Windows 10 1909: What's in it for enterprises?

This fall's update for Windows 10 may not include a raft of new features, but it does offer something even more important to enterprise IT: extended support that should make future upgrades easier to manage.

Open windows with billowy curtains

Microsoft upends its Windows servicing model, if not regularly, then often enough to put the "con" in "consistency."

The latest revision or revamp or reconsideration took place this summer when the Redmond, Wash. company confirmed that it was dispensing with the year's second feature upgrade - at least in the familiar form known for the two years prior - and would instead issue a minor update that collected fixes for its predecessor.

Microsoft would sprinkle a pinch of new functionality on that update to disguise its bland flavor. But that would fool nobody. The fall "upgrade" - second in the Windows-as-a-service-mandated annual two - would be little more than yet another monthly "cumulative update."

Yet this fall's refresh - 1909 - won't be unimportant to or ignored by enterprises, not when it carries the support banner farthest into the future.

Here are the characteristics of Windows 10 1909 that are important for enterprise IT to know.

30 months of support

For many, this is the most important trait of 1909, as the extra 12 months - beyond the standard 18 for the spring's refresh - provides the flexibility needed for no-way-to-screw-up annual upgrades. (As Computerworld has pointed out elsewhere, the most agile organizations may even be able to pull off biennial upgrades under a 30-month support lifecycle.)

Windows 10 1909 will be the second fall feature upgrade to receive 30 months of support after Microsoft's September 2018 announcement - 1809 was the first - and so it should receive security updates until mid-April 2022. (1809's support runs until May 11, 2021, the extra month caused by its delayed release last year.)

The caveat for the additional support is that it applies only to Windows 10 Enterprise, the priciest SKU (stock-keeping unit) in Microsoft's portfolio. Small and mid-sized organizations running Windows 10 Pro must make do with 18 months of support.

Computerworld doesn't expect that Microsoft will relax this Enterprise-only policy. The company's ultimate goal is to have all business users on Enterprise (paid for by subscriptions) and support should prove to be the best means for accomplishing that.

Sorry, Windows 10 Pro users.

Smaller 'upgrade' from 1903

In July, Microsoft disclosed that 19H2 - at the time, its name for 1909 - would be a "scoped release" with a "smaller set of ... improvements, enterprise features, and quality enhancements."

What does that mean?

Rather than deliver a renewed Windows 10, as it has with the seven feature upgrades thus far, Microsoft will issue a retread of Windows 10 1903 - the two will be identical in content and packaging - with a very small smattering of new functionality.

For all intents and purposes, Windows 10 1909 will be an update, a refresh to Windows 10 1903, not a true feature upgrade as customers have known them.

Nothing will illustrate that better than how Microsoft plans to deliver 1909 to users running the immediate predecessor, 1903. "They share the same Cumulative Update package," the company said, referring to the fall refresh and the update for 1903 (the latter will presumably launch at the same time). So, 1909 will be a cumulative update, just like those Microsoft issues several times monthly, from its size to how it's distributed.

Like any other cumulative update, the one that turns 1903 into 1909 will be handled by Windows Update as well as the Windows Update for Business (WUfB) spin-off. Organizations that rely on platforms such as WSUS (Windows Server Update Service) or SCCM (System Center Configuration Manager) will be able to move machines from 1903 to 1909 using those management tools, as usual.

It's unclear how the update will be identified, how users -- or IT admins -- will choose between simply updating 1903 with yet another cumulative (like the seven deployed so far since 1903's late May launch) or "upgrading" 1903 to 1909, and how each will be serviced after that (with a single cumulative update for both, or separate updates).

Microsoft has been mostly silent about enterprise and 1909, with the exception of a few general statements in a July 1 blog.

Same as it ever was

Using 1909 to upgrade anything older than Windows 10 1903 should be no problem for enterprise IT administrators.

In that July 1 post, John Wilcox, a Windows-as-a-service evangelist at Microsoft, tried to put IT pros at ease. "For those devices in your environment running Windows 10, version 1809 or earlier versions of Windows 10, the update process will remain unchanged," Wilcox wrote. "You will have the option to update to [1909] just as you did with previous releases."

The pledge that past practices hold for the present means that shops running, say 1709, can upgrade as usual to 1909, which is in actuality, 1903 plus a handful of extra features - but which can be maintained until April 2022 (1909's end of support) rather than December 2020 (1903's retirement).

Look, no -- or almost no -- retraining

For companies wary of waiting too long between Windows 10 upgrades -- fearing that the more they skip, the more new must be introduced and taught to employees -- 1909's feature-less format is a godsend.

Because of 1909's same-as-1903 characteristics - the difference makers between the two are minor, as "TK" outlines - jumping to that refresh is the same as deploying 1903, retraining-wise.

The downsizing of the fall upgrade to little more than a reprise of 1903, along with the 30-month support stretch for Enterprise, translates into not only annual upgrades but also only annual feature refreshes. That's a double boon for enterprise IT.

The new features Microsoft mentioned

Unlike the more feature-packed Windows 10 201H -- the code name for what, if Microsoft's four-digit format prevails next March, will ultimately be named 2003, even if that designator has already been used by Redmond in Windows Server 2003 -- this fall's upgrade's feature set hasn't been constantly trumpeted by the Insider spokespeople, Dona Sarkar and Brandon LeBlanc.

Last week, however, the pair laid out the list of new-for-1909 features in this post to the Insider blog.

None are ground shaking or groundbreaking.

All will be disabled by default at deployment, Microsoft has said, another twist new to feature upgrades (in that the features won't be there, at least not initially). Only after 1909 is in place, and on Microsoft's schedule, will the company in stages enable the new features. Microsoft's dubbed this process "controlled feature rollout," or CFR, as if it was new to either it or software developers in general. It's not.

Not surprisingly, questions remain. Will IT staff be able, likely through one or more group policies, to defer the new feature enablement for a period or even indefinitely? Will enterprise administrators be able to switch on selected features? Or only all? Will they have any control at all, or must they, like with the spring upgrades, taketh what Microsoft giveth?

One and done, or is this the new normal?

"Is this going to be the planned direction for all H1/H2 releases going forward?" asked someone identified as ConfigMgrDave in a comment appended to Wilcox's July 1 post. "Will 20H2 be a CU [cumulative update] for 20H1 like this? Asking, as this could have some impact on how my organization plans their releases and how we can leverage the H1 build to perform a more thorough set of app/hardware testing and not be in such a rush!"

Wilcox was coy. "Will 20H2 have the same exact update option as 19H2? Unknown at this point," he wrote. "Is the planned direction to continue to invest and improve the process so that users will continue to see improvements, absolutely."

The time and resources expended on revising Windows 10's update/upgrade model to adjust for 1909's unusual format, contents and distribution argue against a one-time effort. In point of fact, it's difficult to believe that the expense is anything but a permanent redrawing of the model (or as permanent as Microsoft, which has repeatedly changed its mind on the matter in the past four years, wants to make it) through 2020 and beyond. That is, Windows 10 2009, or 20H2, will be like 1909 in that it will be a retread of 2003 (or 20H1), include only minor feature changes and be delivered as a cumulative update.

So it will go for 2109 and 2209, assuming Microsoft has the patience to stick with the concept that long.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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