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New Exchange 2013 update service replaces rollups

Microsoft has changed how it delivers updates to customers in Exchange 2013. But is the new system really a change for the better?

Exchange 2013 customers will receive updates in an entirely different way that is meant to ease on-premises shops toward Microsoft’s cloud computing model while reducing update issues.

Since Exchange Server 2007, the Exchange team has delivered customer updates via rollups that come out roughly every six weeks and contain customer-reported and internally found bug fixes, as well as security fixes.

But Exchange options have grown and the update model needed updating. Customers can choose a cloud-based version via Office 365, an on-premises version, or hybrid, which is a combination of the two. This change has led Microsoft to ditch the long-used rollup update (RU) model in favor of a once-per-quarter cumulative update (CU).

Note: This does not spell the end for Service Packs. The Exchange team blog points out that periodic Service Packs may be provided, similar to past releases.

The CUs will be full updates, essentially mini Service Packs. Unfortunately, as many Exchange admins know, Service Packs tend to break things when installed.

"These updates won't preserve any customization work you've done, such as changes to the web.config file that are necessary for Lync and OWA integration to work," said Michael Van Horenbeeck, a technology consultant for Systems Integrator Xylos Corp. in Belgium. "You'll have to re-do these types of customizations four times a year; that's a heck of lot more than before." 

Additionally, organizations must install the CUs in a timely fashion to remain supported by Microsoft. With the various RU problems last year, many customers may be hesitant to do so -- and understandably so.

Some organizations will surely be unwilling or unable to update their system in the timetable Microsoft suggests. If an admin calls Microsoft support and is not currently running the latest CU, they will simply be told to update and call back.

"I can see companies not deploy a CU because they're not ready for or they don't want a change," Van Horenbeeck said. “They'll have to update eventually, but the time frame between the update release and when it officially runs out of support is now much, much shorter."

But by expanding the time between updates to 12 weeks, the Exchange team will have more time to find and fix problems within the product.

"This is significant because it essentially gives Microsoft more breathing room to patch services before rolling them out to users," said Carl Brooks, an analyst with New York-based Tier1 Research.

The updates will address product problems (security updates will come separately) and they will also be complete refreshes of Exchange 2013 that are essentially installed as build-to-build upgrades.

This change is as important to Microsoft as it is to its customers, considering the number of slip ups last year, where several flawed rollups were released, called back, and then re-released. By instituting the new quarterly updates, it has set up predictability similar to Patch Tuesday.

"There was so much frustration with everything that happened last year," said Wes Miller an analyst with Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft. "Both customers and Microsoft itself want reliability and regularity -- with no surprises."

The change is in line with Microsoft's ongoing transition to a cloud services company. With the CU model, Exchange customers will become acclimated to the predictable release schedule of cloud-based Office 365. Also, with the cumulative updates, Microsoft ensures that on-premises Exchange servers and data center servers run the same code.

Even so, some administrators are skeptical due to Microsoft's past lapses and the unfamiliarity with the new update delivery system.

"This may initially be an annoyance for some, but any half-decent admin vets patches ahead of time," said Brooks. "This is essentially just a change in procedure."

Let us know what you think about the story; email site editor Matt Gervais.

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