Is Microsoft making Windows worse to make it better?

Windows 10 is being presented as an OS in continuous development. We're used to cloud services being a work in progress, but how well does that transfer to an operating system?

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Microsoft used a similar "one step back to go forward" strategy in building Azure. When the cloud service was originally created in 2008, it was based on a version of the Windows Server Hyper-V hypervisor that was rewritten by the Azure team to run PaaS features, rather than to support virtual machines on Infrastructure as a Service. Now, both Azure and Hyper-V in Windows Server are being developed more closely together.

Today Azure runs on Windows Server, with the same version of Hyper-V in both. That's worked well -- but it's happened over several years, while the cloud market was maturing. To succeed, Windows 10 needs to iterate its features rather more quickly.

Building differently to build faster

Three months after the introduction of Windows 10, how is the service idea working in practice?

On the business side, "The feature delays are a little troublesome," Gartner's Kleynhans says. "But even then it mostly impacts impatient early adopters who are looking to get started right away with testing and piloting. For most organizations, as long as the bulk of the features they are expecting are in place in the first quarter of 2016, a delay of a quarter or so right now doesn't have any impact on what they are doing."

Some new features have emerged since the OS launched in July -- not just minor changes to the Settings app, but things as significant as nested virtualization (which is still in preview, but already allows you to run Hyper-V inside a Hyper-V virtual machine). That's a powerful option for developers and also offers improved isolation for wider uses; for example, it means the Windows 10 Enterprise Credential Guard feature that helps block pass-the-hash attacks (which are otherwise hard to defend against) work on virtualized systems.

Delivering major features more quickly -- which is the core of turning Windows into a service -- means Microsoft must build it differently, says Aul.

"Moving at this pace requires we build and test in smaller incremental steps than in the past, and test and evaluate the results quickly as we go," he says. "This represents a huge effort and we use state-of-the-art test automation as well as good old-fashioned dogfooding to find issues quickly and create a tight feedback loop back to developers making changes."

Aul suggests that building Windows differently will also result in better applications for Windows 10, "because third-party developers will be able to focus their energy on one up-to-date OS target rather than a fragmented installed base."

Depending on Insiders

The testing goes beyond what Microsoft can do alone. "The key advance for us has been adding the millions of Windows Insiders who are contributing to the testing and feedback process," he says, "which allows us to ensure coverage of new updates for quality and compatibility before they ship broadly."

According to Aul, testing on so many PCs helps Microsoft to balance the delivery of new features with stability and usability. With the Windows Insiders' help, since the release of Windows 10 in July, he says Microsoft has found and fixed "tens of thousands of issues" in preview builds.

Aul also credits the Insider program with allowing Microsoft to "test and make improvements at a much faster pace" and claims Microsoft is responding to feedback more quickly. "In contrast with how Windows has been released in the past, getting new features out quickly to customers to start using and giving us early feedback allows us to respond quickly and tune the experiences as needed." That includes the company's recent promise to give more details about what changes are included in specific updates (although that came after a Windows MVP started a petition on Change.org rather than sticking with Microsoft's own UserVoice forums).

The Fall update (codenamed "Threshold 2") rolls up the improvements Microsoft has been making since July, continues the subtle interface changes to make the design more consistent, and adds a host of small extras and options -- like automatically switching time zones when you travel. It brings back some Windows 8 touch features, like being able to resize two apps at the same time, and has the first steps for integrated messaging, with previews of the apps for messages, video and voice calls.

Crucially, it delivers some, though not all of the promised features for enterprises, such as Windows Update for Business and the Windows Store for Business for distributing apps. It also includes final versions of Azure AD Join (allowing corporate settings in Windows 10 to roam securely) and the built-in agent that enables PCs to enroll with the Mobile Device Management services businesses already use to manage phones and tablets.

The update doesn't include the planned Enterprise Data Protection-encrypted containers for individual files (although Microsoft says that's "coming soon." It's likely EDP will appear alongside updates to System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) and Intune that add the management tools to administer containers, but Microsoft still hasn't announced a date for those. SCCM itself is moving to a continuous update, "as a Service" model, starting with a new release expected before the end of 2015.

Adapting to Windows as a Service

Continuous delivery is likely to become the norm for Microsoft software. In addition to Windows 10 and Microsoft's Configuration Manager, Office 2016 has the same service model. It even uses the terminology of Current Branch and Current Branch for Business. It also has the same requirement: Users must take regular updates to stay supported.

All this doesn't seem to be holding back Windows 10 adoption -- for the most part. In a survey conducted in May 2015 by Spiceworks, 96 percent of 500 IT pros said they were interested in Windows 10, and 60 percent said their IT department was already evaluating it. And as of October, 11 percent of businesses using Spiceworks already had Windows 10 systems on their networks -- mostly medium-sized or large businesses rather than in smaller organizations. However, the two biggest reasons those IT pros gave were the Start button and the free upgrade, followed by security improvements. The faster update cycle and the new Edge browser only made sixth and seventh place on the list.

Will IT be able to adjust to this new pace? While Bob Bruns, vice president of enterprise infrastructure and operations at enterprise consultancy Avanade, calls the new service model "largely positive," he agrees that "the continuous improvement model presents both challenges and opportunities, and there are things that enterprises can do to be better prepared."

According to Bruns, those preparations should start with organizations using standards such as HTML5 and cloud services to shift their own development to be agile and more like development of consumer apps, making it easier for employees to use cloud services and moving to protect data and applications rather than just devices. "Once enterprises are able to make these adjustments, the mentality will change from 'How do we continue to manage deployments?' to 'How quickly can we enable new services for our people?'" Bruns predicted.

That's the strategy enterprises need to adopt for Windows as a Service, Bruns says. "Windows 10 was released in July with what we refer to as a consumer release, with a lot of the enterprise features we would like to leverage coming in future releases. So balancing what the market and consumer has available to them, with what we are comfortable with for the enterprise, will continue to be something businesses will have to manage internally. Businesses are being pulled by the consumer model of rapid adoption of new releases of functionality and most will need to learn how to adopt a more agile approach."

Flexera's Polte agrees. "Maturing processes with more automation is an important part of this new update cadence," she says, "and is the only way organizations will be able to keep up with Microsoft's increasing update velocity. Without a mature automated process, many organizations struggle to keep up with the frequent patches and some choose to selectively deploy only some of the updates." They'll need to plan for current and long term branches in some groups (and maybe Insider builds for advance testing), she adds.

Despite the effort, Iain Chidgey, vice president at Delphix, which creates Data as a Service software, says that Windows as a Service is part of a sea change going on in technology -- one that businesses need to take advantage of. "The likes of Apple and Android OS are already steaming ahead with a continuous delivery model; organizations need to accept Microsoft's latest change and jump in with both feet to avoid missing the boat."

This story, "Is Microsoft making Windows worse to make it better?" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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