No MSIs For Office 2019 — And Why You Should Care

    

Microsoft recently announced that Office 2019, the company's next perpetual Office suite (including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and Skype for Business applications as well as  Exchange, SharePoint, and Skype for Business servers) will be released some time this fall, with previews beginning to ship in the second quarter of 2018.

If you read the announcement carefully, you will find some interesting facts:

  1. Office 2019 will only be supported on any current Semi-Annual Channel release of Windows 10 as well as the next Long-Term Service Channel release of the Windows 10 Enterprise 2018 and the Windows Server.

  2. Customers will only receive five years of mainstream support with an option to pay for an additional two years of extended support — effectively cutting the support timeline by 30%!

  3. Office 2019 client applications cannot be deployed using MSI packages (Windows Installer technology), but will only be released with a Click-to-Run installation method. However, server products will still be provided as MSI.

While the first two points have been extensively covered by the mainstream media, the more technical detail of the different deployment method gets often ignored. Today, I want to take a close look at Microsoft's Click-to-Run installation technology, how it is different from packaging, testing and managing apps using MSIs, and what that means for your Office 2019 estate (and beyond).

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What Is Click-To-Run?

ClickToRunOfficeInstallClick-to-Run installation technology is almost like a self contained installation AppV package without the need for all the infrastructure around it to deliver everything. In other words, it enables you to install a package without using MSI technology and MSI source follow or MSI exe files.

This isn't anything new. Microsoft offered this install technology to deploy Office 2013 and Office 2016 products as well as Office 365 subscriptions. In addition, Click-to-Run has been used for the virtualization with AppV apps for a while now. 

Chances are you didn't even know Click-to-Run was an option or, if you knew, you didn't use it as most enterprises used MSIs. However, MSI and Click-to-Run technologies aren't compatible with each other and Microsoft is moving away from delivering their big cash cows via MSI and pushing towards Click-to-Run.

But how does this look in reality? Let's have a look at Office 365 ProPlus and Office 2019. The enterprise version of Office 2019 will be the frozen copy of the Office 365 ProPlus version released in January plus/minus a few minor bug fixes, delivered as a Click-to-Run install.

For the Office 365 ProPlus customers, the C2R installation package is provided as part of their subscription and can be accessed by users on Microsoft's Software Page. Alternatively, IT admins who prefer to stage a bulk install via the local network can do so utilizing the Office 2016 Deployment Tool (ODT) or constructing an App-V package for it.

It is worth it to point out that Click-To-Run is licensed on a per-user basis (each Office 365 ProPlus license allows users to install the software on 5 devices) and activations are monitored in the cloud by Microsoft every 30 days.  

Benefits Of Maintaining MSIs As Baseline For Your App Packages

The news that Office 2019 wasn't going to be delivered as an MSI had some of us enterprise application guys break out in cold sweat. Many organizations have continued to maintain their application packages using MSIs as a baseline. This approach has multiple benefits:
 
  • MSI is an industry standard and robust method of delivery that is proven over decades 
  • MSI enables application management teams to create structured and well-designed packages to meet their own environmental and industry standards 
  • MSI packages also enable companies to utilize various products for software delivery, e.g., SCCM 
  • MSI packages enable you to move to virtual packages more easily via the use of the command line switches that are, by default, available by Msiexec.exe Service 
  • Msiexec.exe Service is and has been part of the Windows OS for many years 
  • For company specific environmental software deployment to regions globally or for specific Eng/Dev/UAT/Prod configurations, MSI MST(MS Transforms) can be used to add the relevant settings for these types 

In regards to Office, MSIs until now had the downside that it was only available at the Microsoft Volume Licensing Service Center and required an Enterprise Agreement with Software Assurance on Office. As you probably know, these licenses were per-device (not per-user) based and had to be managed in-house via a local Key Management Service server on the LAN or Multiple Activation Keys for offline devices. Without extremely tight licensing management, this can easily lead to overpaying and mismanagement.

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Will This Force Enterprises To Decentralize Away From A Corporate Gold Image?

It is no secret that Microsoft has embarked on a crusade to change the way how enterprises manage their IT utilizing Microsoft's MDM, AzureAD, and Intune services. Providing only the Click-to-Run technology, and not MSIs like in the past, is just another step towards their vision of "Modern IT Management". Let me explain:

Currently, most enterprises are using the traditional, image-driven approach using SCCM or other desktop deployment tools. They are packaging a local install of the current Office version into their Windows 10 gold image which is bound to which bitness the company is predominantly using (32-bit or 64-bit) — which most likely will be 32-bit unless the entire organization is on the higher bitness level.

Now you have two options: you could bundle the Office 2016 32-bit MSI into your gold image or let your users determine what Office version (32- or 64-bit) they want to install rather than forcing the 32-bit version. 

Alternatively, you could run a Click-to-Run install outside of a gold image. You would essentially decouple the Click-to-Run version of Office 365 ProPlus to ensure your Office is not backed up into your core image and part of your MSI install. This would be much more advantageous as it now doesn't matter which bitness your user has.

Opening up that option would allow more people to adopt the more favorable 64-bit version and cause more developers to start coding more of a 64 bit. Essentially, you are decentralizing your deployment away from the Holy Grail of the gold image and onto the subscription-driven merry-go-round of Windows 10, Office 365, Windows Server, and SCCM. 

Conclusion

The writing has been on the wall for a while. Microsoft is moving away from MSI and onto a mechanism that encourages its customers to adopt service offerings rather than perpetual licensed products. I strongly recommend that you familiarize yourself with the ins-and-outs of this technology and consider the consequences for your environment. 

However, many questions still remain. It is worth noting that Microsoft has given no information yet on whether Click-to-Run can be used to deploy Office in conjunction with MDM and Intune or how SCCM/Intune co-management scenarios would be handled.

It appears though as if Click-to-Run enables  IT admins to use Group policies for management as well as control updates, as well as use SCCM for deployment — but no other deployment method (e.g., Office Deployment Tool) has been specified. And you seem to be able to do in-place upgrades from Office 2019 to Office 365 ProPlus.

With Windows 10 comes a lot of changes — changes that could significantly slow down your application packaging and testing progress. We compiled a list of the ten most common gotchas, so you know what's coming!

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