Microsoft makes great strides with virtualization licensing and support

After years of pressure from the virtualization community and quite a few digs from VMware via blogs or report write-ups, Microsoft officially updated its licensing and support rules to be more "virtualization-friendly."

Beginning on Sept. 1, 2008, Microsoft customers can begin migrating virtual machines with any of the 41 Microsoft server applications between servers within a server farm as often as necessary without paying additional licensing fees.

Microsoft decided it was time to dump its 90-day reassignment requirements so that customers could reassign licenses from one server to the next within a server farm as frequently as needed. The licensing policy change is definitely welcomed, what with the high availability, disaster recovery, and live migration use cases being touted today in the virtual world.

Prior to this change, Microsoft licenses were tied to physical servers. So if a virtual machine were to be moved or migrated from its server to another server that doesn't have an available license for a particular Microsoft application, Microsoft considered this a transfer of a license. And once that transfer took place, it couldn't be reassigned to another machine for 90 days. This policy has drawn a lot of criticism from the virtualization community.

Chris Wolf, a respected virtualization community member and analyst at The Burton Group, said that the new licensing policy will probably have a negligible financial impact on most organizations. He wrote on his blog, "Many IT shops simply ignored the 90 day license transfer restriction and had never taken the step to purchase additional licenses for the sole sake of virtualizing a Microsoft application."

Wolf also stated that it is important to note that the 90-day license transfer restriction has only been lifted on server applications licensed under a volume license agreement. He added, "Small and medium businesses (SMBs) that have individual Exchange or SQL Server licenses purchased through a VAR (Microsoft categorizes such licenses as Full Packaged Product [FPP] or OEM/System Builder) are not covered under the new policy."

"Clarification from software vendors on licensing for virtual environments has been sparse, creating confusion among users," said Kurt Daniel, SVP at Parallels. "Microsoft is now addressing this, and though it is currently limited to a selection of applications, it's a good step forward. By setting out a clear position on virtual license mobility, Microsoft is simplifying the transition and removing one of the major road blocks to virtualization adoption. As the biggest software company in the world recognizes that virtualization is fundamentally changing the business of IT and not a passing fad, hopefully we will start to see other software vendors following suit and likewise developing a clear and fair license model for virtual environments."

At the same time, Microsoft also updated its technical support policy for 31 server applications. Doing so gives those customers access to technical support when deploying these applications on Microsoft Hyper-V or any third-party validated virtualization platform. Third-party platforms include Cisco, Citrix, Novell, Sun, and Virtual Iron. These companies have signed up to participate in Microsoft's Server Virtualization Validation Program. Chris Wolf is also reporting today that VMware is also now a member of this group, although the official Microsoft Web site has yet to be updated with that information.

Again, this is another welcomed policy change for the virtualization community, as support within a virtual environment has been treated with suspect for years now, and consumers have been given the runaround for just as long with the tired response of "you'll have to reproduce the problem in a physical environment first before we can provide you with support."

As usual, many people in the industry don't believe that Microsoft has gone far enough with these policies. However, you have to admit that unlike many organizations, the company is addressing two key areas that affect virtualization success: licensing and support.

Rather than telling them what they are doing wrong, I say hats off to Microsoft for attacking these challenges head on and for allowing third-party platform vendors to participate.