New Windows Enterprise licensing helps -- but beware the fine print

Per-user subscription option finally moves Microsoft into sensible cloud licensing and makes many enterprise tasks easier and cheaper

fine print owner's manual
Credit: flickr/CJ Sorg

On paper it sounds great: Microsoft's new Windows Software Assurance (SA) per User program and Windows Virtual Desktop Access (VDA) per User option (PDF) let you shift from a per-device licensing fee to a per-user fee.

Given the Byzantine nature of the current SA and VDA programs, the fact that you need only count noses, instead of devices (both real and virtual, company-owned and BYOD), cuts through layers of annoying and obfuscating legalistic bafflegab.

But… (we're talking about Microsoft licensing, so you were expecting a "but," weren't you?) 

Here's the carrot, per Microsoft's licensing announcement:

With per user licensing you can:

  • Free your users to use or access Windows Enterprise across all their devices.
  • Deliver Windows Enterprise across devices through local install, Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), or Windows To Go.*
  • Gain the simplicity of counting users instead of counting all of their various devices—enabling Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) scenarios without the need to track every device and license.

*Subject to licensing and technical limitations

Here's the stick:

The following conditions must be met for a licensed PC to be eligible for a Volume Licensing upgrade license:

A licensed, qualifying Windows operating system must already be installed on the device that will be assigned the Volume Licensing upgrade license. The following table lists base operating system licenses—including preinstalled original equipment manufacturer (OEM) versions—that are eligible for upgrade.

You must remove the existing qualifying operating system from the device to deploy the Volume Licensing upgrade license, unless the PC is covered by Microsoft Software Assurance.

If you want to install or run more than one licensed operating system at one time (including the qualifying operating system), you can either:

  • Acquire Software Assurance for your Volume Licensing upgrade license.
  • Purchase full Windows licenses separately.

There's a list of 25 different qualifying flavors of Windows (and one line for the Mac), going back to Windows 98. Poignantly, Windows Home Premium isn't a valid upgrade candidate.

Where does that leave you, the beleaguered nonlawyer who has to wade through this pile of legalistic offal? The basic signposts are pretty straightforward.

You have to start with a machine that's already licensed for Windows Pro or Enterprise -- Windows 8.1, 8, 7, Vista, XP or even 2000, NT, or 98 qualify. Is the BYOD device running Home Premium? Bzzzzzt. That's the first chance to dip into your company's wallet.

If the device (note how we're still talking about devices, not users) isn't yet under Software Assurance, you have to add it to your SA contract. Ka-ching.

Then you buy the User license.

Once you've bought the User license, you can install Windows Enterprise on any Windows Pro device, or on Windows tablets with screens under 10.1 inches. (That neatly circumvents the problem where a specific small Windows tablet is only available with Home Premium.) The license no longer applies to the device, but to the user. Presumably, you'll want to switch all of your users over to the new regime, for sanity's sake.

That's not all. A licensed user gets to run multiple Microsoft products on any platform: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, or Chromebook.

VDI, in particular, which lets you run virtual machines on a server from any device, gets rolled into the license. Gabe Knuth at TechTarget puts it this way:

In anything but the most Microsoft-centric scenario --  where you support Surface tablets, have Software Assurance (SA) and run full Windows clients -- you had to pay $100 per device (not per user) to access Windows VDI desktops. It's an antiquated policy, and the community has been lobbying hard for Microsoft to fix it for some time.

People got around this by installing Windows Server as the VDI desktop operating system, effectively creating a single-user Remote Desktop Session Host server. This solution worked really well (except on a few apps that for some reason check to see if they're running on a server OS), and cost significantly less than running the desktop OS equivalent. Still, it was an unnecessary hoop to jump through.

If you've been dancing on eggshells trying to get VDI running legally on non-Windows platforms, this per-user licensing change should make your life much easier -- and possibly cheaper.

As Duncan Jones at Forrester says:

This is a sound move by Microsoft to maintain its dominance of the enterprise desktop market, by making it easier for CIOs to support BYOD programs. You can allow employees to buy the device that they believe best helps them battle irate avians, build virtual cities and/ or watch drug-dealing ex-teachers, and then layer a secure, supportable Windows desktop on top, without having to navigate the previous fog of restrictions on device ownership, type and location.

It's definitely a move in the right direction -- but don't get tripped up in the details.

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