Endless reboots force suspension of Vista SP1 updates

The reason it's called "beta testing" is to anticipate and isolate problems. But a big problem reported by some -- not all -- Vista SP1 testers is causing Microsoft to take a step back.

The regular update cycle for testers of Windows Vista Service Pack 1 was suspended yesterday afternoon, following multiple reports of downloaders discovering their automatically updating computers stuck in an endless cycle of reboots. This would mark the second time in two months that pockets of testers reported such a problem.

The first wave of endless reboots was initially reported on January 27 to Microsoft's forums. "Every time I start the computer it says: Configurating updates: stage 3 of 3 - 0% complete," reads the initial post. "And then reboots, and reboots, and reboots...I had it rebooting for over an hour before I stopped the madness."

Yesterday afternoon on his team's blog, Vista product manager Nick White stopped short of identifying the problem verbally, though he did acknowledge its existence. "Immediately after receiving reports of this error, we made the decision to temporarily suspend automatic distribution of the update to avoid further customer impact while we investigate possible causes," White wrote. "So far, we've been able to determine that this problem only affects a small number of customers in unique circumstances. We are working to identify possible solutions and will make the update available again shortly after we address the issue."

The update in question is a planned "prerequisite" update -- not a bug fix -- that addresses Vista's own capability to install new components for itself, and even re-install itself if necessary. Those new components are involved in the updating process, so the act of updating the updater seems very likely to cause troubles during the testing process.

"The installation software is the component that handles the installation and the removal of software updates, language packs, optional Windows features, and service packs," reads Microsoft's announcement of the prerequisite update, also known as the "servicing stack update," last February 12. "Update 937287 is necessary to successfully install and to remove Windows Vista SP1 on all versions of Windows Vista."

Some testers in recent weeks report that their own hasty attempts to resolve the problem resulted in losing all their files and applications -- a suggestion that they've actually been testing SP1 on the production computers rather than in a safe environment.

But more professional testers have discovered all is not lost for those stuck in the reboot cycle: Switching off their computers, then rebooting with a Vista Recovery CD and repairing the file system, does result in a restored Vista SP1...though apparently without the servicing stack update.

NOTE 2:35 pm ET February 20, 2008 - You might be wondering, and the question did come up after our initial post, hasn't Vista SP1 already released to manufacturing?

Yes it did. But the initial rollout is being done very carefully, in a staged progression that is still "beta testing" in a very real way. One of the reasons for this staging is in order for Microsoft to be able to catch problems such as this one, before they become widespread.

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