The 'when' of Windows 10: Microsoft's update and upgrade schedule explained

Windows 10's staggered timetable will kick off by early December

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Those on WUB must deploy a given build within four months of its release or Microsoft will shut off the patch spigot: That means CBB users applying updates/upgrades with WUB must have the first build on their devices by approximately Aug. 1, 2016.

Businesses can delay the first update only so long

Microsoft's not giving anyone a choice: Either take the updates and upgrades or face a security patch drought. (The one exception: Windows 10 Enterprise.)

The longest delay allowed for CBB will be eight months from a specific build's release to the branch, or 12 months after the same build has hit the consumers via the CB.

Customers using WSUS or another Microsoft (or third-party) patch management solution must have the first build deployed no later than late November, early December 2016.

Businesses get rings, too

The CBB will offer users release "rings" as well, at the very least a slow ring and a fast ring, but there may be others.

Microsoft has talked about rings on the CBB since the May announcement of Windows Update for Business, but as with rings on the CB, details remain muddled. How long the slow ring follows the fast, for instance, is unclear.

Only Windows 10 Enterprise can ignore the updates and upgrades

The only Windows 10 edition that can pass on the constant updates and upgrades is Enterprise, the SKU available solely to organizations that have a volume licensing agreement tied to the annuity-like Software Assurance (SA) program.

The branch available only to Windows 10 Enterprise, dubbed Long-term Servicing Branch, or LSTB, mimics the traditional way Microsoft has handled its OS: Only security patches and critical bug-fixes will reach systems on the LTSB.

Every two to three years, Microsoft will create another LTSB build, integrating some or all of the feature changes released to CB and CBB in the intervening time, then offer that to customers. They will have the option to move to that build -- it won't be mandatory -- and can skip at least one build, passing on LTSB 2 (or whatever Microsoft names it), then years later adopting LSTB 3 with an in-place upgrade.

The code released on July 29 will be considered LTSB 1, Microsoft has said, so a second, optional LTSB won't appear until 2017 at the earliest.

By December 2016, there will be multiple update/upgrade builds being used

The staggered releases Microsoft plans will create a situation where multiple builds are in use at any one time, each by a segment of the Windows 10 device population.

Come December 2016, Microsoft will have issued its fourth build to the CB, and the third to the CBB. But there will be some still using the second build (those on the CBB managing updates with WSUS).

Analysts, however, have largely discounted fragmentation as a factor, arguing that while the delays offered to businesses on the CBB may be disruptive, Windows 10 will ultimately be a more uniform ecosystem than the current mix of vastly different editions of Windows.

What Microsoft gets out of this stretched, staggered release schedule

Microsoft may pitch the Windows 10 update and upgrade schedule as all about customers, but there's something in it for the company, too.

"Rings will be more about controlling the rate at which the updates flood out into market," said Steve Kleynhans, an analyst at Gartner, in a recent interview. "With potentially a billion devices ... eventually ... getting an update, you need some level of flow control or else you could crush your servers and a large part of the Internet. By using rings, Microsoft can stagger the release over the period of days or weeks."

In fact, the entire cadence, not just the rings, can be envisioned as Microsoft's way of reducing stress on its update servers. Although the second build for the CB -- slated for late March-early April 2016 -- will coincide with the launch of the first build for the CBB on Computerworld's timeline, it will not be a surprise if Microsoft staggers the two by launching first one, then the other.

Microsoft is clearly concerned about server load and the possibility that something could go awry: It's not releasing the free Windows 10 upgrade to all eligible customers on July 29. Instead, it plans to give the several million Insiders the code first, then gradually trigger upgrades on others' devices in an unknown number of "waves" that could run weeks or months.

The company will also control demand for the upgrade another way by silently downloading the bits in the background to eligible PCs and tablets, then notifying them on its own schedule that the upgrade is ready to process locally.

It may do the same with later updates and upgrades, Kleynhans speculated.

"I wouldn't be surprised if under the covers Microsoft uses a separate ring for each week after an OS is released, or maybe even one for each day immediately after it is out," said Kleynhans. "But these will be mostly invisible to users and really isn't all the different from the way some updates roll-out today."

The naming problem

Computerworld has used generic place holders to identify the various update/upgrade releases Microsoft will distribute to Windows 10 -- "first build" and "LTSB 2," for instance -- because Microsoft hasn't talked about how it's going to name each build.

That will have to change.

"Another factor that Microsoft has yet to discuss is how it will identify each update," Kleynhans said. "We know that the OS will be called Windows 10 regardless of what updates have been delivered and installed.... But as for identifying the state after each update, we don't know if Microsoft will stick with the build number, as it has during the preview program, opt for a simplified numbering scheme -- something similar to the build number but without the holes in the numbering scheme -- go back to point identifiers [like] Window 10 v 10.1 and Windows 10 v 10.2, [as] Apple does with OS X, or maybe use something more date oriented [such as] 'Windows 10, July 2016.' There will have to be something to help developers understand what they are facing in the field."

Current Branch for Business Microsoft

The Current Branch for Business (CBB) will push the first update/upgrade to Windows 10 Pro and Windows Enterprise devices four months after consumers get it via the Current Branch (CB). But CBB users may delay deployment by a maximum of 8 months if they manage updates with Windows Server Update Services (WSUS).

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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