In-Depth

IT Pros Subject to Vague Microsoft Support Policies

Microsoft's product lifecycle support policies have undergone shift in the last year that could add uncertainty for organizations, with IT pros having to pick up the slack.

IT pros may not be aware of this shift, which affects server software installed on premises as well as services delivered from Microsoft's datacenters. The policy changes are likely driven by Microsoft's more agile software development approach in which software releases are more frequent. Microsoft's "Windows as a service" approach with Windows 10 is a case in point, where IT pros are expected to drop their traditional cautious patch-testing approach and instead deliver updates directly to triaged end-user testing groups.

These faster OS release cycles may be a challenge at the front end for organizations to address. However, Microsoft's agile software release approach is also affecting the end stage for IT pros, namely product support over time.

For instance, organizations using Microsoft's server products now may get no advance notice should Microsoft decide to remove a product feature. Technically, that statement may or may not be true, depending how Microsoft's current lifecycle policy language is interpreted. Practically speaking, though, this zero advance notice practice has already occurred.

One recent example, announced earlier this month, is an Exchange Server 2016 feature deprecation. Microsoft simply withdrew support for the Edge role that's used to route messages and apply anti-spam controls. Instead, organizations are directed to switch to Microsoft's Exchange Online Protection service (priced at 1$ per user per month) or use other anti-spam services. The switch is an architectural change for IT pros to address, and they got little advance notice that it was coming.

Notifications and Support Policies
IT pros may be thinking that Microsoft is supposed to give a one-year advance notice before deprecating a feature in its business software products. But that's just "old-think," a recollection from Microsoft's past support-policy language. There also used to be assurances against "disruptive change."

However, Microsoft did away with that language more than a year ago for its services.

"Microsoft removed the phrase, 'provide 12 months' notice for disruptive change' from the Online Services Policy in June 2015," a Microsoft spokesperson explained via e-mail. "The statement was replaced with 'For all Microsoft Online Services for Business and Developers, unless otherwise noted, Microsoft will provide notification when customers are required to take action in order to avoid significant degradation to the normal use of the Online Service.'"

In essence, Microsoft's new lifecycle support policies are vastly more flexible. They could mean just about anything. Here's how it now works.

Microsoft now has "Fixed" and "Modern" policies that replaced its previous policies, known as "On-Premises" and "Online," for its business software and services, respectively. That change took effect on March 9, 2017, according to this Microsoft support article. However, the Modern policy actually was implemented earlier, on Aug. 25, 2016, per a previous Microsoft description.

Organizations using Microsoft services under Modern Lifecycle Policy will get "a minimum 30 days' notification when customers are required to take action in order to avoid significant degradation to the normal use of the product or service," per the current language found in this support article. That's the notification part, and it's just associated with "significant degradation" of the service, which is unexplained.

If Microsoft isn't providing a successor service, though, the notification is supposed to occur at least a year in advance.

"For products governed by the Modern Lifecycle Policy, Microsoft will provide a minimum of 12 months' notification prior to ending support if no successor product or service is offered -- excluding free services or preview releases," the support article explained, as sampled on March 31, 2017.

Organizations using business software on premises follow the Fixed support policy, which is described somewhat in this long FAQ. A shorter explanation, though, can be found in the FAQ's last link, called the "Microsoft Policy Disclaimer and Change Notice." It explains that there are no "legally binding commitments" associated with Fixed support. The policy can mean anything. That disclaimer document doesn't just apply to Fixed support policy, though. Users also are subject to it under the Modern Lifecycle Policy.

Under the current Fixed support language, Microsoft provides so-called "component" support for its business products, where "a component is defined as a set of files or features that is included with a Microsoft major product." In other words, a feature in a major product, such as the Edge role in Exchange Server 2016, might be considered to be a component, and it supposedly gets supported for the same length of time as the major product.

According to this view, a component gets a total of 10 years of product support. The support is divided into a five-year "mainstream support" stage and a five-year "extended support" stage, which is Microsoft's support policy for business software. The exception for component support is found with Microsoft's support policies for "add-ons." Add-ons are programs that work with the major product, but they just get one year's worth of support.

Here's how a Microsoft spokesperson explained component vs. add-on support policies, via an e-mail:

The components of the software receive the same support as its parent product or platform. When a parent product or platform is in Mainstream, or Extended Support, so is the component. Add-ons are supported with the product they work with. However, support may be terminated by providing a minimum 12 months' notice. When a parent product or platform reaches end of support, so does the component. There may be servicing guidelines that customers should follow in order to remain supported, such as Service Packs or CUs.

If the above statement is held to be true, then the Edge role of Exchange Server 2016 would be expected to have support until Oct. 15, 2025, which is the end-of-extended support date for that server. In this case, though, what we're likely seeing is the effects of the "Microsoft Policy Disclaimer and Change Notice" document. It seems to throw out all support assurances.

In addition to Fixed and Modern support policies, Microsoft has a separate support policy for Azure services, which is described in this Azure FAQ document. Azure has four categories of support, with specific policies for Virtual Machines, Cloud Services, Azure Services and open source custom applications. Azure is also governed by the "Microsoft Policy Disclaimer in Change Notice."

Planning for Uncertainty
Microsoft's support-policy changes have been unfolding gradually in recent months and have been difficult to track. The Edge role deprecation was viewed as inexplicable by licensing expert Rob Helm, managing vice president at Directions on Microsoft.

"Elimination of support for the Edge role in Exchange Server 2016 on Windows Server 2016 doesn't seem to conform to any policy whatsoever," Helm said via e-mail. "Nor does effectively eliminating the built-in antispam feature in Exchange Server 2016 by cutting off updates and telling customers to move to Exchange Online Protection, a paid service."

Organizations sticking with Microsoft products may have little choice but to adjust, though.

"Customers need to get used to these kinds of changes," Helm said. "Microsoft is reducing its test and support costs and speeding up the rate it can respond to competitors by reducing the matrix of products that it tests together, and by shortening the time periods of support for both software and hosted services."

Directions on Microsoft is an independent consultancy that publishes regularly on Microsoft technologies and licensing. While it published an article last year on Microsoft's Online Services support policy changes, a more general report will be coming, Helm promised.

Emerging Trend?
Possibly, a pattern is emerging regarding Microsoft's lifecycle support policies. Can organizations expect to see features regularly dropped in the future, or was the Edge server role deprecation in Exchange Server 2016 just an anomaly?

It turns out that the Edge role wasn't the only server feature that Microsoft announced was getting deprecated this month. On March 28, Microsoft announced the deprecation of the "Product Group" feature in Microsoft Dynamics NAV 2017. The announcement was later updated on March 30, where it was explained that the Product Group functionality was taken up by an Item Categories feature in Dynamics NAV 2017.

"Because the new Item Categories feature provides multi-level hierarchy functionality, and thereby does the same and more than the Product Group feature, we have deprecated the Product Group feature in Dynamics NAV 2017."

The Dynamics NAV 2017 product actually got shipped last fall without the Product Group feature, Microsoft contended.

"NAV 2017 was released last fall without the Product Group feature and the Lifecycle Policy was followed," the spokesperson explained.

The gist seems to be that the Product Group feature was deprecated before Dynamics NAV 2017 was considered to be a product.

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