Office 365 Servicing Branches and Channels Demystified

August 3, 2016   //   Microsoft, ,

Office 2016 now follows the same servicing branch model as Windows 10, meaning a more rapid release cadence and a smaller window of support timeframe for application versions older than two years.  As such, a combination of the various branches and patching approaches are presented here in order to explain and compare the differences so IT staff can determine which is best for their needs.

The situation is further confused in that the servicing process has been renamed once already.  Choosing a servicing branch (channel) is an administrative preference, but can have a wide impact on the organizations’ workstations.  It is possible to switch between the branches at any time with minor server-side modifications.  Despite the overlap, choices basically boil down to the following.

Current Branch (Default)

The default for everyone unless otherwise specified.  New builds appear in this list on a monthly basis, incorporating cumulative patches and security fixes at a fairly rapid pace.  These builds are considered stable and support non-preview features, but are only appropriate for admins comfortable with an aggressive updating policy.  On Windows 10, this branch of patches is delivered as a monthly cumulative update, indicated by a version number increment.

For organizations looking to more tightly control things, these versions can be set up to go into a “Development” folder for pilot testing on a regular basis before being more broadly rolled out.  IT staff should come up with a cross-section of long-term volunteers to take these builds for validation.  There is a back out strategy in the event a build has compatibility issues.

Current Branch for Business (Deferred)

Corporations wishing to have production-ready features at a more reasonable cadence should in most cases choose the Current Branch for Business (CBB) for mainstream operations.  These builds can be expected on a quarterly basis and are effectively small service packs and cumulative updates.  It attempts to balance stability and new features equally.  In nomenclature prior to Windows 10, these releases were effectively Service Packs, and going forward can be expected as regular full ISO/WIM updates delivered directly from Microsoft and made available to the pubic after Insider validation.

First Release (Insider)

Given this rapid cadence, it is recommended to begin testing with the latest version at least with a small subset of people, typically the IT staff, in order to be prepared for the next inevitable upgrade cycle.  As such, O365 admins can enable a subset of users for the “First Release Branch”.  In the portal, look under Service Settings, Updates, and choose “Select People”.  Similarly, users of Windows 10 can join the Slow or Fast Ring of the Insider program to test these bleeding-edge OS enhancements.

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