Windows Server 2016 licensing and servicing options explained

There is a new bifurcated servicing model for Windows Server that depends in part on which installation option you choose

On July 12, Microsoft announced it will release Windows Server 2016 to the world as a final RTM edition at the company's Ignite conference in late September. The software, now in its fifth technical preview, continues to mature, and this date matches the estimations previously released from Redmond regarding the OS's completion date. There were other recent announcements regarding Windows Server as well, and this piece aims to demystify them.

Windows Server 2016 servicing options

The biggest revelation on July 12, apart from the release date news, is that there is a new bifurcated servicing model for Windows Server that depends in part on what installation option of Windows Server you choose. Let's dig into this.

The Current Branch for Business

The new addition to the Windows Server servicing bunch is the Current Branch for Business (CBB) option, which right now is limited to the Nano Server installation option.

Much like its client brother, Windows 10, Current Branch for Business for Windows Server 2016 is kind of like a middle-of-the-road option. Rather than streaming out alpha and beta releases in a series of progressively more stable "rings," like the Windows Insider program does for desktop OS enthusiasts, the default selection for licenses of Windows Server 2016's Nano Server installation option will be a stable Nano Server release that receives two to three feature updates every year.

[ Further reading: Review: Windows Server 2016 Technical Preview 4 ]

What is Nano Server?

The new edition of Windows Server, called Nano Server, is a technological marvel -- it is Windows Server refactored down to some absurd fraction of its previous size (think under 200MB for a base Nano Server image, compared to gigabytes for a full Server installed image). Nano Server is a butter knife compared to the steamroller that is the full Windows Server, and it is meant for primarily cloud-first applications that need a far smaller set of capabilities and a reduced attack surface than the full Windows Server has traditionally provided. Nano has no GUI and a limited set of management features, but it needs a small fraction of the security patches that its fuller, fatter brothers do.

Nano Server is going to end up as an installation option along with two other options that exist in Windows Server 2012 R2: Server with Desktop Experience and Server Core. This means you will not need additional media or SKUs to run Nano Server.

What is the attraction of a CBB-style service? Many clients like this type of option because it is a way to keep desktop computers fresh with new features and fixes without having to wait for wholesale upgrades to the operating system.

There is, of course, a traditional wariness toward frequent upgrades in the enterprise and especially in the server room, and that is entirely justified: Aside from the issue that updates and patches are frequently not tested with the same rigor and consistency as full-blown operating system releases, there is a lot of third-party business software that simply does not support running on anything but a very known, very vanilla edition of Windows. Just because Microsoft itself is on a certain update pace, it does not mean that SAP or QuickBooks or any other software on which you run your business is also on a similar or shared update pace.

One positive point in CBB's column is that the upgrades will be predictable: There will be two to three a year and they will not be sprung on IT departments with no notice. Another positive point for CBB: It will essentially be like a perpetual license for Windows Server 2016 Nano, but one that is always updated. Once you take the updates, you continue taking the updates, and the updates will always have a supported lifetime.

In practice, this means that your Windows Server Nano machines could end up like mainframes: Current and supported for decades. You will not have to buy another copy of Windows Server Nano on any hardware after you buy that same hardware's Windows Server 2016 license. And again, that's not like trying to run Windows NT 4.0 in 2016 -- it's like a constantly updated version of Linux that has security patches and new features. While some of those new bits will likely be dependent on new hardware that has not yet been invented, the security updates are part of the bargain.

There is an important point here: When I said, "Once you take the updates, you continue taking the updates," it is because the only security patches being offered will be for the current update and two prior updates. Anything older than that becomes completely unpatched and unserviced, and is essentially unsupported. It is a bit like the Hotel California: You can check into the CBB but you cannot really check out. Once you are on the Nano Server train, you are on it.

The Long Term Servicing Branch

But what about the other installation options, like Server with a GUI and Server Core? These installation options will be part of a servicing program known as the LTSB -- the Long Term Servicing Branch of Windows Server 2016. This is Windows Server 2016 as Windows Server has been in the past. By using LTSB -- by virtue of not installing Nano Server -- you essentially get Windows Server 2016 as it exists (and existed) in September 2016, plus security updates for a period of 10 years. This is exactly the same lifecycle that Windows Server 2008, Windows Server 2012 and Windows Server 2008 R2 share. What you are guaranteed with the LTSB is:

  • An operating system that will not change in its core function or feature set
  • Security updates for a decade
  • The eventual expiration of the software, given that after 10 years it will be unsupported and no longer for sale -- meaning you will need to effectively purchase a new, more up-to-date license to continue to receive support

The LTSB is what you buy if you want Windows Server 2016 licenses to behave as Windows Server licenses always have, with five years of mainstream support and five years of extended security patch support. If you want a desktop, or you want to host Remote Desktop and terminal services style setups, or if you need a GUI for something else, then you will be on the LTSB and nothing much changes for you.

Here's a handy reminder of the installation options alongside the required servicing branch choices.

Installation Option: Servicing Branch

  • Nano Server: CBB branch
  • Server Core: LTSB branch
  • Server with Desktop: LTSB branch

Windows Server is a little different in this day and age, eh?

Notes on servicing editions

The CBB does give you a little control over updates; you can always wait one or two CBB cycles before upgrading your Nano Server machines, which does give third-party software makers some ability to keep up with the constant changes. That does not mean they always will, but at least you do get some ability to pace your Windows Server upgrades alongside your whole portfolio of programs.

But if you fall too far behind, then you are sunk from a patching perspective until you can catch back up. That is a new sword hanging over IT heads and I am not sure anyone fully understands how this will play out in production at this point -- in fact, no one can, because even Windows 10 (which has had a CBB in production for almost a year at this point) has only had one minor update released. Then again, Nano Server is generally built for very specific deployment scenarios: DevOps (development + operations) environments that run lightweight web apps, cloud consumers that use cloud-based images to run in production and shops that use a lot of container technology like Docker.

You won't move your ERP system to Nano Server, but a cool Silicon Valley startup might use Nano Server to build a farm of very lightweight app servers that run in the cloud, on the developer's laptop and everywhere in between.

Even Microsoft tacitly acknowledges that traditional enterprises were never going to just jump on the Nano Server train as early adopters. So perhaps third-party software dependencies are not a big issue for Nano Server adoptees.

I am afraid, however, that this is not all of the complexity about Nano Server; we learned recently a few other facts that bear keeping in mind.

1. You will have to have Software Assurance to run Nano Server in production. Software Assurance, or SA, is like a package of extras that you get for a period of two to three years that provide extra rights to upgrades and production scenarios you simply do not get with a core product license. It is sold exclusively through volume licensing and you cannot add it to retail licenses, with some very limited exceptions (like OEM licenses with a short time period just after the purchase of new hardware).

2. These feature packs will not simply be automatically installed as they would be in Windows 10 on the client side. (I am sure Microsoft looked into the future and heard the howls of rage from IT departments everywhere when they looked up one day in 2017 and all of their domain controllers had been upgraded without their consent.) The administrator will have to trigger installation on each machine, although I imagine there will be an automated way, perhaps through PowerShell, to effect these installations. This puts even more control in the hands of IT and probably wins over some folks who are OK with more frequent updates but want the ability to say when.

3. You will have to purchase a full Windows Server license plus Software Assurance to legally run Nano Server (this is an informed assumption on my part). Even though Nano Server is a slimmed-down, more limited version of Windows, my expectation is that since it is an installation option and not a separate SKU, you will have to pay full freight on the product -- plus add the additional cost of SA -- to put Nano Server into production in your organization.

So now you're going to get upgrades whether you like it or not, you're going to have to run a few of them whether you like it or not, and you're going to have to pay for those updates whether you like it or not, too. I suspect the audience for Nano Server will actually like the updates -- but that cost is going to be something to reckon with for many organizations.

Implications and conclusions

So now let us imagine you are a nimble startup that uses DevOps and containers and all of that jazz. You will now have to decide whether you want to standardize on Windows Server or Linux along with Docker and all of the other container technology that is out there. You will need to decide if Nano Server, at the full Windows Server price of either $882 for the Standard edition or $6,155 for the Datacenter edition plus Software Assurance -- which on Windows Server 2012 R2 is another $442 for the Standard edition on top of the license price and $3,078 for the Datacenter edition also on top of the license price -- is a better value for your organization than just rolling with Linux.

Windows Server 2016 licensing changes Microsoft

Microsoft says that most users won't pay more for Windows Server 2016 under the new rules than they did for Windows Server 2012 R2 under the old.

That's a tough call from a Nano Server perspective. Linux doesn't have to do a lot to beat those prices, and especially when you get only two virtual machines on a Standard license, many small DevOps shops will find they realistically need the Datacenter edition at the staggering $6,000 mark for its unlimited virtualization rights.

Additionally, we have to think about the price hike in general. I've written about this before, but nothing has changed on the price front. Priced per core where previous editions were not, and priced 28 percent higher than previous editions, running Windows Server 2016 is going to be a very, very expensive proposition. It might be worth it for many places but I can also imagine that many shops will think twice.

This story, "Windows Server 2016 licensing and servicing options explained" was originally published by Computerworld.

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