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How to license Windows 10 virtual desktops

When it comes to licensing Windows 10 virtual desktops, things can get complicated. Use these tips to make the process run smoothly.

Understanding licensing for Windows 10 virtual desktops is not for the faint of heart.

Despite recent changes to the Windows licensing structure, IT administrators must still navigate a complex maze of fine print to ensure they implement Windows 10 virtual desktops correctly and avoid getting slammed with exorbitant penalties in the event of a software audit.

Microsoft offers organizations two viable options for licensing Windows 10 virtual desktops, both of which are tied to the Enterprise upgrade editions available through Microsoft's Volume Licensing program. They are:

Microsoft Software Assurance (SA): A set of services, technologies and use rights that help ease the burden of implementing Windows 10 in the enterprise. One of these rights permits access to Windows 10 in a virtualized environment. Microsoft offers SA only to some Volume Licensing programs.

Windows Virtual Desktop Access (VDA): An alternative for those who cannot meet the SA requirements, such as users who access their virtual desktops through thin clients. The VDA option includes many of the benefits of SA, but focuses primarily on providing access to Windows 10 virtual desktops.

Both SA and VDA allow IT to license Windows 10 virtual desktops on a per-device or per-user basis. Microsoft also offers a per-user add-on for extending its per-device licenses.

Windows 10 per-device licensing

Per-device licensing is the traditional approach to Windows licensing and requires admins to license every device separately. Although multiple users can work on the same device, admins cannot apply the license to more than one device.

Microsoft also offers a per-user add-on that you can apply to your existing per-device license.

Any user working with a licensed device can remotely access up to four Windows 10 instances running in a VDI deployment. The virtual desktops do not have to run Windows 10 Enterprise, even though SA and VDA are based on an Enterprise upgrade model. Customers can also run Windows 10 Pro or earlier versions of permitted Windows instances with VDI.

Remote users may also access licensed desktops on nonlicensed devices because per-device licensing includes Roaming Use Rights, though there are several restrictions. First, the user can only connect to VDI from a noncorporate device. The user must be the single primary user of the device licensed through SA or VDA. In addition, the device cannot be on the company's premises or those of its affiliates.

Windows 10 per-user licensing

Today's mobility makes tracking devices and their licenses more complex than ever. For this reason, Microsoft also offers a per-user model that provides IT with greater flexibility, while simplifying the licensing process.

In a per-user model, IT licenses every user separately and allows them to access any four of their Windows 10 virtual desktops from any device. The desktops can run any version of Windows instances the license permits. Unlike per-device licensing, per-user licensing lets users access their virtual desktops from any device.

Both SA and VDA support per-user licensing, but there is one important difference between them. The SA option requires the user to be associated with a primary device licensed for Windows 7, 8, 8.1 or 10 (Enterprise, Pro or Education). For a device to be considered a user's primary device, the user must be the main individual working on the device and the device must be the user's main work device.

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The VDA license has no device requirements, making it the least restrictive licensing option for Windows 10 virtual desktops. Admins should still consider per-user SA licensing if the user already has a qualified primary device that is not covered by per-device SA or VDA.

Windows 10 per-user add-on

In some cases, IT has a Windows 10 Enterprise upgrade license that includes per-device SA or VDA coverage in place, but then needs the flexibility that comes with per-user licensing. Fortunately, Microsoft also offers a per-user add-on that can apply to an existing per-device license. The price of the add-on varies depending on the IT shop's existing investment, according to Microsoft.

The add-on is available only to primary work devices that are already covered by per-device SA or VDA licenses. If admins purchase the add-on for users working on devices covered by SA or VDA, those users have all the benefits of the full per-user SA or VDA license.

There is far more to SA and VDA licensing, such as, both SA and VDA provide for users accessing virtualized OS instances running on their local devices. Customers can also license Windows 10 without SA or VDA.

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This was last published in May 2017

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