Are Yearly Server Upgrades Realistic?

Forget leisurely three-year product cycles; the release of Windows Server 2012 R2 next month comes barely a year after the original version. Microsoft is heavily pushing the idea that all its products will be on much faster upgrade cycles, but how are IT pros supposed to manage that process?

Server picture from Shutterstock

Speedy upgrades has been an inescapable theme across TechEd Australia this week. From Office (now on monthly updates) to Dynamics (twice yearly-updates online, annual updates on premises) and Windows itself (yearly upgrades), the idea that software will have a chance to bed in before a new version is announced appears to have been put firmly to one side.

While switching to a newer version isn't obligatory in the way that installing security patches arguably is, a shift to faster update cycles is likely to lead to shorter support cycles. It's hard to imagine any product enjoying the 13-year official support cycle that Windows XP has seen.

Microsoft argues that consumers have become used to rapid upgrade cycles, and that businesses need to update their technology more frequently to ensure greater efficiency. "Microsoft's ability to deploy and do things as quickly as the technology comes out is just as important as the technology itself, and that rule applies to everyone," Microsoft Australia evangelist Michael Koradahi said during the opening keynote.

But not everyone is ready for the rules to change that quickly. "I've noticed there seems to be a lot of, honestly, shock at how quickly we've turned around a new server release," said principal group program manager Jeff Woolsey. "There are two parts of this. People are really excited about [new features], but there are some people going 'Ooh, I'm just getting 2012 finished'."

One potential mitigating factor is improvements in how new server deployments are managed. "We need to make sure as we release operating systems faster that they're easier to deploy, otherwise enterprises can never escape that upgrade cycle," said senior product marketing manager Michael Niehaus.

Woolsey argues that features in Windows Server 2012, most crucially the ability to live migrate to new versions in virtualised environments, mean updating is much faster than it has been in the past. "We want to make that migration really seamless. We want a no-downtime upgrade. If you're deploying on Window Server 2012 now, with live migration cross- version you'll be able to migrate to R2 without any downtime."

"Just by moving to the new platform, you can take advantage of the new features. We understand you want to make an easy transition. Keep doing 2012 and when you're ready to do R2, you'll be able to seamlessly move over."

Dealing with annualised updates might be tricky, but some customers argue that the alternatives are even worse. Oil and gas company Santos is in the final stages of migrating its 4500-strong network of devices from Windows XP to Windows 7. That has taken two years, but the subsequent migration from 7 to 8 is expected to be much faster, according to desktop systems team leader Chris Cardillo.

A big part of the motivation for that migration will be the ability to standardise on Windows 8 tablets for staff who want more portable devices and to manage those effectively via Windows Server 2012. Cardillo says that's far more controllable than an open BYOD policy, and worth the pain of the OS migration. "If we don't keep up with the times, we'll see an onslaught on consumer devices coming in, and we can't manage that."

Another potential solution to update overload is to shift away from implementing servers yourself and use a cloud-based solution such as Windows Azure. Changes in that environment are even more frequent -- Azure rolls out a new version roughly every three weeks -- but managing them is someone else's responsibility for the most part.

Outside the server space, the acceleration isn't quite so pronounced. The Dynamics CRM solution, for instance, offers an annual update for customers running on-premises solutions, though the Microsoft-hosted version offers at least twice-yearly changes.

"The feedback from on premises is that if you give us updates twice a year, you don't have time to settle them in," said Dynamics principal program manager Reuben Krippner. "So it's more throttled to a cadence that customers can consume and absorb."

Disclosure: Angus Kidman travelled to TechEd Australia as a guest of Microsoft.


    Isn't the whole point to get people onto subscription models, so that they get constant reliable revenue and in exchange the consumer gets very rapid updates?

      Wait, what? There's no way they'd ever offer such a thing.

      Say how much is Office 365 these days? Let me log into my Live account on Windows 8 and see.

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