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Microsoft offers per-user Windows license, stays mum on cost

Microsoft finally ceded to the demand for a per-user Windows license, but without pricing, the true cost for convenience is unclear.

Microsoft finally launched per-user licensing this week, but don't jump for joy just yet. The company won't say how much the convenience will cost.

Answering years of calls from IT pros and industry observers, Microsoft will offer Windows Enterprise Volume Licensing on a per-user basis starting Dec. 1, in addition to per-device licenses, which had been the only volume licensing option.

Microsoft refused to offer details on pricing for the new per-user Windows license, however. Microsoft also declined to comment on why it decided to finally offer the new licensing model.

We don’t have more rights. We have new licenses and they aren't going to be free.
Paul DeGrootAnalyst, Pica Communications

The per-device license model was long problematic for companies utilizing desktop virtualization. A Microsoft Virtual Desktop Access (VDA) license is a required component for delivering Windows-hosted virtual desktops. VDA is included with Software Assurance (SA) licensing, but that was previously only for Windows devices and cost $100 per device, per year.

As a result, some customers found creative ways to bypass the complex licensing, such as using the Windows Server operating system as a client OS, especially in desktop as a service (DaaS) scenarios. (The company has not addressed Service Provider Licensing Agreement rules that restrict DaaS).

"There are pain points and people are doing crazy things like running Windows Server OS to get around it," said Jon Howe, systems architect with Parata Systems, a pharmacy automation technology company in Durham, N.C. "Microsoft is justified in making this change and it's overdue."

Now, customers can get remote access to Windows Enterprise through VDI or Windows To Go on any device as part of the per-user SA and VDA licenses. Locally-installed provisions for per-user SA and VDA include access on any device licensed for Windows 7/8/8.1 Pro or Enterprise and any Windows tablet with a 10.1-inch screen size or smaller.

Customers can still use per-device licenses if they choose, so the new per-user licensing can be viewed as a new layer on top of the existing per-license model, said Rob Horwitz, analyst with Directions on Microsoft, an independent analysis firm in Kirkland, Wash.

Even if the per-unit cost for the licenses goes down, it could mean more revenue for Microsoft; many customers are unintentionally out of compliance due to confusion over licensing complexity, not because of any lack of desire to be compliant, Horwitz said.

"A lower per-unit cost could help Microsoft move more and more customers to a subscription model, as that is essential to Microsoft’s long-term success," Horwitz said.

The cost factor may be something organizations work out with Microsoft, according to Gunnar Berger, CTO of the desktops and applications group at Citrix. In his previous position as an analyst with Gartner, Inc., Berger led an online charge for Microsoft to make changes with the #FixVDA hashtag on Twitter.

"My guess is that [the new licensing] will be a premium, but even so, auditing gets fixed by this, and list pricing can always be negotiated," Berger wrote on his Citrix blog.

Customers find the Windows VDA license requirement a challenge because all devices accessing virtual desktops need a VDA license. In case of a Microsoft audit, a company could find itself out of compliance.

"The new per-user model is arguably much simpler, and does offer customers the prospect of being fully covered," Horwitz said.

Organizations using Windows that haven’t had a lot of pressure or interest in supporting more flexibility from employees likely won't change licensing approaches, said David Johnson, analyst with Forrester Research, Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

Parata Systems uses VDI through VMware Horizon 6, but because it is a small company with about 500 employees, Howe doesn't expect to change its SA licensing.

Per-user license tied to Windows PCs

Not all observers see the new licensing as much of an improvement.

The new per-user SA licenses will be available as both an add-on and as a full user subscription license (USL). Under the new Windows SA per-user USL, a licensed user must be the primary user of at least one device licensed for Windows 8/8.1 Pro or Enterprise, or Windows 7 Professional or Enterprise operating system and it must be the "primary device" for that user. The other devices can be non-Microsoft devices.

"You have to use that machine for at least half of all the work that you do," said Paul DeGroot, analyst with Pica Communications in Camano Island, Wash., and the author of Microsoft Licensing Concepts.

One change in licensing eliminates a restriction set up by the Companion Device License (CDL) add-on. The CDL accommodates up to four devices per user. In December, the same rules that apply to the per-user SA add-on will apply to CDL, meaning the number of devices per user is unlimited. 

While that opens up the licensing a bit for customers, it still may only be useful in an extreme bring your own device case and may not affect a large number of users.

"How many people do you know who walk around with five devices?" DeGroot said. "One of them must be a Windows PC…I always thought four devices was not a constraint."

Companies may still be subject to audits, which will force full inventory of devices, something in DeGroot's experience may be a long project for companies to ensure every user has a physical PC licensed for Windows with SA.

"That doesn’t sound like simplicity to me," DeGroot said. "I don’t think anything has changed. We don’t have more rights. We have new licenses and they aren't going to be free."

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Without pricing available, can you evaluate the new Windows Enterprise per-user SA model?
Trying to do the evaluation without the pricing seems like trying to order off a menu without prices and food descriptions.