Network News Break: Memo to Microsoft: XP SP2 Wants to Be Free

by Michael Hall

As Microsoft mulls its bottom line, the rest of the world deals with the widespread Windows vulnerabilities SP2 was built to fix. Our suggestion: Be a good citizen of the 'net and let even the freeloaders get at SP2. Also: EMC and Dell push out a sub-$10k SAN, Broadcom's new 4-Gig switch might be overkill, and get ready for a few new Palm clients on your WLAN.

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Microsoft is about to let Windows XP Service Pack 2 out the door, and it appears to be undecided about the terms under which the update will be released. Some signals coming out of Redmond indicate that it will be freely available to all, others indicate that the company might make it unavailable to people running so-called "pirated" copies of Windows.

If the new service pack were nothing more than a collection of updated eye-candy and perhaps the latest and greatest version of Freecell, we might be inclined to argue that Microsoft has no particular responsibility to people who are running copies of its software that they didn't buy. If those people want to run a frequently updated modern operating system and don't want to pay, they should consider a Linux or BSD distribution, and Godspeed. It's their right to choose.

But SP2 isn't just a cosmetic upgrade. Microsoft claims it's chock-full of improvements to much more than the wallpaper. According to a report from internetnews.com:

"XP SP2 will introduce technologies for network protection, memory protection, e-mail handling, secure browsing and PC maintenance. It also features a brand-new Windows Security Center that allows the monitoring of firewalls, Automatic Update and third-party anti-virus software and warns customers about the need to apply patches."

These improvements are things any network admin should be happy to see. As much as each computer user has a choice about what software he or she runs, none of us have a choice about what happens when that user's system is compromised and becomes a vector for viruses and worms. Network admins are acutely aware of this, because they're the part of the tech world that spends the most time preparing for, dealing with, and cleaning up in the aftermath of the latest Windows security breach.

None of us have a real choice in the matter of just how ubiquitous Microsoft's products are, either. There have been perfectly good alternatives to Windows for some time now, and they haven't made much of a dent in Microsoft's dominance, despite the inherent risks of living in a one-platform technology ecosystem. We might have a collective choice to ditch Windows, but that's no happening with any speed.

The responsible entity with a real choice in this matter is Microsoft, and it apparently can't make up its mind. The company is clearly troubled over the prospect of unauthorized, non-paying users of its software getting to take advantage of the sweat of its brow at no charge. But it's also, evidently, struggling with its conscience a little: Each time a new worm unleashes Yet Another Internet Apocalypse, the chances are good it's going to be Windows-driven, and that's not only a big pain for everybody, it's a black eye for Microsoft, which has a bad enough rep for security as it is.

We'd like to offer a suggestion to Microsoft:

Give it away. Bundle it up in AOL-like CD tins and mail everybody a copy. Put a few in the Sunday Times for good measure. Rent some extra bandwidth, buy a few spam lists, and make it the world's largest, most obnoxious attachment. But get it out there.

The Internet isn't a corporate amusement park with a tollbooth and paid parking outside. It's a commons. Like any commons, we all pay when anti-social elements show up and start wrecking it. Rather than thinking "marketplace," think "public highway." If a car maker manufactured a vehicle that periodically blew up and took out all the cars around it, we'd demand a recall and we'd expect that the car maker's repair shops wouldn't run the serial numbers on the cars involved to see if they were stolen: It would be more important to make sure the exploding cars were fixed. So it goes with this service pack. There will be enough users who won't bother to install it. If an unsavory character with an unauthorized copy wants to do at least that much good, let him, and don't try to scare him out of it.

The network admins of the world, at least, will thank you.


» Dell and EMC have announced a sub-$10k SAN system aimed at small- and medium-sized businesses. According to Dell, "the AX100 is the industry's first SAN server to employ enterprise-class features such as three terabytes of storage capacity, RAID 5 support, snapshots, hot-swap drives at a price point below $10,000 and features easy-to-use installation and maintenance."

» Broadcom has lifted the curtain on what it says are the first 4 Gigabit per second (4 Gbps or 4-Gig) Fibre Channel fabric switches. Great! The analysts, evidently, aren't so sure we're all ready for that yet:

"The importance of this switch is that it makes Broadcom the first company to ship a 4-Gig switch," says Arun Taneja, founder and consulting analyst at the Taneja Group. "The incumbents have not been very keen on developing these since there are no disk drives or HBAs that support 4-Gig right now. Therefore, one cannot make a full SAN that operates at 4-Gig."

"The customer has not been pushing anyone to do a 4-Gig SAN, as they are barely using the 2-Gig speeds," Taneja continues. Competition from 10-Gigabit Ethernet and the need for chipmakers to produce just one type of chip are driving 4-Gig, he adds.

» If your Palm-toting users have been complaining about their inability to peer up with your 802.11 network, there might be hope on the horizon. There's a rumor circulating that at least two Palm models (the T3 and the Zire 72), will be getting an 802.11-compatible SD card. No love for those of us dragging around the Tungsten-E, which seems to stand for "Expandable? Never!"

» If you're running FTP servers on your net, it looks like WS_FTP, with new and improved notification tools using SMS and pagers, might be worth a look.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday May 26th 2004