Managing Microsoft's Insider programs in business

How to use the Windows and Office Insider programs to get your business ready for new releases.

How to enroll in Windows Insider and get the latest Windows 10 test builds

Back before Windows 10 we knew how to deploy Windows. A new release or a service pack would come out, we'd download it onto a handful of PCs in our IT departments, and we'd test it out with a standard suite of software. Once it was ready, we'd build an image, and call in all the PCs and laptops one at a time to update them.

Microsoft's vision for Microsoft 365 changes all that, building on Windows 10's schedule, with two major releases a year and monthly updates. It's closely linked to Office 365, and its monthly releases, and to the Intune and Azure Active Directory services. Consumers have long had access to an Insider program, with four tiers of early release builds -- somewhat similar to Microsoft's old beta programs, but with a much wider reach. Slow, Fast, and Skip Ahead rings give access to development code, while release Preview rolls out new drivers and updates a few days before they're publicly available on Windows Update.

That approach works well for enthusiasts and consumers -- and, to be fair, that was the original intent of the program. Enthusiasts were expected to explore the OS in ways normal users wouldn't, finding bugs and issues, and making feature requests. But a side effect was the ending of traditional beta releases, making harder for IT teams to trial new releases. That change made it harder to manage Windows, as anyone with a Microsoft account could sign up as a Windows Insider and download a trial build of Windows 10 Pro, or even Enterprise.

Introducing Insider for Business

What was needed was a way of controlling and managing Insider builds inside corporate networks, blocking users from installing their own copies, and giving IT administrators the tools to control how and where trial builds were installed. It also needed to be compatible with existing IT management tools, integrated with Active Directory and System Center. The result was the launch of the Windows Insider for Business program, quickly joined by separate Insider programs for Office 365 and the Office desktop apps, and more recently a version for the entire Microsoft 365 suite of tools and services.

The Windows Insider for Business, Office Insider, and the associated Microsoft 365 Insider programs are how you can manage and control Windows Insider releases on a corporate network. As well as giving you access to Insider builds for desktop Windows and Office ProPlus, you can use them to test new builds of Windows Server, before using the semi-annual channel builds to keep your servers up to date.

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Controlled using familiar tools, they build on known deployment mechanisms to handle the delivery of regular updates to registered users. The Windows service uses Microsoft's Windows Update, while Office uses modifications to the Office deployment tooling to switch users between different preview rings, controlling Office ProPlus's Click-to-Run installer. Office 365 admins will need to control users' access to Insider builds and features from the Office 365 admin portal.

Using Insider rings to control test deployments

The various rings of the Insider programs are actually a powerful tool for managing test deployments, of Office and of Windows. By using Azure Active Directory and the Office Portal to manage who gets what release, you can target either individuals or groups. Building a cadre of trusted users, who are trained to document issues, can actually increase your test coverage, showing how changes in Windows affect more than a suite of core applications.

If you're going to get the most out of the Insider program in a business, then using Azure Active Directory (AAD) is essential. You'll need to be using it across your business, either as a standalone tool or as an extension of an on-premises AD tool. Once you sign up for the Insider program using an Active Directory account (and you're an AAD Global Administrator), you can register your AAD tenant domain with the Insider for Business service. Devices can then be assigned Insider builds using policies, either via group policies or via Intune.

Delivering Insider builds to users

The only real requirement on devices is that they're configured to deliver telemetry to Microsoft. For most businesses that won't be a problem -- it's highly anonymous usage and debug data. However, businesses in regulated industries may not want to deliver memory dumps to Microsoft that may contain privileged information, and so shouldn't sign up users who may have access to any sensitive data.

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To deliver Insider builds to users, you'll first need to make sure they're not getting updates from a local Windows Update server. Once you've switched them to using Microsoft's update service, you can use your choice of policy management tools to create policies for all the Insider update rings, before assigning those policies to your users and devices. Policies don't have to be defined individually, you can assign them to groups, with separate groups for each update ring.

While you and your users can use the Windows Feedback Hub tools to report issues and make suggestions to Microsoft, there's the option of using the Device Health analytics tooling to centrally monitor builds once installed. Using Operations Manager, you can bring together log files from devices that are running preview builds, and use them to understand the rate of application issues compared to non-Insider devices, and to track down root causes.

Using Insiders to plan deployments

Keeping users informed is important, and it's well worth using collaboration tools like Teams or Slack to build a feedback group for your various user groups. By giving them a place to share issues and problems, as well as solutions and workarounds, you can build a record of what needs to be documented or added to training for when you release a semi-annual channel build to your wider user population.

Once a release graduates from an Insider program to the semi-annual channel you'll have had several months of testing under your belt, and should be ready to roll out the release to your users. Tools like System Center and Intune will work with Windows Update to stage updates -- something you'll probably want to do, if only to manage network load when updating an entire fleet.

It's clear that Microsoft has thought very carefully about how the Insider for Business programs run. By balancing the needs of its own development teams with the requirements of its customers, Microsoft is delivering a program that's both easier to manage and more useful than its old beta programs. You get control over who you enroll, and you can then use your experiences with Insider builds to plan update rollouts for Windows and Office. It's an approach that should reduce risks and load on busy support desks.

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By Simon Bisson

Born on the Channel Island of Jersey, Simon moved to the UK to attend the University of Bath where he studied electrical and electronic engineering. Since then a varied career has included being part of the team building the world's first solid state...