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What we know about Windows Update for Business

Windows Update for Business will ostensibly give IT administrators control over how and when Windows 10 devices receive updates, but details surrounding the service are sparse.

Windows 10 shops are supposed to be able to use Windows Update for Business to keep devices current with the latest releases and features, but details about WUB are missing and availability questions still loom.

In May 2015, Microsoft introduced Windows Update for Business (WUB), a new cloud-based service that was slated to provide update support for Windows 10. Microsoft said WUB would be there to help business users keep devices up to date with more flexibility than is offered through the consumer-focused Windows Update.

Windows 10 launched in July 2015, but Microsoft has yet to provide specifics about what WUB is, how it will work and when it will be available. The lack of concrete information from Microsoft has spurred questions and speculation about WUB's true nature and what might be in store for business customers. Here's what we do know about Windows Update for Business:

Distribution "rings" will let admins specify which devices get updated first, and WUB will have maintenance windows so admins can decide when updates should occur. WUB will also have peer-to-peer delivery to support devices with limited bandwidth, such as those in branch offices or at remote sites. And it will integrate with existing tools, such as System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) and the Enterprise Mobility Suite.

Unfortunately, Microsoft has provided few specifics beyond these and has offered nothing to explain exactly what WUB is, providing only general bullet points for what it's supposed to do.

We can perhaps glean more useful information from a Microsoft Virtual Academy course, called "Preparing Your Enterprise for Windows 10 as a Service." One section of the course, "Staying Current with Windows as a Service," offers the most relevant information. As the course and section titles suggest, the key appears to be in understanding Microsoft's Windows as a service (WaaS) delivery model. In this case, WaaS just means that starting with Windows 10, Microsoft plans to deliver feature updates more frequently -- although that's not the traditional definition of WaaS. The company will aim for two to three new updates per year.

Windows Update for Business and update branches

As part of the WaaS model, Microsoft identified three Windows device types: consumer, business and special systems, such as those used in emergency rooms or for air traffic control centers. Concurrent with these classifications, Microsoft also introduced update branches, which are servicing categories that define how often Windows devices receive updates. Microsoft currently supports four branches:

Insider Preview Branch: New features are available to select customers for preview prior to their official release.

Current Branch (CB): New features are available as soon as Microsoft publishes them. Users have four months to apply the upgrades to retain support from Microsoft.

Current Branch for Business (CBB): New features are available four months after they are published and must be applied within eight months. Businesses can still use the CB four-month phase to understand the changes, which gives them a 12-month window to prepare for and incorporate them.

Long-Term Servicing Branch (LTSB): New features are available as soon as Microsoft publishes them, but they come with a 10-year availability window.

Although this is only a general overview of the branches, the gist is that consumer devices will generally fall into the Current Branch, business devices into the CBB and special systems into the LTSB.

One point of confusion around WUB is the use of the term "ring." Microsoft's Insider Program has a fast ring and a slow ring for updates, but it's unclear whether there are also predetermined fast and slow rings for WUB-eligible update branches, or if admins will be able to create as many update groups/waves/rings of users as they want.

CB members can use Windows Update to stay current with updates, and LTSB systems can continue with Windows Server Update Service (WSUS). Members of the CBB can turn to WUB, but they can also use existing tools, such as WSUS or SCCM. Some Microsoft documentation, such as the Virtual Academy course notes that both CB and CBB customers can use WUB, but other Microsoft sites say that WUB is only for the CBB.

Organizations that use the Pro and Enterprise versions of Windows 10 can switch from the CB to the CBB simply by enabling the Defer Upgrade feature in the Windows settings -- either locally or through Group Policy.

Perhaps the best way to view WUB is as a collection of features that will be slowly added to the Windows ecosystem, with upgrade deferment and peer-to-peer updates representing the starting points. Of course, if Microsoft were to come out with more definitive information about what's going on, we would not have to rely on conjecture and navigating marketing hype to get the answer.

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