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As I understand the Cumulative Update process, each CU contains all of the updates before it. However, I'm new to the CU concept - the last time I was responsible for server updates you had to install each update before moving on the next one. From what I've read, though, that's no longer necessary... which I find somewhat confusing.

For example, we have a SP2013 farm running SP1 at build ​15.0.4569.1000. Would we jump straight to the April 2016 CU, or do we need to install additional updates between the two? I find it hard to believe that you can just skip over two years worth of updates like that, but if so, that's great.

Do cumulative updates in SharePoint 2013 negate the need for installing previous updates?

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You can jump straight from SP1 to the April 2016 CU. You do not need to install any previous patch besides the minimum the CU requires. In the case of April 2016, that would be SP1.

When installing any SharePoint 2013/2016 patch, I would recommend using this script to do so. It will speed the binary installation up to about 20 - 30 minutes from ~3 - 5 hours. Why SharePoint 2013 Cumulative Update takes 5 hours to install?.

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Cumulative Updates include all previous updates.

From http://sureshpydi.blogspot.in/2013/11/difference-between-cumulative-updates.html?m=1

Cumulative update is collection of all the hot-fixes up to date. Generally Office hot fixes are released for every two months in a package. It includes fixes for all the issues collected from hot-fix accepted criteria that related to customer impact or reproducible.

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