Updating Operating Systems

This section is primarily about applying updates to an existing operating system. (Updating to a new version of the operating system may or may not have much coverage in this section: a tutorial on installing operating systems may or may not have more details about upgrading to a new operating system.)

Overview about official packages of updates

Some commercial operating systems have been known to release “packages” of updates/fixes. With standard Microsoft operating systems evolved from Windows NT code, these have been called “Service Packs”. It is generally recommended to start with applying such packages first and foremost, before trying to apply any other updates. In fact, in the case of this example (Microsoft Windows operating systems), newer installation discs will often have the service packs included in the operating system's standard installation process. Microsoft isn't the only company to have large packages of fixes. IBM had similar releases for OS/2 and those collections of updates were called FixPaks.

Like any software upgrade, it is best to have a backup and a plan of how to restore from that backup if anything goes wrong. Even on a personal computer, where a higher amount of downtime may be tolerable, it is recommended to prepare for possible extended downtime and hours of troubleshooting before applying a service pack. (In corporate environments, common preparation guidelines may be substantially more stringent. Details are mentioned in the more generalized section about updating software.)

Recommendations about official packages of updates

Determine what service packs are needed, and what the installation requirements are. Many service packs may be cumulative: For example, Windows XP Service Pack 2 includes the fixes from Windows XP Service Pack 1 which includes the updates from Windows XP Service Pack 1a. Windows XP Service Pack 3 contains the fixes and updates that were included in Service Pack 2 except for those that were in Service Pack 1a, so updating to Windows XP Service Pack 3 simply requires that Windows XP has had any prior service pack installed.

Details about what service pack(s) have been released for an operating system are discussed on this website's section about operating systems. (Locate the specific operating system for details about the available service packs. There may be some upcoming hyperlinks so visitors of the Cyber Pillar website can find more specific links for specific operating systems.)

Details about specific operating systems
Updating (and upgrading) OpenBSD

See: Updating/upgrading OpenBSD.

Microsoft Windows
Types of updates

Some operating systems have had subsequent “Releases”. These updated releases may not be freely available. Although the newer release is likely quite similar to the older operating system (which is why the newer release doesn't have a drastically different name), it may really be a newer operating system which must be installed or upgraded to. Since such an upgrade isn't free, the new release is basically a new, separate product.

Here are some examples of what is being referred to by such a “release”: Windows Server 2008 R2 is newer than Windows Server 2008, Windows Server 2003 R2 is newer than Windows Server 2003, Win98SE (“Windows 98 Second Edition”) is newer than Windows 98 (Standard Edition), and Windows 95 OSR2 is newer than the initial version of Windows 95.

If such a release is going to be used, upgrading to that release should be done first, before spending time installing any sort of service packs. (The upgraded release will likely include any prior service packs, while newer service packs will likely need to be installed again after the operating system is updated.)

Service pack information

For reasons of long term compatibility with the newest possible software, and security, and possibly other benefits as well, it is generally best to start by making sure the latest “service pack” is installed.

Details about individual service packs that have been released may, at least for some operating systems, be found in the section of Operating systems largely compatible with the proprietary Microsoft Windows operating systems. Locate the specific operating system within that section.

Some service packs have come with software called a service pack clean-up tool. There may be some benefits to running such a tool after the service pack has been installed for a while. (Some service pack software may actually be able to be uninstalled, but this sort of clean-up software may reduce/eliminate such options.)

Cumulative/hotfix info
Methods of deploying updates
Microsoft's Automatic Updates

(At the time of this writing, there are some more details that could be added: Information about Microsoft Update in Win XP may be something that could benefit from more details. Information about Microsoft Update in Win7 and Svr 2008 may be something that could benefit from more details: Most likely it is similar to Win Vista. Windows 9x may have an icon that points to a website (which may no longer support Windows 98).

[#msupdate]: Microsoft Update

Microsoft Update was released after Windows Update, and has the nice feature of also being able to apply updates to more than just the operating system. Examples of other updates may be service packs for Microsoft Office or for Visual Studio runtime files.


When Microsoft Update is being used, the “Windows Update” program can search for updates for products other than just Windows.

In Win Vista

To see if this is currently enabled, go to Windows Update. If Microsoft Update is installed, then underneath both the “Most recent check for updates” section and the “Updates were installed” section, there may be a section called “You receive updates”, which may be set to a value such as “For Windows and other products from Microsoft Update”. If “You receive updates:” is set to a different value, go to “Change Settings”, and there should be a section called “Microsoft Update” (between the “Who can install updates” and “Software notifications” sections). The checkbox is titled “Give me updates for Microsoft products and check for new optional Microsoft software when I update Windows”.

If those options don't seem to exist, then it seems that Windows Update is not obtaining files related to Microsoft software other than Windows. See the section about installing Microsoft Update.

[#insmsupd]: Installation

Windows Update might be able to be upgraded to Microsoft Update by going to one or more of the following sites:

If a EULA is presented, and the EULA is agreed to, then the software may be successfully updated to support Microsoft Update. The website may then present some sort of error message. However, if that happens, don't give up. Close any copies of Windows Update, and then return back to the original website that was visited. An updated Windows Update may successfully open up, and show the text that indicates that it was successfully installed.

[#mswnupdt]: Windows Update
Multiple ways of accessing Windows Update
Some methods
This may be accessible via the Start Menu. It also may be accessible via an icon in the Control Panel.
Other ways to run programs on the hard drive

These methods work, although they may not be consistent among Microsoft operating systems.

In Windows XP, the icon in the control panel may run the Windows Update Automatic Update Control Panel applet file, wuaucpl.cpl.

In Windows Vista, the filename wuaucpl.cpl may no longer exist, even though there is an icon in the control panel. This may be a “%ProgramData%\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Windows Update.lnk” file (or perhaps it is under %ALLUSERSPROFILE% rather than under %ProgramData%) which runs “ %SystemRoot%\system32\wuapp.exe startmenu ”. There may also be a %SystemRoot%\System32\wuapp.exe which causes the Windows Update interface to run.

Visiting a URL

Visiting http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com may result in Microsoft Internet Explorer downloading an ActiveX control that has been marked safe for scripting. If this ActiveX control is allowed (which might be Enabled by default, although setting to Prompt the user seems to be a safer recommended default), the ActiveX control may result in the Windows Update program being run.

Related websites may include:

Microsoft KB 327838: How to schedule automatic updates in Win Svr 2003, XP, and 2K.