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Windows 10 Optimization Comes to System Center Configuration Manager

This week Microsoft explained plans to make its next System Center Configuration Manager product more "service like" to keep pace with Windows 10. The new capabilities coming to a more rapidly updated System Center Configuration Manager will get enabled by year's end.

Two Names, One Product
The first notable change is that Microsoft plans to release a more agile product to be called "System Center Configuration Manager." This new product name dispenses with the usual branding associated with the year. That is, the product will lack the "System Center 2016" prefix. Instead, Microsoft plans to issue version numbers with each product release. The version numbers follow a year/month format, such as "v1512" for a December 2015 System Center Configuration Manager release.

Each version release will be supported for one year. After that time, a System Center Configuration Manager upgrade will be required.

This new service-oriented System Center Configuration Manager product is expected to ship (or reach "general availability") by "the end of this calendar year," according to Microsoft's announcement.

That said, a System Center 2016 Configuration Manager product release is still planned. It will be part of the overall System Center 2016 suite, but that suite is expected to reach general availability sometime next year.

Despite this naming convention split, Microsoft considers the System Center Configuration Manager product coming this year and the forthcoming System Center 2016 Configuration Manager product to be the same thing, according to, Andrew Conway, senior director of enterprise mobility at Microsoft, in a Monday phone interview.

Conway added that the licensing won't be changing with the new product approach. Microsoft won't be selling System Center Configuration Manager as a monthly subscription-based service, for instance. It still will be sold on an annuity basis, and it's only sold with Software Assurance, which assures upgrades to the next release if an organizations is within the Software Assurance contract period.

Faster Update Cycle
Microsoft's name focus may seem superficial, but it's part of the company's concept of keeping System Center Configuration Manager on pace with Windows 10, as well as the Microsoft Intune mobile device management product.

Microsoft has declared Windows 10 as its "Windows as a service" release, which means that it gets feature updates at a faster pace than previous Windows releases. Organizations running Windows 10 will have to adopt a "service branch" pace and keep to that update schedule or risk losing future security patch support. The service branches include a "current branch" (monthly releases), current branch for business (releases every four months) and long-term servicing branch (traditional service pack-style updating).

The System Center Configuration Manager product itself also will get more frequent updates to keep pace with these Windows 10 release cycles. Consequently, System Center Configuration Manager will be somewhat like a service, according to Conway.

"As we've moved to a new model for Windows 10, effectively moving into the realm of Windows as a service with things like the current branch, current branch for business and long-term servicing branch, as you've seen through a succession of technical previews we've really had to move Configuration Manager in this new direction as well," Conway explained. "So we're essentially moving into a realm where Configuration Manager itself is shifting in a service-like way. We're almost at a point of having Configuration Manager as a service."

Microsoft's plan is to update System Center Configuration Manager each time new Windows 10 capabilities get released, according to a blog post by Brad Anderson, Microsoft's corporate vice president for Enterprise Client and Mobility. It'll also get updated each time Android and iOS updates are released, he added.

Testers of Microsoft's current Technical Preview 3 release of System Center Configuration Manager can already see how this works. The preview currently downloads updates every seven days via the Updates and Servicing node. That approach, or something like it, will be Microsoft's future model for keeping System Center Configuration Manager updated via a service.

Feature Support
Windows 10 not only has different servicing models to consider, but it also has a quasi-official summer/fall release cycle, where some features appear later. This cycle for Windows 10 was alluded to early on by Kevin Turner, Microsoft's chief operating officer. Other Microsoft officials haven't been as direct about describing it, though.

Press accounts refer to this cycle as a summer/fall "Threshold" Windows 10 release to be followed in 2016 by a summer/fall "Redstone" release. Possibly, these releases correspond to a consumer and business release cycles in terms of the features supported, but Microsoft officials haven't been clear about them.

While the summer/fall cycle has largely gone unmentioned by Microsoft, it does affect what organizations can do with Windows 10. For instance, Microsoft is expected to add new mobile device management capabilities for Windows 10 devices, but those improvements will depend on the pace of Intune developments. Similarly, some Windows Store management enhancements for organizations in Windows 10 are yet to come. Microsoft hasn't said exactly when these capabilities will be available, but possibly they will light up after the fall Windows 10 release. Microsoft did note some of those missing capabilities back when it released Windows 10 in July.

The new System Center Configuration Manager product is expected to add "full support for the deployment, upgrade and management of Windows 10," according to Microsoft's announcement, although the exact details weren't provided.

Current Product Support
Microsoft's announcement today has implications for organizations using current System Center Configuration Manager products for managing Windows 10 clients. That includes System Center 2012 Configuration Manager Service Pack 2, as well System Center 2012 R2 Configuration Manager Service Pack 1. Both products, with the latest updates applied, support managing and deploying Windows 10. System Center 2007 also supports Windows 10 client management, but it doesn't support deployment.

Previously, Microsoft had described its System Center 2012 products as being capable of supporting just "existing features" of Windows 10, meaning those features that were available with the initial summer (July) release. Today, Microsoft extended that support to include the fall Windows 10 feature releases as well. Here's Microsoft's explanation:

The ConfigMgr 2012 Supported Configuration article on TechNet only lists support for Windows 10 Enterprise LTSB 2015. Knowing that customers are eager to deploy Windows 10 Current Branch now prior to the release of the new System Center Configuration Manager later this calendar year, we are extending ConfigMgr 2012 support for Windows 10 to also include the first two builds of the Windows 10 Current Branch. This translates to the initial build of Windows 10 released this summer, and the second build of Windows 10 expected to release this fall.

It's not known exactly when this fall Windows 10 release will be available, but System Center 2012 users will now get a chance to support those features.

That said, System Center 2012 users are still facing an upgrade deadline. They'll be able to support new Windows 10 features through February 2016. After that time, they'll need to upgrade System Center Configuration Manager to continue getting that new feature support. Microsoft's announcement published this table indicating the deadline:

Product Version Release Timing Windows Servicing Support

System Center Configuration Manager

By end of 2015 for initial release Windows 10 Current Branch, Current Branch for Business, and Long Term Servicing Branch

System Center 2012 Configuration Manager SP2 CU1
and System Center 2012 R2 Configuration Manager SP1 CU1

May 2015, with cumulative updates as needed Windows 10 LTSB 2015, and Windows 10 CB/CBB through February 2016

Table 1. System Center Configuration Manager support for Windows 10. Source: Microsoft blog.

Organization that can't make this February 2016 deadline will have to deploy the Windows 10 Enterprise Long-Term Servicing Branch product to "remain in a supported configuration going forward," Microsoft's announcement explained. The Windows 10 Enterprise Long-Term Servicing Branch product has a more traditional servicing model, allowing deferral of new updates, but Microsoft conceives of it as mostly being for medical devices or "Internet of Things" kinds of deployments that can't tolerate frequent updates.

Microsoft is claiming that the upgrade to the new System Center Configuration Manager product will be an "in-place upgrade" from both System Center 2012 Configuration Manager products. That means that IT pros won't necessarily have to engage in the more time-consuming "wipe and load" approach when upgrading the product. Since organizations using System Center 2012 products likely have Software Assurance agreements in place, they also likely will have the rights to move to the new product.

Other Nuances
System Center Configuration Manager will get a new task-sequence upgrade capability for Windows 10. The point wasn't clarified too well but it will permit "upgrading Windows 10 Current Branch builds to the latest version," according to Microsoft's announcement. Microsoft originally described this task sequence approach about a year ago. It consists of creating a package with a file indicating tasks to execute that can be used for in-place upgrades. It also can be used to remove Microsoft's built-in apps when installing Windows 10.

Microsoft plans to add support for Windows Server 2016. It'll be added to System Center 2016 products next year.

There are some limitations when using System Center Configuration Manager to manage clients getting Windows Insider builds. Those updates arrive via Windows Update, which means that some Configuration Manager features aren't available. For instance, IT pros won't have access to "Software Update Management, Endpoint Protection, and the deployment of third-party updates via System Center Update Publisher," per Microsoft's announcement.

Microsoft's Edge browser can't be used yet to support the Configuration Manager Application Catalog, which is a portal for end users to install software. Only Internet Explorer is supported today. However, by year's end, Microsoft expects to release a "combined end user portal," and make it viewable through the Application Catalog used by IT pros.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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