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How Windows 8 threatens to undermine Software Assurance

The launch of a new product presents the vendor with a golden opportunity to change how they charge their customers for it by revising the licensing model

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Sean Robinson, MD of License Dashboard, explains how critical changes to Windows 8 licensing is undermining the assurance of Software Assurance, and what organisations must do to ensure they remain compliant when implementing virtualisation and BYOD.

The launch of a new product presents the vendor with a golden opportunity; to not only secure more customers with their exciting new proposition, but to change how they charge their customers for it by revising the licensing model. Changing the terms of a licence must be very carefully managed however. Change it too much and you risk alienating your existing customer base and losing their hard-earned loyalty; the last thing you want to do when you’re attempting to sell them your latest wares. Leave the licence alone however and you could miss out on legitimate revenue opportunities; a cardinal sin for any executive. It is a fine balance that every vendor must evaluate prior to launch.

Microsoft was presented with this very conundrum/opportunity with the launch of Windows 8. They, perhaps sensibly, chose to tweak their licensing rather than enforce a wholesale change (which wouldn’t have been popular). At its core the Windows 8 licence remains the same as it ever was – for all its limitations in today’s multi-device world, Windows remains a device licence. If only it were so simple. The widespread adoption of desktop/server virtualisation in almost every organisation of every size, combined with the more recent surge in Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD), has meant that the way Windows is used, and more importantly deployed, has changed significantly. IT has shifted away from being device-centric to user-centric. Microsoft recognises this and has sought to reflect this multi-device world in changes to the Windows 8 licence, all while retaining its core and legacy as a device licence. While these additions may be small on paper, they add extra layers to what is already a complex subject. Most critically of all however, since the changes often require the purchase of ‘top ups’ to the supposedly all-you-can-eat Software Assurance agreement, Software Assurance is looking a lot less reassuring.

Windows 8 is currently available in four different editions - Windows 8, Windows 8 RT, Windows 8 Pro and Windows 8 Enterprise, with the latter two being designed for business use. Windows 8 Pro is aimed at small-to-medium sized businesses and can be purchased as a retail, OEM or volume licence, whereas Windows 8 Enterprise, which is aimed squarely at large organisations, is only available via Software Assurance (SA) or Windows Intune (a monthly subscription license for small-to-medium size organisations). SA offers the simplest method for licensing Windows 8 virtual machines and remote devices, as well as the additional benefit of the most feature-rich version of Windows with Windows 8 Enterprise. However it is far from simple.

With a SA or Intune licence, the included Windows virtualisation rights now permit the installation of up to four instances of Windows locally as virtual Operating System Environments (OSEs) on top of the physical device operating system. However, that’s where the simplicity seems to end. For remote access to a virtual machine for example, an additional Virtual Desktop Access (VDA) subscription must be purchased to provide access to virtual OSEs from devices that do not qualify under the Software Assurance licence, such as thin clients or those using their own personal device that is not explicitly covered by the SA, like a tablet. The VDA subscription is also available to non-SA customers who wish to access their Windows 8 desktop from an external device.

Looking further at remote access from other devices, Microsoft requires users to purchase the Windows RT Companion Subscription License (CSL). Again, this is only available with SA, but provides coverage for up to four personally owned devices (any type) as well as corporate owned non-x86 devices within or outside the organisation firewall. This is a more flexible approach than directly licensing each individual device, however the organisation will still need to track which devices are operating under this licence to ensure they don’t exceed the four device limit, and again, undermines the ‘assurance’ aspect of Software Assurance since it is an additional (often essential) licence purchase on top of an SA.

But it gets even more complicated than this. In an effort to promote their own tablet devices over the popular alternatives (i.e. the Apple iPad or the various Android tablets), Microsoft has disregarded the requirement to purchase a Virtual Desktop Access (VDA) licence if the user is accessing their OSE from a Windows 8 RT device. So to clarify, if you buy a Windows 8 RT tablet, and your desktop environment is covered by an SA, then you do not need to purchase a VDA licence in order to access it using your Windows RT tablet.

For most organisations migrating to Windows 8, in spite of these complexities, they may still be best served by Software Assurance. However they would be wise to take account of the following advice to ensure they get the most out of their Windows 8 licensing:

  • Review your remote access needs. Find out exactly who needs (i.e. who would really benefit from) a remote access licence. While Microsoft will prefer you to purchase a CSL for every user covered under SA, this is a big expense to endure so mitigate it by choosing your remote users carefully.
  • Investigate Windows 8 RT as a ‘free’ licenced alternative to an iPad or Android device for remote access. Of course this is exactly what Microsoft wants you to do, but since you’re already installing Windows 8 desktops then you have already decided you like their approach. It also gives a more seamless desktop/tablet experience for end users.
  • Regularly reconcile your licensing needs with your licensing entitlements. Software licences are always changing, and organisations are always purchasing software. To ensure you don’t accidentally pay for software you’re not using or run illegal software, you should regularly match up your licensing needs with your entitlements. This will also ensure you know exactly where you are when any additional licencing requirements come up.

Finally, it is worth sparing a thought for Microsoft in all of this. Microsoft has to walk a fine line between the past, present and future with every new piece of software, and as another device licence, Windows 8 was always going to cause some licensing headaches. But as an IT director you should be asking Microsoft questions as to its long-term licensing strategy. Will the company ever move to user licences for all of its software? Its recent decision to levy a 15% price rise on Client Access Licences (CALs) from December 1 was certainly not a popular move, so it is hard to see what their strategy is. Has it only added user licences due to user pressure? Does it wish to preserve the device licence for as long as possible? Moving the company’s entire licensing from device to user is a huge undertaking which will change the financial model of the entire company, so it is no surprise that it is taking a cautious approach. But since it is taking every one of its customers along this journey with it, you have a right to ask where exactly it is taking you.

In spite of these additional complexities, for most large organisations, Windows 8 is still best purchased through Software Assurance. SA offers the most (if limited) flexibility for virtualisation and remote access, on top of the numerous feature benefits of Windows 8 Enterprise. However, organisations should ensure they understand the limitations of the Windows 8 SA and remember that it still requires the organisation to keep a record of how the licence is used – on which device, by which user and at which time. This is not just important to ensure you pay the right price at the annual true-up, but for proving that you are operating within the scope of the agreement. SA may be the nearest that licensing comes an all-you-can-eat buffet, but there are plenty of extra courses that are not included. There are stipulations and limitations as with all software licences, and Windows 8 adds even more compliance challenges than ever before as Microsoft attempts to balance the needs of retaining a device licence in a world that is increasingly user-centric and device-independent. As is always the case, the only way to ensure 100% compliance and cost-effectiveness of your licensing is to know what you are entitled to and how much of that entitlement you have used.


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