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How to license Windows RT tablets connecting to a virtual desktop

Windows RT tablets can access virtual desktops without additional licenses -- but there's a catch … or three.

In presentations, I've asked hundreds of people whether they'll

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deploy Windows 8 on corporate desktops, and less than five have raised their hand. However, another show of hands shows that more people are interested in the mobility aspect of Windows 8, in particular the Surface tablets. It seems that if Microsoft isn't getting Windows 8 into corporations one way, it will in another.

The Surface Pro is Microsoft's least notable new tablet; it runs Windows 8, plain and simple. Its main advantage over its sister product, the Surface RT tablet, is that it can run real Windows applications because it's built on Intel hardware.

The Surface RT, on the other hand, is an ARM-based device, running a derivative OS called Windows RT that looks like Windows 8 but comes without the flexibility you would expect of Windows. Since it's an ARM device, it can't run traditional applications or even be managed in a traditional way -- it can't even join a domain!

What the Surface RT tablet can do, though, is run Windows 8 apps from the Windows Store (only ones that run in the Metro interface) and connect to virtual desktops. Plus, it can connect to VDI without needing to buy an additional license. Microsoft has essentially bundled its new Companion Device License (CDL) with the Windows RT OS that runs on the tablet. That represents a savings of up to $99 per year when compared to using an iPad or Android tablet to access a virtual desktop, which requires Microsoft's Virtual Desktop Access license or CDL.

What's the catch?

There are, however, a few caveats to licensing Windows RT tablets. First, this "freebie" only applies if a user's primary computer has Software Assurance (SA). This isn't really all that different from anything else Microsoft does. You need SA to connect to a virtual desktop anyway, and if the machine you're using doesn't have SA, you have to purchase a VDA license.

More on Windows RT tablets

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Explaining Windows RT security

When you do that, you're entitled to purchase a CDL that allows you to use up to four additional devices to connect to a virtual desktop. I'm not saying it's the right thing to do, I'm just saying it's not new.

Note that this licensing only applies to VDI-connected desktops. Remote Desktop Services (RDS) licensing requirements have not changed, although the price has gone up for per-user licenses as of late last year. If you're accessing RDS remote desktops, you still need to purchase a device or user-based RDS CAL, but you don't need SA or VDA licenses. If your users have multiple devices, it makes sense to purchase the user-based CAL, despite the price increase.

The other issue with Windows RT tablets is one I just learned about: The "free" license to access VDI desktops only applies if the Surface RT is purchased and owned by the company. I don't expect too many people got Surface RT tablets for Christmas, let alone brought them to work and asked IT to connect them to their virtual desktop. But if they did, they would be in violation of the license agreement. This caveat is not to be overlooked if you're considering embracing the tablet.

When you boil it down, you can indeed find a situation where Surface RT tablets (and other devices running Windows RT) can be used to access virtual desktops without additional licensing. You just have to be accessing a VDI desktop (not RDS) from a device your company purchased for you -- when you're not using the desktop that the company bought for you with SA on it. That sure takes the shine off the "free access" feature, doesn't it?

This was first published in March 2013

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