Are you ready for a new Windows OS release every year?
A couple of months ago during the BUILD conference in San Francisco, Steve Ballmer publicly said that rapid release is going to become the new norm for Microsoft. This represents a radical departure from the way that Microsoft has released its flagship products over the last decade or more. Where there used to be a gap of two or three years between Windows releases, Microsoft is planning on releasing new operating systems much more frequently.
Windows Server 2012 R2 and Windows 8.1 serve as strong evidence of Microsoft’s commitment to the rapid-release cycle. Both operating systems are being released roughly a year after the previous operating system.
Obviously, Microsoft developers have their work cut out for them, but they aren’t the only ones who will be feeling the pressure. IT pros in shops where Microsoft products are used are also going to be feeling the heat and will have to rethink the way the way they deploy new releases. There are some things that will have to be considered.
It is commonly repeated wisdom that it is a bad idea to deploy any new Microsoft product until the first service pack is released. The idea behind this philosophy is that by the time the first service pack comes out, the most critical bugs will have been discovered and fixed. Waiting for the first service pack theoretically means a stable product and an easier migration.
The problem is that Microsoft is poised to release Windows Server 2012 R2 and Windows 8.1 within the next few weeks. The first service packs have yet to be released for Windows Server 2012 or for Windows 8.
Microsoft isn’t doing away with service packs altogether. There have been recent service pack releases for some other Microsoft products. Microsoft has released service packs for SQL Server 2012 and System Center 2012. If Microsoft’s goal is to perform rapid releases, then it is going to be stretching its development team thin. There might not be enough resources available to create new operating systems and new service packs for old ones.
In some cases, I think that the next operating system release will essentially be the service pack. Microsoft is making Windows 8.1 available for free to customers who have purchased Windows 8. As such, the argument could be made that Windows 8.1 is more of a service release than a major operating system release (although the other argument can also be made).
In any case, waiting for a service pack release may no longer be an option. As such, organizations are going to have to come up with a policy governing which operating systems (and other new product versions) they are going to deploy.
On one hand, deploying the latest operating system immediately means getting all the latest features and capabilities. On the other hand, operating system deployments are expensive. Even if you take the licensing costs out of the equation, there are a lot of man-hours that go into planning, testing, and performing operating system upgrades.
Another consideration is training and education. If Microsoft is releasing new operating systems on a frequent basis, then it stands to reason that Microsoft certifications will quickly become dated. IT pros may find themselves taking certification exams on a more frequent basis.
I haven’t seen any official information from Redmond as to how the certification process will be handled with regard to rapid release. However, I do think that there are numerous clues buried in the past.
One thing that I expect to see is exam content simply being updated to cover the latest operating systems. For example, when Microsoft released Windows Server 2008 R2, it updated the Windows Server 2008 exam to include material specific to the new operating system. This threw a monkey wrench into the works for anyone who was studying for a Windows Server 2008 exam and was not expecting to see the new material. I think that we will see this trend continue, because it is less expensive for Microsoft to add new questions to an existing exam then for it to develop an entirely new exam.
Another thing that Microsoft has done in the past is to offer upgrade exams. That way, those who are already certified do not have to take an entire battery of certification exams just to become certified on the latest operating system. Instead, Microsoft provides eligible exam candidates with a single exam that covers the most important aspects of the new operating system. As rapid release builds up steam, I think that upgrade exams will probably become a lot more common.
As of right now, the new rapid-release cycle is still too new to know exactly how it will play out. It may be that as releases come faster, shops will adapt to them. Otherwise they may choose to skip releases (which of course has its own risks, especially around security). Cycles are getting faster around mobile devices as well, so Microsoft isn’t the only company forcing you to adapt to quicker releases. You need to start rethinking your plan for deploying updates.