ActivePatch Overview

Software development has grown increasingly complex, resulting in larger applications and increasing dependency on components and shared libraries. This problem is particularly acute on the Windows family of platforms, which have a large number of interdependencies between system components, shared application components and the application programs themselves. This results in a large installation package that contains all of the required components, which are then copied to the target system if the installer determines that those files need to be created or updated. The size of the initial package may not be a concern to the developer, particularly if the product itself is distributed on media such as CD-ROMs. However, there will come a point where that product needs to be updated to include fixed defects, additional features or changes to data files used by the application. For many applications, it may also be necessary to distribute interim updates to correct unexpected failures, and those updates must be made immediately available to users, without waiting for the release of the next version of the product.

At this point where an update must be made available to the users of an application, the developer has several choices:


Create a complete installation package for the application and make it available for download, or issue new media that contains the updated software. This is the simplest, and unfortunately the most common, approach used by application developers. For large packages, this puts an unnecessary burden on the customer who needs the update immediately, requiring them to download a large file or collection of files, when only a relatively small number of changes have been made to specific parts of the software. Alternatively, the developer may send new media to their customer, incurring additional costs related to delivering the updated software.

Incremental Updates

Although many companies refer to this method as a "patch", an incremental update of the package involves redistributing only those files which have changed since the previous release. While this approach is an improvement over re-packaging the application, it can introduce several problems of its own. This method requires that the developer create a new distribution package (or "setup") which consists of the modified files. If the new version consists of changes to several large files, or contains a significant number of modified files, then the benefits of incremental updating are significantly reduced. And incremental updating has the potential for introducing problems where critical system libraries or shared components are updated. The developer must make certain that only the appropriate versions of the target files are being overwritten when the update is applied. If the update inadvertently overwrites a file that is not the correct version, it can result in the application failing unexpectedly or general system instability.


Creating a patch is the process of comparing two files, the original and an updated file, and returning only the bytes that have changed. A patch file consists of a sequence of instructions and data which is used to convert the contents of the original file into the updated file using the fewest number of bytes possible. When multiple files need to be updated, the collection of individual patches are then collected in a single file, called a patch archive. This patch archive is then applied on the user's system, and the files are updated to the current version. The patch application process also ensures that the correct files are being updated, and that the updates are being applied correctly.

Clearly, the most advantageous choice for both the developer and the users is to package the update as a patch, rather than re-deploying the entire package or creating a new installation package as an incremental update. This approach minimizes the amount of time that the developer must spend creating and deploying the update, and it significantly reduces both the size of the update and the amount of downtime that the customer experiences while the application is being updated. In turn, the customer is more inclined to install the update, which reduces support costs for the developer.

Using ActivePatch has a number of important advantages over the common methods of software re-packaging or incremental updates:

Reduced Update Size

ActivePatch analyzes the original and updated file at the byte level, generating the smallest size patch file required to perform the update. This results in a significant reduction in the size of the patch, which translates into lower bandwidth usage, shorter download times and increased reliability.

Application Security

The patching process is designed to be completely safe, committing the update only if no problems are encountered during the process. The original and updated file version, checksum and digital signature (if any) are checked to ensure that the file was patched correctly. A patch may be encrypted so that a password is required before it can be applied. Because the patch consists only of the changes to a file, it requires that the user actually have the software installed on their system, and can help protect against illegal distributions of updates for your software.

Reduced Development Time

Unlike re-packaging or creating incremental updates, generating a patch does not require the developer to create another program or modify an existing script (such as an InstallShield installation script) for each update that is released.

Improved Technical Support

With the ability to easily generate patches for updated software, there is no reason to keep customers waiting for the next version. Your customers always have the latest version of your software, reducing the number of technical support issues for those defects which have already been corrected.

Lower Media and Distribution Costs

The ability to distribute a small patch, rather than re-packaging the complete product, can significantly reduce the costs associated with creating and shipping media. In addition, the smaller size of the patch files means bandwidth savings when making the update available for download.

Application Integration

The ActivePatch SDK allows the developer to fully integrate the patching process within the application. This provides the flexibility to implement custom user interfaces, specialized processing on updated files or any other customization required during the patching process or after the patch has been applied.

With ActivePatch you can easily create individual file patches for your software, or package a collection of patches into one file and distribute that update to your end users. You can be sure that the correct updates are being made, and that the user has the correct version of the files that are being patched. If there's a problem, ActivePatch will automatically roll back the changes, restoring the previous version of any modified files. Best of all, ActivePatch is an inexpensive solution that can be redistributed with your software royalty-free, without additional runtime fees or restrictive licensing terms.