FAQ: Enterprises face another Windows 10 upgrade

Get the answers to scheduling and serving questions for 'Creators Update'

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Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft today began pushing the latest Windows upgrade, nicknamed "Creators Update," to customers, via Windows Update.

The third such upgrade since Windows 10's mid-2015 debut, Creators Update will be reaching consumers' and very small businesses' PCs, those that make up the bulk of devices hooked up to Windows Update. Microsoft will be busy rolling out the upgrade to those users for the next three months or more.

But what about enterprises and other large organizations? What does Creators Update have for IT staffers -- and workers -- there?

Some of the most pressing questions companies have about the latest upgrade will be about scheduling and servicing for planning purposes. We selected those questions that need answers straight away.

What is Creators Update? It's the latest features upgrade, the once- or twice-a-year refresh that includes enhancements, new features and changes to the user interface (UI) and user experience (UX). Integral to Windows "software-as-a-service" mantra, these feature upgrades are meant to deliver smaller amounts of newness than the previous edition jumps from, say, Windows Vista to Windows 7.

Creators Update is also marked as 1703 using the yymm format that Microsoft's applies as an alternate label. You'll see the company use the name and numeric marques interchangeably -- there seems little rhyme or reason about when it applies one over the other -- but as the names multiply, and confusion follows, we're betting the numeric eventually dominates in business.

Creators Update went live today. That means I should start upgrading devices, right? Hold on, cowboy or cowgirl.

Microsoft's infrastructure has been designed to shield enterprises from as many bugs as possible in each new version of Windows 10 by using consumers as a large pool of unwitting testers. And you want to skip to the front of the line? Are you crazy?

About four months after the release of a feature upgrade, Microsoft certifies it as business-ready by issuing it to the Current Branch for Business (or CBB) track, one of three the company maintains. (The others: Current Branch, or CB; and Long-term Servicing Branch, or LTSB.)

As the name implies, CBB is intended for Microsoft's corporate customers.

Those four months are meant to serve as an additional shake-down cruise for the feature upgrade. As customers on the CB track report problems -- or as Windows 10's extensive telemetry efforts discover issues -- Microsoft fixes them. In theory, that should result in a more stable, more reliable, more polished version for the firm's most valued customers: businesses.

When will Microsoft promote Creators Update to the Current Branch for Business? The two feature upgrades released before today -- 1511 and 1607 -- averaged 134 days, or approximately four months and a week, between initial launch and their being certified as business-ready for the CBB.

That would put 1703 into the CBB around the second or third week of August.

Microsoft keeps track of the Windows 10 feature upgrades, and when they are released (placed on the CB), when they're later offered to the CBB, and when new LTSB versions are announced. The lists are recorded on Microsoft's website here.

How long will Microsoft support 1703? Part of the whole software-as-a-service deal is that upgrades appear on a semi-regular basis. But it also means Microsoft retires earlier upgrades on a similar, if not identical, cadence. Not surprisingly, the company doesn't want the responsibility of maintaining an always-increasing number of Windows 10 variations.

The Redmond, Wash. company has pledged to support a Windows 10 features upgrade for at least 18 months. By "support," Microsoft means security and other bug fixes, the kind it issues monthly. Once a features upgrade like 1703 falls off the support list, it will no longer receive those security patches.

Under that 18-month rule -- the clock starts ticking when the upgrade is initially released to the Current Branch -- 1703 should be supported at least until mid-October 2018. Support might last longer; it will depend on how many upgrades Microsoft issues next year and when they launch.

We're running Anniversary Update, 1607, from last summer. Can we skip Creators Update? Yes. The right to skip a features upgrade has always been part of the Windows 10 deal.

Here's how it would work.

A business is running Windows 10, and upgraded to 1607 shortly after that upgrade was promoted to the CBB, say in December 2016. The firm decides to pass on 1703, and instead wait for the upgrade slated for the second half of this year.

Microsoft releases that upgrade in October, calling it 1710, then shifts it to the CBB four months later, or in February 2018. Any time after that but before 1607 falls out of support, the hypothetical company upgrades to 1710. It might be a tight squeeze -- because 1607 was the only update issued last year -- since under the 18-month rule, 1607 would be slated to retire that same month.

Undoubtedly, Microsoft will adjust the retirement date for 1607, just as it has with the original edition, 1507, which eventually was awarded 22 months of support.

Does 1703 have anything notable for my company? Depends.

Microsoft last laid out the new or changed enterprise-grade features in Creators Update a week ago, here.

One of the changes lets administrators apply group policies to delay "quality updates" -- Microsoft's moniker for the monthly cumulative security and non-security patches -- for up to 35 days and defer feature upgrades for up to 365 days when using Windows Update for Business.

To trigger a feature upgrade approximately six months after it reached the CBB track, for example, an administrator would set this value: DeferFeatureUpdatesPeriodinDays=180.

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