Microsoft recently said that it is changing the way it handles virtual desktop licensing in current versions of Windows. The company is moving away from per-device Windows licensing and is introducing a per-user license.
Until now, Windows licensing has always been on a per-device basis, which becomes a challenge when you run Windows on one device and access it from another. It gets even more complicated when the device running Windows is a hypervisor with many other instances of Windows running on it, too.
That last little complication is a particular sticking point for service providers that want to give customers access to desktop versions of Windows, such as Windows 7, 8 or 8.1.
From a licensing standpoint, a typical desktop as a service (DaaS) arrangement built on a desktop version of Windows is BYOL -- Bring Your Own License. The service provider can't acquire the license for you, so you have to buy the appropriate licenses for your situation. Microsoft has now simplified the question of which license you have to buy, but that's only half the battle for service providers. We still need Microsoft to allow multi-tenancy, or the ability to run instances of Windows that belong to different companies on a single virtualization host.
This is 100% possible from a technical perspective, but Microsoft has yet to actually allow it, and for small businesses, that's a big deal.
Per-user Windows licensing hurts small businesses doing DaaS
Large companies using DaaS don't have to worry about Windows multi-tenancy rules because they have hundreds or thousands of desktops in the cloud, and their provider can easily create an environment large enough to make money and still keep prices low. But to comply with Microsoft's Windows licensing rules, small businesses' desktops must run on dedicated server hardware, rather than filling in gaps that might exist elsewhere in a provider's infrastructure. That means DaaS providers face a relatively high cost of on-boarding small business customers, and they can't recuperate that cost by spreading it out over hundreds or thousands of users.
As such, DaaS providers can only support customers of a minimum size with a desktop OS-based offering. This minimum is usually in the neighborhood of 50 desktops, though it can vary. DaaS providers can support far fewer virtual desktops by using a server version of Windows and essentially providing access to single-user Remote Desktop Session Host servers. In most cases this is fine, but many small businesses don't want to have to support the subtle differences between Windows and Windows Server. They want Windows.
There is a ray of hope, however. If Microsoft is willing to change how it licenses current versions of Windows, perhaps it'll also be open to the idea of adding a Service Provider License Agreement (SPLA) that allows for multi-tenancy to the upcoming Windows 10 OS. It's long been speculated that Microsoft would eventually provide an SPLA for Windows, probably around the same time that it offers its own Azure-based DaaS tool. That is a likely next step, now that we have Azure RemoteApp delivering Windows applications from the cloud, especially combined with the less complicated virtual desktop licensing that has already come out.
I'm a huge proponent of DaaS for small businesses. Taking advantage of DaaS and other cloud services can make a small company more nimble and effective. With any luck -- and with cooperation from the "New Microsoft" that we've been seeing of late -- Windows 10 will have licensing that is friendlier to service providers and end users.
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