by backup version of system files, the remainder belong to uninstalling mechanism, and newly expanded executables.
    • system partition would grow by 1.2G ~ 1.8G, making GHOSTing more difficult
  • compatibility issues
    • very old XP systems typically harbor numerous minor corruption, which likely would prevent the upgrade script from patching up executables to the new version
    • some applications have no SP3 compatible version, other would support fresh install onto SP3 platform, but not survive an in-place upgrade.
    • some device drivers have no SP3 support, or work only as a fresh install, but cannot be migrated over to SP3 by Microsoft's patching
  • logistical process considerations
    • during the upgrade process, remote IT will lose connection
    • upon first reboot, Microsoft resets many system settings to default, prompt corresponding reaction from IT
    • upon first reboot, Windows built-in firewall would be activated, preventing all remote access, requiring local intervention, via verbal instructions.
    • all these mean it'd have to be performed during business hours, with all the implied downtime and distraction to staff
  • risk assessment based on my empirical data
    • typical scenario:
      • 6- to 10-year old system
      • 256M to 512M memory
      • 30G to 120G hard drive
      • lots of legacy applications, often from defunct vendors
      • some legacy peripherals (scanner/printer/wifi), without up-to-date driver availability, due to EOL policy
    • 25% risk of minor glitches, mostly sidestep-able, or possible to live with them
    • 10% risk of major glitches, enough to be considered operationally unacceptable
    • 2% risk of catastrophic melt-down: runaway costs + time drain + stress
  • necessity and justifications
    • when vendors proclaim SP3 is "required," 90% of the time, it reflects only their arbitrary administrative policy, not a technical decision/assessment
      • it is entirely understandable and fair, for vendors to demand certain baselines, so as to reduce their workload & risks.
    • in most cases, such "requirements" can be skipped, and the program would work, and it is commonplace practice by IT dept. everywhere, per their internal priorities and risks assessment.
    • majority of the time, the real reason things don't work lie elsewhere, and it has to be addressed even after SP3 upgrade is performed.
    • of course, it's possible for some software vendor to implement a check, and lock out program functions, or refuse to install, upon detecting non-compliance. In which case, you must make a decision.
  • strategic decisions/directions/alternatives
    • definitely will not casually perform to all XP stations at once
    • at minimum, start with one pilot station, allow reasonable wait period to evaluate & validate, then consider rolling out to remainder
    • it is oft acceptable to forgo certain apps which prompted such upgrade: entirely or at selected stations
    • it might be sensible to designate a single (or subset of) station(s) for such apps
    • consider virtualization for off-loading such apps
    • consider drastic alternatives, such as: pushing up workstation upgrade schedule
    • Bottomline: Avg. $40~$75/station in best case scenario, when nothing went wrong, just spending time taking care of all the basic tasks. $150+/station is not uncommon; and in nightmare scenarios, the sky is the limit.

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