I was notified that a software update was available for a few of my systems. An update to macOS Sierra was available for my main production system, a MacBook Pro, and my travel system, a MacBook Air. My personal work environment also includes a cloud-based storage service, several Linux servers for local file and print services as well as a lonely, old Windows-based laptop to execute a single application to support a long-term consulting contract.
Living with an electronic tower of potential trouble
Since my production environment is made up of systems from different vendors, purchased at different times, and software from different vendors, the prospect of updating anything, much less the operating system on one of my production machines, is scary.
I can recall many occasions in which what appeared to be a simple OS update or patch turned into a multi-day, very painful exercise that included calls to the suppliers of my systems, the supplier of my operating systems, the suppliers of my printers and even the supplier of my networking equipment.
Getting a notice that an important OS update was in the works was plain scary.
Before update rituals
I've developed a number of time-tested rituals to protect myself, my work and my investment.
First, I scan the internet to determine if others have had problems with a given update. For example Apple's El Capitan update was known to have issues with Eltima's SyncMate. It appears that Eltima's low-level drivers caused Apple's installation process to die in disgrace—only after the installation appeared to be completed. The system would never complete the reboot process, leaving the user scratching his/her head. After all, the installation appeared to work properly. The only solution was to uninstall SyncMate, load the OS update and then reinstall SyncMate.
My next step before downloading what could be a network-destroying software bomb is to back everything up. I've leaned to never skip this step.
My backup rituals are a somewhat complex process that has been developed and tested over, I hate to say it, decades of experiences—some good, some bad and some that became the basis of well-received articles and reports.
Since my production and travel laptops are kept as mirrors of one another, data must be synchronized across machines. Then this data is synchronized to my on-site file servers. Then the OS, all applications and all data are carefully backed up using my individual machine backup tools. Then the data is synchronized with our cloud-based and off-site backup facilities. I've learned that any shortcuts here can lead to days of problems later.
Only after these rituals are completed are the updates or backups downloaded.
Executing the update
Once the download completes, I shut down all of the background processes executing on the machine in question, disconnect it from the file and print servers and, in some cases, I take the system off the network completely.
Then, and only then, do I press the button to start off the update.
macOS Sierra update like a Monty Python sketch
Although I had fears of what could happen next, my experiences reminded me of a wonderful Monty Python sketch, "The Adventures of Ralph Mellish."
In this sketch, ominous sounding music came up even though the visuals were of a calm sunny day. Then an even more ominous sounding voice-over began with "June 4, 1973 was much like any other summer’s day in Peterborough, and Ralph Mellish, a file clerk at an insurance company, was on his way to work as usual when—nothing happened!"
That's right: Nothing happened when I did the macOS Sierra update—except I learned that one open source game wouldn't work any more and that one utility needed a setting changed to work properly.
I also noticed that Apple, once again, turned on my Bluetooth radio even though I had it turned off.
Why aren't all updates this easy?
When contemplating my experiences with other updates, it has become clear to me that the following things are true:
- Many vendors only test their updates in a lab containing only their own computing environment. These vendors don't stop to consider that they don't own the entire computing environment.
- Good enough is good enough. Enterprise IT departments and many end users are happy with their computing environment and don't see a need to change. After all, they have the computer to serve their own needs, not the needs of the supplier. Suppliers, on the other hand, believe they are, to paraphrase something Robert Heinlein's character Lazarus Long said, the bride at every wedding and the the corpse at every funeral.
- Some vendors appear to purposely make it difficult to deploy a competitor's product and routinely make their joint customers pay for their use of someone else's software or hardware.
- Some vendors feel that they, not the owners of the device, get to chose when a device is "obsolete." This could mean everything from graphics cards, network cards, displays, storage devices or printers. On more than one occasion, an older, but perfectly good printer or other peripheral device stopped working when an operating system update was installed. The vendor of the device hadn't provided an updated print driver, and the new driver that was embedded in the operating system wouldn't recognize the older device.
- Some OS updates are really downgrades. Often an OS or application update removes an old feature that was in daily use without offering a reasonable replacement. This, of course, is the foundation for user anger.
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