What is Click-to-Run (C2R)?

In my previous two posts, I described the Microsoft Installer (MSI), as well as Application Virtualization (App-V), and now it’s time to talk about Click-to-Run (C2R). Click-to-Run is actually an installer stub, streamer, and command line technology, based on Microsoft’s App-V technology, and is currently used for the delivery of Microsoft Office ProPlus products. Traditionally, up to Office 2010, Microsoft shipped Office as a solution based on the Microsoft Installer technology. While most people remember installing Office via the included ‘setup.exe’ on a disc, this actually executed MSIs in the background in order to install the software. As of Office 2010, Microsoft has been supporting two different versions of Office, that leveraged two completely different installer technologies: MSI and C2R.

The first C2R solution was used for Office 2010 Home and Student, Office 2010 Home and Business, and the short-lived Office 2010 Starter editions. What makes C2R so special? Microsoft describes it as follows: 

Office Click-to-Run products use streaming technology that is similar to watching a video on the web. When you watch a video on the web, you can watch the first part of the video before the whole file is downloaded. Similarly, you can start using Office 2010 before the whole suite or product is downloaded

This is only one of the many benefits of the Office C2R solution however, and while being able to “start fast” is incredible, being able to “single patch” or “version control” is probably even more impressive. Along with the C2R versions of Office, Microsoft also did away with the complexity of the Office Customization Tool (OCT), and replaced it with a client-side OfficeC2RClientexecutable, as well as a new, streamlined, and very cut-down, Office Deployment Tool (ODT). Now, admins can quickly generate an XML file, download a 2.5MB installer file, and then install Office on a remote computer utilising Microsoft’s Content Distribution Network (CDN): No local download or customisation required.

What are the install and version control benefits of C2R? Whether using the client-side C2R client via a script, or using the ODT executable and XML, administrators actually have full control over the source of the installation, and the version that is actually installed. For example, if the latest Monthly Channel release is v16.0.9001.2171 (also know as 1801) introduced an issue in your environment, you are able to roll-back to a previous build using deltas, without needing to uninstall the software and install from a local source with the old build. Below is an example of a C2R command-line that can be used to upgrade or downgrade the current Office installation:

"%Program Files%\\Common Files\\Microsoft Shared\\ClicktoRun\\OfficeC2RClient.exe" /update user updatepromptuser=false forceappshutdown=true displaylevel=true updatetoversion=16.0.xxxx.xxxx

Using my example above, let’s say that you need to revert installation to the 1712 build to work around an issue, well in that case you would use the above command, and set the ‘updateToVersion’ parameter to ‘16.0.8827.2179’. This command will close all existing applications, and display a nice update dialog to the user, while rolling back to the 1712 version. Importantly, as you may have picked up already, the ‘updateToVersion’ parameter will modify change the version of the existing install to the specified build number, whether it is in upgrade, downgrade, and will actually install that build if no previous version of Office is installed. pretty powerful stuff.

What about the patching benefits of C2R? This is where things get even more incredible: C2R versions of Office are able to identify the version of each included binary, and are able to download only the deltas of any changes, in order to transform the binary into the updated or downgraded version. What this means for my previous example, is that downgrade I described might only be 300MB worth of changes, so the installation will only need to acquire 300MB from the CDN or local network share, and not the full 1.5GB Office installation. Taking this to the next level, patches are always one hop, and one delta download, away from being at the version defined (or latest version). Unlike the Office Standard and Office Professional versions that use MSI technologies, C2R versions of Office do not require multiple, large, slow-to-install, Windows Updates in order to patch. When the next build of Office ProPlus rolls around, each client will download what it needs to in order to reach that new build, using only the bits needed to get there; and this saves a lot of time, and a lot of storage space.

One of the other benefits of C2R is the cadence of feature updates.Microsoft internally treats Office Standard and Professional (the MSI installs) as long term servicing branches (LTSB), and do not push out new features to these installations. If you currently have an MSI-based installation of Office 2016 Professional installed, you will be receiving regular security updates and patches for the existing products, but you will not be seeing new features such as Microsoft Dictate in Outlook and Word, or the screen recording and video export functionality in PowerPoint. In fact, even if you were to uninstall your current version of Office (MSI), download the latest installer from Microsoft, and install… you’d still not see these amazing new features: For that, you need to switch to office ProPlus instead. Importantly, Microsoft’s recent announcement of Office 2019 suggests that C2R is the only future, and there will not be an MSI version of the product, so you might want to investigate the C2R way if you haven’t already.

But wait, there’s more! Along with the C2R builds of Office, and the Content Delivery network that Microsoft uses to push new builds to customers, Microsoft also supports multiple update channels to manage how and when your site’s Office updates occur.

As of writing, Microsoft supports four (4) Channels, and these are: 

  • Monthly Channel (Targeted) – This was previously known as “First Release for Current Channel”, this update channel provides an early look at the upcoming Monthly Channel release. It is a supported update channel, and usually is available at least one week ahead of time when it’s a Monthly Channel release that contains new features.
  • Monthly Channel – Formerly known as “Current Channel”, this configuration provides users with the monthly updates, and the newest features of Office, as soon as they’re available.
  • Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted) – Formerly known as “First Release for Deferred Channel”, this configuration provides pilot users and application compatibility testers the opportunity to test the next Semi-Annual Channel before it is deployed to production users in the “Semi-Annual Channel”. Updates for this Channel are released every six months, in March and September.
  • Semi-Annual Channel – Formerly known as “Deferred Channel”, this configuration provides users with new features of Office only a few times a year, and is designed for environments that require more stability of features. Updates for this Channel are released every six months, in January and July.

IMPORTANT: Microsoft has jumped between calling these “Channels” and “Branches”, and has even changed the required configuration XML parameter names several times. So even if you are already running C2R versions of Office, make sure you download the latest ODT executable, and update your XML files to the new parameters.

So C2R downloads a Office for each computer when installed? Yes, and no. I decided to include this last question because it is something that I see pop up all the time. While, by default, Office 2016 (C2R) installations willdownload the Office product from the Internet, for each computer you target with the installer, This can all be changed using the ODT and configuration XML. As Microsoft says: “Some administrators will need more control beyond the default Click-to-Run installation behavior in order to work best in their environments“, so they provide a great deal of functionality within the XML. With a few small configuration tweaks via the ODT and XML, an administrator can:

  • Configure which products and languages to install, or what applications/features to remove. moreover, you can specify an exact version to install, even if the installation will be Internet-based via Microsoft CDN.
  • Download an Office installation to a network share location, so that this can be used as the installation and/or upgrade source for all your computers (saving a lot of time and bandwidth).
  • Configure an Office installation to use a network share as the installation source instead of the Internet, even if already installed via Microsoft’s CDN connection.
  • Configure whether Office will automatically update or not, and whether it will update from the Internet or a local network share.
  • Configure an installation to suppress the user interface (run silently), an even suppress licensing prompts by configuring the installation as a Shared Computer Licensing configuration.

To customise Office, you need to download the latest version of the Office Deployment Tool, and create a configuration XML file. Below is an example of an XML that you could use:

<Add SourcePath="\\server\share" OfficeClientEdition="32" Channel="Monthly">
<Product ID="O365ProPlusRetail" >
     <Language ID="en-us" />
   <Product ID="VisioProRetail" >
     <Language ID="en-us" />

This configuration XML will:

  • Install the 32-bit version of Office and Visio, from the latest “Monthly Channel”
  • Will include the “English (United States)” language (recommended)
  • Will instruct clients to install from a local source instead of the Internet (SourcePath).

Extending this:

  • If you would like a specific build to be installed, you can add a “Version” option to the “<Add>” node, like follows: Version=”16.0.8201.2193″.
  • If you would like to include another language, you can add a “Language” option to the “<Product>” node, like follows: <Language ID=”ja-jp” />
  • If you would like to exclude/remove a component of Office, you can add an “ExcludeApp” option within the “Product” node , like follows: <ExcludeApp ID=”Publisher” />
  • And if you’d like your updates to come from a specific URL or internal share, you can add an “UpgradePath” option to end of the XML.

If you’d like some help creating your configuration XML, there’s a fantastic online generator you can use. Access it here: https://officedev.github.io/Office-IT-Pro-Deployment-Scripts/XmlEditor.html

Once you have configured your XML as desired, you can initiate a download of the configured bits by running the ODT executable with the “/download” command, and your configuration XML, as follows:

setup.exe /download downloadconfig.xml

To install your configuration, you can then run the ODT command with the “/configure” option, and this will install as configured:

setup.exe /configure installconfig.xml

Using this arrangement, you can create multiple XMLs for all your needs, and you are only a single command-line away from installing Office, configuring Office, or removing Office.

If you’re insterested in what the latest Office ProPlus updates and versions are for each release channel, you can see these here: https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Version-and-build-numbers-of-update-channel-releases-ae942449-1fca-4484-898b-a933ea23def7

For an overview of the current Office Channels, read more here: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/deployoffice/overview-of-update-channels-for-office-365-proplus

You can also read the documentation for the Office Deployment Tool here: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/deployoffice/overview-of-the-office-2016-deployment-tool

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