Microsoft Releases New System Center Configuration Manager

Microsoft on Tuesday released System Center Configuration Manager 1511, which Corporate Vice President Brad Anderson described as "the most significant and important release of ConfigMgr ever."

Also generally available starting Tuesday is System Center Endpoint Protection 1511. Both products can be considered service-enabled components of the broader System Center 2016 suite of management tools. The full System Center 2016 suite is expected to arrive in Q3 2016. Microsoft plans to sell the suite based on its new per-core pricing model.

System Center Configuration Manager is arriving earlier than other System Center components because Microsoft wanted it available for managing Windows 10 clients. However, it's also a service-enabled product now. The 1511 version number represents the release-to-manufacturing date of "2015 November." Microsoft also refers to it as the "current branch" release of the product. System Center Configuration Manager 1511 will get monthly updates, similar to Windows 10, on the second Tuesday of each month. New current branch releases of the product will get declared by Microsoft every four months or so, which also follows the Windows 10 update service model.

This current branch schedule may not be an exact thing. For instance, the next current branch release of System Center Configuration Manager, known as version 1602, will be in three months' time (not four months), or in "2016 February." This update approach was loosely explained in a blog post Tuesday by Anderson.

During the technical preview stage, Microsoft had explained that updates to the System Center Configuration Manager product will show up in the Updates and Servicing node within the product's console. Microsoft considers these console updates to be replacements for its traditional update releases, such as service packs, hotfixes and cumulative updates, which apparently will not be issued separately, according to a TechNet article describing the update installation process.

It's possible to test new versions of the System Center Configuration Manager clients before upgrading a whole computing environment. IT pros can designate the clients for upgrades and then can publish broadly after the testing gets completed, if wanted.

Windows Update for Business
For Windows 10 client deployments, Microsoft has a new Windows Update for Business (WUB) service integrated in System Center Configuration Manager 1511. WUB will let IT pros set up testing rings among end users to address the faster release pace of Windows 10 updates, which arrive monthly. WUB also supposedly was integrated into Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), which also can be used for managing Windows 10 clients. However, the two tools apparently don't play well together, perhaps by design.

Microsoft indicated that "Configuration Manager will be unaware of the updates that are published to WU [Windows Update]" in this TechNet article. It's not exactly clear what organizations using the two tools should do. It seems that System Center Configuration Manager or WSUS can be used to manage Windows 10 clients. However, the company plans to issue an update for WSUS 4.0 in the next week that will change WSUS' behavior to sync feature updates to Windows 10 clients, as well as to Windows 7 and Windows 8 machines, which may not give IT pros the controls over client updates using WSUS that they might have been expecting.

Mobile Device Management
System Center Configuration Manager 1511 dispenses with using connector software to work with Microsoft Intune, which is Microsoft's mobile device management service. Instead, there's a new "service connection point" that connects the two products. The service connection point will automatically download Intune updates if it is set in the "online" mode. Alternatively, the "offline" mode can be used to manually apply Intune updates to System Center Configuration Manager.

Anderson noted in his blog post that most of Intune's capabilities can now be accessed through System Center Configuration Manager 1511, "with the exception of just a couple of features." He promised closer alignment in the future. However, while System Center Configuration Manager 1511 has those Intune capabilities, it'll likely take an Intune subscription to use them for mobile device management purposes.

It's possible to use System Center Configuration Manager to manage mobile devices on premises, separately from having to use Intune, but it only applies to Windows 10 and Windows 10 mobile devices. In addition, there will be less functionality than if Intune was used, according to this TechNet description.

Other Features
There are some other noteworthy new System Center Configuration Manager 1511 features. A list can be found in this TechNet overview article.

Operating system deployments across business branches can be supported using a Windows PE Peer Cache technology. It uses content from a local device, instead of a distribution point, to upgrade multiple PCs. Microsoft claims this approach reduces the load on wide area networks when upgrading PCs.

The product's service connection point now collects "usage data about your sites and infrastructure" and sends it to Microsoft. IT pros can configure the "level of data" that gets collected. This scheme is like the one found in Windows 10. Microsoft has three levels, "basic," "enhanced" and "full," which are described here. Only the full level "may include personally identifiable information."

Some features are getting deprecated with System Center Configuration Manager 1511. For instance, there no support for Intel Active Management Technology in the console. Network Access Protection capabilities are removed. In addition, System Center Configuration Manager 1511 doesn't support "Windows Vista, Windows Server 2008, and SQL Server 2008."


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