SQL service packs

Do the sql servers always need to have the most service packs install?

Service Packs were retired with SQL Server 2016, all later versions of SQL Server use Cumulative Updates only. These are also released more frequently, usually at least once every quarter.

You do not have to update to latest, however Microsoft recommends patching to the latest Cumulative Update in order to receive the latest bug fixes. You would need to decide how often to patch and how recent the CU you'd apply. There have been cases of Microsoft either retracting a flawed CU, or releasing an expedited CU in order to fix a new bug the previous CU introduced.

My personal opinion (and practice) was to always have the second most recent CU applied every quarter of the year. This avoided the aforementioned flawed CUs. I strongly recommend not letting CUs lapse more than 1 year, there's almost certainly a significant security fix within that timeframe.

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