Exchange support and cumulative updates

Microsoft’s Support Lifecycle has been published for many years now – and most people are familiar with the concept of 5+5 support – i.e. 5 years mainstream support, followed by 5 years extended.  Some products (e.g. Windows XP) had a slightly longer period of support as they were introduced before the 5+5 policy but, as a rule, we can assume 10 year support for a product and be making plans to move up in the second half of that period.

It’s not quite that simple though – service packs need to be considered.  Often the support lifecycle has a note that says something like “Support ends 12 months after the next service pack releases or at the end of the product’s support lifecycle, whichever comes first.”.  That’s OK – service packs should be applied as part of regular maintenance anyway, so keeping up to date will keep you supported.  And, anyway, service packs only come along every year or two…

…until recently.

With the growth in Microsoft’s online services, for instance Exchange Online (sold under the Office 365 banner), we’re entering a period of cumulative updates.  New features and functionality are rolled out online, and then made available for “on premises” deployments.  Now, I’ve long since argued that new features and software fixes should be separate – but the world has moved on and we now see a cumulative update for Exchange Server every 3 months or so.

So, unlike the rollup updates (RUs) with previous versions of Exchange, Exchange 2013 cumulative updates (CUs) are effectively mini-service packs (CU4 was actually released as SP1).  And, critically, CUs go out of support 3 months after the next one comes out.  That means that we all need to get tighter on our application of CUs – and, because of the new features and functionality they introduce, that means testing too!

Exchange 2013 support gotcha!

My colleagues, Keith Robertson and Nick Parlow (@hagbard), recently highlighted a little anomaly that the Exchange CU support situation exposes in Microsoft’s documentation:

  • The Microsoft Support Lifecycle information for Exchange Server 2013 says that the RTM release (i.e. Exchange 2013 with no service packs or CUs applied) will no longer be supported from 14 April 2015. Except that’s not correct: CU1 was released on 1 April 2013 and so the RTM release actually went out of support on 2 July 2013!
  • Fast forward to Exchange 2013 SP1 (remember this was also known as CU4) and you’ll see it was released on 25 February 2014.  CU5 was released on 27 May 2014, so Exchange 2013 SP1 installations need to be updated to CU5 before 27 August 2014 in order to remain supported…

Microsoft’s Exchange Product Group has a blog post on Servicing Exchange 2013 but the key point is that Exchange Server installations need to be updated on a quarterly cadence, in line with new CU releases.  Added to that, be aware that custom configurations will be lost in the update so re-applying these will need to be factored into your plans – and that testing is critical – especially where third party applications are in use that Microsoft will almost certainly not have tested in their Exchange Online service.

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