Windows 8.1 Enterprise Preview, hands on: Much more than a service pack

Windows 8.1 Enterprise Preview, hands on: Much more than a service pack

Summary: Windows 8.1 Enterprise builds on the consumer Windows 8.1 with a selection of additional enterprise tools. We took it for a spin around our network.


The initial preview release of Windows 8.1 was for home and small office users using Windows 8 Pro. Like the initial preview releases of Windows 8, the consumer 8.1 doesn't have all the business features of its Enterprise counterpart; features that IT professionals will want to evaluate before deploying the update in their networks. So it wasn't surprising that Microsoft recently rolled out a second Windows 8.1 preview, this time of its Enterprise SKU.

Available only to businesses with Windows Software Assurance, Windows 8.1 Enterprise builds on the consumer Windows 8.1 with a selection of additional enterprise tools. These include the USB-bootable Windows To Go, secure remote access to corporate networks with DirectAccess, and support for VDI installations. If you've deployed Windows 8 Enterprise you’ll find many of the same features in 8.1, with performance and user interface tweaks.

In the past Microsoft has added new features with each release that required additional testing before businesses could deploy the new OS to their device fleets. With Microsoft moving to a yearly cadence for operating system releases, it's hoping to encourage rapid roll out of updates by focusing on improving what’s already in place, rather than adding extra features. It’s an approach that also means that some updated features won’t be back-ported to Windows 8; as a result we don’t expect IE11 or PowerShell 4 to be supported on Windows 8 - even though they will be available on Windows 7.

Screenshot (1)
Control consumer features in Windows 8.1 Enterprise with Group Policies.


We used a 8GB USB stick for a clean install of Windows 8.1 Enterprise on a test PC, in practice you’re likely to be building your own images and using the new 2013 release of Microsoft's Deployment toolkit to integrate apps and applications, before deploying to a selection of test machines over a network. As we’ve come to expect with recent Microsoft OS releases, installation from USB was quick, and we quickly joined our test machine to a Windows Server 2012 domain, as well as linking domain accounts to Microsoft Accounts for use with the Windows Store.

It’s clear that the preview release of Windows 8.1 Enterprise is intended for IT professionals building test images from scratch; as it’s only available as an ISO, and it can’t be used for a seamless update to an existing Windows 8 Enterprise installation. If you’re planning an update installation you’ll need to make a bootable USB of the ISO, and you’ll only be able to keep files and settings – applications are not migrated to the preview. If you’re worried that users will update their own PCs to Windows 8.1, volume licensed PCs won’t be offered the update from the Windows Store – and you can lock things down further with group policy for domain joined PCs to prevent small business and consumer machines in your network from upgrading until you’ve finished your testing.

Screenshot (2)
Create bootable Windows To Go USB sticks from a Windows installation image with Windows 8.1 Enterprise

Managing Windows 8.1 Enterprise

If you've started working with the consumer Windows 8.1 preview, then you'll find Windows 8.1 Enterprise very familiar. You get the new Start Screen, and it’s button, as well as Internet Explorer 11 and support for small screen devices. That shouldn't be surprising, as after all, it’s all the same Windows 8.1 under the hood. Where things get interesting is when you start using the improved management tools, like Start Screen Control, to manage your desktop and mobile device fleet. With Start Screen Control, a PowerShell cmdlet exports the start screen layout on a pre-configured PC as an XML file. This can then be delivered via a group policy to user PCs, ensuring a consistent tile layout. The resulting Start Screen Layout can be locked down, and tied to any sideloaded apps.

Start Screen Control may seem relatively trivial, but it's actually key to effective delivery of Windows 8.1 Enterprise images — especially when you’re using those images to deliver a suite of approved desktop and Windows Store applications. Windows Store apps can be built into an image using standard deployment tools, or sideloaded via PowerShell and a sideloading key. With a common Start screen layout users will find tiles in consistent places, allowing them to quickly pick a new device; or start a new VDI session. Different users and groups can have different Start screen layouts, to go with different suites of tools, and you can also give some users customisation rights, while others are given a fixed layout that can’t be changed.

Screenshot (7)
Export Start Screen layouts with PowerShell.

Consumerise your enterprise

With Microsoft's increased focus on BYOD and on consumer services, getting group policies right is going to be very important. If you don’t lock down devices appropriately, then as soon as a user connects their domain account to a Microsoft Account, they'll automatically be using the consumer SkyDrive service for storage. While a new Group Policy Object disables Windows 8.1's SkyDrive integration, you may want to take advantage of the new Work Folders synchronised storage to automatically sync users' files to your own servers.

That consumer focus in Windows 8.1 is a big issue for organisations deploying new Windows devices. Users will expect business services to work just like the consumer services they use at home and on their personal devices. Windows 8.1 Enterprise lets you lock down task worker PCs even more tightly than before (with the option of using Assigned Access to allow only one Windows Store application to run on a managed PC, with everything else locked down and inaccessible).

Features like Branch Cache and DirectAccess depend on Windows Server 2012 (and on Windows Server 2012 R2 for the latest features), while others like the AppLocker application whitelist are controlled via Active Directory. With key features depending on Microsoft’s servers and services, Windows 8.1 Enterprise needs to be part of a Microsoft-centric network if you’re going to get the most from it.

Screenshot (8)
Windows 8.1 adds support for common VPN implementations

While the Software Assurance-specific features haven't changed that much, Microsoft's added enough to the core Windows platform to make it a compelling upgrade. While many of those features, like Workplace Join, are focused on BYOD scenarios, others, like Work Folders, are as useful in fully managed devices. They're not the only improvements to the OS, and Microsoft has also addressed key developer issues in Windows 8.1. If you're developing in-house tools and software, improved APIs mean it’s easier to write Windows Store apps, including support for external devices like Point of Sale systems.

That reliance on Microsoft's servers and management tools is one of the most important features in Windows 8.1. Many of the features that Microsoft highlights in its blog posts are already part of Windows 8 Enterprise, and the real benefit to businesses with the new release is the tight integration between Windows 8.1, Windows Server 2012 R2 and the System Center 2012 R2 management tools (as well as the cloud management tools in Windows Intune for BYOD device fleets). It's becoming much harder to separate the pieces of Microsoft’s enterprise offering, and it’s sometimes easier to think of Windows 8.1 Enterprise as the managed endpoint in what Microsoft calls its CloudOS.

Time to bite the Windows 8 Enterprise bullet?

The only real question is: are the extra features worth the subscription to Software Assurance? With many of the features – like the BitLocker disk encryption tools – Microsoft reserved for Windows 7 Enterprise now part of Windows 8.1 Pro (and in the case of Bitlocker automatically applied on newer hardware), it’s a question that needs to be asked.

If you're not running Microsoft's latest servers and management tools, then you're probably best staying with the Pro release (and perhaps using Windows Intune as a management layer). Things are very different if you’re already committed to Windows Server and System Center, where Software Assurance simplifies the upgrade cycle for the complete set of enterprise tools and servers, and where you’re more likely to be managing large fleets of PCs, inside and outside the office, and where Windows 8.1 Enterprise features like DirectAccess and AppLocker become increasingly important.

As part of the first set of deliverables in a new cadence, Windows 8.1 Enterprise is much more than a service pack. With a consumer look-and-feel (and support for smaller screen tablets), it certainly manages to hit most of the IT professional sweet spots: it's manageable, flexible, and easy to control through System Center and through group policies. That's long been the Windows promise, and the impending end of support for Window XP should make you consider upgrading your network to a newer version of Windows as soon as possible – and Windows 8.1 Enterprise looks very much like a contender.

More stories on Windows 8.1

Topics: Windows 8, Microsoft, Reviews

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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  • ISO Upgrade

    Actually that ISO is the upgrade media for Enterprise - Try running setup.exe /auto:upgrade and it will perform the silent in place upgrade.
    Aaron Hamilton
    • That still only updates the OS...

      ...apps are removed to Windows.old.
  • It's still a PC OS trying to be a smart phone

    I simply do not understand why Microsoft continues to abandon the desktop paradigm by replacing it with a touch screen oriented cell phone interface. If I wanted a cell phone interface I would buy a cell phone not a PC. So, even though Microsoft claims to have brought back the start button, they have not; all it does it bring you back to the confusing and confounded Metro start page. If Microsoft really wants to complete with cell phones and tablets, then compete by producing cell phone and tablets, not by altering a PC desktop to look like a tablet or cell phone.
    • Not a cell phone interface.

      If you recall, in earnest, the Metro UI has its beginnings in the Media Center UI that debuted on Windows XP circa 2006.

      Personally, I'm loving it. It's fresh, different, and vivid. I'm loving the idea of a dynamic UI that I can customize to fit my needs, and the needs of others.

      I'm curious how you find the Start Screen confusing, as it works exactly the same as the old Start Menu did.
      The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • Not a cell phone interface.

        I suspect most people complaining about the product have not actually used it.
        • that's probably why ....

          ...they come to me with their brand new laptops looking for a win7 downgrade huh?
          I'm the guy on the ground, dealing with the customers day to day, try to convince me that they haven't tried using win 8. Sorry, but Windows 8 is a Vista disaster.
          • Don't you mean an upgrade to Win7?

            And Win8 is not as bad as Vista. It's a great deal worse.
          • 100% Agreed! ...

            ...I used to think that M$ would keep going forever....win8 is far worse in many ways, but the dealiest mistake they made is that the timing...this time they won't have to compete with another Desktop OS.. Android is already being pushed towrads being a Desktop OS. We all know what's coming next don't we? Do I have to say the Obvious? The docked smart phone that doubles as your home PC. Yes, and Ubuntu is already on the bandwagon...I complained about Ubuntu's GUI but I can see were it's going. I would start shorting M$ stock if I had it.
          • Bull!

            They don't come to you because it is a bad product, it simply put isn't a bad OS. They come to you because they're too scared to learn something new and you're either not capable of teaching them or have no clue how the system works either.
          • Learn something new?

            After going thru the switch from XP to WIN7, and fighting the "ribbon" interface, any small businessman will NOT try again.
            Why do it?
            What's new and improved?
            What's there that one can't live without?
            And NOBODY cares how the system works.
            It's an OPERATING SYSTEM, for God's sake!
            It's supposed to sit quietly in the background and provide services.
            If Linux had the wealth of business apps that Windows does, people would switch to it in a New York minute.
            If not sooner.
          • Fighting ribbon interface??

            After using ribbon interface I would never go back to menu system of office 97.
            I would also hate to go back to start menu of XP. Start menu without search is totally useless.
            Now talking about business apps.. How do you handle change? Business apps usually change much more than OS ever does. Interfaces change, application logic changes, windows GUI apps are replaced by web apps and mobile apps. Even Linux changes.
            I think that all these complaints about ribbons and OS changes are BS. If you cannot handle small changes like that then how do you live?
        • In order to use it extensively...

          ...that would mean I'd have to buy it and I have no intention of doing so.
        • I've used it

          After I installed the Win8.1 preview, I found much more to dislike about it. Simply put I've no use at all for the modern interface (if it's still called that), and the desktop has been crippled. Also everythign now requires more mouse movements and clicks to accomplish.
          • hmm

            Perhaps your opinion would carry more weight if you had actual examples of these extra clicks and mouse movements. I say this because, I'm not sure if you mean more than Windows 8 or just more than Windows 7.

            As for the Desktop being crippled, that couldn't be further from the truth as it has the same functionality it always has minus the Aero experience which disappeared with Windows 8 and rightfully so.
          • Rightfully so?

            Most people I know love the aero interface.
            And have no desire to "learn" the new, improved METRO (redacted).
      • Yes but.

        You're absolutely right but, most people probably never bothered to pin items to their start menu and many probably thought the area was just for new or recently used items.

        To me, the unified search is huge and I understand why Mac Fans like that feature so much. I also think the WINKEY+PRINT SCREEN combo to automatically save the screenshot is a welcome addition. Beyond these the other features aren't bad but, these two stand out to me.
    • Touchscreens are here to stay

      I only see touchscreens increasing in popularity in the years to come.

      I was skeptical, but once I started using a touchscreen desktop PC in conjunction with a mouse and keyboard, I found that the three input devices worked together quite nicely. Swiping and pinching/zooming are a great way to interact with content.
      • Touchscreens are a minor fraction of shipping machines

        Less than 10% of laptops, and no meaningful percent at all on desktops. So putting a "touch first" UI on them is fundamentally dumb.
        • Device Convergence

          With Windows 8 we now have true device convergence, a desktop/laptop/tablet OS all in one. Use the pieces you need. When I'm at my desk, I rarely use the Metro apps except to read news and such because it's much cleaner than reading on a menu and ad laden website. When I'm mobile I use a combination of both desktop and Metro depending on whether I'm creating or consuming.

          No other OS currently offers functionality and versatility even remotely close to what Windows 8 offers. Device convergence is the future of computing, and Windows 8 is the first big, wonderful step in that direction.
          • re:

            Did you find all the ads shoved in your face annoying at all, along with the Metro 16 color scheme?