Windows VDI licensing changes: How the CDL will -- or won't -- help you

As if Windows VDI licensing weren't complicated enough, Microsoft made some changes. The new Companion Device License solves one problem but creates another.

The updated Windows VDI licensing adds complexity and may increase costs for many organizations. Let's see how...

the new device license might affect you -- and how you could even get around it.

A few weeks ago at the Microsoft Management Summit, Microsoft announced a new license for VDI called the Companion Device License (CDL). The CDL, an additional license that you purchase after you've bought Software Assurance (SA), allows unlicensed devices to access Windows VDI desktops.

"Wait, what?" you might be asking. "I wasn't allowed to do that before?"

Many people assumed that they could use other devices (personal or corporate-owned) with virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) because they were entitled to by having SA or Virtual Desktop Access (VDA) on their "primary" device by way of something called Extended Roaming Rights. If you're one of those people, you're only half correct.

How the old Windows VDI licensing works

Extended Roaming Rights applies to users who occasionally access VDI sessions from other devices when they're not on company premises. That means if you have a PC with VDA entitlements at the office, you can use your home computer or iPad to access your virtual desktop when you're at home. But, if you were to bring that same iPad into the office and access the desktop, you'd be required to purchase a separate VDA license for it -- just because you were on company grounds!

If you want to bring those home devices into the office, you have to pay again!

Gabe Knuth

Clearly, this Windows VDI licensing policy is ridiculous and almost impossible to enforce. It's not the only problem with the system, but it exemplifies the unnecessary complexity of Microsoft VDI licensing.

What is the CDL?

Microsoft made an attempt to fix this issue by introducing the CDL. The CDL allows employees to use up to four other devices (per primary licensed device) to connect to their virtual desktop, regardless of where they're located. By "device," I mean anything -- iPad, iPhone, Android tablet, PC at home, Mac, etc.

So that solves the problem, right? I mean, the four-device limitation is a bit arbitrary (and hard to enforce), but other than that, this seems like it could work. The biggest issue with this addition to Windows VDI licensing is that you actually have to buy the CDL on top of the SA or VDA. That's right. You've already paid for the right to access virtual desktops from the office and occasionally at home, but if you want to bring those home devices into the office, you have to pay again!

Of course, this means that every licensing-conscious company will just wind up buying the CDL, because those devices bounce around from home to office constantly. It doesn't matter whether the user or the company owns the device, so while it has bring your own device (BYOD) implications, the new Windows VDI licensing isn't limited to BYOD. In fact, if those devices simply stayed at home, there would be no need for the CDL.

So we're back to ridiculous, except it looks like Microsoft is trying. It's as though the company said, "We can't really change the foundation of Windows VDI licensing, but we can add on!"

Factoring the CDL into your organization

If you were paying all the proper Microsoft VDI licensing fees before (which is to say, a VDA license for every single device that ever entered your workplace and accessed a virtual desktop), the CDL will probably save you money. If, however, you're like most organizations, the CDL is just one more check you have to write to Microsoft for services that it should simply be offering as a benefit of SA or VDA.

More on Windows VDI licensing:

Microsoft Windows 8 VDI licensing adds BYOD licensing complexity, cost

What's new in Windows 8 VDI licensing: Free ride for Windows RT

Desktop virtualization project pitfalls: Microsoft VDI licensing and more

Microsoft's virtual desktop licensing costs still hinder VDI adoption

There's a way out, though. You may have heard of Windows on ARM (now officially named Windows RT, or WinRT), which allows Windows 8 to run on ARM processor-based devices. If you buy a device with WinRT installed, it has built-in VDA privileges, assuming the primary device has SA or VDA. It's like a gift from Microsoft for buying Microsoft. Some call it vertical integration, but I'm more inclined to call it "shady practices designed to make people pay for something they shouldn't have to (the CDL) or buy something they don't want (WinRT devices)."

That's the challenge of dealing with Windows VDI licensing. It's such an issue that it routinely makes our lists of desktop virtualization project pitfalls, and it doesn't appear to be getting any easier. This isn't even considering the challenge of licensing Microsoft Office, which has the same funky Extended Roaming Rights and SA craziness that Windows has (but hasn't yet added a CDL). Keep an eye out for a lot more information between now and the time Windows 8 is released!

Gabe Knuth
is an independent industry analyst and blogger, known throughout the world as "the other guy" at He has been in the application delivery space for over 12 years and has seen the industry evolve from the one-trick pony of terminal services to the application and desktop virtualization of today. Gabe's focus tends to lean more toward practical, real-world technology in the industry, essentially boiling off the hype and reducing solutions to their usefulness in today's corporate environments.

This was last published in May 2012

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