Analyst: Faster Windows Cycle Brings Challenges to Orgs

A faster Windows release cycle means organizations may struggle to keep pace with updates for other products, such as Windows Server and Visual Studio, according to analyst Wes Miller.

Miller is the research vice president for Windows client and server at Kirkland, Wash.-based independent consultancy Directions on Microsoft. In a webinar Thursday, Miller noted that the annual release cycle forecasted by Microsoft is now almost biannual with the release of Windows 8.1 Update, and it's pulling organizations to update other solutions, as well.

Microsoft hasn't been clear about when it plans to release its Windows client updates, but Miller suggested that organizations could expect Microsoft to typically issue such releases in April or October in the near future.

"Microsoft has said that it will release the Windows client and related tools more frequently and we were talking about this in terms of they released it every year. And now [with Windows 8.1 Update], we've got an update in less than six months after the last one. As a result, new features in one piece of the platform...really will require adoption of one or more of the others. So that means that when you deploy the Windows client, you're probably going to need to bring along Visual Studio, Windows Server, Windows Intune or Microsoft Azure (formerly Windows Azure)."

Miller noted that the faster release cycle hasn't come with the same quality controls from Microsoft, particularly with the Windows 8.1 Update, but Microsoft's intent is to move the platform along with each update release. This update was also rather large in terms of file size, at about 750 MB. Organizations have until Aug. 12 to apply it, while consumers have till May 13, which Miller described as an "extremely tight window." Microsoft also pushed the update through Windows Store, rather than Windows Update.

"We can likely expect fewer features per release when compared with releases in the past in order to meet the schedule with the necessary quality," Miller explained. "And I think we saw that in [the Windows 8.1] Update, which did have some quality issues that we talked about. But the main thing is to bring a couple of key features to try and help move the platform along and keep it in sync with Windows Phone 8.1 as it arrives."

Microsoft's faster update releases mean that vetting updates by IT personnel "may not be possible anymore" for enterprise customers, Miller said. The stability of the latest Microsoft Windows release may become a concern, especially for organizations that have third-party apps to test and manage. He particularly noted concerns with ensuring the compatibility of anti-malware and anti-spyware solutions, even Microsoft's own software. Organizations will need to rapidly test those third-party apps against the new Windows releases.

Miller added that, with the faster release cycle, Microsoft's public betas now seem to have become "a thing of the past." In addition, the meaning of Microsoft's product support lifecycle has become "unclear" or it's become "a squishy item."

The Directions on Microsoft consultancy is recommending that organizations look at decoupling Windows clients from servers, where possible. Organizations should try not to be compelled into performing server updates by the more rapid Windows client releases. The consultancy is recommending the use of OMA-DM or Windows Intune for client management, instead of using Group Policy -- particularly for "unmanaged bring-your-own-device" scenarios.

Miller warned that developers of line-of-business apps will be pushed to update Visual Studio in sync with the faster Windows update release cycle because the two cycles are "tied at the hip."

Organizations may consider sticking with older Windows clients until Windows 8.x stabilizes, according to Miller. For instance, Windows 7 is a stable operating system and it's unlikely to receive disruptive updates. Windows 8 is similarly stable, but it has more limitations in terms of features, relative to Windows 8.1.

Miller recommended that organizations should try to find a way to automate their testing, but he recognized that the faster Windows release cycle was going to make things harder. He said that Microsoft either has a "very large blind spot" about the effects of the faster release cycle on organizations or it's "ignoring" the issue. Possibly, the issue is just not clear to Microsoft, so he recommended that organizations provide the company with feedback to that effect.

"Microsoft wants to get to Windows as a service, but it's just not updatable as a service [for organizations]," Miller said.

IE 11 Enterprise Mode
Miller has also noticed some management changes for organizations with Internet Explorer 11 Enterprise Mode, available via the Windows 8.1 Update. Enterprise Mode lets organizations use Microsoft's latest browser while also supporting Web sites and Web apps that are based on older IE 8 technologies. Enterprise Mode is just for organizations, so consumers don't get the compatibility benefits, and there have been problems with some sites running IE 11, Miller noted.

In terms of management, all of the features of IE 11 Enterprise Mode can be turned on by end users except for control over the power icon. Organizations can use Group Policy to manage Enterprise Mode, but there are some technology dependencies to note, notably Windows Server 2012 R2.

"If you're going to manage it [IE 11 Enterprise Mode] through Group Policy, you do have to have Windows Server 2012 R2 Update to deploy out those policies, and that update also applies to Windows Server 2012 R2 and [Windows] RT 8.1. So this update isn't just for Windows [8.1]. This is the update that syncs all of it up to Windows Phone and at the same time it became the update that's across all three of the platforms that are out there now: [Windows] 8.1., [Windows] RT 8.1 and [Windows] Server 2012 R2. There's no way to get this back onto [Windows Server] 2012, for example."

The alternative to managing Enterprise Mode in IE 11 through Group Policy is using an Open Mobile Alliance Device Management (OMA-DM) solution, according to Miller.

"[Enterprise Mode in IE 11] can be managed through Group Policy, of course, but it can also be managed through OMA-DM, which is a management infrastructure that showed up in Windows 8.1 but had been there in [Windows] RT since the beginning. You can also do direct registry manipulation if you want to, but Group Policy is what we expect most people to be probably using for non-BYOD systems."

Miller was also asked a question about whether Microsoft was moving more toward a centralized management approach, or management as a service. He said that Directions on Microsoft is seeing a trend toward managing Windows clients as mobile devices, with the Workplace Join feature of Windows Server 2012 R2 serving to link them into an organization's infrastructure. He added that Microsoft did not appear to be giving Group Policy "the love it once had."

As far as Miller could tell, Microsoft is not requiring that organizations have an Enterprise Agreement in place before using IE 11 Enterprise Mode, although he said that Microsoft had been "cagey" about the matter.

The Windows Client Future
Miller offered his guesses about Microsoft's next client release after Windows 8.1 Update. He said that the next update, which could be "Update 2" or "Windows 8.2," might have its "release-to-manufacturing" debut in August. The next update could show up publicly released as late as April 2015, but he said that could pose a holiday device selling problem for Microsoft and its partners. Consequently, he expects to see the Windows 8.1 Update 2 in October 2014.

The next update could bring features such as the return of the Start Menu with "Live Tile" support, as well as the ability to run apps in a windowed pane on the "Desktop" side of Windows 8.1. That windowed capability is different than the "Snap" feature, first seen in Windows 8, which just allows two apps to run side by side on the "Metro" or "Windows Store Apps" side of Windows 8. These windowed apps could have controls in the upper right corner to maximize, minimize and close the app, as seen in Windows 7 apps.

Miller discounted the idea that organizations would see an "Internet Explorer 12" release with the next Windows update. He said that Microsoft is probably just focused on making traditional desktop users happy with its next Windows release.


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