Windows 10 servicing options for updates and Upgrades - Last Updated: 4/6/2016

Applies to
•Windows 10
•Windows 10 Mobile
•Windows 10 IoT Core (IoT Core)

This article describes the new servicing options available in Windows 10, Windows 10 Mobile, and IoT Core and how they enable enterprises to keep their devices current with the latest feature upgrades. It also covers related topics, such as how enterprises can make better use of Windows Update, and what the new servicing options mean for support lifecycles.

Several of the figures in this article show multiple feature upgrades of Windows being released by Microsoft over time. Be aware that these figures were created with dates that were chosen for illustrative clarity, not for release roadmap accuracy, and should not be used for planning purposes.


In enterprise IT environments, the desire to provide users with the latest technologies needs to be balanced with the need for manageability and cost control. In the past, many enterprises managed their Windows deployments homogeneously and performed large-scale upgrades to new releases of Windows (often in parallel with large-scale hardware upgrades) about every three to six years. Today, the rapid evolution of Windows as a platform for device-like experiences is causing businesses to rethink their upgrade strategies. Especially with the release of Windows 10, there are good business reasons to keep a significant portion of your enterprise's devices current with the latest release of Windows. For example, during the development of Windows 10, Microsoft:

•Streamlined the Windows product engineering and release cycle so that Microsoft can deliver the features, experiences, and functionality customers want, more quickly than ever.

•Created new ways to deliver and install feature upgrades and servicing updates that simplify deployments and on-going management, broaden the base of employees who can be kept current with the latest Windows capabilities and experiences, and lower total cost of ownership.

•Implemented new servicing options – referred to as Current Branch (CB), Current Branch for Business (CBB), and Long-Term Servicing Branch (LTSB) – that provide pragmatic solutions to keep more devices more current in enterprise environments than was previously possible.

The remainder of this article provides additional information about each of these areas. This article also provides an overview of the planning implications of the three Windows 10 servicing options (summarized in Table 1) so that IT administrators can be well-grounded conceptually before they start a Windows 10 deployment project.

Table 1. Windows 10 servicing Options

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Streamlined product development and release cycles

Product cycles and builds

The Windows engineering team adds new features and functionality to Windows through product cycles comprised of development, testing, and release phases. Each day during a product cycle, the team compiles the source code for Windows and assembles the output into a build that users can install on their devices. The first recipients of builds are Microsoft employees who begin what Microsoft calls selfhost testing.

Testing and release prior to Windows 10

Prior to Windows 10, Microsoft issued and extensively tested many builds internally before selecting one for testing outside Microsoft. After repeating the external test cycle several times against builds of progressively better quality, the engineering team selected a build to enter the release phase. At the end of this phase, the team published the build as a new version of Windows – an event referred to as the Release to Manufacturing (RTM) milestone. In total, product cycles took between one and three years to complete, with testing and release processes taking up as much as half of the total investment in time.

A different approach for Windows 10

In today’s environment, where user expectations frequently are set by device-centric experiences, complete product cycles need to be measured in months, not years. Additionally, new releases must be made available on a continual basis, and must be deployable with minimal impact on users. Microsoft designed Windows 10 to meet these requirements by implementing a new approach to innovation development and delivery called Windows as a Service (WaaS).

The key to enabling significantly shorter product cycles while maintaining high quality levels is an innovative community-centric approach to testing that Microsoft has implemented for Windows 10. The community, known as Windows Insiders, is comprised of millions of users around the world. When Windows Insiders opt in to the community, they test many builds over the course of a product cycle, and provide feedback to Microsoft through an iterative methodology called flighting.

Builds distributed as flights provide the Windows engineering team with significant data regarding how well builds are performing in actual use. Flighting with Windows Insiders also enables Microsoft to test builds in much more diverse hardware, application, and networking environments than in the past, and to identify issues far more quickly. As a result, Microsoft believes that community-focused flighting will enable both a faster pace of innovation delivery, and better public release quality than ever.

Windows 10 release types and cadences

Although Microsoft releases flight builds to Windows Insiders, Microsoft will publish two types of Windows 10 releases broadly to the public on an ongoing basis:

•Feature upgrades that install the latest new features, experiences, and capabilities on devices that are already running Windows 10. Because feature upgrades contain an entire copy of Windows, they are also what customers use to install Windows 10 on existing devices running Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, and on new devices where no operating system is installed.

•Servicing updates that focus on the installation of security fixes and other important updates.

Microsoft expects to publish an average of two to three new feature upgrades per year, and to publish servicing updates as needed for any feature upgrades that are still in support. Microsoft will continue publishing servicing updates on Update Tuesday (sometimes referred to as Patch Tuesday). Additionally, Microsoft may publish additional servicing updates for Windows 10 outside the Update Tuesday process when required to address customer needs.

The cumulative nature of all Windows 10 releases

It is important to note that, in order to improve release quality and simplify deployments, all new releases that Microsoft publishes for Windows 10 will be cumulative. This means new feature upgrades and servicing updates will contain the payloads of all previous releases (in an optimized form to reduce storage and networking requirements), and installing the release on a device will bring it completely up to date. Also, unlike earlier versions of Windows, you cannot install a subset of the contents of a Windows 10 servicing update. For example, if a servicing update contains fixes for three security vulnerabilities and one reliability issue, deploying the update will result in the installation of all four fixes.  

New Windows 10 delivery and installation alternatives

As with earlier releases of Windows, Windows 10 includes support for the deployment of new releases using Windows Update, Windows Server Update Services, System Center Configuration Manager, and third-party configuration management tools. Because of the importance of the Windows as a Service (WaaS) approach to delivering innovations to businesses, and the proven ability of Windows Update to deploy releases quickly and seamlessly to consumers and small businesses, several of the largest investments in Windows 10 focus on enabling broader use of Windows Update within enterprises.

Windows Update use by consumers and small businesses

Since Microsoft introduced the first generation of Windows Update with Windows 95, Windows Update has evolved to become the standard way for consumers and small businesses to help keep devices running Windows secure and running reliably. Almost one billion Windows devices communicate with the Windows Update service on a regular basis. The process of downloading and installing updates has evolved to be less and less obtrusive to users. More recently, Microsoft also has used Windows Update to deliver larger, feature-centric updates, such as the upgrade from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1, and is using Windows Update to upgrade devices running Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 to Windows 10.

Windows Update use within enterprises

Although Windows Update greatly simplifies and accelerates update deployment, enterprises are not using Windows Update as broadly as consumers and small businesses. This is largely because Windows Update maintains control over which updates are installed and the timing of installation. This makes it difficult for IT administrators to test updates before deployment in their specific environment.

The role of Windows Server Update Services

To help address the concerns of IT administrators, Microsoft released Windows Server Update Services in 2005. Windows Server Update Services enables IT administrators to obtain the updates that Windows Update determines are applicable to the devices in their enterprise, perform additional testing and evaluation on the updates, and select the updates they want to install. Windows Server Update Services also provides IT administrators with an all or nothing way to specify when they want an approved update to be installed. Because IT administrators ultimately select and install most updates identified by Windows Update, the role of Windows Server Update Services in many enterprises is to provide IT administrators with the additional time they need to gain confidence in the quality of updates prior to deployment.

New Windows Update capabilities in Windows 10

To enable enterprises to manage more of their devices using Windows Update directly, Windows 10 provides IT administrators with a way to configure devices so that Windows Update will defer new feature upgrade installations until approximately four months after Microsoft first publishes them. The additional time can be used to perform testing or enable releases to gain additional time in market prior to deployment.

At the end of each approximately four month period, Microsoft executes a set of processes that require no action from enterprise IT administrators. First, Microsoft creates new installation media for the feature upgrade by combining the original installation media with all the servicing updates published by Microsoft since the original media’s release. This reduces the time it can take to install a feature upgrade on a device. Second, Microsoft republishes the new media to Windows Update with targeting instructions that state (in effect) “install this media on devices that are configured for deferred installation of new feature upgrades.” At this point, devices configured to defer installation will begin receiving and installing the feature upgrade automatically.

The role of Windows Update for Business

Although Windows 10 will enable IT administrators to defer installation of new feature upgrades using Windows Update, enterprises may also want additional control over how and when Windows Update installs releases. With this need in mind, Microsoft announced Windows Update for Business in May of 2015. Microsoft designed Windows Update for Business to provide IT administrators with additional Windows Update-centric management capabilities, such as the ability to deploy updates to groups of devices and to define maintenance windows for installing releases. This article will be updated with additional information about the role of Windows Update for Business in servicing Windows 10 devices as it becomes available.

Windows 10 servicing options

Historically, because of the length of time between releases of new Windows versions, and the relatively low number of enterprise devices that were upgraded to newer versions of Windows during their deployment lifetimes, most IT administrators defined servicing as installing the updates that Microsoft published every month. Looking forward, because Microsoft will be publishing new feature upgrades on a continual basis, servicing will also include (on some portion of an enterprise's devices) installing new feature upgrades as they become available.

In fact, when planning to deploy Windows 10 on a device, one of the most important questions for IT administrators to ask is, “What should happen to this device when Microsoft publishes a new feature upgrade?” This is because Microsoft designed Windows 10 to provide businesses with multiple servicing options, centered on enabling different rates of feature upgrade adoption. In particular, IT administrators can configure Windows 10 devices to:

•Receive feature upgrades immediately after Microsoft makes them available publicly, so that users gain access to new features, experiences, and functionality as soon as possible. For more information, see Immediate feature upgrade installation with Current Branch (CB) servicing.

•Defer receiving feature upgrades for a period of approximately four months after Microsoft makes them available publicly, to provide IT administrators with time to perform pre-deployment testing and provide feature upgrades releases with additional time-in-market to mature. For more information, see Deferred feature upgrade installation with Current Branch for Business (CBB) servicing.

•Receive only servicing updates for the duration of their Windows 10 deployment in order to reduce the number of non-essential changes made to the device. For more information, see Install servicing updates only by using Long-Term Servicing Branch (LTSB) servicing.

The breakout of a company’s devices by the categories above is likely to vary significantly by industry and other factors. What is most important is that companies can decide what works best for them and can choose different options for different devices.

Plan for Windows 10 deployment

The remainder of this article focuses on the description of the three options outlined above, and their planning implications, in more detail. In practice, IT administrators have to focus on two areas when planning a Windows 10 device deployment:

•When should new feature upgrades be deployed? Should the device install new feature upgrades when they are published by Microsoft? If so, should installation occur immediately or on a deferred basis?

•How will releases be installed on devices? Will Windows Update or Windows Server Update Services be used to install new releases, or will installation be performed using a configuration management system such as Configuration Manager?

The content that follows will provide IT administrators with the context needed to understand why these areas are pivotal, and the choices available to them.

How Microsoft releases Windows 10 feature upgrades

When it is time to release a build as a new feature upgrade for Windows 10, Microsoft performs several processes in sequence. The first process involves creating either one or two servicing branches in a source code management system. These branches (shown in Figure 1) are required to produce feature upgrade installation media and servicing update packages that can be deployed on different Windows 10 editions, running in different configurations.

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Figure 1. Feature upgrades and servicing branches

In all cases, Microsoft creates a servicing branch (referred to in Figure 1 as Servicing Branch #1) that is used to produce releases for approximately one year (although the lifetime of the branch will ultimately depend on when Microsoft publishes subsequent feature upgrade releases). If Microsoft has selected the feature upgrade to receive long-term servicing-only support, Microsoft also creates a second servicing branch (referred to in Figure 1 as Servicing Branch #2) that is used to produce servicing update releases for up to 10 years.

As shown in Figure 2, when Microsoft publishes a new feature upgrade, Servicing Branch #1 is used to produce the various forms of media needed by OEMs, businesses, and consumers to install Windows 10 Home, Pro, Education, and Enterprise editions. Microsoft also produces the files needed by Windows Update to distribute and install the feature upgrade, along with targeting information that instructs Windows Update to only install the files on devices configured for immediate installation of feature upgrades.

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