Microsoft now has two versions of Windows IoT Enterprise. So how do you choose between them?
Windows 11 is more than a consumer operating system. Alongside the familiar Home and Professional versions is the Enterprise release for managed corporate fleets of PCs and laptops, the locked-down web-centric Windows 11 SE for education, and now Windows 11 IoT Enterprise, for use in devices and as part of the network edge for cloud applications.
The release of Windows 11 IoT Enterprise is causing some confusion, as long support lifecycles mean that Microsoft now has two versions of its PC-based IoT OS, one based on Windows 10 and one on Windows 11. So, which should you choose, as they’re targeting the same market and the same types of application?
In many cases, of course, end users won’t get a choice. They’re buying hardware for specific tasks: point-of-sale systems, digital signage, ATMs, kiosks, and edge hubs for cloud applications. With Windows IoT licenses bundled with devices that are intended to be appliances, all they want is a box they can plug in, hook up to a wired or wireless network, and get working. The decision on what to use comes from the product vendor and its developers, based on what they’re building and how they want to manage it. Both versions have tools to allow the hardware OEM to configure their OS images, ensuring there’s no bloat and that they can run on lower specification (and lower cost) hardware.
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Windows 11 IoT Enterprise’s biggest benefit is support for the latest hardware. That’s a key issue if you’re planning on taking advantage of the capabilities of USB 4 for attached peripherals, for example in an industrial controller or in a point-of-sale system. As hardware moves to new standards, it’s going to be harder to support it in older OS releases. That doesn’t require changing OS right away, of course.
The whole point of Windows IoT’s extended support lifecycle beyond that of both consumer and enterprise Windows releases is to support embedded use cases where Windows needs to work with a specific set of hardware for as long as possible. With that in mind, Windows 11 IoT Enterprise is clearly intended for the latest hardware, and so you can continue working with existing systems as long as possible. After all, your only role in managing Windows IoT Enterprise-based hardware should be setting up appropriate firewall and IP address management rules, plugging them into your network, and hitting the power button.
There’s new support for the next generation of WiFi 6, WiFi 6E. This adds support for additional frequencies in the 6GHz band, as well as wider channels. By using new access points and routers, Windows 11 IoT hardware will be able to use uncongested frequencies that older hardware can’t access, reducing the bandwidth that your IoT applications have to share and allowing them to push more data around your network. Using WiFi 6E access points with new hardware should significantly reduce latency, helping you use Windows 11 IoT Enterprise devices for edge workloads that migrate to near where they’re needed.
SEE: Windows 10 IoT Enterprise: Here’s what you need to know (TechRepublic)
However, one issue with Windows 11 IoT Enterprise may be a short-term showstopper: There’s currently no LTSC release. For now, it will have a support cycle similar to Windows 11 Enterprise, with 36 months of support and an annual release cycle. If you need 10 years of support, you’ll need to stick with the latest Windows 10 IoT Enterprise release, which will not transition to the new five-year LTSC model that Windows 10 Enterprise LTSC now has. With the two different versions in production, it’s important not to expect them to release at the same time, as they come from different development branches. In fact, the current release of Windows 11 Enterprise IoT came out before the latest Windows 10 Enterprise IoT.
Microsoft is positioning the two versions slightly differently, based on these support options. Currently, Windows 10 IoT Enterprise is suggested for hardware that needs 10 years of support but shouldn’t need updates during that period. Windows 11 IoT Enterprise is for devices that will be upgraded annually, so it’s for applications and hardware that are expected to improve over time. That’s actually a more significant difference than you might initially think; a Windows 10 IoT Enterprise device is best thought of as a true embedded system, installed once and left to run, while a Windows 11 IoT Enterprise device is perhaps better thought of as a single-purpose computer, like a restaurant management system that offers host stations and billing in one package.
SEE: Windows 11 SE: Why it’s both more and less locked down than Windows 10 S (TechRepublic)
It’s important to remember that Windows 10 IoT Enterprise shouldn’t be used for client PCs. Like the server release, both the Windows 10 and 11 IoT Enterprise clients are only licensed for specific hardware and shouldn’t be installed on general purpose PCs. Instead, they’re intended for edge hardware that needs a familiar user interface. However, there are some user interface features that aren’t currently supported on 11—for example, the ability to have a kiosk with more than one application. Microsoft has said that this feature will arrive at some point in 2022, but if it’s critical to your applications, stick with Windows 10 IoT Enterprise for now.
There’s a bonus for Windows 11 IoT Enterprise, as it will support the same accessibility features as the Windows 11 desktop release, opening up devices to many more users. This will allow Windows-based devices to be used in many more scenarios, adding natural user interfaces and support for a wider set of assistive technologies. Where older systems could have excluded users who need more support, the new tooling will make it easier for users to work with common hardware like point-of-sale systems or control panels. As Microsoft adds more accessibility features, like the new voice control tools in the current Insider dev preview builds, expect to see them roll out in future annual OS upgrades.
Both versions support WSL, so you can include Linux workloads alongside Windows workloads, but you’ll only get a UI with Windows 11 Enterprise IoT, as it brings along Windows 11’s WSLg support. With improved graphics driver support in WSLg, it will enable you to bring Linux machine learning inferencing directly to your edge industrial IoT systems, simplifying deployment considerably. There’ll also be ARM64 support for non-Intel hardware, increasing options for custom devices with partnerships with silicon vendors like Qualcomm.
That mix of Linux and Windows is especially interesting, as Microsoft is increasingly focused on using Windows IoT as part of its edge strategy, using it where server and larger Azure Stack hardware may not be practical.
It’s clear that Windows 11 IoT Enterprise is the future of the platform. If you want new features and to use new hardware, it’s the clear choice. With Microsoft focusing on accessibility features In the Windows 11 family of operating systems, you should consider it for any application that needs to support inclusivity. But that doesn’t mean throwing away all the work done on Windows 10 IoT Enterprise. With 10 years of support, it’s going to keep on running, and you’re going to need to keep supporting any applications or hardware that depend on it—for as long as Microsoft keeps its support going.