Microsoft Talks Up Windows 10 'as a Service'

Microsoft recently shared more information about Windows 10's enterprise capabilities, including a new "servicing branches" scheme and what it means to deliver the OS as "Windows as a service."

Windows 10 will be a free upgrade for some Windows users, excluding Enterprise edition users, when it becomes generally available as a service, Microsoft said earlier in January. In a blog post on Friday, Jim Alkove, a leader on the Windows Enterprise Program Management team, clarified that Pro edition Windows users also will be eligible to upgrade for free to Windows 10 as a service.

"Customers running Windows 7 Pro and Windows 8/8.1 Pro, like small businesses, have an opportunity to upgrade to Windows 10 for free in the first year," Alkove wrote.

The free Windows 10 upgrade offer will be available throughout the "supported lifetime of the device," according to Microsoft's announcement. However, the company is still formulating what that supported device lifetime policy will be.

Of course, using Windows as a service suggests that organizations and individuals would be exposed to faster OS updates from Microsoft. For many organizations, getting faster Windows updates isn't optimal, since they typically value maintaining stable computing environments over new software features. Alkove described some of Microsoft's emerging options for organizations managing Windows 10 as a service. In particular, Microsoft is planning to carve out two "servicing branches" for organizations using Windows 10 that will give them greater control over the update process.

The two Windows 10 servicing branches, according to Alkove, are "Long Term Servicing branches" and a "Current branch for Business" option.

Long-Term Servicing Branches
The long-term servicing branches are designed for organizations with mission-critical environments. They will permit organizations to get Windows 10 security updates while also deferring software feature changes, apparently throughout the full 10 years of the Windows 10 product lifecycle. Microsoft's product lifecycle for its enterprise products typically consists of five years of "mainstream support" plus another five years of "extended support." Here's how Alkove described Microsoft's long-term servicing plans:

On these branches, customer devices will receive the level of enterprise support expected for the mission critical systems, keeping systems more secure with the latest security and critical updates, while minimizing change by not delivering new features for the duration of mainstream (five years) and extended support (five years).

He added that organizations opting for these long-term servicing branches will be able to control the distribution of updates via a combination of Microsoft's Windows Server Update Services solution and management solutions like System Center Configuration Manager. Alternatively, they can use Windows Update and get their updates automatically, according to Alkove:

On Long Term Servicing branches, customers will have the flexibility to deliver security updates and fixes via Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) which allows full control over the internal distribution of updates using existing management solutions such as System Center Configuration Manager or to receive these updates automatically via Windows Update.

Current Branch for Business Servicing
The current branch for business servicing approach with Windows 10 is also designed for businesses and enterprises. It also will deliver security updates to Windows 10 workstations, but it will delay the delivery of OS feature updates somewhat. It's not really clear how long the delivery of features will get delayed, but Alkove said that this approach would deliver "feature updates after their quality and application compatibility has been assessed in the consumer market."

Alkove added that organizations using the current branch for business approach will be able to control updates through Windows Server Update Services. Alternatively, they can use Windows Update to get them automatically.

The idea seems to be that Windows users who get their updates automatically via the Windows Update service will serve as a test case, giving assurance to organizations that a Windows 10 update release can be installed without issues.

"By the time Current branch for Business machines are updated, the changes will have been validated by millions of [Windows] Insiders, consumers and customers' internal test processes for several months, allowing updates to be deployed with this increased assurance of validation," Alkove contended.

That point-of-view sounds good, but even Microsoft's Most Valuable Professionals, a group of technology experts honored by Microsoft, have been complaining these days about the quality of software updates coming through the pipes from Microsoft. IT pros that have been first out of the gate in installing Exchange updates, for instance, had had to backtrack in some cases.

Microsoft's Windows 10 Servicing Vision
Microsoft plans to makes its long-term servicing branch option available to organizations when it releases Windows 10 to the market. In past comments, Microsoft officials have suggested that Windows 10 could hit general availability release in the latter half of this year.

Alkove suggested that Microsoft would release long-term servicing branch options for Windows 10 with "new functionality" in future releases. It's not clear at this point what he means, but Microsoft apparently intends to release specific servicing options for Windows 10 that aren't being disclosed yet. Microsoft will give "reasonable notice" before declaring a long-term servicing branch, he added.

Organizations using Windows 10 will be able to switch managed devices between the long-term servicing branches "easily," according to Alkove. They can even skip a servicing branch by using in-place upgrade technology, he added.

Organizations will be able to move between a long-term servicing branch and a current branch for business servicing approach for Windows 10 devices. Alkove recommended that organizations use the current branch for business servicing option with their non-mission critical applications.

"Keeping non-mission critical end user devices on the Current branch for Business, while receiving updates automatically via Windows Update, is a best practice for Windows 10 that we recommend for many enterprise users," Alkove wrote.

What About Software Assurance?
Alkove repeated his cryptic statement about Software Assurance and Windows 10 in Friday's blog post. "For companies that require these [Windows 10] enterprise-grade capabilities, Windows Software Assurance (SA) will continue to offer the best and most comprehensive benefits," he wrote.

He offered no further clarification. Of course, Microsoft's Software Assurance program for Windows promises no-cost upgrades to the next Windows release within a specific annuity contract period, but Alkove seemed to be implying that enterprise Windows 10 management capabilities might be tied to paying for Software Assurance coverage.

Will organizations have to pay extra to use the long-term servicing branch options with Windows 10? Analysts talking to Gregg Keizer of Computerworld suggested that Software Assurance might be required for organizations to get into a slower release track cycle with Windows 10.

For now, Microsoft isn't talking about that prospect directly. While Software Assurance offers various benefits for organizations, it also requires making an annuity payment on top of the regular software licensing cost. Software Assurance is estimated to increase software licensing costs by about 25 percent to 29 percent.

Despite the vagueness of Microsoft's announcements, it seems it is applying the kind of slow-tier and fast-tier testing approach seen with Office 365 and its Windows Insider testing program as a means of assuring the quality of its Windows 10 software updates for organizations. And organizations wanting to go at a slower update pace might have to pay for that privilege.


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