How to make sense of Windows updates and upgrades with Microsoft's new release dashboard

Microsoft's new Windows release health dashboard is a one-stop shop for Windows 10 users seeking information on the status of upgrades and ongoing problems.

broken window with windows logo in clouds
Thinkstock/Microsoft

Making good on a pledge in November, Microsoft has unveiled a site showing the problems that prevent users from receiving Windows upgrades.

Dubbed the "Windows release health dashboard," the list of blockers came out of a promise in late 2018 by Microsoft's top Windows executive. Writing upon the re-release of Windows 10 October 2018 Update, aka 1809 in the firm's four-digit yymm code, Mike Fortin, corporate vice president, said: "We will continue to invest in clear and regular communications with our customers when there are issues."

Fortin was referring to bugs that Microsoft decided were significant enough to justify withholding one of the twice-annual Windows 10 feature upgrades from relevant machines. Rather than offer an upgrade that might cripple or degrade a system, Microsoft would simply refuse to give those PCs the update.

Even though Microsoft has practiced upgrade blocking for decades, it wasn't until last fall that the company detailed the issues preventing some PCs from receiving a Windows 10 upgrade. Those issues were published on the Windows 10 update history support page and included short descriptions of the blocking bugs.

That page was a precursor to the health dashboard.

"The new Windows release health dashboard is now live, offering timely information on the current rollout status and known issues (open and resolved) across both feature and monthly updates," said John Cable, director of program management on the Windows servicing and delivery team. "The new dashboard provides a single page for each currently-supported version of Windows so you can quickly search for issues by keyword, including any safeguard holds on updates, see the current status of each issue, and find important announcements."

(Note: The dashboard, with the latest 1903 feature upgrade front and center, is here. Odd, nowhere does Microsoft label this as "Dashboard.")

What the dashboard does

Each Windows 10 feature upgrade - from the initial release (1507) to the just-issued (1903) - has its own dedicated page on the dashboard, sometimes shared with an edition of Windows Server. Windows 10's predecessors, including Windows 7 and Windows 8.1, and their Server colleagues, also sport pages. All are listed in the column at the left side of the display.

dashboard fig. 1 Microsoft

Clicking a version of Windows 10 - or one of the earlier operating systems - in the list on the left expands the item, letting users drill down.

Click to expand any Windows 10 feature upgrade at the left, or one of the earlier operating systems. Two items - "Known issues and notifications" and "Resolved issues" - appear.

The former not only itemizes existing problems in a summary near the top of the page but describes them in greater detail down lower. Among the details, many issues sport a line titled "Next steps" that outlines what action Microsoft has taken and when a fix can be expected. The company also makes recommendations - such as not to manually install the feature upgrade - shows possible workarounds that users can apply and in some cases, classifies the problem as a blocker halting upgrade distribution. Those are typically offered after a heading of "Note."

As issues accumulate they are clumped together as months. Whether resolved or not, the problems remain as a record.

Fixed bugs are listed on a separate page reached by clicking the "Resolved issues" heading at the left. Notably, each resolution shows an addressed-by date and the support document(s) which first mentioned the problem and possibly later, the solution if it entailed another update from Redmond.

dashboard fig 2 Microsoft

Problems are described in detail, users are pointed to support documents that accompanied the fix and Microsoft explains what it or a third party did to address the issue. In this case, Microsoft released another update, one determined important enough to distribute outside the normal Tuesday schedule.

Although the dashboard may impress some users in its detail, veterans will recognize that most of the information has been copied from individual support documents - identified by the KB prefix, which stands for knowledge base - and pasted here. That's by design.

"Finding out about known issues and whether or not they'd been reported, took time and effort," Melissa Martin, a senior program manager, acknowledged in a video posted on Microsoft's website. "It was a multi-step process. Known issues were included in the release notes or support articles, also known as KBs, and once an issue was resolved the original KB was updated with a link to the resolving KB."

The dashboard is meant to serve as a one-stop shop for all that already-crafted information, Martin noted.

Update comms

Microsoft also billed the dashboard as a source of general information about the Windows upgrade process. "One of the most exciting features of the new Windows release health dashboard is the ability to see the current roll-out status, the status of known and recently-resolved issues, and news about Windows updates, all in one place," said Martin (emphasis added).

dashboard fig 3 Microsoft

Recent feature upgrades, like 1903, prominently show update status information (the part shaded blue), including how users can currently obtain the build and if Microsoft has put it into general distribution.

Although Microsoft hasn't said it aloud, it's reasonable to assume that the company will use the status section of an upgrade's page to communicate to commercial customers when testing can be wrapped up and broad deployment begun. That milestone, formerly marked by the labeling change from Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted), or SAC-T, to Semi-Annual Channel, aka SAC, is to be continued, Microsoft has said - but without the transition in nomenclature. (Microsoft ditched SAC-T earlier this year.) Unless Microsoft is misleading users about the dashboard's purpose, the notification should appear here.

Also on the dashboard will be links to recent announcements related to updates and upgrades, practices and policies. Microsoft relies almost exclusively on blog posts for such announcements - even major proclamations made at the firm's conferences are usually repeated in blog form - and are to be collected in the "Message center" area of the dashboard.

dashboard fig 4 Microsoft

In the 'Message center,' the dashboard displays the latest blogged announcements from Microsoft about updates and upgrades. Each feature upgrade's page also offers links to the most recent posts.

For a finishing touch, the dashboard also links directly to the Windows 10 release information page, the official list of feature upgrades and their monthly cumulative updates. This page provides a host of nuts and bolts information about Windows 10, including build numbers, date of each update and upgrade, and perhaps most importantly, end-of-support deadlines.

dashboard fig 5 Microsoft

Microsoft dumps tons of information in the Windows 10 release information page. Putting it on the dashboard may get that information to more users.

This story, "How to make sense of Windows updates and upgrades with Microsoft's new release dashboard" was originally published by Computerworld.

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