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Windows 10: an evergreen dilemma

(Image credit: Anton Watman / Shutterstock.com)

If you are reading this at home on your own laptop then the chances are you have an up-to-date device and are eagerly awaiting the features coming in the next version of your chosen operating system.  If you are reading it in the office and you work for a large organisation, the chances are you may well be using an old device running Windows 7, and just accept the fact that businesses are always behind the curve on technology versions.

Hopefully, any organisation that is still using the tried and trusted Windows 7 operating system is well aware that, as of 14th January 2020, Microsoft will no longer be offering support unless you pay them a hefty fee.  If you are not nearing the end of your update project, and there’s nothing in the budget this year, then it’s probably time to go cap in hand to your friendly CFO and ask for some money.  The business case should be easy; without support from Microsoft, you won’t get any patches.  That means that any security vulnerabilities which get fixed in later versions of Windows will not get fixed in your unpatched version, leaving your company, and potentially its partners, exposed to all sorts of security risks.  We all know that the best way to get projects through governance quickly is to play the security card.

So, you are either planning, in the process of completing, or have completed your upgrade.  Maybe you have time to sit back and breathe a sigh of relief that it will be another 5 years or so until Microsoft forces you to do something as drastic as update all your desktop PCs.  If only that were the case; Windows 10 is Microsoft’s first attempt at an Evergreen operating system, and from now on the desktop operating system will be updated with new features roughly every six months.  Importantly, each update will only stay supported for about 18 months.  So for companies that were ahead of the curve and updated in 2017 but haven’t kept up with the updates, your version is just about out of support. In fact, Windows 10 versions released before the end of July 2017 actually go out of support before Windows 7 does!

It's complicated

Once you’ve completed your upgrade, you will face the on-going task of keeping everything current.  Unfortunately, Microsoft hasn’t really made this complex task as slick as it could be.  There have been various well-publicised problems with some of the updates. The September 2018 update was pulled from the release cycle after just a couple of weeks and didn’t come back until January 2019.  Microsoft changed its mind numerous times over what the updates are called and what they will contain. We’ve heard terms such as “Current Business Branch”; “Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted)”; “Semi-Annual Channel” and “Long Term Service Branch”.  At various times Microsoft has switched between two full updates per year – one significant one and the other containing bug fixes only – and back again.  Support for releases has varied and we now have the curious arrangement whereby releases in the second half of the year are supported for 30 months as opposed to 18 months for those released in the first half.  This is only true if you have the Enterprise version, so companies using the Pro version that shipped with their hardware will be disappointed.  Add to this the monthly security patches you need to apply, and you can see how it gets complicated.

These updates are, of course, providing new features.  They vary from different colour schemes for certain apps or new tools to increase productivity, to fundamental changes to core software.  As an example, Microsoft will be completely rebuilding its rather unpopular Edge browser, with the change expected in early 2020.  In order for these new features to work, you may need to change some settings, update packages used to build new devices, roll out some training for your staff, and possibly replace some of your older devices that are no longer compatible with the new versions.  If you then consider your line of business software that will require testing, you have a whole new set of problems to think about.

Then you have to get the updates out to the devices and Microsoft has developed some useful ways to distribute the software.  However, there is still a big problem with the time it takes to install the updates.  Sometimes the process takes less than 20 minutes, but it can be up to 45 minutes or more, depending on the device capabilities and the changes in the update.  This obviously raises the question of how to plan for this in a busy organisation.  Although back office environments might be able to cope with a 45-minute downtime over lunch, this may not be possible in a busy contact centre environment.  Add to this the potential problem of updates failing or stopping some essential line-of-business applications working, and you could see a whole department taken out of action.

Adopting simpler and lower-cost options

How do we solve these technical challenges Microsoft has thrown at us?  Firstly, stop thinking about technical refresh as a project; it’s an ongoing activity that starts and never ends.  There should be agreements in place with any service providers to ensure that desktop computing resources are kept on the latest “Semi-Annual Channel” version (or whatever Microsoft decides to call it this week!).  The providers should be testing new releases from Microsoft early, updating you on what is coming to ensure employees are made aware of changes in advance.  You should also be talking to your software providers and ensuring that they are certifying their software for the latest version of Windows, with a plan in place to keep this software current too.

Rolling out the new versions is more of a business readiness challenge than a technical one.  Never roll out to a whole department in one go.  Instead, opt for a staggered approach, with one in five desks being updated each week.  Testing the update in a soft live launch like this spreads awareness of what is coming and offers a handy fall-back if things go wrong.

If all this seems a challenge too difficult to cope with, there are other options.  Several providers now offer Device-as-a-Service, meaning that they guarantee to keep the computing resources up-to-date for your users.  As a result, the responsibility for the updates lies with the provider, including updating the equipment itself.  Another option has been in place for a number of years: running your desktop computing resources in a remote or cloud environment and accessing it from desktop terminals, which means that you update things centrally.  You can update with zero downtime for users, you have the option of rolling back to previous versions if things go wrong, and you can guarantee that there will be no hardware issues.

The final piece of advice is for Microsoft, and I give this as a friend not as a detractor.  If you want to see how an Evergreen operating system is supposed to work, take a look at Google’s Chrome OS.  Updates happen regularly and seamlessly with downtime limited to a couple of minutes at most.  It’s a far simpler system but, given that most businesses lock down Windows to a large extent, it won’t be long before companies start adopting far simpler and lower-cost options.

Richard Phillips, Senior Consultant, Altus