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Windows Server 2016 and System Center 2016 Now Generally Available

Microsoft today announced that Windows Server 2016 and the System Center 2016 management suite of products have reached "general availability" (GA) status.

GA means that the products can be purchased and used in production environments. Both are now licensed on a per-core basis, instead of the earlier per-processor approach. In addition, today's GA milestone means that that Microsoft's service provider partners can now begin testing Windows Server 2016 in their datacenters.

In late September, both products were at the earlier "release-to-manufacturing" stage. They got a small bit of stage time during Microsoft's Ignite keynote product "launch" back then.

Microsoft seems to have reserved Windows Server 2016 and System Center 2016 product details for its Ignite session attendees. Many of those sessions are currently available on demand via the Ignite 2016 Channel 9 portal. The agenda for Windows Server 2016 and System Center 2016 sessions at Ignite can be found at this page.

Also, Microsoft announced this week that it will broadcast a Windows Server 2016 Webcast on Oct. 13, starting at 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time. The Webcast will feature talks by Microsoft luminaries such as Jeffrey Snover, Jeff Woolsey and Erin Chapple.

Windows Server 2016 Highlights
Microsoft is marketing Windows Server 2016 as another advance in its "hybrid cloud" approach. The "hybrid" part means that the traditional customer-maintained server model can work with the services delivered from Microsoft's datacenters, such as Microsoft Azure services and Office 365 services.

Windows Server 2016 was "forged in our own Azure datacenters," Microsoft stressed in its announcement. The new server also has software-defined capabilities that come from Microsoft's experience in running Azure datacenters. Microsoft also had previously announced that the Docker Engine was added to Windows Server 2016 at "no additional cost" to customers. It facilitates running applications without conflict by using either Windows Server Containers or Hyper-V Containers, which both tap Docker Engine technology.

Microsoft lists its application server product support on Windows Server 2016 in this TechNet publication. The main Microsoft application server products that aren't yet supported on the new Windows Server 2016 product include Skype for Business Server 2015, BizTalk Server 2016, Visual Studio Team Foundation Server 15 and Host Integration Server 2016. They will get supported eventually, though, a Microsoft spokesperson indicated.

IT pros looking for hardware recommendations for Windows Server 2016 might take a look at this list compiled by Thomas Maurer, a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional. He's also compiled other useful links on "deployment, upgrading and certification" in this blog post.

Microsoft is touting access to its new server technology via a relatively new licensing portability option. It's for current Windows Server users that have Software Assurance coverage. Under this "Azure Hybrid Use Benefit" option, if an organization has Windows Server products installed on premises that are covered by the Software Assurance annuity program, then it's possible to move that licensing from an organization's infrastructure and use Windows Server virtual machines on Microsoft Azure datacenter infrastructure.

Windows Server 2016 currently can be downloaded. It's available via the MSDN subscriber portal and the TechNet Evaluation Center (a free 180-day trial copy).  

System Center 2016 Highlights
The GA announcement of Microsoft's System Center 2016 suite of products means that all of its components are now available, including Virtual Machine Manager, Operations Manager, Orchestrator and Service Management Automation, Service Manager, Data Protection Manager and Configuration Manager. A 180-day trial edition is available for download at Microsoft's evaluation portal here.

Instead of listing the exhaustive feature details, Microsoft broadly listed the following highlights of the System Center 2016 suite:

  • Faster time to value with simple installation, in-place upgrades, and automated workflows.
  • Efficient operations with improvements in performance and usability of all System Center components.
  • Greater heterogeneity and cloud management with broader support for LAMP stack and VMware, including monitoring resources and services in Azure and Amazon Web Services.

There's also a Microsoft white paper listing the System Center 2016 highlights (PDF).

Microsoft is also touting an option to license System Center 2016 components via its Operations Management Suite (OMS) subscriptions. OMS is Microsoft's solution for managing public cloud workloads. There are four service options available to OMS subscribers, namely Insights & Analytics, Automation & Control, Security & Compliance, and Protection & Recovery. They are priced per node.

Various System Center 2016 components come with each of those OMS service options. For instance, Configuration Manager use rights come with an Automation & Control OMS subscription. It's also possible to "attach OMS services to your existing System Center license," which Microsoft calls the "OMS Add-on for System Center." It requires having Software Assurance coverage on System Center to use this add-on option. More details about these System Center-OMS licensing options can be found in Microsoft's OMS "Pricing and Licensing Datasheet" (PDF).

SCCM Current Branch vs. LTSB
Today's System Center 2016 GA announcement also was accompanied by news that System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) now has reached release version 1606, per a Configuration Manager team blog post. Typically, a new version release will show up in SCCM's Update and Servicing node when it's available. Version 1606 also can be downloaded at this MSDN subscription page.

Unlike the rest of the System Center 2016 components, the SCCM component was released last year to keep pace with the Windows 10 client operating system's faster update cycle. Microsoft's first SCCM release was version 1511 back in December, for instance. Microsoft now updates SCCM two to three times per year in a Windows 10-like servicing model, although each of those updates is described as a new "current branch" release for the SCCM product.

The Configuration Manager component in the newly released System Center 2016 product suite is at the same version as the SCCM current branch product, namely version 1606, Microsoft's team blog clarified. That detail has been ambiguous until now.

One big distinction to note, though, is that the Configuration Manager component in the System Center 2016 product suite can be considered to be the "long-term servicing branch" (LTSB) component. Unlike the "current branch" SCCM product, Configuration Manager LTSB has a 10-year traditional product lifecycle. The LTSB servicing model is designed for organizations requiring infrequent Windows 10 client updating, such as for organizations with medical devices to update, rather than for business organizations, according to Microsoft's past servicing model descriptions.

Microsoft recently explained, in an oblique way, that the SCCM current branch product follows a new "Modern Lifecycle Policy" support model. Organizations get frequent product updates under this new model, but they also just get a one-year advance notice should Microsoft plan to discontinue a product under this new policy.

While Configuration Manager LTSB's 10-year product lifecycle support might seem to be the superior choice, Microsoft's team blog post offered reasons why organizations should opt instead for the SCCM current branch product, which is Microsoft's favored recommendation for most organizations. The reason is that Microsoft removes some feature support from the Configuration Manager LTSB product. Here's what Configuration Manager LTSB lacks, according to the team blog:

  • Support for Windows 10 Current Branch (CB) and Current Branch for Business (CBB)
  • Support for the future releases of Windows 10 LTSB and Windows Server
  • Windows 10 Servicing Dashboard and Servicing Plans
  • The ability to add a Microsoft Intune Subscription, which prevents the use of Hybrid MDM and on-premises MDM
  • Asset Intelligence
  • Cloud-based Distribution Point
  • Support for Exchange Online as an Exchange Connector
  • Any pre-release features available in the current branch of Configuration Manager

It's a dizzying list. Apparently, the reason why Configuration Manager LTSB is so limited is that it gets infrequently updated, and so Microsoft has removed support for the products that depend on frequent updating.

In response to a question I asked Microsoft last month, there appears to be a way for Configuration Manager LTSB users to move to the "current branch for business" (CBB) servicing model. They need to have Software Assurance (SA) coverage in place to make that move, though. Here's how the spokesperson described that circumstance, via e-mail:

SC 2016 is known as LTSB (long term service branch) release and will carry the 2016 brand. This will also include SCCM 2016, a LTSB edition of SCCM. A customer under SA can also access the SCCM CBB as part of their licensing. That release takes on the "Update" branding and can be used with all components of SC 2016. The core difference between the SCCM 2016 and SCCM "update" releases are the update releases will provide agile access to new features at a regular instance.

Microsoft also announced this week that its System Center Configuration Manager documentation has moved from TechNet to a new documents portal (docs.microsoft.com) here. However, the documentation for the 2007- and 2012-branded editions of Configuration Manager will be staying on TechNet.

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