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

The updated licensing rules for Microsoft VDI environments won't change much for PCs, but Windows 8 on ARM tablets won't need an extra license to access a VDI session.

After taking a lot of heat for virtual desktop licensing that's costly and restrictive, Microsoft is showing signs of loosening up with Windows 8 VDI licensing.

All we have to go on at this point is blog entries -- not the official guidelines -- but the information published so far shows that Microsoft won't change the virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) rules for regular PCs. Microsoft VDI licensing for a Windows 8 PC appears to be the same as those for a Windows 7 PC.

But the company is changing the game when it comes to other devices, which could help limit the damage that Apple's iPad is doing to its PC business. (Microsoft released news about its Surface tablet to compete in that market as well.) Here's how Microsoft VDI licensing works and how it will look different in Windows 8.

Part two of this series:

Does Microsoft CDL provide the same VDI access as Windows RT devices?

Getting to VDI with Windows 7

First, let's review the existing Microsoft VDI licensing rules.

To use VDI today, a PC needs a Windows operating system license to which Software Assurance (SA), Microsoft's maintenance and upgrade rights program, has been added. Having Windows-plus-SA not only licenses remote access to virtual desktops, but it licenses the OS running in the remote virtual machine you're accessing.

What about non-Windows devices such as iPads? Any device with an embedded OS (even an embedded Windows OS) used to access VDI needs a substitute called a Virtual Desktop Access (VDA) subscription, which costs $88 to $100 a year -- about twice what it costs to add SA to Windows. The vast majority of today's tablets have embedded OSes, as do all smartphones.

What's new in Windows 8?

For Windows 8 VDI licensing, Microsoft says it will give a free ride on VDI to devices with one particular embedded OS: Windows 8 RT (formerly called Windows 8 on ARM), which will run on tablets with ARM processors. Anyone who is the primary user of a PC with Windows-plus-SA can use a "companion" device running RT to access VDI without needing a VDA subscription.

More on Windows 8 licensing:

It's not too soon to start thinking about Windows 8 licensing

Microsoft licensing guide

That cracks the door open a bit for people who would otherwise have to purchase VDA. Naysayers will point out that it will cost more to purchase a Windows RT device to get "free" VDI access than to pay a VDA subscription on your current tablet for six or seven years, but for those who go the Windows RT route for other reasons, such as potentially better Office compatibility, it's definitely a bonus.

This is speculation, but Microsoft could sweeten the bonus by giving Windows RT devices a free ride on remote access to Office Professional Plus (OPP) instances, too. For example, licensing OPP-plus-SA on your work PC could give your RT device free remote access to OPP in a VDI environment. (Today, remote access to OPP requires assigning a full OPP license to the device you're using, even if it's a tablet that can't run OPP, which most can't.)

Non-Windows 8 companion devices

If your BTF (best tablet friend) isn't of the Windows family, can it sneak through the crack that Microsoft has opened for Windows RT? No.

Microsoft blogs get hazy here, but in some respects, the company is tightening the screws on devices such as iPads. If you are the primary user of a Windows-plus-SA device (which will technically be licensed for Windows 8 via the SA upgrade rights, even if it's actually running Windows 7), you'll have to buy a Companion Device License (CDL) for a non-Windows device. The CDL gives you access to a remote desktop, and one CDL licenses four personally owned devices.

Keep reading part two of this series on Windows 8 VDI licensing to see how Microsoft complicates VDI access for non-Windows companion devices.

Paul DeGroot
is Principal Consultant at Pica Communications, an independent firm focused on optimizing Microsoft customers' license spending and agreements.

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