(Please note: This article will be updated periodically as the latest information is available. Last Update: November 21, 2017)
A while back, we took a closer look at the Windows 10 Servicing Model, formerly known as Windows Branching — a topic that is causing much confusion since the launch of Windows-as-a-Service. Back then, not much information was available, but because a lot of people felt they didn’t know enough about it, we:
- Gave a quick introduction to the Windows 10 Servicing Model
- Answered the top five questions customers frequently asked
- Covered how enterprises can keep abreast with the frequent updates ahead
- Showed you how to use Windows 10 Deployment Rings for efficient rollouts and
- Explained how you can accelerate your upgrade process using Dashworks.
In this article, we will pick apart the confusion around the Windows 10 Servicing Model release and support timelines and keep you updated on the latest news on terminology and rule updates.
But before we start, we would love to know: "Which of these issues below is your biggest fear when it comes to Windows-as-a-Service Management?" Vote below and, if you like, you can then see the breakdown of the answers from your peers:
Quality vs. Feature Updates
Today, we want to tackle one of the most important aspects that IT administrators and IT managers have to understand: the Windows 10 Servicing Timeline. But before we jump into the timeline of upgrades and update cycles, as well as their end-of-life, we need to go over a few important terms.
First and foremost, it is critical to understand the differences between a feature and a quality update.
Feature Updates. Among the biggest drivers setting the pace of Windows 10 upgrades are the new Windows 10 Feature Updates. As the name suggests, these bigger updates bring the latest features, experiences, and capabilities to devices already running Windows 10. Microsoft releases two feature updates a year, one in March and one in September. Since feature updates contain an entire copy of the OS, they are also used by customers to install Windows 10 on existing devices running Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, and on new devices where no operating system is installed. While this has the benefit of effectively providing a new OS with each feature update, you will need to manage multiple gold OS builds as a consequence, or elongate the build process with layering of feature updates.
Quality Updates. In addition to larger feature updates, Microsoft will publish two regular quality updates. These smaller updates are similar to the monthly security updates and patches that you have been used to before Windows 10, but there are some significant differences. For one, the new quality updates are specific to the Windows 10 versions you are currently running. Secondly, expect Microsoft to publish as many of these as needed for any feature updates that are still in support.
To look up your specific version, you can refer to the TechNet article Windows 10 Version & Release Information.
Windows 10 Servicing Options
When Microsoft first introduced its Windows 10 Branching Model, enterprises had four different branches to choose from. They differ mainly in when the feature upgrade will be available and how long it will be supported.
- Windows Insider Program (We will not cover this option in further detail here as it relates more to consumer-based testing and is only relevant for a few IT pilot users who wish to preview the upcoming changes before the public release.)
- Current Branch (initial public release of the new Windows 10 version)
- Current Branch for Business (enterprise-ready version of the new Windows 10 update, released 4 months after CB)
- Long-term Service Branch (Windows 10 version for devices that did not require frequent updates, e.g., ATMs)
In spring 2017 and after much confusion, frustration, and back-and-forth, Michael Niehaus announced in the Windows-as-a-Service AMA on May 4th that it would align its Windows 10 upgrade cycle to the one of Office 365 and SCCM. Now there are three servicing options or branches that businesses deploying Windows 10 can choose from. You should choose the option that best fits your needs:
Windows Insider Preview — Most larger businesses will only have a few tech-savvy early adopters in IT test-drive the preview version of the upcoming release to get a better feel for the new features and capabilities.
Semi-Annual Channel — Microsoft does not distingush between the Current Branch and the Current Branch for Business anymore as the separation was "always artificial." Now, enterprises can designate their broader IT team and early adopters among their business users to the Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted) in the SCCM as they run their internal pilot phases. Once those are completed, the enterprise decides when to move into broader deployment. This allows your team additional pre-deployment testing period.
Long-Term Servicing Channel — formerly known as Long-Term Servicing Branch. Enterprises who wish to deploy Windows 10 for a long time while reducing the number of non-essential changes to the devices can opt-in to the Long-Term Servicing Channel. Clients will only receive service updates for the duration of their Windows 10 deployment — up to about ten years. Use cases include ATMs and other critical machine functions that are not suitable for perpetual upgrade.
You might also see in some Microsoft articles the Semi-Annual Channel referred to as Semi-Annual Channel (Pilot) and Semi-Annual Channel (Broad), which are names Microsoft briefly used. They correlate with the concept of the Current Branch and Current Branch for Business respectively, but were replaced by the Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted) and Semi-Annual Channel.
I want to stress one point as this might be confusing: There will be NO later enterprise-ready update after the initial release has been published! For example, once the Fall Creators Update is published on October 17th, 2017, there will NOT be a Fall Creators Update Semi-Annual Channel update four months later — the initial update is the final update!
Planning Your Upgrade & Support Timeline
So, let’s talk about the exact timing. Please note that we will only talk about Semi-Annual Channel updates below, as the Long-Term Servicing Branch does not receive any feature upgrades and the Windows Insider Preview proceeds each release.
(Image Credit: Juriba, Updated: Nov. 21st 2017)
As you can see from the graphic above, Microsoft published their initial release of Windows 10 in July 2015. Feature updates are named (Initial Release) and receive a version number (“1507”) that is based on its release date (YYMM). In a deviation from the expected, Microsoft announced that the originally planned end-of-life date for version 1507 was being pushed back from March 26, 2017 and was subsequently confirmed for a new date of May 9, 2017. Only the LTSC is still receiving updates at this point.
In November 2015, Microsoft released the first feature upgrade (1511 or the so-called November Upgrade). Four months later, in March 2016, this release was declared enterprise ready and published into the Current Branch for Business. On August 2, 2016, Microsoft published the first Anniversary Upgrade which was widely anticipated by larger organizations. Microsoft published the Creators Update, on April 11, 2017 which was deemed enterprise ready and released into the Semi-Annual Channel on July 27, 2017. The latest update, the so-called Fall Creators Update, was originally slated for September and released on October 17th, 2017.
Since it is almost impossible to keep up with all the release and end-of-life updates, here is an overview of all the important dates:
Windows 10 Initial Release 1507 RTM (OS Build: 10240.17236)
- 1507 Initial Release Date: 7/29/2015
- 1507 End-of-Life Date: 5/9/2017 (confirmed by Microsoft April 13, 2017)
- No specific Semi-Annual Channel version released
Windows 10 November Update 1511 (OS Build: 10586.753)
- 1511 Current Branch Release Date: 11/12/2015
- 1511 Current Branch for Business Release Date: 4/8/2016
- 1511 End-of-Life Date: 10/10/2017 (confirmed by Microsoft July 27, 2017) April, 28th, 2018 (Source: Microsoft)
Windows 10 Anniversary Update 1607 (OS Build: 14393.693)
- 1607 Current Branch Release Date: 8/2/2016
- 1607 Current Branch for Business Release Date: 11/29/2016
- Expected 1607 End-of-Life Date: Tentatively March 2018*
Windows 10 Creators Update 1703 (OS Build: 15063.138)
- 1703 Current Branch Release Date: 4/11/2017
- 1703 Current Branch for Business Release Date: 7/11/2017
- Expected 1703 End-of-Life Date: Tentatively September 2018*
Windows 10 Fall Creators Update (OS Build: 16299.19)
- 1709 Semi-Annual Channel Release Date: 10/17/2017
- Expected End-of-Life Date: Tentatively March 2019**
Expected Windows 10 "Redstone 4" Update
- 1803 Semi-Annual Channel Release Date (Expected): March 2018
- Expected End-of-Life Date: Tentatively September 2019**
This new support timeline has taken effect with the release of the Fall Creators Update, which was originally slated for September 2017, but slipped to October 2017. It is unclear as of yet if this was a one time slip-up or if this will move the entire timeline. In the article, we assume that the general timeline stays the same, as it would make the most sense for enterprise planning purposes.
However, in November 2017, Michael Niehaus, Director of Product Marketing at Microsoft, announced that the software giant will grant enterprises and educational institutions who are currently running version 1511 an additional six months of patches for 'critical' and 'important' security vulnerabilities. This may also have a knock on effect for other releases since it is unlikely that 1607 will end of life before 1511 per the current notifications.
Sidenote: Sometimes it is difficult to see which branch and/or version you are on. If you check your PC for the branch and release, it might only show the OS Build Number instead of the release (e.g. 1507). If you go to the TechNet page, you can map it to the release and version. Alternatively, type winver into the Cortana search box and you will see the current version information.
When Will My Windows 10 Servicing Option Go End-of-Life?
Initially, Microsoft announced that it will only ever support two subsequent Current Branch for Business versions (e.g., 1511 and 1607) at one given point in time. That means, as soon as N+2 version is published into the Current Branch for Business branch, the 60-day grace period countdown to End-of-Life for version N kicks in. You had to know the release date two versions ahead, add the four months for releasing the version into the Current Branch for Business, and add the grace period.
For example, if you are on CBB 1511, based on this schedule, you have 10 months to upgrade starting from the release of 1703 into Current Branch (April 2017) — which brings you to January 2018. Consequently, if you are currently on the initial release, you have to upgrade as soon as possible, since 1507 reaches its end-of-life on May 9, 2017 and security updates will no longer be delivered! In extreme cases, businesses do not have more than 16 months on one version and will be on a perpetual upgrade cycle to ensure security compliance.
Things got very confusing very quickly, And even if you could figure it out, release dates slipped all the time. Following this logic, 1507 should have lost support in January, but the EOL date was pushed to March and actually went end-of-life on May 9, 2017.
New, Simplified Support Timeline Kicks In
Microsoft still had to iron out some of the initial kinks in its delivery schedule. And they did. Starting with the release of the Fall Creators Update in October 2017, the new (more simplified) servicing support rules will kick in.
Microsoft announced April 20th, 2017 that it would align all future Windows 10 feature updates and their support cycles with the synchronized schedule of Office 365 ProPlus and Microsoft SCCM. These updates would be published twice a year — in September and in March. From now on, Microsoft will support every new version for exactly 18 months with no additional grace periods.
Skipping An Update
To improve the release quality and simplify deployments, quality updates, as well as feature upgrades, are cumulative; meaning, they get bigger with each new update as they include the previous updates as well as new updates. This means, that by installing the latest version, your device is completely up-to-date. In addition, unlike earlier versions of Windows, the new servicing options cannot be deployed as subsets but must be installed entirely or not at all. Consequently, many IT project managers are wondering whether or not it is feasible to just skip one or two upgrade cycles.
If you are debating whether you should go ahead and install every one as they come or skip some, you will be happy to know that, theoretically, you can skip an update. But since they are only available for a limited amount of time, the clock is now ticking much faster before you will have to install all fixes and features. No matter what the exact details of when each release goes End-of-Life — the cadence is faster than it has ever been and IT project managers must have upgrade plans in motion way in advance of a feature upgrade EOL date.
However, before you decide to go down that road, read our article on Windows 10 Deployment Rings which goes into more detail regarding why, if you decide to skip one release, the majority of your business users would be left unprotected while you are trying to play catchup.
It is clear that with so many management options and the forced nature of updates and upgrades, IT departments need to prepare themselves for a significant culture shift in managing Windows-as-a-Service.
Every month, assets on old OS versions will get nearer to their end-of-life, and a constant plan of action is required to ensure that your organization is ready for the latest feature upgrade. In the future, this could mean an entirely new version of Internet Explorer, or depreciation of an old OS feature used in some of your critical applications.
Understanding your application estate (both fat client and web apps) and its readiness for the latest feature upgrade will be of paramount importance to ensuring minimal impact to your end users. We're building Juriba's Dashworks software to help you navigate these uncharted waters, so look out for release announcements in the near future.