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Microsoft Shows How SCCM Does Windows 10 Servicing

Microsoft recently outlined how its System Center Configuration Manager product will manage Windows 10's service branches.

Microsoft has implemented a somewhat complex Windows 10 update release scheme for organizations to follow. Tracking this scheme will be necessary to address Microsoft's faster Windows 10 update release cycles, company officials have contended. Currently, Microsoft releases Windows 10 updates at least once per month, and those monthly updates are described as "cumulative updates," meaning that they contain all of the software changes since the last update release.

Operating system features actually get changed with these update releases. That's an exciting new approach that Microsoft has taken with Windows 10. However, IT pros managing complex software systems may see things a bit differently. In response, Microsoft has proposed a sort of update triage approach for organizations to adopt, involving four Windows 10 service branches.

The Four Branches
Brad Anderson, Microsoft's corporate vice president for Cloud and Enterprise, contended that "making updates isn't abnormal." In addition, it will be normal for organizations to have "multiple branches" of Windows 10 deployed among end users, he explained, in a blog post this week. He offered a recap of Microsoft's four Windows 10 service branches. Those branches include:

  • Windows Insider Program releases (issued monthly), which are Windows 10 beta software releases, issued for testing purposes

  • Current Branch releases (issued about every four months), which are analogous to consumer software releases via Microsoft's Windows Update service

  • Current Branch for Business releases (issued about every eight months), which are considered to be even more "stable" and tested software releases that most organization will want to use

  • Long-Term Servicing Branch releases (where only security updates are issued and OS feature updates will require full wipe-and-replace installs, permitting update deferrals for as long as 10 years). The Long-Term Servicing Branch is targeted toward things like "mission-critical" devices, such as medical equipment, rather than business users

Future Management Capability
Anderson's blog post showed a screenshot of how these service branches can be managed in a "coming" release of System Center Configuration Manager:

[Click on image for larger view.] Future System Center Configuration Manager dashboard view for Windows 10 management. (Source: Microsoft blog.)

The color-coded dashboard in the screenshot illustrates Anderson's point about managing mixed service branches within an organization. The light blue "Release Ready" portion of the graph shows the number of users using Windows 10's Current Branch release. The dark blue "Business Ready" section enumerates Current Branch for Business users. The green portion indicates Long-Term Servicing Branch users or devices.

Anderson didn't specify when this kind of compliance reporting capability would appear in System Center Configuration Manager. However, the dashboard screenshot is a bit more nuanced than the preview shown back in October.

Microsoft labels its Windows 10 Current Branch releases using a year/month format, as shown in the chart. The present Windows 10 Current Branch release is known as "1511" for November 2015. Microsoft released System Center Configuration Manager 1511 back in December. The graph shown above is representative of a future Configuration Manager capability, not necessarily its current behavior. Microsoft now updates Configuration Manager in much the same way as Windows 10, with monthly updates showing up in the product's Update and Servicing node.

Windows Update for Business
Microsoft also has a free Windows Update for Business (WUB) "service" that enables Windows 10 users to be managed according to the four service branches. However, its capabilities are still developing. The chart above just shows a future Configuration Manager approach, not a WUB implementation at all, according to a Microsoft spokesperson, via e-mail:

The charts that are shown in the blog are representative of what System Center Configuration Manager provides as part of its reporting capabilities, rather than a function of Windows Update for Business, which currently doesn't provide compliance reporting capabilities.

Other software management tools besides System Center Configuration Manager will be able to use the WUB capabilities to show compliance reports when that compliance reporting capability arrives, according to the spokesperson.

"Third party management companies with management tools similar to System Center Configuration Manager could provide their own similar compliance reporting capabilities," the spokesperson said.

Where Is WUB?
WUB is a bit mysterious, although Microsoft has a TechNet library page devoted to it here. It's actually been released twice so far.

"Windows Update for Business was introduced in the initial Windows 10 release, version 1507, and enhanced in Windows 10, version 1511," the spokesperson explained. "We expect to continue enhancing Windows Update for Business with additional capabilities over time."

WUB will work with Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) as well as with System Center Configuration Manager, Microsoft promised late last year. Microsoft also has described WUB as being available as a free "standalone service." That's because its capabilities will show up when an IT pro uses Group Policy Objects to manage Windows 10, the spokesperson confirmed.

The free WUB capability is not exactly a service, according to the spokesperson:

One of the touted benefits of Windows Update for Business is that you need no on-prem infrastructure to use it. The service is in the cloud. While I wouldn't necessarily think of Windows Update for Business as a service of its own, it's certainly an extension of the existing Windows update service.

Like other software, Microsoft updates WUB, and while it might be thought that WUB gets updated via Windows 10 client updates or changes to the Windows Update service, it's more of a combined approach, according to the spokesperson.

"It's somewhat a combination of the two," the spokesperson explained. "There are certainly dependencies between the two [Windows 10 and Windows Update]. Some features, like Deliver Optimization, are both in the cloud (WU) and on the client; others, like the additional deferral capabilities in 1511, are on the client."

WUB may be free, but there's also an upsell for Microsoft. Anderson indicated that Microsoft plans to surface "more granular and detailed management capabilities through solutions like ConfigMgr and EMS," adding that "this is exactly the case with Windows Update for Business."

Anderson promised that WUB capabilities would be integrated into System Center Configuration Manager "just like WSUS has been integrated into ConfigMgr."