Software Update Tips and Voodoo

Last week, Jeffrey Zeldman shared the procedure used at his design studio for updating Mac OS X system software. I hesitate to call his tips “advice”, because he doesn’t use that term — rather, it’s simply a statement of fact. Here’s what we did, and we avoided any problems.

Some of his steps are quite sound, and I highly recommend them. Others, I suspect, are entirely superfluous, hinging mostly on superstition. I think it’s a list worth examining.

First, though, here’s the procedure I use when installing system updates (e.g. from 10.3.6 to 10.3.7) and security updates.

  1. Wait at least one business day after the release of the update.

    By and large, Apple’s software updaters work exactly as they should. But, every once in a while, a bad one slips through the QA cracks. E.g. the iTunes 2.0 installer for Mac OS X could erase entire volumes; or the QuickTime 6.0.2 installer, which wouldn’t work on systems running newer versions of Perl than the default system software.

    So, I say, wait a day or two. If Apple releases an update on a Friday, wait until Monday evening or Tuesday. See if any widespread reports of problems appear on sites like MacFixIt and MacInTouch. Key word here being widespread; a small handful of unreproducible reports regarding problems after running an update are inevitable. What I look for are clear signs that something is wrong with the update.

  2. Run a full backup. Of course you should have an automated backup schedule in place, but, if, like most people, you only create backups manually, now is the time to do it. Chalk it up to Murphy’s Law. Yes, the odds are good that you will never encounter a catastrophic problem while running Software Update — but if you do, and you don’t have a recent backup, you’ll wish you did. If you have a working, recent backup, you can’t lose data.

    Update: I use SuperDuper for cloning my entire startup drive. I highly recommend it.

  3. Log out. Then log back in while holding the Shift key.

    I’ll admit right up front that I have no evidence that this step is in fact at all useful. My thinking is that it’s safer to run Software Update under pristine login conditions, with no running processes other than the system software. Logging out quits anything running in your current session; logging back in while holding Shift suppresses your login startup items.

    You’re supposed to be able to run Software Update any time you want, and I’m aware of no technical reason why you should quit your running processes while it runs. But, you have to restart after running Software Update anyway (for system and security updates) — so I figure why not log out first and allow Software Update to run under pristine conditions? Even if this is just superstitious voodoo, it’s harmless voodoo. It only costs about a minute of your time.

  4. Run Software Update. While it runs, don’t use other apps. Again, I have no evidence to indicate that this step is actually useful. Software Update is designed to allow you to run it in the background — you can surf the web with Safari even while Software Update is installing an updated version of Safari. But, why take a chance? I log in, I start Software Update, and I don’t do anything else until it finishes.

  5. As soon as Software Update is done, restart.

Zeldman’s Tips

Zeldman’s pre-installation steps:

  • Delete old font caches using DeepSix or a similar tool. (I like Font Cache Expunger, but the manufacturer of that free tool appears to be in transition.)

This is the first I’ve heard about any problems related to “font caches”, and, judging from the product description, they seem to mostly affect apps from Adobe, Macromedia, and Microsoft. Even if it’s unnecessary voodoo, it’s likely harmless voodoo — the only downside is the time it takes to rebuild the caches.

  • Use Cocktail’s Pilot mode to repair permissions, run cron scripts, prebind the system, and clean system, user, and internet caches. Set Pilot to restart upon finishing its tasks.

Here, I gently disagree. Mac OS X’s “Repair Permissions” feature is a bit of a misnomer; “Restore Permissions” or “Reset Permissions” would be a better name. “Repair” makes it sound as though files are broken if their permissions are affected by this process; that’s not the case. Files might have perfectly valid permissions but differ from what’s expected by the Repair Permissions process.

This Apple Knowledge Base article explains the Repair Permissions process in detail, but here’s the basic gist:

Many things you install in Mac OS X are installed from package files (whose filename extension is “.pkg”). Each time something is installed from a package file, a “Bill of Materials” file (whose filename extension is “.bom”) is stored in the package’s receipt file, which is kept in /Library/Receipts/ . If you look in the Receipts folder, for example, you should see all kinds of files that end with .pkg, including some that were created when Mac OS X was installed (for example, BaseSystem.pkg). Don’t worry, these files don’t take up much disk space and you shouldn’t put them in the Trash.

Each of those “.bom” files contains a list of the files installed by that package, and the proper permissions for each file.

When you use Disk Utility to verify or repair disk permissions, it reviews each of the .bom files in /Library/Receipts/ and compares its list to the actual permissions on each file listed. If the permissions differ, Disk Utility reports the difference (and corrects them if you use the Repair feature).

However, just because a file’s current permissions differ from its original permissions as specified in the corresponding ‘.bom’ file, does not mean that the current permissions are “wrong”. The reason this feature exists is that sometimes, the permissions are wrong, causing some sort of problem, and running Repair Permissions solves the problem.

But if you are not experiencing any symptoms that would indicate permission-related problems, there is no reason to run Repair Permissions. Repair Permissions is not a periodic maintenance task or a preventive measure. (Although, to be fair to everyone who thinks that it is a periodic maintenance task, some of Apple’s own support documentation hints that it is.)

In fact, sometimes running Repair Permissions can create problems. In fact, Zeldman himself was bitten by just such a problem earlier this year, when he upgraded from Jaguar to Panther, disastrously, and after recovering and getting Panther successfully running, wound up unable to print.

The problem in that case is that when upgrading from Jaguar (10.2) to Panther (10.3), the Panther installer failed to create several new user accounts, which were necessary for Panther but didn’t exist under Jaguar and earlier versions of Mac OS X. The problem wasn’t triggered until and if you ran Repair Permissions, because files which were supposed to belong to these new “users” couldn’t be assigned to them because the users didn’t actually exist.

Bits of harmless voodoo from the days of the old Mac OS included rebuilding the desktop and zapping the PRAM. Having problems? Rebuild the desktop and zap the PRAM. More often than not, doing these things wouldn’t solve the problem, but, they didn’t cause any harm, either. (And, occasionally, they did solve actual problems.) Non-technical Mac users had no idea what these things actually meant, they simply knew the magic keystrokes to invoke them, and if they were experiencing problems they didn’t understand, these things were “worth a shot”.

Mac OS X’s Repair Permissions feature is a modern equivalent. Just remember that there’s no reason to invoke it unless you’re experiencing problems; it’s not a preventive measure, and even when it does make “repairs”, it’s not necessarily a sign that there was anything wrong.

As for the remainder of the tasks in Cocktail’s “Pilot” mode, they’re needless as well. Diddling your prebindings before running Software Update is just wasted time, and those 3:15 am daily cron tasks are inessential (mostly just cleaning up temporary files and archiving logs).

Back to Zeldman’s tips:

  • Run a full backup.

Yes, absolutely. Ignore this advice only if you don’t care about your data.

  • In System Preferences, under Accounts: Startup Items, turn off third-party startup items such as Extensis Suitcase, DragThing, Default Folder, Ittec, and so on.

This seems like a bit of unnecessary work. Holding down Shift while logging in temporarily suppresses these items. But Zeldman’s general idea here is the same as mine: let Software Update run in a pristine login environment.

  • Remove external hard drives from the desktop by dragging their icons to the Trash.

Capital idea. There’s no downside, and it avoids any chance that you might lose data on those volumes as a result of bugs in the installer scripts.

  • It is now safe to open System Preferences, download OS X 10.3.7 update and run the installer. Hit RESTART when prompted to do so after the software finishes installing itself.

I’ll just note that beginning with Panther, you can invoke Software Update from the Apple menu at any time.

Here are Zeldman’s post-installation steps:

  • Delete font caches again.

As stated before, I’m unfamiliar with this entire issue of problematic font caches, so take the following with a grain of untested salt: re-deleting these caches is harmless, but probably unnecessary if you also deleted them immediately prior to running Software Update.

  • Use Cocktail’s Pilot mode to once again repair permissions, run cron scripts, prebind the system, and clean system, user, and internet caches, and so on. Let Cocktail restart the computer after these tasks have been performed..

All needless. After running Software Update, your prebindings should be up-to-date — that’s what happens during the “Optimizing System Performance” update stage that takes so much time. Doing this again now is like taking a shower after taking a shower.

  • Slowly bring back third-party startup items.

I can’t think of a good reason to do this slowly — I just log in normally, and let my login items launch as usual. Only if I encounter a problem during login would I consider enabling my login items one at a time to identify conflicts. Remember that you can always hold down the Shift key while logging in to suppress all login startup items — so you should never find yourself in a situation where a startup item gone bad prevents you from being able to log in.

  • After working with the Mac for a while without experiencing problems, run another full backup.

More good advice (so long as you’re not so foolish as to replace your pre-update backup with the post-update backup — keep them both, just in case a problem pops up after your post-installation backup.).