Microsoft touts new update service as way for enterprises to go slow on Windows 10

Windows Update for Business to be free for Windows 10 Pro and Enterprise editions; will let corporations take changes at their own pace

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Mark Hachman

Microsoft yesterday announced Windows Update for Business as one way enterprises can manage the accelerated update and upgrade cadence of Windows 10 after it launches this summer.

The new service fleshed out Microsoft's revelations in late January, when it first touted a pair of business-only update/upgrade tempos -- "Long-term servicing branch" and "Current branch for business" -- without delving into much detail.

"With Windows 10, we need a new approach for end-user devices at work," said Terry Myerson, the executive who leads the Windows group, during a long keynote address that opened Microsoft's Ignite conference in Chicago. "We want to give you the best of both worlds ... ongoing innovation and security updates while also giving you IT control over the automated process."

That new approach: Windows Update for Business (WUB).

Like the consumer Windows Update, which harks back to Windows 95, WUB will be an all-or-nothing automated mechanism when enabled: Devices will either get everything or nothing.

Myerson pitched that as a good thing. "Selective patching can introduce platform fragmentation, which creates quality risks and complications for developers, impeding innovation and causing some customer-specific issues," Myerson said, referring to the pick-a-patch practiced by many IT administrators.

IT administrators running WUB will be able to specify which Windows 10 devices, or collections of devices, receive updates immediately -- just as consumers do -- and which will not. The latter devices or groups will receive updates at a still-unspecified later date.

The timing of the update and upgrade arrivals will depend on which of several "rings," the label Microsoft uses for update cadences, are selected by IT for specific devices or groups of devices. Rings will also be a feature of Windows Update for consumers, and have been tested using the Windows 10 preview, which currently offers a "fast" and a "slow" ring.

"There will be new rings specifically for enterprises, for businesses that want to be in slower rings to make sure all the kinks are worked out in any updates before it gets applied to their system," Myerson said Monday.

Businesses are leery of Windows 10's anticipated development and release speed: Last year they balked at a one-month deadline to upgrade to Windows 8.1 Update, forcing Microsoft to retreat to a four-month window.

Instead of a constant flow of updates, businesses will be able to delay deployment with a pair of alternate tracks. The faster of the two, labeled "Current branch for business" (CBB), will be implemented through WUB, likely via one of those new rings, said Stephen Kleynhans of Gartner in an interview. "Windows Update for Business will be Current branch," he said.

Still unclear is how different the various rings in WUB will be. While Gartner has long maintained that the CBB would let enterprises delay updates for as long as 120 days, Microsoft has not yet confirmed that. The Redmond, Wash. developer has, however, said that Office 2016, which will also receive feature and functionality upgrades over time, can be dialed down to just three refreshes a year, the same 120-day interval Gartner has claimed.

Microsoft may fill in details of Windows 10's CBB tempo during the remaining days of its Ignite conference, perhaps as early as today.

WUB and its presumed CBB ring will let businesses keep pace with Windows 10 changes, but on a more leisurely schedule than consumers. "It gives them a chance for some extra breathing room when an update comes out," Kleynhans said. "Consumers will test it out, but enterprises can control the roll out and decide when it will show up on their devices."

Microsoft has already explicitly told its business customers that consumers -- who will for the most part receive updates when they're released -- will serve as guinea pigs, who will turn up bugs and problems in each Windows 10 update months before enterprises have to commit to the fixes.

WUB, and thus the CBB tempo, will be available for free to any device running Windows 10 Pro or Windows 10 Enterprise. The former is a business-grade edition sold at retail and pre-installed on business PCs; the latter is a version that, until recently, was available only via volume licensing and limited to customers with Software Assurance (SA), the annuity program that gives customers the right to upgrade to any new OS.

The second corporate Windows 10 cadence, called "Long-term servicing branch" (LTS), lets businesses lock down selected devices so that they receive only security updates and critical fixes, but none of the new features, user interface (UI) changes or user experience (UX) improvements. Myerson did not elaborate on how LTS would be implemented.

That lack of clarity signaled that Microsoft intends to limit LTS to Windows 10 Enterprise, said Kleynhans.

"We can safely make the assumption that long-term servicing is something only available to Enterprise," Kleynhans said, reiterating Gartner's long-time opinion that Microsoft would make companies pay to keep updates at bay.

Nor was Kleynhans quite ready to say that as long as businesses stuck to CBB with WUB, they would receive Windows 10 updates and upgrades free of charge for the full 10 years of expected support. "We don't have all the details yet," he said.

Although Myerson made a point to say that WUB would integrate with other update management software, including Microsoft's own System Center and Enterprise Mobility Suite, Kleynhans expected that another standard corporate tool, Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), would eventually be retired.

"Windows Update for Business is pretty much the long-term replacement for WSUS because it essentially does the same thing," said Kleynhans.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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