Why are Windows updates so bloody slow?

I wondered the same thing yesterday, as Windows chose a very inopportune time to shut my system down, do it’s thing, restart, do it’s thing, and finally re-boot. There were 17 updates waiting to install, and over 24,000 registry entries to be updated. The whole process took about half an hour.

Doing a little poking around, I found a very interesting take on the situation at the Microsoft community. I thought I’d post it here, as a lot of people don’t visit these tech fora.

From user xp.client; this was written in 2012, but the situation does not seem to have improved much since then.

Okay maybe some background on the root of the problem would help. Windows XP used a fast and great mechanism called Hotfix Installer (Update.exe) to install updates. Updates installed in very little time (if you want to even reduce update time on XP, temporarily stop the System Restore service) and updates will install at crazy speeds because it doesn’t waste time creating a restore point for every update. Hotfix installer works by simply installing a new version of files to be updated at C:\Windows\system32 and C:\Windows\system32\dllcache (the Windows File Protection cache). This is File Based Servicing. The hotfix installer (Update.exe) also supported various command line switches like /nobackup which means not to backup files it patches as you won’t be uninstalling any updates and would save disk space by not backing files up. It also supported the ability to slipstream a service pack or update into the original XP setup files using the /s switch.

When Microsoft was developing Windows Vista, they realized that components had gotten too many interdepencies on each other and to service/patch each file reliably without breaking another component that relied on it, Microsoft introduced what they called as Component Based Servicing (CBS) (read all about it in The Servicing Guy’s blog: http://blogs.technet.com/b/joscon/). What it does basically is it installs the entire OS’s all files including all languages and all drivers shipped with the OS into C:\Windows\WinSxS and then it hard links files from there to C:\Windows\system32. Whenever an update is installed, it no longer installs it to C:\Windows\system32 and C:\Windows\system32\dllcache like XP’s hotfix installer (Update.exe) did. Instead, it updates the files in C:\Windows\WinSxS. Now WinSxS can contain multiple copies of the same file if it is used by more than 1 Windows component. The higher the number of components, that many number of times the file exists in C:\Windows\WinSxS.

When a Vista or Windows 7 update (.MSU) is installed, the components get updated, each and every one, instead of files and the worst part is it still maintains the older backup of the previous versions of components. It does not give the user to not backup the earlier versions like XP’s /nobackup switch. As as you install more and more updates on your system, they will take more and more disk space. The very reason Windows 7 is bloated and updates take so long is because of this servicing mechanism it uses (Component Based Servicing).

Microsoft’s ingenious “solution” to this problem of ever growing disk space is that they tell you to install fewer updates to keep the size of the servicing store under control. Of course, one can’t deny installing security updates and leave their system open to security holes so the cost of fixing bugs by installing hotfixes comes at the price of enormous amounts of disk space. The whole servicing stack is more of a downgrade to XP’s update.exe method. It causes slow logoff and slow logon (Please wait while Windows configures NONSENSE), heavy disk thrashing upon logon and logoff when updates are installed and systems being unable to boot because of failed updates. Another huge issue it introduced is the inability to do a true slipstream of service packs and hotfixes.

The time Windows 7/Vista take to install hotfixes compared to Windows XP is completely unacceptable. First it is searching for whether the update applies to your system for a long time. Then that post-installation process (“Configuring updates… Do not turn off your computer”) that takes several minutes before shut down followed by a second post-installation process (configuration) upon restart before logon that also takes also several minutes and thrashes the disk. The solution is to stay with Windows XP. I can install service pack 3 on my XP is about 10 minutes after downloading it. I can also install a slipstreamed with SP3 and all updates copy of XP is about 30 minutes on a modern fast PC. If you have to use Windows 7 or Vista, you will have to be stuck with this slow update non-sense as Microsoft does not even acknowledge that there is any slowdown or loss of functionality.

The fact remains: MSU updates are slow as **** and take too much time and as Windows 7 gets older and MS stops producing service packs, a clean install is going to take longer and longer to bring it up-to-date with all patches installed. Take the case of Vista today. First you have to install Windows Vista, then SP1 which takes about 60-70 minutes, then SP2 and then install all the dozens of post-SP2 SLOW UPDATES. It’s not worth wasting your time on an OS whose servicing mechanism Microsoft completely screwed up. I recommend you read more about the servicing and how it works at The Servicing Guy’s blog:http://blogs.technet.com/b/joscon/

Microsoft’s response to this is vague – they simply state “Windows 7’s servicing is more reliable than Windows XP” but they cannot acknowledge it is a million times slower and still unreliable… slow to the point of being unusable and sometimes leaving systems in an unbootable damaged state. Of course they know all this too but can’t admit it since it makes their latest OSes look poor. Moving from a very simple and fast update mechanism that worked to a complex one that requires endless “configuring” and repair  is a product engineering defect.

Take a look at servicing-related complaints in Microsoft’s own forums:

1. Very slow install of updates to Windows 7
2. Windows 7 – Updates are very slow
3. Windows 7 Ultimate, it takes long time configuring updates
4. “Preparing To Configure Windows. Please Do Not Turn Off Your Computer”
5. Very slow update install at shutdown (Windows 7 Home Premium)
6. Why does my computer run so slow when installing updates?
7. Every time the computer is shut down, it always says installing update do not turn off your computer
8. Computer is working slow and wants to do windows updates all the time
9. Windows 7 Update install time taking a very long time
10. Windows wants to install 6 updates every time I log off or put the computer in sleep mode
11. Problem In Configuring Windows Updates at the time of Startup
12. Computer really slow after latest updates
13. Windows hangs up in “configuring updates”
14. Why can’t windows 7 install updates?
15. Every time computer is shut down, receive Installing updates, do not shut off….
16. How long does it take for the Windows 7 Home Premium updates take?
17. Windows 7 “Installing Update 2 of 2” for 12 hours now
18. Updates causes endless reboots
19. Updates stuck installing for over 24 hrs. Computer does not boot
20. Cannot load Windows 7 after installing 2 critical updates

Not really a lot that can be done about this, but at least it’s good to know what the root of the problem is, and that it’s not just my system.

The Old Wolf has spoken

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