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When Windows 10 first launched in July 2015, it came with a promise of manageable updates vs. major upgrades. While traditional Windows servicing included several release types—major versions (e.g., Windows 8.1, Windows 8, and Windows 7), service packs, and monthly updates—Windows 10 offered just two release types: feature updates that add new functionality twice per year, and quality updates that provide security and reliability fixes at least once a month. There are numerous advantages to this more manageable update framework, among them being, continuous quality and stability improvements, improved compatibility across devices and applications, smaller payloads, and the ability to introduce new features and services faster.

Today, every build of Windows 10 represents improvements and lessons learned, both from a servicing and deployment perspective and in the technology itself, as shown below:

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We are also less than eight months away from the end of support for Windows 7—making now the perfect time to think about effective strategies for staying current, and the reasons for doing so, namely:

  • Improved stability: With Windows 10, we work to deliver monthly quality updates to over 800 million active Windows 10 devices, 35 million application titles (with more than 175 million application versions), and 16 million unique hardware/driver combinations. Staying current means your devices benefit from the latest features and enhancements as well as fixes for known issues.
  • More secure: Staying current in the age of the digital transformation is the best way to protect against threats. A regular rhythm of monthly updates shifts control away from potential attackers and in your favor.
  • More productive: Don’t take productivity for granted as a “nice to have.” In addition to the hundreds of Windows 10 user-focused features introduced over time, there have been countless additions designed specifically to make the life of the IT professional easier and more manageable.
  • Lower total cost of ownership (TCO): Staying up to date with the latest Windows feature and monthly updates will not only improve productivity, it will ultimately lower the total cost of ownership by helping you focus application compatibility testing, reduce security risk and remediation costs, reduce support costs, and enable more effective employee-customer interactions.

As your business processes have evolved to become more agile and demand greater responsiveness, a servicing strategy that operates as a continual process (vs. the old project-based approach) is a real asset. In the past, it was common to hear things like, “Our corporate standard is Windows 7 SP1.” In a process-focused approach, IT organizations focus more on points in time and not typically a single version of anything. Instead of formalizing a standard of Windows 10, version X and Office 365 Pro Plus, version Y, successful adopters I work with tell me something like this:

  • “Our early IT and exploratory users are on the Insider Preview for the upcoming release, looking at new features and testing some of the new management and security capabilities.”
  • “Our pilot group is running on current builds for everything and most of the pilot business users are in our early Office ring, running the Monthly Targeted Channel.”
  • “The largest portion of our production use is on the current branch (Semi-Annual Channel), with updates rolling between 30 and 90 days of release, usually complete by 90 days. Most of these users are also semi-annual channel for Office 365 Pro Plus.”
  • “Our sensitive devices and more complex systems may still be on a previous, but still supported release and will update before support ends, but not on the same aggressive schedule.”

Wow, the environment isn’t standardized on one version? Wait, how do you manage that? In speaking with customers who have successfully changed their internal IT culture by moving from project to process, we’ve learned that one of the keys to a successful, more self-service, peer-support-driven model is to create deployment rings for Windows 10 feature updates, and the adoption and use of data driven insights and analysis, in conjunction with the deployment rings.

With deployment rings, you first want to assign a pool, or ring. of early adopters to receive new builds first (and often early) to validate services, experiences, and applications. These early adopters serve as “champions,” and are valuable assets to any IT organization as they generate data and feedback for a feature update before the update is deployed broadly across the organization.

As each ring grows successfully larger, these early adopters and feedback loops are pivotal to deployment success. Imagine this scenario: someone in your workgroup receives an update before you. They’re excited to have the latest technology, they have the inside scoop! When it’s your turn to receive the same update, suddenly you have a question. To whom do you turn? Will you call them or the help desk? Most likely, you will go to your peer first. You now have an employee who feels empowered to help, technology flowing faster across your organization, and, likely, a help desk call (and expense) avoided. This culture builds over time, just like Windows feature updates. As your deployment ring methodology matures, there’s less hand holding, devices are more secure, and users are more productive—the trifecta and the biggest reason to leverage deployment rings to build internal champions.

Before I conclude this post, I’d like to briefly touch on a few key tools and technologies that will support your ability to keep your devices up to date by streamlining the deployment and management of updates.

Anyone who has looked at modern provisioning and cloud delivery of resources has undoubtedly questioned the physics of network strain. In many Windows Autopilot conversations, this is a common concern: “We can’t give out 200 laptops and have everyone go download all of our apps at the same time. It will kill the network.” Remember the champion we created in the previous strategy? Unbeknownst to them, they just provided network relief for the person asking this question—and everyone else around them. Enter Windows 10 Delivery Optimization. Staging content through network devices in branch offices, factory locations, and other locations should be a part of every update management strategy. The bandwidth savings from Delivery Optimization are even visible in Update Compliance, where you can see bandwidth reductions by category, such as Feature Updates, Quality Updates, Office, and Drivers. As you can see from the image below, the update from our early ring has tangible benefits. 

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For areas where complexity still outweighs the ability to go all in on cloud-based deployment and device management, we still have Configuration Manager with peer caching, in the ConfigMgr client, designated peer sources, Branch Cache, and even tools like LEDBAT. Your ring strategies still fully apply, and you can cover all scenarios without compromising user or IT experiences, or agility. Furthermore, you can attach your existing Configuration Manager deployment to the cloud (and Microsoft Intune) with co-management, a viable strategy for bringing existing devices into the modern management fold. If you don’t have a Configuration Manager-based infrastructure yet, go all cloud, but if you do, leverage co-management so you can start taking advantage of all the cloud has to offer!

Curious how you should design your ring structure? Stay tuned for my next blog post, in which I’ll shed more light on tactical considerations related to the creation and evolution of rings.  From there, I’ll touch base on language packs and other top of mind modern deployment topics. In the meantime, to learn more about Windows as a service, check out the Windows as a service gateway on Docs.

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Sean McLaren is a Modern Desktop Technology Specialist covering customers in the South Central United States. With over 20 years of IT experience, he works directly with Microsoft’s Enterprise Commercial customers across many industries helping them with strategy and technical guidance around modernizing client endpoint deployment, management and security. In his own words, “I have the privilege to help our customers enable their Digital Transformation goals by delivering modern devices and the latest technology to their users while lowering costs and streamlining their operations. I also get to take feedback and learnings to our engineering teams and help make our products better.” 

3 Comments
Super Contributor

1809, 1903 after an extended period of testing still shipping with issues and broken features, no news on 19H2 still.

Occasional Contributor

We only have two rings:

  1. Me and my team
  2. People who are irritated by the bi-yearly interruption of their work which results from the so-called "Feature Updates".

Upgrading to the next version of Windows 10 is anything but invisible. Even if I manage to shift the upgrade process to midnight, when users log in, they are greeted by the per-user OOBE, a changed desktop environment, and disruptions to their workflow that Microsoft still refuses to fix. Examples:

  1. The disappearing fax accounts
  2. The chopped off message boxes
  3. The printers objects that go offline because the physical printers are now connected to new printer objects created unnecessarily

While our business spans multiple locations, they are autonomous in every respect, except the planning, which concerns the CEO. So, we do have a cloud-based email service, but moving everything to the cloud only imposes monthly costs without adding any benefits.

Occasional Contributor

Adopting a ring strategy is good and needed, but choosing the right one for your organization may be trickier than you think.  It concerns me to some degree when I hear that fellow workers are going to be testing software for MS.  They then need to make know that there is an issue with the product and what that is before the next iteration goes to the masses.  That is quite a responsibility to place on some users.  I have been caught in the middle of "it is fixed in the next release" so no fix or workaround will be provided. 

For a large company, perhaps utilizing all those rings make sense. but for a small to medium company 2 or 3 rings may be the best option.  I am toying with the idea for Office using the Semi-Annual Targeted version for the majority of folks, as that channel provides the monthly fixes.  My point being there are many ways to implement rings without being locked into one particular methodology.