Microsoft Corp.'s decision to release a major upgrade for its flagship operating system in the same month that hundreds of thousands of students are reporting to college campuses across the nation is causing a major headache for the higher education community.
The upgrade, known as Service Pack 2, is designed to patch numerous gaps in Windows XP, the operating system of choice for an estimated 200 million computer users worldwide. The free update includes safeguards against spyware and viruses, a hardened Internet firewall to keep out hackers and upgrades to automate security features and better alert users to security risks on their personal computers.
_____On The Web_____
Windows Update Site: The SP2 download is available from Microsoft's Web site.
Worried that the upgrade could conflict with other applications running on university networks, and a related concern that thousands of students attempting to download the software could bring campus computer networks to a standstill, technology administrators at some universities have taken steps to block an automatic service that downloads the software.
"The timing is extremely unfortunate," said Anne Agee, deputy chief information officer at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., whose school is blocking automatic installation of SP2 on all faculty and staff computers because the update interferes with software that the university uses to run faculty PCs.
"It wouldn't be so bad if we had gotten this more than a month ago, because at least then we would have had plenty of time to test it and make a decision about how we want to correct for this," Agee said.
An extremely large file that could slow networks to a halt if too many students download it at the same time, SP2 also contains code that interferes with popular firewall and antivirus programs that many people run on their computers, according to Microsoft.
Although Windows XP is configured by default to automatically download the latest patches from Microsoft -- a process that the company turned on last week -- schools like George Mason are taking advantage of a Microsoft tool that prevents it from happening.
Alan Paller, research director at the SANS Institute in Bethesda, said the backlash from schools is somewhat justified.
"The idea that the technology people at these schools view this update as a threat to their operations is absolutely accurate, as most of these folks consider forced security upgrades a threat to [network] reliability and uptime," he said. "This is really a problem of Microsoft's own design -- not just because of its timing -- but also because they delivered such unsafe computers in the first place."
While students and faculty can still manually obtain the SP2 download, blocking the automatic distribution seriously hampers one of the primary tools Microsoft is using to roll out the security fixes included in SP2.