What are Windows servicing branches and what does this mean for you?

Along with the introduction of Windows 10 in July 2015 Microsoft also introduced a new servicing model for the operating system across PC and mobile platforms. These are being referred to by Microsoft as servicing options or ‘branches’, but what does that actually mean, how does that work and most importantly what does that mean to you? There has been some confusion around this and it’s not that easy to understand at first glance so let’s go through what the options are in what is hopefully a plain talking fashion.

What you need to know

These servicing options represent the traditional service packs or version upgrades, this does not specifically replace your security updates and patches that you might do with WSUS. The objective for Microsoft is both to simplify the whole servicing and upgrade process for the end user or IT admin and also to get you onto a modern platform which makes it easier for Microsoft to supply services, applications and updates to. With this in mind there should be a greater success rate as the target audience (your PCs) are easier to predict which reduces the testing time as there is less testing to do.

There are 4 servicing branches you should be aware of:

  • Windows Insider Preview Branch
  • Current Branch (CB)
  • Current Branch for Business (CBB)
  • Long Term Servicing Branch (LTSB)

branches

Windows Insider

Windows Insider is a program set up by Microsoft during the early days of Windows 10 preview builds and is effectively the sandbox area for testing new updates, features and and the like. End users can choose to enrol as a Windows Insider and they will receive updates from Microsoft whilst the ink has barely dried on the code. There are a couple of options in here such as fast ring and slow ring but effectively you get previews of incoming change before they hit the public. The upside of this is that you get new stuff first which means you can test your applications and hardware against it. The downside of it is that if it doesn’t work there’s no guarantee of a fix so you’ll have to report it and wait for something to come along.

In your average enterprise level organisation you would expect to have a handful of machines on Windows Insider with a regular testing schedule in place for critical line of business applications or hardware.

Current Branch

The Current Branch is a step forward from Windows Insiders in that the release of builds into this branch are later than those for Insiders but are generally based on the same additions. The good thing about the current branch is that any code bugs or side effects are likely to have been resolved or workarounds obtained by this point. For your average enterprise it is expected that you will have a pilot group of machines which are first in line for running new builds. Further testing and checks can be performed with this build for any line of business applications or hardware. The home edition of Windows 10 is automatically put onto the current branch without any opt-out choice, for enterprises this also provides further wide scale testing of updates prior to deploying to a production environment.

In your average enterprise level organisation you would expect to have a small number of machines representative of your client estate to be the ‘test dummies’ for new builds and highlight any problems prior to mass deployment.

Current Branch for Business

As the name suggests, this is where the majority of businesses and their client estate will be. This option is not available for Windows 10 Home users. The current branch for business is intended to give the IT administrator more control over the release mechanism and timing to ensure minimum problems. The builds released by this branch will have been out in the wild for much longer then insiders or current branch builds and therefore should be more robust and bug free. Release of these builds can be managed through group policy by enabling the ‘defer upgrades’ option in Windows 10. Also as you might expect, Microsoft have added functionality into System Center Configuration Manager to fully manage this release cycle in a much more structured and granular way.

In your average enterprise level organisation you would expect to have the vast majority of machines (>80%) on the current branch for business as the regular delivery method for new Windows builds.

Long Term Servicing Branch

Finally, Microsoft understand that it’s not always possible to update some of your machine all of the time. For example you may have long term testing machines, POS devices, PCs that operate critical machinery and many other examples that cannot simply be restarted, upgraded or changed. With this in mind Microsoft introduced the long term servicing branch which gives a much longer time period in between releases and has no requirement for regular upgrades or restarts. It should be noted that the long term servicing branch is actually a different build altogether from other Windows 10 editions. It is a separate download and has a slightly reduced feature set with some default applications and features removed including Cortana, Edge and the Windows store.

Timings

Microsoft have set out some example timings of when they would expect a typical enterprise level organisation to deploy the different branches of Windows 10.

figure 2

As illustrated, by the time you deploy builds to the majority of machines the build version will have been out in the open and tested for at least 8 months. In that time you will have had the opportunity to test any applications or hardware to ensure full functionality and also explore any new features introduced.  When a machine is configured to defer upgrades which is essentially the current branch for business then those builds will become available 4 months later after which machines should be upgraded.

Hopefully this has gone some way to help gain a clear understanding of what the servicing branches are all about and what you need to do. I have taken the diagrams in this article from a Microsoft web page which goes into a little more detail on how this should work – https://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/itpro/windows/plan/windows-10-servicing-options

Additionally, if you have any questions or would like to start a proof of concept, pilot or mass deployment of Windows 10 then contact Inframon and we will be very pleased to assist.

/Peter

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