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Windows Server Hacks

How to Solve SP2 Application Compatibility Problems

by Mitch Tulloch, author of Windows Server Hacks

The phone rang, and my friend Bart was on the line. "How can you uninstall Service Pack 2 for Windows XP?" he asked. "I installed it and the network connection to my ISP disappeared." I did a quick Knowledge Base search and found this article on how to remove XP SP2. I asked him, "Did you create a system restore point before you installed SP2?"


"Too bad; that would make restoring your system to its previous state the easiest. You'll have to use Add or Remove Programs in Control Panel instead and hope for the best."

Fortunately, this worked--but it got me thinking, as I hadn't tried uninstalling SP2 yet. So I went to an XP machine that had been updated to SP2, opened System Restore from System Tools under Accessories, and selected the "Restore my computer to an earlier time" option. To my dismay, all of my pre-SP2 system restore points had disappeared. So much for trusting the Knowledge Base.

This is just one small example of what people have been experiencing since XP SP2 was released. Fortunately for my own company, the results of updating to SP2 have been benign, but reports in the media suggest that perhaps 10 percent or more of users have experienced problems ranging from mild to severe. Most problems have been in the area of application compatibility, and most of those relate to Windows Firewall breaking network applications.

I like to call the XP SP2 experience the best and worst of times. It's terrific that Microsoft has finally been getting serious about security, that it's made significant inroads into the issues it identified in its Trustworthy Computing initiative, and that users who buy computers with XP preinstalled will now have a firewall configured and turned on by default. On the other hand, it's horrendous that so many existing home users are going to throw up their hands and uninstall SP2 right after they install it because of problems they experience with their favorite applications. And they'll likely uninstall it only to have Automatic Updates reinstall it--which may lead them to turn off Automatic Updates entirely, with disastrous results.

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I'm not so concerned about corporate users, as they should be installing SP2 first on a test network to verify compatibility with line-of-business applications before rolling it out on their production network. And if they skip this important testing phase and their applications break, then I have no sympathy with them--well, maybe just a little, since it takes time and money to perform rigorous application compatibility testing. If employees who work from home install SP2 on their machines and experience difficulties, and you try to offer Remote Assistance to fix things remotely, you unfortunately may be in for a surprise. The SP2 firewall blocks Remote Assistance--yikes!

If you're planning to deploy SP2 on your network, you need to check for application compatibility and anticipate any issues that may arise. Here are a few essential resources from Microsoft that can help you do this:

  • KB 842242 lists dozens of applications that need you to open specific ports in Windows Firewall manually in order to get them to work after you install SP2. Some of these issues involve the impairment of certain application features, while others prevent applications from working entirely. Workarounds may involve establishing remote Telnet sessions with machines, editing the Registry, or performing other actions.

  • Application Compatibility Testing and Mitigation Guide for Windows XP Service Pack 2 describes the security enhancements of SP2, provides an overview of application compatibility testing, explains how the new security features in SP2 can break different application functionality, and describes different steps you can take to mitigate compatibility issues until vendors upgrade their applications to resolve such problems. I don't find this guide very useful, as it's basically a laundry list of issues and procedures, leaving it to you to figure out which issue is the culprit and which mitigation step is the workaround.

  • FAQ: How Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) Affects SQL Server and MSDE explains how SP2 can affect SQL Server 2000 and SQL Server Desktop Engine (MSDE) and is essential reading if you have client apps on XP systems that connect to SQL machines.

  • KB 883575 describes known issues with using Outlook Web Access (OWA) on a Windows XP SP2-based computer and is relevant if your users access their mail on Exchange servers through OWA.

  • KB 842242 explains why some multiplayer games and instant-messaging programs may hang after installing SP2 and tells you how to resolve this.

  • KB 883775 lists some device drivers that are known to cause problems with SP2.

  • KB 835935 contains the release notes for SP2 and describes various issues you should be aware of before you deploy it on your network.

Finally, here is my favorite SP2 horror story and Microsoft's suggested solution. It's found in KB 870700 and deals with users who are apparently experiencing problems with some SSL-secured web sites after installing SP2. (KB articles are usually written by Microsoft Product Support Services in response to real-world complaints.) Microsoft's recommended solution to the problem is basically the following: try this, then this, then this, then this ... and if all else fails, re-create your user profile. Eek!

My next article will focus on deploying and preventing the deployment of SP2 on your network. Meantime, feel free to comment and share your own experiences with SP2.

Mitch Tulloch is the author of Windows 2000 Administration in a Nutshell, Windows Server 2003 in a Nutshell, and Windows Server Hacks.

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