How Microsoft sped up Windows updates for its employees

Feb 5, 2020   |  

Microsoft Digital storiesIt would be an understatement to say that Vidya Iyer wants installing updates to Windows to be easy for Microsoft employees.

“Our goal is to make the reboot feel like a non-event,” says Iyer, who is helping transform the way Windows updates occur inside Microsoft. “We’re not there yet, but we’re getting really close.”

For employees who keep their machines up to date, they’re super close. It took them less than a minute to deploy the most recent update, says Iyer, a program manager in Microsoft Digital.

The story is different, but still better, for the company’s stragglers.

For employees who have let their updates slide, it takes 25–35 minutes to deploy older updates and then deploy the most recent update. But this is still a vast improvement over the 45 minutes or longer it used to take to catch up. Updates can require even more time if drivers or firmware updates are required (the team is also working to implement new capabilities to help IT admins with this challenge).

“When we looked at comments from our users, I’d always see frustration about the reboot times,” Iyer says. “I knew it was a big pain point to have productivity down for just an update.”

On average, the time to deploy Windows updates inside Microsoft has gone from 30 to 60 minutes down to 3 to 10 minutes.

This was a big win for the team, considering that the improvement spans to more than 200,000 Windows devices.

“We’ve really reengineered the way we think about this as a company,” says Sean MacDonald, who leads the device management program in Microsoft Digital. “We’re sharing what we’re learning with the Windows product group so they also can share it with our external customers. This should be painless for all Windows users.”

[Learn how Microsoft is using Windows Update for Business (WUfB) to make updates faster and more predictable for company employees.]

For a transcript, please view the video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8uwpKZfW-M, select the “More actions” button (three dots icon) below the video, and then select “Show transcript.”

Learn how we leveraged Windows Update for Business by using Microsoft Intune and Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager to deploy and keep our devices up to date.

The age before Windows Update for Business

Previously, when updates occurred, they would happen without coordination or warning. Some employees would be in the middle of an important presentation when their devices would reboot to install a required update. Files and work were lost, and employees were frustrated.

“Reboots were averaging 45 minutes,” Iyer says. “Update speeds were inconsistent, with some devices taking more than an hour.”

The key problem was that users didn’t know when a mandatory update would occur. Users received reminders and alerts, but they were not visible enough.

It was clear to Iyer and her team that notifications and scheduling options needed to be implemented.

“We wanted to put control back in the hands of the users,” she says. “Now when they are notified of a pending update, they have the option to schedule when it will take place.”

Helping product groups coordinate their release schedules reduces disruption and increases productivity, she says.

Her team works with teams across the company to ensure that required reboots happen at the employee’s convenience. The ideal scenario is for an employee to run an update when they’re ready to take a quick break—when they come back, their machine is ready to go and they get back to work.

“When users get notifications that an update is coming, they are able to schedule it at a time that makes sense for them,” Iyer says. “For certain updates, like security, users have nine days until they can postpone, reschedule, and do as they please.”

Windows Update for Business, alongside Microsoft Intune, provides access to data that Microsoft can use to refine and improve update delivery and further diminish disruptions.

“Our products are rapidly changing—as a company, we’re always building new features and delivering improvements to performance and security for our users,” says Erinn Rominger, who leads the company’s internal Windows and Office update programs for Microsoft Digital. “Being always up to date drives tangible productivity for both end users and IT professionals. It also helps us remove barriers that slow down adoption or expose users to unnecessary risk and disruption.”

Downsizing sediment and payloads

When they noticed that the update times on devices were inconsistent, Iyer and her team took a closer look and discovered that employees were pushing back updates for long periods of time, causing current updates to take extra time. The team calls this group of backlogged devices its “sediment population.”

“Our sediment population used to be 20 percent before the Windows 10 November 2019 update (19H2) was deployed,” Iyer says. “Now when I look, it is only 9 percent, and we’re working on making that number smaller.”

Looking for more speed, the Windows team reduced reboots for devices with newer hardware and a current OS version. In addition, the team split the device updates into a small fall update and a comprehensive spring update.

“Before, there was no granularity between managing feature updates and quality updates,” Iyer says. “By splitting the update management settings by feature and servicing releases, we were able to get users ready for the type of update they were about to get. That then let us set appropriate expectations about how much time that particular update would take to complete.”

Feature updates are released twice a year. These tend to be very large and contain new operating system features, functionality, and major bug fixes.

Quality updates are released every month since they are smaller, including the most up-to-date security and reliability updates as well as small fixes. Since these updates are much smaller, they are deployed in the background and usually only need a quick reboot to install.

“We have heard feedback from our users and are trying to make the updates even faster for them,” Iyer says. “To make things even easier, the Windows team plans to bundle one of two feature updates that it rolls out each year into one of the automatic, quality updates that go out each month. Microsoft Digital and other IT departments will have the ability to enable the feature update independent of the quality update.”

Speedier updates making a difference

Efforts to transform the update process aren’t going unnoticed.

“We’ve definitely improved the experience a lot,” Iyer says. “Our employees have given us a lot of positive feedback.”

Making Microsoft devices frictionless and disruption free when it comes to updates is a priority, she says. Iyer and her team, along with the Windows Production and Engineering team, have their sights set on making disruption-free updates for all devices, including non-Microsoft and non-Windows devices.

“We want to bring stress-free updates to Microsoft employees who use Mac or Linux systems as well,” she says.

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