The "as-a-service" moniker is a recent creation in the information technology industry, used to describe systems where users access programs and save company data on a commercial service provider's servers via the Internet, versus the traditional model where the company installs and manages software and stores all data on in-house servers.
For many functions, how something is provided "as-a-service" is intuitive—for example, running word processing, spreadsheets, or even major database applications in a browser for a monthly fee, instead of buying software and installing it on your servers and workstations (Software-as-a-Service). Or, ditching your in-house PBX (phone system) and signing up for a virtual PBX hosted in the cloud, with Internet-connected desk phones or mobile devices serving as extensions (Telephony-as-a-Service). Flexibility and mobility are advantages that come to mind, while performance and security may be reduced. A monthly or annual subscription fee is almost always going to be involved.
Since early 2015, Microsoft has described Windows 10 as ushering in the era of Windows-as-a-Service (WaaS). Without further explanation, it's hard to imagine how this would work. Windows is an operating system—it's the first software that runs when your computer or laptop starts up, and it controls everything your computer can do. To access or configure any other "as-a-service" function, you have to start your computer and its operating system, open your web browser, and log in. How do you log in to Windows before Windows starts?
Also, WaaS implies you'll have to subscribe to Windows, and maybe pay a subscription fee. If so, then when your subscription lapses, your computer would become unusable, right? If this is in the works, all Windows-based computers would be essentially rented from Microsoft, no matter who you bought it from!
Is that what's going to happen? Or is Microsoft using a hot term that generally relates to what they're offering, when that's not really what it is? Let's explore more.
What It Means
Many different Microsoft spokesmen have described what Windows-as-a-Service means in their own way. For the most part, the common theme is that Microsoft will simplify and accelerate the update process to deliver improvements and new features incrementally and on a regular basis, as well as ensure uniformity among devices that run Windows. New innovations will also simplify and enhance the deployment process with help from Microsoft cloud services.
The good news is Windows 10 does not require a subscription, and it does not need Internet connectivity or monthly fees for you to start your computer or log in. It will still be installed directly on your computer as before, but with some new options we'll discuss. But, the new update process does introduce new, significant challenges for IT system managers and small businesses.
Read on for important considerations about the Accelerated Update Model, Uniformity, Pricing, Lifecycle, Security Patching and Bug Fixes, and Deployment, followed by some discussion on the impact of all this on your business.
Accelerated Update Model
Every few years from the 1990s all the way up to the launch of Windows 10, Microsoft released a completely new version of Windows for desktop and laptop computers, with lots of marketing hype. Each new version brought significant differences in the desktop experience, and new architecture to support more and more powerful computers. Upgrading existing computers was a major project, especially in a business with hundreds or thousands of devices. Microsoft expected, and usually did see, a revenue spike as users purchased retail upgrades for their existing computers, or bought new computers with the cost of Windows built in.
To add features between version upgrades, Microsoft would occasionally release a free Service Pack, such as the well-regarded Service Pack 2 for Windows XP in 2004 that enabled the operating system to support breakthrough WiFi technologies that had been developed since its original release. Bug fixes and security patches were distributed regularly in the form of patches that could be downloaded through the Microsoft Windows Update service, which now number in the thousands.
Because advances in computing hardware capabilities have slowed down, Microsoft expects that Windows 10 can support computers, laptops, and tablets for the foreseeable future without core architectural changes. So major upgrades should no longer be required to take advantage of modern hardware. This enables Microsoft's developers to focus on features and user experience, such as the Start menu functionality, how smart Cortana is, and capabilities of other built-in apps (Mail, Edge, Photos, Camera, and Skype), as well as bug fixes, general performance enhancements, and some hardware support (such as USB Audio 2.0, added in 2017). This is all more amenble to an accelerated and incremental release process, which Microsoft believes will provide greater value to users.
So, going forward, new features and capabilities of the core Windows 10 operating system will be released a few times a year. It will continue to be called Windows 10, but with an identifying four-digit version number derived from its release date. That is, the original version is Windows 10 Version 1507, for July 2015. Later versions are 1511, 1607, 1703, and 1709.
The built-in apps and those downloaded from the Windows Store will continue to update themselves on their own schedule.
The new update model also enhances the ability to keep Windows-based computers and mobile devices the same in terms of what features are available and what security patches have been applied. This is mainly a result of the monthly cumulative updates.
Uniformity simplifies a range of information technology management tasks, from vulnerability management as part of your information security program, to development of training documentation, to application compatibility testing. The utility value of uniformity will also become apparent as more cross-device features are made available, such as being able to copy and paste from one device to another.
Despite apparently ending the revenue Microsoft receives from upgrade purchases, Microsoft has not changed the price to purchase Windows, nor how it is acquired. You can still get it with the purchase of a new device, and the cost of that copy of Windows is built-in to the price of your device. The pricing and delivery in the volume license program (for larger businesses) are the same. And anyone can still purchase Windows 10 through the online Microsoft Store to upgrade an existing computer.
Most significantly, Microsoft has not implemented a subscription fee for the base Windows license. No matter how Windows 10 was acquired—even if you got it through the free upgrade offer—you can use Windows 10 forever on that device, and free upgrades will be available for the supported lifetime of the device. For businesses that require the Enterprise edition of Windows, Microsoft does now offer the advanced security features of Windows 10 Enterprise on a subscription basis; however, the underlying Windows 10 Pro operating system remains perpetually licensed.
As just mentioned, Microsoft will offer free upgrades to Windows 10 for "the supported lifetime of the device". This is because the accumulation of many incremental improvements in hardware capability will make it too difficult for Microsoft to test new features on both current and old devices. Untested devices (as well as anything more current that fails) will be considered as past their "supported lifetime", and thus no longer eligible for upgrades. While you can continue to run the old version of Windows 10 on your unsupported computer for as long as you want, once the 18-month support cycle for this expires, your computer will be considered insecure because it will not receive any more security updates.
So far, only a small percentage of users have experienced this (starting with version 1703), either due to a particular hardware component (such as the microprocessor) or an installed application being incompatible. In the latter case you can uninstall the application; in the former, you have no choice but to replace the computer, or just stay on the prior version of Windows 10. In some cases, Microsoft might make an exception and extend support for an older version of Windows 10 for a particular type of hardware that can't be upgraded.
Security Patching and Bug Fixes
The supported lifetime of a device is probably of no concern to most users and IT departments, who generally like to keep their equipment reasonably up-to-date. But, Microsoft has imposed much shorter lifecycle time restrictions apart from that.
See, between semi-annual upgrades, Microsoft will continue to issue security patches as soon as possible whenever a security flaw is discovered. In addition, there is a monthly cumulative update that will include all security and bug fixes since the most recent semi-annual upgrade.
In 2017, Microsoft announced that each semi-annual version upgrade will have an 18-month lifetime during which it will receive security updates and cumulative updates. After that, you can continue to run Windows 10, but you can only download new security fixes by performing an upgrade to a supported version (that is, one that is less than 18 months old). So, while you may run version 1703 for as long as you want after September 2018, your computer will remain vulnerable to all security flaws discovered after that. If you run 1507 or 1511, your computer already is no longer receiving these updates.
These are very short lifecycles; previous versions of Windows were supported for many years. For example, Windows 7 (from 2009) will be supported until 2020. But, these short limits are necessary for Windows 10 in order to support Microsoft's uniformity initiative (described above), which depends on cumulative updates. Without these limitations, the cumulative updates would grow unsustainably large.
Large businesses and government agencies for many years have deployed computers and mobile devices through a controlled process, where Windows, along with the company's applications and configuration settings, are put into a system image that is then installed on computers and devices. Creating, updating, and testing images is a continuing process done in-house. There are many third-party and Microsoft applications for the enterprise that support this process. Well-designed images can enable users around the world to get up and running promptly with fully capable and secure systems on the company's network.
Microsoft's System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) is a server-based application IT departments use to create and manage images, and deploy software and configuration changes to running systems. You will see this in environments where desktops and laptops are all on the same network, such as a large hospital or university campus, or even multiple campuses with dedicated private network connections. To support the new accelerated update model of Windows 10, Microsoft will now release SCCM upgrades at the same time as Windows.
For the mobile/remote workforce, or for smaller companies of any kind, Microsoft offers cloud-based services that enable the IT department or systems manager to skip the imaging process but still enjoy many of the benefits. The company can send any brand computer, laptop, or tablet with Windows 10 Pro pre-installed, with simple instructions for the user to log in to his account in the Microsoft cloud system, after which the device will download applications and configuration settings automatically. This would be of great benefit particularly for managing equipment for a dispersed user base; the IT department no longer has to acquire the device first, install the image, and then send it out to the user. Users can even go to the local store and buy whatever they want, and after they connect, the system turns into a company computer.
Analysis and Impact
The above general description might seem like all positives. But, there is a significantly increased element of complexity and instability it introduces that can impact productivity.
On one hand, Microsoft is forcing companies to do what they generally should do, and that is perform continuous lifecycle planning and software deployment. However, for companies that do not need this, this change may be detrimental to productivity and value.
The accelerated update model aligns with the trend in the past several years towards agile software development, which involves frequent incremental updates to software that add competitive and useful features, as opposed to major upgrades less often. The agile model has taken hold because of the hyper-connectivity of the consumer base, making software distribution costs relatively trivial. However, bugs and security flaws are going to be more common, due to the shortened testing process, and the understanding by software developers that fixes will be issued and deployed soon enough. And incompatibilities with existing application software is going to be more common as the operating system continually charges forward.
Although agile Windows means frequent incremental upgrades, moving to this model is a "transformational movement" according to Microsoft employee David das Neves, and he's right. In his blog, Mr. das Neves states (emphasis added), "You have to show the new complexity and the new mindset of the agile approach throughout your whole company. In addition you have to validate your current processes and evaluate huge procedural changes which will need management involvement."
Another spokesman, Michael Niehaus, wrote:
Windows as a service is an ongoing process... To help you implement Windows as a Service, we have tools like Windows Analytics to guide you through the feature update deployment process, Ready for Windows to tell you about ISV app support for Windows 10, Microsoft Edge and Enterprise Mode for Internet Explorer to make supporting modern and legacy web apps at the same time, System Center Configuration Manager and Microsoft Intune for enterprise-grade servicing and deployment, and great overall app compatibility. For those looking for more assistance, Microsoft FastTrack can also help.
In the above quotes, Microsoft was addressing what we call the enterprise—businesses or government agencies with hundreds or thousands of computers and mobile devices, and an IT department that is budgeted and operated as a strategic asset. Many enterprises already have pilot user groups and lab systems for testing compatibility of their applications with anticipated Windows upgrades, and have used some of the tools mentioned by Mr. Niehaus for years. For such organizations, while each may implement the migration to Windows-as-a-Service on different timelines and have their own particular issues to deal with, implementing new tools or even changing a mindset is something they can weather. And for those that have not, then moving to Windows 10 and supporting it properly will definitely require some "huge procedural changes".
Even for large organizations with a robust IT servicing model in place, this new model still may present a severe burden, especially those that heavily customize their systems. With the long-lasting system image model of the past, which could be patched with the latest security updates but kept otherwise the same, businesses could remove unneeded features and apps, and service computers with essentially the same image for years. That's now impossible with Windows 10, and the frequent upgrades can be very disruptive if the upgrades undo prior customizations, requiring significant labor recreating images with no added value.
Impact on Small Business
And what about small businesses, or even a large business with simple IT needs, that have been just fine with a minimal IT budget, and simplified lifecycle planning? The two main concerns are:
- Disruption of work with upgrades
- Breaking applications
A business that has a mix of Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 computers and devices, with automated security and software patching systems, are accustomed to stability instead of features, especially if it's not a tech-oriented company. They might have a handful to dozens of users total, and a small or part-time IT staff. Or, it might be a large business with geographically or organizationally dispersed departments, each of which is managed like a small business. Users simply need Internet access, word processing and printing, off-the-shelf spreadsheet and database software, and desktop publishing or design applications. For many such businesses, having cutting edge features, especially for the computer operating system, is of little value. For example, your accountant probably doesn't need to go through a two-hour upgrade of her computer so that Cortana can now turn up music on command. Her job is to issue checks and balance the books.
For a business of this type, stability as an objective allows an affordable IT budget, enabling effective management with an outsourced professional service provider like J.D. Fox Micro. Significant upgrades to new versions of application software or Windows are performed every several years, generally when computers are replaced or added.
As businesses like these replace aging computers, they'll find themselves with more and more Windows 10 devices. Now, instead of patching with security updates every week or so, which are generally small and non-intrusive and don't break applications, their computers will get Windows version upgrades every six months. Not only can such upgrades take a few hours to install, the new capabilities and features of the operating system can cause older applications not to function correctly, causing pressure to upgrade these applications faster than the business might have preferred, or employ workarounds in cases where Windows 10 compatible upgrades are not available. And we already know that Windows 10 will pester users to upgrade if their IT service provider has not gotten to it, causing unneeded aggravation.
So, we can see why this forces a business to invest more time and effort in lifecycle planning—to ensure that installing these upgrades doesn't impact users' productivity, and to implement standing pilot groups in place of ad hoc testing when an individual or small department might be upgrading their computers, as they had in the past.
The impact of this change is especially significant if you have niche software or special hardware with control applications, which are less likely to have been tested by Microsoft to work with the latest version of Windows 10. And, since version upgrades will happen every six months, it will seem like dealing with upgrades and associated risks to productivity will be a constant activity compared to what the business is accustomed to.
Frankly, it very well may be beneficial for a business that has neglected to implement the lifecycle planning it really needs. But, for a business for which this truly isn't appropriate, Windows 10 may greatly increase costs, while unnecessarily introducing what Microsoft acknowledges is increased complexity. Something that requires continual attention, and increases expenditures of time and money, can't be said to be much of a "service".
Microsoft claims that the agile software process has to apply to Windows because of the growing significant presence of millennials in the workplace. They claim that millennials demand up-to-date technology since they all grew up with it, and you'll lose credibility with this segment of the workforce if you don't adopt Windows 10.
Of course, the many aspects of human resources management, leadership, and business culture are something that Microsoft has no business dictating. There certainly is something to be said for considering the inclinations of millennials in regards to technology, but for many businesses, it will suit them just fine to continue managing IT as they always have, because IT capabilities are only a part of your company's overall appeal, and IT system management is a small part of that from the user's perspective. In addition, individual millennials, just like with any group, won't always fit into stereotypes, and it's a bit patronizing to assume they're some monolithic blob of people who won't adapt to a traditional way of running IT systems so long as the rest of your company culture is appealing to them, or even that they're all as tech-savvy as they're made out to be. Microsoft is inclined to promote this idea, though, to enhance the perceived value of their preferred way of delivering Windows in the current era.
Since Microsoft has dominated the computer and laptop operating system market for as long as there have been personal computers, moving away from Windows on your computers would be a major step. Your alternatives, as always, are the Apple platform (iMac desktops and MacBook laptops), or Linux-based operating systems such as Red Hat, Debian, or Ubuntu. While every business is different, of course, moving to these platforms for a business that is primarily Windows-based will generally require greater adjustments than moving to Windows 10.
Hopefully, the major interface changes we saw with each new version of Windows are a thing of the past. If you look at the Apple iMac and MacBook, the basic interface has been about the same for decades; each new version requires very little new learning, unlike Microsoft Windows during the same time period. So, we can expect the new Windows 10 upgrade model to provide stability in this respect—unless users go looking for fancy new features, most users will not know or care what version of Windows they're using.
What You Can Do
For help navigating Windows-as-a-Service, if you're not already a client, please contact J.D. Fox Micro.