Microsoft on Thursday announced that Window 10 version 21H1 is available for testing by organizations, prior to its “general availability” commercial release.
The announcement by Aria Carley, a program manager on the Windows team, was made via the Windows IT Pro blog. This release apparently is something more polished than a Windows Insider Program test release. Moreover, it’s available through standard, non-Windows Insider Program outlets, “including Windows Update, Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), and Azure Marketplace, or you can download an ISO file,” the announcement noted.
The announcement described this Windows 10 version 21H1 release as being ready for “commercial prerelease validation.” In past explanations of Microsoft’s Windows 10 channel releases (formerly known as “branch” releases), such an announcement might have been signaling a “semiannual channel targeted” release. Such a release was a prompt to IT pros to test the new OS in production environments with designated groups of users. These so-called testing “rings” were to check the new OS prior to a general rollout across the organization, according to Microsoft’s scheme.
Microsoft dropped the “targeted” lingo a couple of years ago with the release of Windows 10 version 1903. Its old language is still around, though, Microsoft noted in this document:
Due to naming changes, older terms like CB [current branch] and CBB [current branch for business] might still be displayed in some of our products, such as in Group Policy. If you encounter these terms, “CB” refers to the Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted)–which is no longer used–while “CBB” refers to the Semi-Annual Channel.
After years of explaining the meaning of its branch/channel model language, Microsoft seems to have given up. This release is probably the now unnamed semiannual channel targeted release, which IT pros are supposed to deploy to testing rings.
The Three Channels
The Windows 10 channels are now more broadly constituted. Presently, there are three channels:
- Semiannual channel, where OS feature updates arrive twice per year.
- Long-term servicing channel, with infrequent OS feature updates.
- Windows Insider Program, with various test OS releases.
It’s not clear when that reformulation happened, but it’s described in this “Overview” document, dated Feb. 17, 2021.
Fast Installs via Enablement Packages
The new Windows 10 version 21H1 operating system won’t be bringing many new features. Microsoft mentioned that aspect last month with the Windows Insider Program beta channel release. However, Microsoft did note that the new OS is bringing a fast installation experience for organizations already using Windows 10 versions 2004 or 20H2.
The fast installation happens because of Microsoft uses so-called “enablement packages,” where the OS bits are already present on machines, but remain in a dormant state until activated. The use of enablement packages with the Windows 10 version 21H1 release was confirmed by Carley.
Improvements Announced at Ignite
Microsoft announced many enhancements for IT pros managing Windows 10 environments earlier this month during its Ignite conference.
They include the Windows Update for Business Deployment Service, Known Issue Rollback control, the ability to expedite Windows 10 security updates, and the addition of the Windows Release Health Hub to the Microsoft 365 Admin Center Portal, among others.
Windows Update for Business Deployment Service: This new service “will be available to all Windows Enterprise customers in the first half of 2021,” requiring E3 licensing, according to an announcement. This Deployment Service is integrated with Microsoft Endpoint Manager and gives IT pros more controls over when Windows 10 feature updates and quality updates arrive. The new service also will offer controls over drivers and firmware updates, even when using the Microsoft Endpoint Configuration Manager product, Microsoft promised in another announcement.
Windows Update for Business is the name of an existing collection of capabilities that lets IT pros manage Windows 10 via Group Policy. Carley explained in an accompanying video that Windows Update for Business is just a bunch of cloud-based policies for Windows 10 devices. While IT pros are getting enhanced controls with the coming Deployment Service in Windows Update for Business, Carley outlined several precautions on using them. She described those caveats in Microsoft’s video.
Known Issue Rollback: Microsoft has had a Known Issue Rollback capability for nonsecurity updates “since late 2019,” which is used to restore Windows 10 systems when things go awry. While Known Issue Rollback has been an automated process, Microsoft plans to give organizations some control over it via Group Policy. Under this scheme, Microsoft issues Known Issue Rollback configurations that apparently IT pros can opt to deploy through Group Policy. It’s faster than waiting for an update to arrive with fixes, which can take days. This new Known Issue Rollback approach is available starting with Windows 10 version 2004. Details are explained in this Microsoft announcement.
Expedite Security Updates: Organizations will be able to expedite Windows 10 security updates through Microsoft Endpoint Manager. A preview of this capability will be “coming soon” for all supported Windows 10 devices, Microsoft announced earlier this month. This capability, conceived as an emergency measure, just works with devices that are Azure Active Directory-joined.
Windows Health in Microsoft 365 Admin Center: The Windows Release Health Hub will be coming to the Microsoft 365 Admin Center Portal in the “coming weeks,” Microsoft indicated earlier this month. The integration will show information about “known issues, features, and monthly updates for supported versions of Windows 10 and Windows 10 Server” within the portal. It’ll be available to organizations with E3 or E5 subscriptions.
Caching Optimizations: Microsoft’s Delivery Optimization service, a peer-to-peer approach for conserving bandwidth when updating PCs, can be enhanced by pairing it with the Microsoft Connected Cache service, Microsoft explained in an announcement. A new element on the horizon is that Microsoft Endpoint Configuration Manager won’t be required for this pairing.
Here’s what’s to come, per the announcement:
We are working on a version of Microsoft Connected Cache that doesn’t require a Configuration Manager distribution point. In addition, we are working towards bringing you a containerized solution that will be managed via the Azure portal to offer greater flexibility in installation requirements.
Intune’s New Feature Update Policy: Users of the Microsoft Intune device management service with Enterprise E3/E5 subscriptions have access to a new feature update policy at the preview stage, Microsoft explained in an announcement. It lets IT pros specify a Windows 10 version to stay at for a particular device. The feature update policy specifications will stay in place, unlike other delaying measures, Microsoft’s document explained.
Unlike using Pause with an update ring, which expires after 35 days, the Windows 10 feature updates policy remains in effect. Devices won’t install a new Windows version until you modify or remove the Windows 10 feature updates policy.
Microsoft also touted the ability to use Azure Monitor Workbooks with information from the Update Compliance service to better address organizational Windows 10 compliance reporting needs. The workbooks can be used as standalone tools or they’ll work with Intune, Microsoft Endpoint Configuration Manager and other non-Microsoft software management tools. Organizations can modify a Workbook Template, such as the safeguard holds template, which specifies when to update a device.