After several months of silence, Microsoft last month finally revealed some concrete information about Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1), which I translated into my Windows Vista Service Pack 1 Revealed showcase. If you haven't read that article, please do so now: This preview, which is based off of more recent beta code and an in-depth discussion with various people working on SP1 at Microsoft, builds off of that article, but provides more information and detail. Windows Vista SP1, finally, is a known quantity.

Virtually everything I've learned about SP1 recently is good news, though anyone hoping for dramatic changes will be disappointed as this release marks a return to what Microsoft calls a more traditional type of service pack. Windows Vista SP1, unlike Windows XP Service Pack 2 (See my review) doesn't introduce major new functionality or break existing applications. But it does provide a number of valuable changes, including, yes, a new kernel version, a surprising array of performance, reliability, and compatibility fixes, a number of small functional changes, and an aggregation of previously-released security fixes and other hot-fixes. Developed in tandem with Windows Server 2008--and not just concurrently, but literally together--Windows Vista SP1 once again realigns the development paths of the Windows client and server products. So much so, in fact, that the first Windows Server 2008 service pack will be the same as Windows Vista Service Pack 2 (SP2). These products, Vista SP1 and Windows Server 2008, are literally being developed in lock step.

SP1 roadmap

Last month, Microsoft shipped a beta preview of Vista SP1 to a small group of testers along with a similar beta preview of Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3). As noted in my Vista Service Pack 1 Revealed showcase, there wasn't must there there, so to speak: SP1 didn't appear to change the Windows user experience very much, though there were some welcome reliability, compatibility, and performance updates. This month's release, and the subject of this article, is the first true beta release of Vista SP1. The Vista SP1 beta, like a similar beta release for XP SP3, has shipped off to about 12,000 beta testers, according to Microsoft, and they're providing feedback to the company that will be used to ensure Microsoft can keep its previously announced shipping schedule.

"We're now at beta, Windows Client product manager Dave Zipkin told me. "The plan is still to ship Windows Vista SP1 in the first quarter of 2008, and it's looking positive based on the feedback we've gotten so far." (Windows XP SP3, meanwhile, is scheduled for later in the first half of 2008.)

Microsoft also plans to ship a public release candidate version of SP1 via MSDN and TechNet by the end of the year. This will allow the company to dramatically expand its pool of testers and garner a wider range of feedback. It's not clear if the company intends to ship this publicly via its Web site as well. I was only told that it would be "fairly broad."

Rethinking service packs

One of the major goals of SP1 is to realign Windows service packs with the original vision, where these updates are basically aggregates of previously-released fixes along with a small number of new updates and some very small functional changes. This has important ramifications for Microsoft's business customers, as service packs will no longer be as disruptive as was XP SP2. "We're going back to what service pakcs were before XP SP2," Zipkin told me. "A standard service pack is about improving the experience, but not about adding new features or breaking applications."

Vista SP1 also marks another change with regards to service packs, because Microsoft now has a number of other avenues for delivering updates to customers and service packs now are just one method of doing so. "We're amping up the volume of things we deliver over Windows Updaste," Zipkin said. "It's a better, more frequently used channel. And Windows Update isn't just for security updates. We've done this all along: There were application compatibility fixes and reliability and compatibility updates delivered for XP on Windows Update over the last five years. But we're being more aggressive with Vista and intentionally pushing a higher volume. We've been planning this for quite a while."

While some customers have asked Microsoft to deliver service packs more frequently, the reality is that the company's testing environment and quality criteria bars make such a change unlikely. Instead, Microsoft feels that it can deliver more frequent updates via Windows Update and then continue shipping service packs less frequently. Service packs aren't going away, however, as there will always be enterprise customers that prefer to update systems in slow, measured ways. Plus, some features and changes will always be more appropriately delivered through service packs, so these updates will usually include a number of small fixes that weren't delivered previously in other forms.

"Windows Update lets us deliver incremental updates, including security fixes," Zipkin said. "It's an ongoing way to keep people up to date and secure without the massive effort and energy that's required around deploying service packs. Companies are all different. Some just want big service packs with no interim updates, while others want the reverse. So we have more options."

In addition to service packs and Windows Update--the latter of which includes related technologies like Microsoft Update, Automatic Updates, Windows Server Update Services, and so on--Microsoft delivers updates to customers in a surprisingly disparate number of ways. The company offers end users manual software downloads via its Download Center, of course. It delivers private updates to OEMs and PC makers, including hot fixes that are never added to Download Center. "These are built into the install images that end users ultimately buy on new PCs," Zipkin told me. "They are hardware-specific, and usually related to new devices, new combinations on the motherboard, and so on--PC makers like Sony, Lenovo, and Dell always innovating on the motherboard--and they're also pushed into the restore partitions." These private hot-fixes are then "baked into" the next service pack I was told. "Every single hot fix we create heads to the next service pack," Zipkin added. "Service packs are always cumulative."

Microsoft isn't the only one developing changes to Vista. Its partners are working on application and hardware compatibility issues on an ongoing basis, an effort that has made Vista the most compatible Windows version Microsoft has ever shipped. And the compatibility picture is only improving over time. "We had over 250 logoed applications at launch in January," Zipkin said. "Today we're at over 2000." Likewise, Microsoft and its partners have fixed over 80 enterprise deployment blockers since RTM (release to manufacturing)--these are troublesome but much needed business solutions such as VPNs, enterprise anti-virus, and so on.

Similar progress has been made with hardware compatibility. At launch, there were over 10,000 logoed devices and over 700,000 new devices have gained the logo since then. "We push those updates through Windows Update, so if you have a hardware compatibility issue and It's solved, you'll simply get the drivers automatically and be up and running," Zipkin said. "We prioritize on the most common incompatibilities using Windows Error Reporting, Online Crash Analysis, and so on, and can see all of the 'device not found' errors. We have a similar view into crashes and hangs." Microsoft also meets with hardware makers on a weekly basis to remediate application compatibility issues.

Though some Vista customers are inexplicably waiting for the release of Vista Service Pack 1, Microsoft has in fact already delivered a number of low-level reliability and compatibility updates to Vista users via Windows Update, and more are on the way, including an important new set of fixes scheduled for October 2007. These updates are always optional, so that customers can choose which they want. Beyond SP1, Microsoft will employ the same tactics, and deliver most updates when they can, rather than wait for the next service pack.

What's in Vista Service Pack 1

Microsoft describes Windows Vista Service Pack 1 as a vehicle for delivering improvements and enhancements, not new features. It is built and tested to enable smooth transitions for applications from the initial shipping version of Vista to Vista SP1. "It's a rollup of what's already out," Zipkin said. "On top of that, we've added other improvements."There are fixes for the top crashes as reported by OCA, some of which will have been delivered previous to SP1, and some of which will be new to SP1.

There are a number of performance fixes in SP1 as well. Zipkin told me that Microsoft was addressing a number of scenarios that have caused user concern, including file copy, unzipping files, Resume and Hibernate, and shutting down delays. In one example, the Vista Sync Center had an issue that added five seconds to shutdown. "There's no single performance issue," Microsoft Director John Gray said. "We think of performance as 'the things that customers do." The file copy issue is a good example. Though many customers have reported slowdowns with file copy in different scenarios, each of these scenarios--same disk to same disk, disk to disk, across the network, whatever--are actually different types of actions. And though many have complained that the Vista copy dialog seems to get hung up while displaying a "calculating" message, the system is actually still copying the file while that message is being displayed. So in that case, the message and whatever calculation its doing need to be addressed (and have been) but the actual file copy is progressing normally.

While Microsoft shipped a pair of fixes last month that address various Vista performance issues, the company is also planning a second major shipment of performance fixes this month (October 2007), so be on the lookout for that. "Performance issues are one of the most satisfying things to fix," Zipkin said. "Some are being pushed out in August and October before the service pack, and others will come in SP1. We're fixing things like the photo screen saver, which was taking up too much memory and slowed performance when users tried to get back to work, and the copy calculation issue."

Vista SP1 also includes support for emerging hardware and standards that weren't so widespread in late 2006 (at Vista's RTM) but are gaining in important now. "We can't wait for the next version of Windows to add support for this stuff, " Zipkin said. "But we also need the hardware to test it on, and it wasn't available last year." Wireless-N is a great example: This type of networking equipment is becoming increasingly common even though it hasn't officially been standardized or finalized. "We can test it and certify it [for Vista] now even though the spec isn't technically finalized yet," Zipkin said. "We can't wait on Windows 7."

Microsoft is also addressing complaints about the BitLocker administrative user experience. The BitLocker control panel is being extensively updated and the feature now supports the ability to automatically encrypt non-system drives. (This functionality is also available in Windows Server 2008; that makes sense, given that Vista SP1 and Windows 2008 use the same code base.) Incidentally, I was told that BitLocker would continue its behavior of not working with external USB drives, as this is by design."BitLocker is not about moving data from machine to machine on a flash drive," Zipkin told me. "This is not going to work because it looks too much like an attack."

There are dozens of other tiny refinements. Printing to local printers in Terminal Services (TS) is much easier. Printer management has been improved. The Search item is being removed from the Start menu to accommodate antitrust complaints from Google. (You can still access the Search window by tapping F3 or WinKey + F, by the way.) Disk Defragmenter has been updated so you can choose which drive you'd like to defrag. "Nothing huge," Zipkin added.

"Service Pack 1 doesn't change the Vista value proposition," he said. "There's plumbing stuff, behind the walls--no UI, but in the system--reliability stuff, based on Watson and OCA data. We discovered where crashes were occurring in Vista. It turns out most of it was not in Microsoft code usually. We we work with our ecosystem partners to address these areas. We look at the top hitters--it's a huge tail--and move the dial. Sometimes this happens in standalone updates, while some will wait for SP1. We put them through beta, look for regressions over several months. We will have confidence by then that they're OK to ship to customers. We do a massive amount of testing internally, automated and otherwise, but it really helps to have customer testing. But it never fails: You release into the real world and then you find more issues. There are just so many hardware permutations."

About the co-development of Vista SP1 and Windows Server 2008

One thing that may be shocking to some about Vista Service Pack 1 is that it is being developed alongside Windows Server 2008. (I did report this over a year ago, but it remained a source of much confusion over the intervening months because of the company's public silence about this topic.) "Windows Server 2008 and Vista SP1 are aligned," Zipkin confirmed. "They are a common engineering project, two separate products that share the same kernel and code base."

The kernel issue is a related source of information: I also reported well before Vista shipped that Vista SP1 would include a "new kernel that will bring the Vista kernel up to date with the improvements in Windows Server 2008." This is absolutely true, I was told, though Microsoft is very nervous about any misconceptions this statement may carry, so I'd like take this opportunity to, hopefully, clear this issue up once and for all.

My explanation goes as follows: Vista SP1 and Windows Server 2008 are being developed together and share the same kernel. This kernel is newer than the version that shipped in Windows Vista, so it is a "new" kernel version that includes some significant updates. That said, new kernel versions are often used by Microsoft to denote new product versions, and in this case, Vista is still Vista. More important perhaps, this new kernel won't institute a round of compatibility issues, as is generally the case when a new kernel (and thus, typically, a major new Windows version) is introduced.

Microsoft's explanation is more nuanced, and Gray and Zipkin were quick to draw a distinction between a "new" kernel and a kernel that, in their minds, is simply evolved over previous versions. Fair enough: I certainly agree that the overriding concern here should be that whatever changes are occurring in the Vista kernel won't require enterprises or other businesses to hold off on Vista testing, as Vista SP1 won't do anything to break compatibility.

"Kernel code isn't just the kernel," Gray said. "All of the things that make up the lowest level of the OS can be considered part of the kernel, even the shell. Focusing on the kernel as a differentiator [between Vista SP1 and RTM] doesn't do justice to issues that are more important to customers, like compatibility and the device driver model, neither of which are changing. We have extended and expanded major portions of the kernel since NT 3.1. It's still based on the same code, but it's evolved over time. We added Plug N Play support and various other capabilities over time. The memory management we have now is far superior to what we had five years ago."

"Vista has an enhanced kernel over what appeared in Windows XP and Windows Server 2003," he continued. "They all introduced new breaking changes. But up until Vista was finalized, Vista and Windows Server 2008 shared the same code base. Yes, it's correct to say that Windows Server 2008 has the new kernel. But it's the Vista kernel now too, because it's in Vista SP1. It's an evolutionary change. Vista SP1 and Windows Server 2008 share the same kernel code. They are evolving together."

They're also being released together. And going forward, the co-development of Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 (or more accurately, the client and server versions of Windows) will continue. Microsoft will ship an SP2 release concurrently for Vista and Windows Server 2008, and while that package of updates will be the second service pack for Vista, it will be the first for Windows Server 2008.

Deploying Windows Vista SP1

Since we're on the topic of confusing issues surrounding Windows Vista Service Pack 1, this might be a good time to address another bit of confusion surrounding this release. Way back in May 2003, I wrote up a Vista Setup and Deployment showcase that was based on a Microsoft presentation at WinHEC 2003 described Microsoft's plans for Vista deployment. The biggest advance, of course, was Vista's componentized architecture, which provides the foundation for a number of capabilities. One of these was what Microsoft calls offline updating, which is the ability to slipstream service packs and other hot-fixes into a Windows install image. Businesses use these images to blast new Windows installed down to network-attached PCs. And enthusiasts use them to create new versions of the Windows Setup CD/DVD, so they can perform clean installs with the latest bits pre-configured. This process, called slipstreaming, is horribly difficult under Windows XP. (See my XP SP2 slipstreaming guide for details.) But Microsoft promised to make slipstreaming almost laughably simple in Vista: I was told that users would be able to copy service packs and other hot-fixes into an UPDATE folder in the root of a Vista DVD or install image and just install the system, and all those updates would be automatically applied. It sounded fantastic, as it would to anyone whose suffered through the XP slipstreaming process countless times, and I was looking forward to testing this with Vista SP1.

Something funny happened on the way to SP1, however. First, Microsoft was curiously silent in public about this update between the end of 2006 and the middle of 2007, no doubt in part to convince its enterprise customers not to wait on the release before upgrading. And when Microsoft finally did break its silence at the end of summer 2007, it released a whitepaper describing the various ways in which users and admins could deploy SP1. And the only slipstreaming option that was mentioned was one in which Microsoft slipstreamed it for you and then supplied you with a new install DVD. Huh?

The fear, of course, was that Microsoft had given up on the drag and drop slipstreaming method, thereby erasing one of the key benefits of the new system. And this fear was only exacerbated by Microsoft continued silence on the topic.

So it with a sense of relief that I can now report that drag and drop slipstreaming--excuse me, offline updating--is still happening. It's just not happening in Vista SP1. "Vista Service Pack 1 will not be able to be applied as an offline update to prestaged install images," Zipkin told me. "But this will work as planned with future update, post-SP1 updates. We ran into some unexpected issues with the servicing stack, so we can't do it for SP1. But we're planning to add this capability for SP2, though we can't make any promises. This will be a bigger issue around SP2 than it is now. We think this is a one time thing. But you can still make your own slipstream DVD using the old '-integrate' method as with XP if you want to."

OK, on to other things.

With Windows Vista Service Pack 1, there are essentially three ways to get the bits. The simplest way, an integrated or slipstreamed DVD that includes Windows Vista with SP1, will ship in early 2008. So customers who buy boxed copies of the OS starting in early 2008 will simply get both in a combined package. The same thing applies to volume licensed versions of the OS and versions that ship with new PCs: Vista will simply be integrated with the SP1 updates and that will become the baseline Vista OS going forward.

The second method is aimed at consumers and small businesses: They can simply use Auto Updates to automatically download SP1. As with previous Microsoft service packs, it won't be automatically installed, however: Instead, users will see a prompt about the release and opt into the install. The download itself is (in the beta) and will be (in the final version) about 51-55 MB, depending on the system. (XP SP2 was 110 MB.) "It uses differential technology to decide what it needs to download," Zipkin explained. "It scans your system, looks at what you need, and then only downloads those files."

Note that Windows Vista Service Pack 1 will never be pushed to users as a "mandatory" update. It will, however, be required if users wish to stay on Vista's support path going forward.

The third way is a standalone installer, and this is, perhaps, the final bit of controversy and misunderstanding with SP1 today. There are three scenarios for the standalone installer, which includes everything any customer will need to move from Vista RTM to Vista SP1: Corporations that need to roll out SP1 in volume, third party services (like Best Buy's Geek Squad) that need a mobile and offline updater, and users with no Internet access. The standalone installer, by necessity, is larger, but it includes all 36 languages currently supported by Vista and will work with any Vista disk. Right now, it weighs in at about 1 GB for the x86 version.

The controversy surrounding the standalone installer involves the time and effort it currently takes to get it installed. During the beta, testers are experiencing three lengthy reboots, and Microsoft has received a number of complaints about this process. Well, here's some good news: This is a beta-only issue. By the time most customers install SP1 in early 2008, the installer will only require a single reboot.

What's happening is that Vista SP1 requires two or three prerequisites, depending on whether BitLocker is installed. These prerequisites need to be installed before SP1 can be successfully deployed, and they each require their own reboot. (One of these prerequisites, incidentally, is the servicing code mentioned previously that is causing the offline updating limitations.) Before the end of calendar year 2007, Microsoft will ship final versions of these prerequisite updates to Vista customers via Windows Update so that they will be installed well before SP1 is released. (They may ship as part of the company's regularly scheduled monthly security patch update cycle in November. Or not. They're not sure yet.) That way, Vista-based PCs can reboot silently overnight once or twice between now and SP1. So when SP1 ships, most customers will experience just a single reboot for install. These updates will also go out on new PCs this holiday season so that those machines are ready for SP1 as well.

"SP1 won't need 3 reboots in the final version," Zipkin said. "When SP1 comes out, most people will have already gotten these prerequisites. It will affect beta testers and reviewers but not customers. The average consumer won't ever see this."

Despite improving its deployment tools somewhat dramatically in Windows Vista, the deployment picture remains largely the same for customers. Consumers and very small businesses should acquire SP1 via Windows Update as before. Medium-sized businesses can utilize Windows Update, Windows Server Update Services, or third party distribution tools with the standalone installer. And enterprise customers on volume licensing can acquire slipstreamed Vista install images from Microsoft. Customers who purchase new PCs in early 2008 and beyond will receive an integrate copy of Vista and SP1 as expected.

Vista Service Pack 1 guidance

You're probably familiar with the established conventional wisdom that larger companies won't even consider rolling out a new Windows version until the first service pack is made available. Microsoft had hoped to convince its business customers that, starting with Windows Vista, the first service pack is no longer a requirement and that they should begin planning deployments with the initial shipping version of the OS. It's not clear that Microsoft's business customers have really gotten this message, but the company is continuing its communication efforts in this regard. Certainly, the messaging on SP1 is consistent with what the company has repeatedly said in the past.

"Home users shouldn't wait," Zipkin said. "The Vista user experience isn't changing with SP1, and compatibility is improving on an ongoing basis. We've got stuff coming down the pike that will hit well before SP1." There are also a number of out-of-band functional improvements to Vista that are happening outside the SP1 track that will significantly increase Vista's appear to consumers. I'm thinking of Windows Live Photo Gallery and Windows Live Mail specifically, both of which expand dramatically on capabilities that are built into Vista.

Corporations, Microsoft says, are already moving to Vista, and the arrival of SP1 shouldn't change anything. "Our business customers already have the tools and guidance they need to deploy Vista," Zipkin said. "Some are waiting to deploy, but they can do some pre-SP1 work to hit the ground running. They can begin application compatibility testing on the SP1 beta or Vista gold [RTM] code, as the compatibility picture isn't changing. There are architectural changes moving from XP to Vista, but that's a remediation you will need to make with SP1 too." Microsoft is planning a "fairly broad" SP1 release candidate for later this year and expects many businesses to start pilots at that time. "There's no need to stall things because of SP1," Zipkin said.

Final thoughts

Microsoft's initial silence on Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) was alarming on a number of levels, and while the company's public disclosures over the past month were heartening, a number of troubling questions remained. Today, however, I can report that Vista SP1, finally, is a known quantity, which a logical and even desirable feature set that will improve the end user experience only in subtle ways but will provide a number of useful functional, reliability, performance, and compatibility changes. As a long time NT fan, I'm happy to see Microsoft return to its original vision for service packs, and of course the advent of widespread broadband Internet access has made only made Windows Update more valuable. Between SP1, the many other improvements delivered via Windows Update, and an ever-expanding cadre of free Windows Live products and services, the Vista picture just keeps getting better. And that's saying something, given how good this OS was at launch.