Many corporate users dragged their feet in testing beta versions of the security-focused Service Pack 2 update for Windows XP and still had plenty of application compatibility testing to do when Microsoft released SP2 last August.

But a random poll of IT managers conducted by our sister site Computerworld last week, plus anecdotal evidence from industry analysts, indicates that far more companies are making significant headway in deploying SP2 or are preparing to do so.

Twenty-three of the 30 users who responded to the e-mail poll said they have started to deploy or have installed SP2 on existing machines, are rolling it out on replacement and new PCs, or are finishing testing and planning work that will enable them to install SP2 in the coming months.

Gartner predicts that half of enterprise XP desktop systems will be running SP2 by year's end. But Gartner analyst Michael Silver said sporadic reports of applications being broken by the software proves the need for careful testing, "since there's no easy way to tell which applications may break and which will be OK."

Lengthy process
And the testing clearly takes time. Jean Delaney Nelson, CIO at Securian Financial Group said her company's SP2 project started in August, when the IT staff began researching which parts of the service pack it wanted to install. Securian then created and started testing operating system "builds" with applications, a process it expects to complete in May.

So far, Securian has identified a half-dozen applications that have issues with SP2, including some software that vendors haven't certified for the update, Delaney Nelson said. She added that none of the problems are major, but Securian won't be ready to start deploying SP2 to its 575 XP machines until July. Most of the company's 2,500 desktop machines run Windows 2000.

"SP2 is not just like a patch. It's almost like a whole new version of the software," said John-Mark Tucker, IT manager at Red Dot. "It really should be considered an upgrade, and that should trigger more precaution."

But beyond isolated problems, Red Dot's SP2 installation has gone smoothly and is helping to protect the company from malicious attacks, Tucker said. A virus infected Red Dot's network during the SP2 testing period, but it had no effect on the machines running SP2, he noted.

Red Dot, which makes heating and air-conditioning systems for large vehicles, participated in Microsoft's Technical Adoption Program and tested some 25 applications -- including ERP and computer-aided design software -- against new builds of SP2 during the beta period. Tucker estimated that the testing process took three to four days for each new build.

But some companies have hundreds of applications to test and still aren't ready to begin deploying SP2. For example, Atco I-Tek, the IT arm of Canadian energy and logistics company Atco Ltd., supports more than 600 operational applications on its XP systems, according to Bruce Schmidt, leader of Atco I-Tek's workstation architecture team.

"Smaller software vendors don't seem to be ready to commit to SP2 compatibility," Schmidt said. "Others will only commit with the latest product release, which is not always what is currently being used."

Only about a dozen of the company's 4,000 XP desktops have been updated to SP2. Schmidt said that thus far, most problems have been related to the new Windows Firewall technology. A looming concern moving forward is distributing the "jumbo-sized" SP2, he added.

At the Kentucky Department of Education, the only difficulty associated with its SP2 deployment was insufficient disk space on some systems, noted Tim Cornett, a network engineer at the agency.

SP2 checks in at 265MB, although Microsoft says the amount of code installed on systems could be smaller because the update is a "smart download" that will install only what the user actually needs. The average download for Windows XP Professional users is expected to be about 100MB, according to a Microsoft spokesman.

Microsoft claimed that a November survey of 800 enterprise customers who attended its educational workshops on SP2 showed that 77 per cent planned to deploy the update during the next six months.

"We understand that many of our enterprise customers have very complex environments," said Jon Murchinson, a Windows group product manager at Microsoft. "We advised in August that they proceed with testing before they rolled it out to the general populace."