Windows 8: Which licence to choose?

Windows 8 versions

The recent announcement that Microsoft had sold 100 million licences for Windows 8 its much-hyped revamp of its hugely successful Windows 7 operating system hammered home one strong point: if you haven’t already upgraded you probably will in the near future.

Large businesses may be last in line however: many of those running Windows 7 have only recently completed their migrations from Windows XP which had a much longer lifespan in the corporate world than it did on most consumers’ PCs. Moving to Windows 8 – or for that matter any brand-new operating system – is unthinkable for organisations that are more careful about costs and risk than ever.

“Typically around the time that the first service pack is released you’ll start to see some enterprises moving to that” says Neil Campbell director of solutions with Dimension Data Australia which is one of Microsoft’s largest Windows implementation partners.

“They have to take a very risk averse view. You’ll see enterprises starting to test proof of concepts but at this point you typically won’t see them adopting it. However you’ll really see a push from users as they start to become comfortable with Windows 8. Home users are normally much quicker to adopt new versions.”


Choices choices choices

That doesn’t mean there aren’t millions of smaller businesses and individual users keen to make the shift. And with the inexorable rise of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) strategies the eagerness of those home users for Windows 8 is going to create new pressures on the companies they work for.

The retail story around Windows 8 is relatively simple. There are fewer versions of Windows 8 to choose from – there are four – than previous versions; for example Windows 7 came in six different flavours.

Windows RT

It’s the name for the company’s new tablet and ultrabook-focused operating system. This version which comes preinstalled on computers rather than as an upgrade option incorporates specialised versions of applications like Office Home & Student 2013 RT but won’t run conventional Windows applications and can only be expanded through Microsoft’s Windows Store.

Windows 8

By contrast Windows 8 offers the conventional upgrade path for existing systems as well as being bundled on new PCs. It incorporates the base operating system with all its Modern user interface swish as well as standbys like Internet Explorer 10 mail calendar messaging photo management and built-in support for Microsoft’s cloud-based SkyDrive storage service. Also included are security tools like Windows Defender and Windows Firewall.

Windows 8 Pro

It incorporates all of the features in Windows 8 while adding business-related features such as BitLocker encryption Remote Desktop Connection remote access and support for connecting to company and school networks with Domain Join.

Windows 8 Enterprise

In multiple-user environments however retail licences are relatively expensive and because Microsoft puts strict controls on how particular instances of Windows 8 can be used are inappropriate for volume licensing scenarios.

Those scenarios apply to the fourth version of Windows 8 – Windows 8 Enterprise – which is the most relevant for non-consumers and small businesses and is only available using Microsoft’s volume licensing program Software Assurance for Windows.

This program spans a broad range of usage models which have long included plans for volume licensing employees both at their desks and on their laptops while mobile.

The latest iteration of Software Assurance has been positioned rather differently than it was for Windows 7 though to reflect the growing use of mobile devices and desktop virtualisation technology.

Desktop virtualisation in particular has been far more tightly controlled in the past when the Product Use Right (PUR) document explicitly allowed the installation of Windows 7 in virtual environments. The PUR now requires that users ‘permanently assign each licence to a single device’. Further clauses confirm this refers to a physical device not a software-based virtual machine. If companies need to virtualise their employees’ desktop access they can purchase a number of add-ons to the Software Assurance licence.

Anyone running Windows virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) will need to buy the Virtual Desktop Access (VDA) Rights option to access those VDI images from any device that’s not already covered by Software Assurance which includes limited VDA rights for licensed devices.

In other words you can access a VDI image from a laptop that’s running its own version of Windows but not from a thin-client computer that can’t run Windows itself and accesses servers using something like the ICA protocol by Citrix Systems for example.

Microsoft’s Windows To Go option allows users to store a Windows image on a bootable USB stick which can be inserted into any device that’s already covered by a Software Assurance licence. This is a different approach to VDI which runs Windows on a separate back-end server.

If users want to access VDI images from devices other than their Software Assurance-covered corporate laptop or desktop they must buy Roaming Use Rights for each user. This fits in with BYOD strategies by allowing staff to access VDI desktops and Windows To Go images from personally-owned devices tablets or even hotel business centres – all of which fall outside the normal scope of coverage for Software Assurance.


Tablet options

A number of Windows 8 licensing provisions have been designed to cater for what Microsoft hopes will be the growing adoption of its Surface tablets.

For example an option called Windows RT Companion VDA Rights allows users to access VDI images from a Windows RT-based device (a tablet like the recently released Surface Pro) without requiring an additional Software Assurance Windows licence. This effectively serves as a sweetener for organisations willing to commit to deploying Surface tablets.

The Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) supports VDA environments with a range of management deployment and troubleshooting capabilities to support large numbers of users in VDI-based environments. These tools will be a lifeline for any organisation struggling to enforce access controls in increasingly fragmented mobile environments.

The last mobile device-related licensing option is a Windows Companion Subscription License (CSL) targeted at users who already have a licensed primary device. The CSL is also an enabler for BYOD allowing users to access their corporate desktop using VDI or Windows To Go on up to four different devices – whether owned by the business or by the user. This is particularly useful for those who tend to use a variety of different devices (work desktop home desktop laptop and tablet) and want the licensing flexibility to access their workspace from any of them at any time.

Rounding out Microsoft’s range of Software Assurance add-ons is the Windows Thin PC licence which comes as a smaller-footprint version of Windows 7 that can be deployed on older computers. This approach is designed to breathe new life into older systems although it’s only available on devices for which a Software Assurance licence has been purchased.


Cloud & beyond

Companies considering such a rollout may be reluctant to commit to managing their business applications through Microsoft’s Windows Store; for an additional fee Microsoft offers an option called Enterprise Sideloading of Windows 8 Apps. This allows companies to maintain their own app stores for users limiting the selection of apps and avoiding the possibility that sensitive data may be leaked by the use of unauthorised apps.

 Enterprise Sideloading for Windows 8
Enterprise Sideloading of Windows 8.

That’s just one example of how the increasingly fluid definition of the corporate desktop has changed software strategies. Indeed the growing use of cloud-delivered applications will force many organisations to completely revisit their Microsoft licensing. If many users can accomplish most of what they need to do using Google Apps or Microsoft’s Office 365 for example there’s no need to license an entire copy of Microsoft Office for that user.

Microsoft knows this of course and has crafted licensing arrangements that recognise the changes that cloud applications have brought. If you’re considering your Windows 8 licensing weigh up the relative benefits of replacing some applications with their cloud equivalents.

“As far as cost effectiveness goes and bang for buck around cloud services Microsoft services are pretty much where you would want to look” says Campbell.

“There are lots of nuances within the enterprise agreements but the bulk of those nuances are not new. We see a lot more caution on the desktop than we see on the server side – but in the end it’s all about the cost to deploy the cost to manage and the risk if you have problems.”


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