Database Patching Revisited : Take off and nuke the entire site from orbit…

I was reading a post by Pete Finnigan the other day.

I put out a tweet mentioning it, and linking to one of my old posts on the subject too.

This started a bit of a debate on Twitter about how people patch their databases. In this post I want to touch on a few points that came out Pete’s post an some of the other Twitter comments.

You have to have a plan!

An extremely important point made by Pete was you have to have a plan. That doesn’t have to be the same for everyone, and there may be compromises due to constraints in your company, but that doesn’t stop you making a plan. Your plan might be:

  • We will start a new round of patching immediately when a new on-off patch is released, and every quarter with the security announcements. I can’t see how this is possible.
  • We will patch every quarter with the security announcements. That’s what my company does.
  • We will patch once per (six months, year etc.)

Hopefully your plan will not be:

  • We will never patch and person X will take the blame when we have a problem.

Release Updates (RUs) or Release Update Revisions (RURs)

Database quarterly patches are classified as release updates (RUs) and release update revisions (RURs). First let’s explain what they are.

  • Release Updates (RUs) : These are like the old proactive bundle patches. They contain bug fixes, security fixes and limited new features. Let’s call that “extra stuff”. In 19c the blockchain tables and immutable tables features were introduced in RUs. Backporting and new features can introduce new risks.
  • Release Update Revisions (RURs) : These are just bug fixes and security fixes. In theory these are safer than RUs as less new stuff is introduced, but… See below.

So from first glance you are saying to yourself I want the safest option, so I want to go for RURs. The problem is RURs aren’t like the old security patches that you could continue applying forever. Ultimately you have to include all the “extra stuff” from the previous RUs, but you get the option of doing it later. This page in the documentation explains things quite well.

This table from that link is quite useful, showing you what version you will be on during a quarterly patching cycle.

What does this mean?

  • If you patch using the RUs, you are going to the latest and greatest each quarter.
  • If you use RUR-1, you are constantly 1 quarter behind on the RUs extra content, but you add in the missing bug fixes and security fixes using the RUR-1 patch.
  • If you use RUR-2, you are constantly 2 quarters behind on the RUs extra content, but you add in the missing bug fixes and security fixes using the RUR-2 patch.

In all cases you have the latest bug fixes and security fixes. You are just delaying getting the “extra bits”. So at first glance it seems like you might as well go with the RUs. The issue is some of the RUs are a bit buggy. If you go for the RUR-1 or RUR-2 there is a chance the bugs introduced in the base RU have been fixed in the subsequent RURs for that RU. So we could say this.

  • RUs: Oracle have zero time to identify and fix the bugs they’ve introduced in the RU.
  • RUR-1: Oracle have 3 months to find and fix the bugs they’ve introduced in the base RU.
  • RUR-2: Oracle have 6 months to find and fix the bugs they’ve introduced in the base RU.

I tend to stick with the RUs, although I am considering changing. Ilmar Kerm said he’s found RUs too buggy and tends to stick with the RUR-1 approach. I guess a more conservative approach would be to stick with the RUR-2 approach.

Your experience of the RUs verses the RURs will depend on what features you use, what extra stuff Oracle decide to include in the RU and what they break by including that extra stuff. The biggest problem I got was 19.10 breaking hot-cloning of PDBs, which was kind-of important. If I had used the RUR-1 approach I would never have seen that issue. Different people using different features see different bugs.

How good is your testing?

The biggest factor in the decision of which approach to take is probably the quality of your testing.

  • If your testing of applications against new patches is good, you can probably stick with the RUs. If the RU fails testing, go with the RUR-1 that quarter.
  • If you just work on the “generally considered safe” approach, meaning you apply the patches and don’t do any testing, maybe you should be using the RUR-1 or RUR-2 approach!
  • The ultra-conservative approach would be to stick with the RUR-2 approach.

Just patch!

Regardless of which approach you take, you’ve got to have a plan, and you should be patching. I know some of you don’t care about patching, and you are fools. I know some of you would like to patch, but your companies are dinosaurs. All I can say to you is keep trying.

In my current company we never used to patch. I spent years sending out quarterly reports summarising all the vulnerabilities in our systems and still nothing. Eventually a few other people jumped on the bandwagon, we had a couple of embarrassing issues, and the constant threat of GDPR gave us some more leverage. Now we have a quarterly patching schedule for all our databases and middle tier servers. We are not perfect, but it can be done.

Even now, we still have questions like, “can we miss out this quarter?”, but we push back very hard against this. One quarter becomes two, becomes three, becomes never.

New patches on the 20th July (see here). Good luck everyone!

Cheers

Tim…

PS. If you are not patching externally facing WebLogic servers you might as well close your company now. You have already given all your data away. Good luck with that GDPR fine…

Author: Tim...

DBA, Developer, Author, Trainer.

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