Microsoft Describes Windows 10 Long-Term Servicing Limits for Surface Devices and Configuration Manager

Microsoft is starting to document how its long-term servicing branch (LTSB) concept for Windows 10 can affect organizations.

The latest surprise in this evolving story is that Microsoft doesn't see LTSB servicing as being a "supported" option for managing its Surface tablet-PC devices when they are used as "general-purpose" devices. This idea comes from a recent Microsoft TechNet article, as reported today by veteran Microsoft reporter Mary Jo Foley.

LTSB servicing for Windows 10 is somewhat similar to Microsoft's traditional product support found with its earlier client operating systems, such as Windows 7. Under that venerable and stable model, Microsoft would sometimes release a service pack after a couple of years or so, but otherwise the OS features did not change from month to month, and the OS had patch support for 10 years.

Windows 10 now gets monthly feature changes, as well as a few major OS updates per year. With this model, Microsoft has argued that most organizations should prefer using the Windows 10 current branch for business servicing model where they are accepting this faster update approach. In contrast, LTSB servicing was billed by Microsoft as a solution for a few organizations with Windows 10 clients that couldn't tolerate much change, such as medical devices.

Nonetheless, many organizations may have been considering using LTSB servicing as a way to avoid the potential problems that can arise in computing environments with the arrival of frequent Windows 10 updates, since LTSB just delivers security updates, not OS feature updates. However, Microsoft seems to be quietly building up arguments against general LTSB use by organizations. And those arguments appear to be dribbling out in various TechNet articles this month.

Restrictions on LTSB for Surface Devices
The TechNet article provides the following advisory against adopting LTSB servicing for Microsoft Surface devices when they are used as general-purpose devices:

General-purpose Surface devices running Long-Term Servicing Branch (LTSB) are not supported. As a general guideline, if a Surface device runs productivity software, such as Microsoft Office, it is a general-purpose device that does not qualify for LTSB and should instead run Current Branch (CB) or Current Branch for Business (CBB).

The article adds (at the very end) that specialized-device use cases, as for "medical equipment, point-of-sale systems, and ATMs," are possible scenarios for using Surface devices with the LTSB servicing model.

The rationale against using Windows 10 LTSB servicing for general-purpose Surface devices is that LTSB won't deliver "critical Windows 10 feature updates and certain non-security servicing updates." The article also noted that LTSB has no support for the "core applications" included in Windows 10, such the Edge browser, Calendar and Camera apps, which may be acceptable omissions for some organizations electing LTSB servicing. However, it added two less noted items that won't get support, namely "seamless inking and touch-friendly applications."

Usually, when Microsoft indicates that something is not supported, it just means that it organizationally doesn't support the use case, not that it can't be done. Other PC makers possibly may have products that are less restricted than the Microsoft Surface device with regard to LTSB servicing and general-purpose computing.

Restrictions on LTSB for SCCM
Microsoft also provided some clarification this month for organizations hoping to use System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) to manage Windows 10 clients via the LTSB servicing model. The ability to opt for LTSB in SCCM is restricted to just using version 1606 of SCCM, Microsoft explained in a TechNet article.

Microsoft initially had released SCCM version 1606 in July. However, the TechNet article suggested that LTSB users likely would be using the October update to SCCM version 1606. In October, Microsoft had released a "baseline (or installer bits)" that made it easier to "directly upgrade" SCCM, such as from SCCM 2012 or SCCM 2012 R2 installations, a Microsoft spokesperson explained. The July version 1606 release of SCCM, though, was aimed at facilitating in-console SCCM upgrades, the spokesperson added.

Using LTSB with SCCM also requires that an organization had Software Assurance coverage in place at the time of SCCM version 1606's October release (namely on Oct. 1, 2016). If an organization had SCCM with perpetual rights and let Software Assurance coverage lapse before Oct. 1, then they "can install the version of System Center Configuration Manager LTSB that is current at the time of lapse," a TechNet article on SCCM licensing explains.

Microsoft warned that an SCCM installation using LTSB servicing has "reduced functionality." Additionally, an organization can't have a mix of LTSB and current branch servicing for Windows 10 devices when using SCCM for management of a hierarchy, according to the TechNet article:

All sites in a hierarchy must run the same branch. It is not supported to have a hierarchy with a mix of LTSB and Current Branch at different sites.

SCCM LTSB servicing has no support for Microsoft Intune mobile device management. There's no Windows 10 Servicing Dashboard support with SCCM LTSB. It's also not supported to use "cloud-based distribution points" or Exchange Online "as an Exchange Connector."

Most notably, SCCM LTSB servicing "does not support future releases of Windows 10 LTSB and Windows Server." That's a flat statement in the TechNet article, without qualification. In other documentation, though, Microsoft has described new Windows 10 LTSB updates as occurring "every 2-3 years," with OS product support having "a 10-year life cycle." And, presumably, that's what Microsoft's statement above about LTSB and future Windows release support means, too.

Update 11/2: Microsoft today explained that support statement, via an e-mailed response, as follows:

ConfigMgr LTSB will not support the future releases of Windows 10 LTSB and Windows Server. For example, if next year Windows 10 LTSB "version 1706" is released, ConfigMgr (LTSB – version 1606) will not support it. Only the Current Branch of ConfigMgr supports future releases of Windows 10 and Windows Server.

LTSB users still have 10-year product support as "ConfigMgr (LTSB -- version 1606) is supported for 10 years, so customers can keep using it, if they choose to," the spokesperson clarified.

While IT pros may see LTSB servicing as a means to gain control over their computing environments, Microsoft's TechNet article seems to be suggesting that the existence of LTSB is just a licensing bridge of sorts for current SCCM users.

"It [LTSB] is designed for customers who have allowed their Software Assurance (SA) or equivalent subscription rights to lapse," the TechNet article flatly states.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.


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