Microsoft gives Config Manager the service overhaul

Microsoft will soon kick off a faster update and upgrade cadence for System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM), the cornerstone of the company's enterprise-grade System Center device management suite.

The more frequent updates are meant to align the core PC management functionality with the accelerated cadence of Windows 10, Microsoft latest operating system, analysts said.

"This plays perfectly with Microsoft's strategy with mobile now getting updates from the cloud, but also signals something bigger," said Rob Young of IDC. "Updates for Config Manager will be just like the [Windows 10] OS, not big, heavy complex upgrades, but smaller and more frequent."

The Windows 10 model, as pitched by Microsoft, relies on a regular evolution of the software -- it's never truly "finished" -- with multiple updates annually as opposed to the old-school strategy of releasing an entirely new OS every three or four years.

Unless Configuration Manager is updated in that same fashion, it will fall behind and will not be able to administer and control the new features and functionality that drop into Windows 10.

Microsoft's premise with Windows 10, said Young, was that traditional personal computers must adopt the mobile mentality of putting new features and functionality in front of users faster. If that's the case, management tools must keep pace. "It's all part of the 'mobile-first' story," said Young, referring to the "mobile-first, cloud-first" slogan that CEO Satya Nadella has been reciting since his first day. "It's all about getting features and functionality out to the end user faster. Before, business users had to wait," Young added.

With the "Windows as a service" mindset dominant at Microsoft, Configuration Manager had to follow with a more service-like refresh tempo.

Microsoft will drop the awkward nomenclature of Configuration Manager -- the current is called "System Center 2012 Configuration Manager" -- for "System Center Configuration Manager" along with a month/year label, as in "v1512" to denote a December 2015 update. Even so, there will be -- and apparently to confuse customers -- a System Center 2016 Configuration Manager next year.

The latter will be part of the suite-wide replacement for the on-premises System Center, a collection of tools that range from the lifecycle management of Configuration Manager to asset management for keeping track of how many devices are in the organization, and where they're at.

The pace of Configuration Manager's updates will mirror those of Windows 10 itself, although they will not necessarily be simultaneous. Those updates will be delivered as an in-place upgrade, analogous to the "service pack" model that Microsoft once applied to Windows but that it abandoned once the disastrous Windows 8 appeared.

Each version will be supported for just 12 months, at which time IT administrators must have applied the latest update or face falling out of support, said Aaron Czechowski, a senior program manager in the enterprise client and mobility team, in a post to a company blog last week. That rule, too, mirrored the basic policies of Windows 10, which, with the exception of the static Long-Term Servicing Branch (LTSB), must keep relatively current to continue to be in support compliance.

While Microsoft will debut the new faster-to-update Configuration Manager this year, it won't require enterprises to adopt it until February 2016. In the meantime, Czechowski said, organizations can continue to use the 2012 version to administer Windows 10. That grace period will be permanent for those machines on, and that stay on, the Windows 10 LTSB 2015 track, but will suffice to service only the first two Current Branch (CB) builds: The original released in July and the second is expected this month, perhaps as early as next week.

By the time the third CB release rolls out, enterprises must have deployed the new Configuration Manager if they want to continue managing any Windows 10 device not assigned to the LTSB 2015 track.

"We will not extend support for further versions of Windows 10 Current Branch with ConfigMgr 2012 because we need the new System Center Configuration Manager updating model to keep pace with Windows as a service and Microsoft Intune," said Czechowski.

Adopting the new Configuration Manager and its service-style updating may be required, but that doesn't mean enterprises will have to like it.

"These are all big changes," said Terrence Cosgrove of Gartner, referring to the accelerated pace of both Windows 10 and Configuration Manager. "It will be very disruptive. They're going to have to adopt, and change processes. It is going to require major changes in how they roll out patches, and IT will have to be better at managing change and managing vendors."

Those caveats have become commonplace when industry analysts talk about corporate acceptance of Windows 10, and by association, just-as-rapid changes to the toolsets needed to manage the devices running the OS. In the end, enterprises will have to suck it up when it comes to Configuration Manager's changes, just as they must when they eventually migrate to Windows 10.

"At the end of the day, IT will have to adjust," said Young. "They will have to come to terms that this is the world we're living in."


Gregg Keizer

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