Unannounced Automatic Updates … Are They Really Better For Users?

Another monthly "Patch Tuesday" just passed by and, like many folks, I updated all my systems to include these updates. I also awoke Wednesday and Thursday to machines that had been rebooted because Windows patched itself and rebooted the computer. In both cases, I was upset as I had open documents that I had not saved. To make this easier, many software packages are going to background updating with no notice to users. I question if this is really better for users.

Everyone knows about software updates thanks to Microsoft and their Windows/Microsoft Update system. Starting out with the "Windows Update" website with Windows 95, the updates were delivered via the internet. Later versions of Windows had more integration with the Update service to the point of the current incarnation of Windows Update built into Windows 7 and soon to be released Windows 8. Microsoft gives the user many levels of customization around the update process. One option, set as the recommended standard by Microsoft, is to install critical updates and reboot after the installation. This has caused issues for many users where the computer is rebooted without letting the user know. Users have complained about losing data .



This has cause Microsoft to provide deep customizations around their updates to ensure no data loss.

Windows 8 changes this again. Having gone through a few months of patches with my Windows 8 installations, both Customer Preview and Release Preview, I prefer the new updater. Windows 8 performs the monthly patching using the Windows/Microsoft Update process as before. Users can customize this experience but the reboot is the key difference. Windows 8 gives the user notification that they should reboot within the next 3 days before it is automatically done. Finally, Microsoft is on the right path! The only thing better Microsoft can do is figure out to apply the updates without requiring reboots. As the Windows NT Core becomes more and more modular, this should be easier to do. Only the core elements would require the reboot while all subsystems could be restarted with new code.

Now, take a look at how Adobe, Mozilla and Google are doing their updates. Almost all of them have changed how they are doing their updates for their main products: Flash for Adobe, Firefox for Mozilla, and Chrome for Google. Their most current versions, as well as earlier versions of Chrome, are now setup to automatically download and install updates. If the default settings are used, all of them do this without notifying the user that there is a change. The only way to find the current version is to look in the package's "About this product" page or screen. I have not yet heard of issues with this process but a major concern is what happens if a bad release happens? Users would be confused as to why their computer wasn't working. A good example of this was Cisco's firmware update of Linksys E2700, E3500 and E4500 in late June. The update forced users to no longer use a local administrative system but a cloud-based system. There were issues with the cloud-based system and what information it tracked. With no other way to manage their routers, users are given no choice all cause by automatic updates. Cisco has reversed this but it is impacting their perception by users as many are not happy and some even returning their units.

As a manager of IT services, this concern is my biggest concern and makes me unwilling to support products that update automatically in the background. Within a managed environment, unannounced changes cause many problems. Microsoft created its monthly patching update cycle that is has around this design for enterprise environments. It is truly built around IT management systems. The updates are announced upon their delivery and allows IT teams to review and determine their risks for the organization. It also allows for testing cycles and deployment systems managed by the IT teams. The new unannounced automated updates do not allow for this.

With this movement to unannounced automated changes, some in the tech world think this change as the best thing for users. One argument is that it is good for developers as products keep improving, mentioning that it is similar to how web applications can be upgraded without user intervention. This is a bad comparison as web applications can be fully tested and conformed to "standards". Applications installed on a users' computer are more difficult. Did the software publisher check it in all configurations? This is much easier in controlled platforms like Apple's iOS and Mac OS X. With Microsoft's Windows platform and Linux based operating systems, this cannot be done easily. In one way, the fact that Microsoft can make Windows work on so many different configurations working with the hardware providers is absolutely amazing. I would suspect that Adobe, Mozilla and Google do not do this sort of in-depth testing.

I can see automatic unannounced updates for consumer users being a positive thing but personally do not like it at all. I have told Adobe to inform me of updates of Flash instead of just installing it. I am using a version of Firefox that does not have this automatic update when I need to use Firefox and have stayed on IE mostly for my personal use. To my dismay, Microsoft is now going to start performing automatic updates like Chrome and Firefox. My hope is that they offer a manage system for IT teams to control this process. Having worked at Microsoft, I wonder what the internal IT teams there think of this automatic update process.

Further automating the update process will make more users up-to-date and improve the overall security of the internet. Microsoft showed this with the move to the monthly patch process. Currently, statistics from security sources like Kaspersky Lab show a major shift in malware writers from attacking Windows directly to using other software as the attack vector, the most popular being Adobe Flash and Oracle/Sun Java. This opens up the malware folks to infecting more than just Windows, but Apple Mac and mobile devices like iOS and Google Android. The response to these threats is to do automated updates of those attack vectors. This helps users and increases security on the internet, but Microsoft has shown that a standard cadence can work. Adobe did try a standard cadence for updates to its products but has not been able to keep to a cadence due to the severity of their security issues being patched as of late. Instead of trying to make it work, they are moving to the models popularized by Google and, then, Mozilla.

The downside to all of this is the platform for upgrades. Every product seems to need to make its own product for monitoring for and applying new updates. Google and Mozilla both now install their own updater service that runs on the computer all the time and with administrative privileges. That is the only way for a service to run and install code without user intervention. My IT "spidey senses" go on high alert any time I hear this. Right now, on many home computers, there are most likely 5-10 updater services of some sort running. One solution is to have the operating system provide a standard mechanism for this sort of updating. Another is to use the task scheduling system of the operating system to schedule checks for updates. One great opportunity is the CoApp project headed up by Garrett Serack (@fearthecowboy) with many contributors. This could be a single updater that all the packages could use for their updates. Some sort of standardized and single point for updates would make users' systems run cleaner and happier.

The issue of unpatched systems on the internet is a major one for all of the computing world but especially for IT teams and their configuration management. In my review of ITIL/ITSM management philosophies, the configuration management part is the most critical aspect. Controlling change is how an IT team keeps a company running. It is the one area that most IT teams do not do well and it shows. If the push is to these unannounced automatic updates for web browsers and more companies use web tools to run their companies, how will they verify that all the web tools are going to work with each update? Will they see more Helpdesk calls from users confused when sites and tools don't work? What do you think?