Windows 8 — streamlining the update process

Susan bradley By Susan Bradley

It appears that Microsoft has heard our complaints about a tedious part of the Windows updating process.

Changes in Windows 8 should make the never-ending task of installing patches a bit easier, by reducing mandatory system restarts.

On Feb. 29, Microsoft will reportedly release a Consumer Preview, beta version of Windows 8. It could be the first comprehensive look at what might be the company’s most advanced — and already controversial — Windows yet. But as you probably know, Microsoft has released hints and sneak peaks about Win8 for months now through its Windows 8 engineering blog, “Building Windows 8,” and the Windows 8 Developer Preview released this past September.

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From a Windows updating perspective, one of the more interesting Windows 8 tidbits was discussed in the Nov. 14, 2011, Building Windows 8 blog. It reveals a plan to minimize the number of mandatory system reboots that often take place when Windows automatically adds patches. In fact, Microsoft states that in most cases, Windows 8 users should see only one system restart per month — on Patch Tuesday, when all updates have been installed. The exception would be any out-of-cycle critical patches MS sends out between Patch Tuesdays.

In the blog’s historical background on Windows Update, Microsoft provides an interesting peek into how most people install updates. For example (based on Windows users who have opted into Microsoft’s reporting system), 89 percent of Windows 7 users install Windows updates automatically. Of that group, 39 percent use the Install at shutdown option, 31 percent use the Interactive option, and 30 percent use Install-at-scheduled-time.

I’d love to interview that 39 percent and ask them whether they really wanted to install updates at shutdown — or just didn’t notice the Shut down and install updates notification when they turned off their computers. Based on the number of people in various Windows forums that complain about this behavior, I’m convinced few of those folks actually want that option (especially busy notebook users who want to quickly get up and go, then end up cursing Windows when it wants to install a dozen updates before shutting down).

Windows 8 changes updating in two ways. First, Windows Update will consolidate updates that need a system restart (regardless of when they came out during the month) and synchronize that final reboot step with the restarts required by the Patch Tuesday (the second Tuesday of each month) security updates. Secondly, once updates are installed, Windows Update will warn users of an upcoming reboot over three days, via a message in the user sign-in screen (see Figure 1) and within Windows Update (see Figure 2). You should no longer receive those annoying restart popup messages.

Reboot warning in sign-in window
Figure 1. Windows 8 will eliminate forced system-reboot popup warnings. A new notification will show up in the sign-in window.

Reboot warning in windows update
Figure 2. The mandatory reboot warning will also show up in Windows Update.

Windows 8 will give you two new restart options on the lock screen when a reboot is needed: Update and restart and Update and shut down. If you don’t restart the PC within three days, Windows Update will do it for you. To prevent data loss, Windows Update will wait until the next time you sign into the system and warn you that Windows will restart in 15 minutes, giving you time to save your work. Windows Update will also delay the forced restart if you’re running a presentation, game, or movie.

Although it’s clear that Microsoft is trying to minimize the reboots, it unfortunately can’t get rid of them altogether. MS hasn’t come up with a way to turn off services temporarily, patch the vulnerable parts, and restart the services — all without a reboot.

Many aspects of system updating remain in Win8

The overall update process in Windows 8 remains unchanged from previous versions of Windows. Starting with Vista, Microsoft uses a process called Component-Based Servicing (CBS). You see CBS as that power-off message, “Stage 1 of 3, do not shut down your computer.” It’s identifying files, staging them for installation, determining what files are needed, resolving dependencies, and — finally — completing the installation.

CBS is not well documented, as technical architect Greg Lambert noted in a 2008 blog. A Microsoft Ask the Performance Team blog gives a general summary of how CBS works.

Also unchanged is Windows’ use of .NET Framework — Windows 8 will include .NET 4.5. We can hope that version will be better behaved and not give us the patching grief we’ve had with previous .NET updates.

Windows 8 also continues a feature initiated with Vista. Applications that work with the Windows Restart Manager API (more info) can reboot a PC and return to the same pre-reboot state. Unfortunately, most apps don’t use this feature (MS Office 2007 and 2010 are two examples of apps that do).

Windows Component Store, the folder that loves to suck up hard-drive space (discussed in my Aug. 25, 2011, Top Story), is still on Windows 8. However, it looks like Microsoft put it on a diet. On a freshly built Windows 8 test system, it took up 3.68GB of space — a bit leaner than the 5.51GB it occupied on a virgin Win7 installation.

The Windowsupdate.log, which documents updates detected and installed, appears unchanged in Windows 8. The same is true for the Windows Software Distribution folder, which sometimes needs to be reset to fix issues with Windows Update, as noted in MS Help and Support article 822798.

Other Windows Update changes unknown

I’m still waiting to see which Windows Update user-interface changes are in store for us in Win8. The Developer preview was targeted primarily at a tablet experience, which uses the new Metro interface — and thus hid the standard Windows Update control-panel view. The Consumer Preview due out at the end of this month will hopefully offer a more traditional desktop platform, along with Metro.

It’s unrealistic to think there will soon come a time when forced system reboots are just a painful memory. But it’s good to know that Microsoft understands the problem and is making it easier to manage.

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Susan Bradley

About Susan Bradley

Susan Bradley is a Small Business Server and Security MVP, a title awarded by Microsoft to independent experts who do not work for the company. She's also a partner in a California CPA firm.