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Analysts Parse Windows 10's 'Service Branch' Model

Organizations making the move to Windows 10 will have more to assess than a simple client interface revamp.

The old predictable pattern of Windows client releases -- beta test version, release candidate, release-to-manufacturing (RTM), general availability (GA) and service pack releases -- was tacitly scrapped by Microsoft as it ushered its new "Windows as a service" era with the July 29 launch of Windows 10. In the old world, IT pros could rely on installing a new client every three years or longer. The adage of "wait for the first service pack" before installing a new Microsoft product was axiomatic. It was the common practice.

It's a seemingly new world now, both for Microsoft and IT pros. Windows 10 comes with new service-branch models for organizations to contemplate. Microsoft hasn't really described these models fully in its various communications. However, IT pros looking for more complete guidance can check out this July 13 TechNet blog post. It describes a new nuance with the Windows 10 long-term servicing branch option, which is just available to volume licensees using the Enterprise edition. The new information is that Windows 10 updates can be deferred under the long-term servicing branch for five years without Software Assurance or for 10 years with Software Assurance coverage. That appears to be completely new information.

With the lack of official communication from Microsoft about this aspect of Windows 10, we turned to the experts. Wes Miller, an analyst with independent consultancy Directions on Microsoft, offered some thoughts in a phone chat last Wednesday. Stephen Kleynhans, vice president for the Mobile and Client Computing Group at Gartner Inc., offered his insights via e-mail.

Windows 10 General Availability
Microsoft has refused to clarify that its July 29 release of Windows 10 was the GA release. A company official told journalist Paul Thurrott that Windows 10 never had an RTM, although Soma Somasegar, Microsoft's corporate vice president of the Developer Division, recently described the July 29 release as the RTM.

Miller sees a need for a new "dictionary" to come to terms with Microsoft's shifting nomenclature with Windows 10. He offered the helpful notion that Aug. 1, which is when Microsoft was set to release the Enterprise edition of Windows 10 to its volume licensees, should be considered to be the true GA release date.

"Unfortunately, the Microsoft dictionary we had is no longer still useful, and so we're waiting for a new dictionary with the right terms," Miller said. "But, the upgrade is out there, at least for Windows Insiders and those who reserved Windows 10. And then the Enterprise edition becomes available on Aug. 1. It's up on MSDN now. We could sort of say that, as of Aug. 1, it will be generally available for everyone, but I don't know when it will hit retail -- that's coming next."

The Service Pack Question
Will Windows 10 have service packs and should IT pros wait for the first one to arrive before installing the new OS? The experts don't think service packs for Windows clients really exist anymore in the new Window-as-a-service world.

"No, Windows 10 will not have service packs," Kleynhans explained. "It will have monthly security updates, and every four months or so a feature update. Service packs disappeared with Windows 8. The long-term servicing branch will only get security updates and not the feature updates."

Miller also played down the notion of service packs in the Windows 10 era.

"I sure don't anticipate what we've always called a service pack," Miller said. "In many ways, we're going to probably see something similar to what happened with Windows 8.1, where you're going to get a series of smaller updates every month. They're going to roll up into more of a big uber update every three months and then a big point release at the end of it. And each one of those is sort of the different branches that they've got now for Windows. You've got the current branch, where you've got 30 days to deploy. The current branch for business gives you a little more time with the Pro or Enterprise editions to defer. And you've got this long-term servicing branch, where at regular intervals it's dropped, so that if you have point-of-sale terminals, your kiosk, your power equipment, you can hold onto it for up to 10 years and not have to take feature updates at that more rapid-fire interval."

Advice to IT Pros
If there's no service pack to wait for, then what should IT pros do next? Kleynhans described the current release of Windows 10 as more aimed at consumers and the back-to-school buying market. IT pros should just take the time now to test Windows 10.

"The Windows 10 launch going on right now is not really about delivering a product for enterprises to rush out and install next week," Kleynhans said. "The vast majority of enterprises take their time to study and evaluate an OS. It is also critical to let the ecosystem that surrounds the OS mature. The parts of the OS ecosystem that Microsoft has direct control over will get updated over the next few months, but other parts of the ecosystem (third-party software support, Windows 10 skilled technicians, enterprise-class hardware tweaked for Windows 10 features) will take a little longer. We are telling customers to expect that everything will more or less come together in the early part of 2016. What they will get today and over the next few months is enough to get started with testing, and planning, but not really sufficient for broad deployment."

Miller concurred on a more extended horizon for IT pros considering Window 10 deployments. He sees another big release, kind of like a service pack for the long-term servicing branch of Windows 10, arriving maybe on Aug. 1, 2016.

"I think traditional IT people will want to wait for Windows 10 Service Pack 1, but we're not going to see that," Miller said. "So what can they wait for if they want to see some sort of milestone to come? These long-term servicing branches, at least for people willing to pay for Windows 10 Enterprise and license it through Software Assurance, will establish their regular cadence. The first one [long-term servicing branch release] is actually up on MSDN now, which tells me we'll see that [next long-term servicing branch] on August 1, 2016 for volume licensing customers. Some volume licensing customers might well want to wait till that second long-term servicing branch, which arguably would be a sort of first 'service pack,' for lack of a better name."

Miller clarified that it's not actually known when the second long-term servicing branch release of Windows 10 will arrive. It could happen this fall or maybe next year around this time.

Microsoft officials have only said that Windows 10 will have a fall release, but the concept hasn't been explained too well. Supposedly, there will be a somewhat regular summer and fall release cadence of the Windows 10 client going forward. At least, a rumored Redstone Windows 10 release in 2016 apparently follows that pattern.

Kleynhans described the fall release of Windows 10 as "the first feature update for Windows 10." He added that "it will include stuff that simply didn't make it into the product due to timing, and some things that were always planned for later delivery."

Enterprise Features To Come
The July 29 Windows 10 release doesn't support some business features that Microsoft talked about leading up to the OS' launch. One example is mobile device management features. They're coming soon, according to Kleynhans.

"The basic hooks for these features are in the Windows Pro product shipping today and will be in Enterprise (next week)," Kleynhans said. "Microsoft's own tool (Intune) will be updated over the next couple of months, and some third parties have indicated they will have support very shortly."

Another missing feature is a unified Windows Store combining WinRT and Win32 apps and enabling things like the sideloading of apps by organizations. The experts appeared stumped on when those capabilities might arrive.

"I'm really not sure when this will happen...and it doesn't have to be aligned with an OS update as the Store itself is an app and service and can be updated any time," Kleynhans said. "Right now I would expect that basic functionality like sideloading will be added soon; a customized storefront is probably later, and integrating Win32 is probably early next year. But that is really just an educated guess on my part."

Miller also wasn't exactly sure when the Win32 apps integration in the new Windows Store would take place, which he described as Microsoft's "Project Centennial."

"There are these four bridges that Microsoft is creating and one of those is Project Centennial," Miller said. "And Centennial is sort of this way of wrapping up Win32 apps and they haven't tied it together and said this is how you'll do it, but at the same time it works the way App-V used to and it wraps up the application. And then, much like WinRT apps work, those apps can be redistributed through the Store. So Project Centennial is the longer term vision of how you would push out a Win32 app, but I haven't seen clarity [from Microsoft] that says we have a unified store with Win32. I sort of anticipate that happening in Q4 of this year, but I don't recall hearing anything concrete."

Miller added that developers are only just now getting the Visual Studio tooling to build new Universal Windows Platform apps for Microsoft's new Store.

Another missing Windows 10 capability with this month's release is "Enterprise Data Protection." It's a code word for a data leakage protection scheme that's designed to prevent end users from sharing restricted documents. Kleynhans indicated that's likely coming in the next Windows 10 update.

"This [Enterprise Data Protection] feature is expected to arrive in the first update to the OS," Kleynhans said. "By design, Windows 10 will receive new features every 4 months or so. The first of these would be expected in the late October or November timeframe. Some of the enterprise friendly features like EDP are likely to arrive with that fall update. If Microsoft sticks to schedule (as it must to establish credibility for the new plan) there would be another update likely in the February/March timeframe. We have no idea which currently missing features will arrive with which update. However I expect most of the ones enterprises are waiting for will be in the fall one."

Miller noted a few other things not currently available with this Windows 10 release, but they are coming.

"In a few months, we are going to get a bunch of new features," Miller said. "And, ideally, it's going to include the unified OneDrive and OneDrive for Business that people had hoped would be there now, [and other features] that were deferred. Start Menu synchronization is not there. A lot of things [will need] fit and finish at the enterprise level that I think we'll expect to see in the same timeframe as a Surface Pro 4 release."

Windows 10: Good or Bad?
Faster updates and streaming features aren't maybe what IT pros want to see. The experts offered their views on these aspects of Windows 10.

"Windows 10 will get a regular and ongoing stream of features updates. These replace the old 'next version' model and in the long run should be more straightforward and less disruptive for enterprises to deal with," Kleynhans said. "Rather than having to mount an enormous, costly, disruptive project once every 3 years (or, more likely, every 6 years), you get an ongoing series of updates that get dealt with as a regular operational process."

Miller, though, noted that Microsoft is changing the terms with Windows 10 updates and servicing, and that can have consequences for IT pros trying to manage complex computing environments.

"The other problem with this [change in nomenclature by Microsoft] is that the definition of what is a security update vs. a feature update is unclear," Miller said. "All of the updates that came for Windows 10 last week, as we were getting ready for the RTM, were qualified as a security update, yet they all appeared to have some level of feature work in them, or fit and finish."