WaaS Demystified – Part 3 – Servicing Channels

Previous blogs in this series:

Part 1 – Introduction : What is WaaS?
Part 2 – Windows 10 Updates.

The concept of Servicing Channels allows organizations to align themselves with the new method of delivering feature and quality updates for Windows 10. There are 3 servicing channels: The Windows Insider Program, the Semi-Annual Channel (or SAC) and the Long-Term Servicing Channel (LTSC). 

  1. The Windows Insider Program 

These updates are available to organizations and individuals who would like to be ahead of the curve by getting the feature updates before the planned build reaches the GA date.  In other words, after a feature update was made GA, say build 1903, then starting April 2019 you can get the preview of Windows 10 build 1909 on a monthly basis (usually).  So, by the time 1909 is GA, you would already have a good knowledge of all the features that will be included in that build. 

The advantage of being a member of the Windows Insider Program is that you get to investigate the new features and decide beforehand whether they can be included in your next batch of Windows 10 deployment, if your organization has certain compliance rules that forbid to have those feature enabled or, if they can be activated, they must have a particular configuration to comply with the Security Team’s business rules, for instance. 

So, when the feature update goes GA, you can take the necessary measures to make a more intelligent approach as to what your pilot deployment will receive and what results you should (or shouldn’t) expect from it (Pilot and Broad deployments are discussed in the next article in this series). Perhaps you don’t want the new “Windows Subsystem for Linux” feature to be activated when you deploy it to your Marketing department. However, it could be helpful to a small portion of your IT department (your Developers maybe?).  

Having the knowledge that it will be part of the next build empowers you to make an informed decision on how to deploy the new feature update, to whom and how your internal communications will be formulated. 

  1. Semi-Annual Channel (SAC) 

You have investigated, tested and reviewed the new build via the Windows Insider Program. You are happy with its stability and you know what features it will include, which ones complies with your organization’s business needs, rules and requirements. Now what? 

Microsoft makes the new Windows 10 build Generally Available to the public. It is the Semi-Annual Channel release and it is immediately available to any device that is not configured to defer feature updates. Yes, you can defer the installation you but only if you use specific Servicing Tools (discussed in the next article of this series) such as: 

  • Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) 
  • Microsoft Endpoint Configuration Manager 
  • Windows Update for Business 

This SAC update is the update that you deploy to all the devices in your environment.  However, you must be careful with a specific range of devices that are critical to your business or to the industry you are a member of. For example, if you are in the Digital Signage business and you have thousands of digital signs scattered around a town, city, country or even continent, you might not want (or need) to update the media player (the computer to which the sign is connected to) and use the LTSC edition instead to update them only once or twice in 10 years. 

  1. LTSC (Long Term Servicing Channel) 

For systems that do not require a new feature because they perform a single important task that doesn’t need feature updates as frequently as other devices in the organization,  it is more important to keep them as stable and secure as possible than up to date with user interface changes or new tools.  In the health industry for instance, you might have a computer that manages a radiology equipment that may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and, if the equipment’s vendor has not updated their application with the new Windows 10 build, it may not work and end up unavailable for days, weeks or even months, until the vendor provides you with a version of their application that is compatible with the new Windows 10 build. Sure, you can roll back to the previous build, but that may require a downtime of a few hours up to several days before the equipment is ready for use back again.  Other examples include point-of-sale systems in the retail industry, Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) in the banking industry, etc. 

For these types of systems, the LTSC servicing model prevents Windows 10 Enterprise LTSC devices from receiving the usual feature updates and provides only quality updates to ensure that device security stays up to date.  In addition, since the LTSC edition is targeted for such reduced usage, they are not suitable for everyday office use as they do lack many features that are otherwise present in the Enterprise edition.  

Note: You could argue that even though you cannot or wouldn’t want to update such a system to the feature update, you could install the Quality update; but that is taking a big risk.  Say the system has Windows 10 build 1903 and it is validated by the application vendor, if you install the June Quality update for instance, some files (such as dll files) could be modified for improved security and those same files are used by the application.  If the vendor has not validated the Quality update as well, you could potentially break the application.  Hence, always confirm with the vendor before deploying a feature or a quality update to such business-critical devices. 

Typically released every 2 to 3 years, organizations can choose to install Long Term Servicing Channel (LTSC) as in-place upgrades or even skip releases over a 10-year life cycle. The LTSC is available only in the Windows 10 Enterprise LTSC. This edition of Windows doesn’t include a number of applications such as Microsoft Edge, Microsoft Store, Cortana, Microsoft Mail, Calendar, OneNote, etc.; These apps are not supported in Windows 10 Enterprise LTSC.