Demystify the Windows 10 update process

It would be simple if there was one update ring to rule them all in Windows 10. Instead there are two rings and four update branches to sort through.

In J.R.R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series, the evil Sauron kept things simple with his "one-ring-to-rule-them-all" approach. Microsoft went a different route with its Windows 10 updates, opting for two update rings, which are actually just a part of one of the four update branches.

Clearly the Windows 10 update process is confusing. With all the rings, bands and branches it can be hard to know exactly what's what. It's high time we straighten everything out so everyone can get the Windows updates they need, when they need them and how they need them.

Here's the simple explanation: There are four Windows 10 update branches -- Insider Preview Branch, Current Branch, Current Branch for Business and Long Term Servicing Branch (LTSB) -- that organizations can choose from to receive updates to the operating system. Each one delivers updates in a different way and at a different pace. The Insider Preview Branch has fast and slow Windows 10 update rings and Windows Update for Business will let admins deliver updates in waves or bands.

Now wade through the muck and mire of branches, rings and bands to find out how it all works and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

What are Windows 10 branches?

The first Windows 10 update branch is the Insider Preview Branch, which allows customers in the Microsoft Insider Program to get their hands on updates before they're available to the general public. From the enterprise perspective, the Insider Preview Branch is designed for IT admins trying to find out what to expect from the newest Windows 10 features and plan update rollouts.

Microsoft designed each of the next three branches with a specific device type in mind. The Current Branch automatically updates any Windows 10 device with an Internet connection and Windows Update activated, and as soon as updates are available. It's geared toward consumer devices, and the user has no choice in when the updates are applied.

The Insider Preview Branch contains the Windows 10 update rings and Windows Update for Business contains the Windows 10 update bands.

Current Branch for Business is more appropriate for enterprise devices because Microsoft gives IT admins four months to preview the updates and eight months to actually apply them. As a result, IT has an opportunity to test what's coming and ensure its apps are compatible with any new features. The delay also lets Microsoft work out any bugs in the updates before they enter an organization's network.

Although the buffer is nice, Microsoft has not offered any information on what IT admins can do if they find an incompatibility. If admins do not incorporate the updates within the eight months, they lose Microsoft support. Current Branch for Business is available on the Windows 10 Professional, Enterprise and Education editions of the OS. 

The final update branch is the Long Term Servicing Branch (LTSB), which is designed for special systems such as emergency rooms. It gives IT admins the most control over patching, as well as when they actually apply the updates. With the LTSB, updates are available every nine to 18 months, and admins have 10 years to apply the updates. Security updates come in more frequently, however. Because of the long gestation period in the LTSB, the updates introduce major changes that could amount to the equivalent of an entirely new OS. Only organizations that have volume licensing agreements with Microsoft and run Windows 10 Enterprise are eligible to use the LTSB. LTSB uses Windows Server Update Services to remain current.  

What are the Windows 10 update rings?

Windows 10 update rings are a part of the Insider Program. Members of the Insider Program can choose the fast ring or the slow ring to determine when they get new builds. Builds in the Insider Program are not fully tested so they generally aren't ready to be released to the public. In the fast ring, updates are available with even less testing so they are more likely to be buggy than those in the slow ring. Both versions are prone to bugs and should not be sent to users.  

What is Windows Update for Business and what are Windows 10 update bands?

Windows 10 update bands are a part of Windows Update for Business (WUB), a cloud-based Windows 10 service IT can use to control updates to the OS. WUB includes peer-to-peer delivery for low bandwidth device support and it integrates with System Center Configuration Manager and other similar tools. The bands allow IT to choose which devices receive updates and when. Admins can select maintenance periods to push the updates to users.

The truth is Microsoft has not unveiled much information about the update bands in Windows Update for Business, so precisely how it works and when it will be available are still mysteries.

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