Blog post

Microsoft Licensing and Virtual Desktops

By Gunnar Berger | May 30, 2013 | 12 Comments

Today I was investigating the license requirements for virtual desktops and ran into something downright silly, but completely legitimate. So, without further ado, I give you an alternative approach to Microsoft’s VDA license.

In my research I really want to figure out what licenses are required to run a Windows desktop virtually. Many organizations still don’t get this, or if they do they blatantly ignore the requirements. Long story short if you are accessing your VDI based Windows’ desktop from anything other than a fully licensed Windows’ endpoint that includes Software Assurance (SA) you are most likely in violation of your Windows’ license. You can thank me later for making you aware of this.

The license in question is the Microsoft Virtual Desktop Access (VDA) license. Since this license is per device, per year and has a hefty price tag at roughly $100 each year, it takes a lot of the blame for the high cost of desktop virtualization. Yet if a business bought a PC with an OEM’d Windows Professional on it then added SA, its roughly $40 per year. This makes thin clients and zero clients much more expensive.

So here’s a silly idea, why not:

  1. Buy the cheapest PC you can find that comes with Windows Professional on it.
  2. Put SA on this PC
  3. Repurpose the PC with Microsoft Windows ThinPC
  4. Manage the ThinPC with System Center

I make the argument in my research that a Windows endpoint gives a better user experience due to many of the features that are only available on Windows endpoints: Non-hairpinned Unified Communications, DirectX redirection, Windows Media Redirection, etc. So choosing a Windows endpoint makes sense from a UX stand point. However, it defeats the purpose from a management standpoint which is why I’d drop WinTPC on it (good news there: you get WinTPC as a part of SA). Its still a bit beefier to manage WinTPC than a typical thin/zero client, however, its licensing cost is 60% lower YOY.

I like thin clients, they use less power, less space, have longer shelf lives but even though I really dislike this idea, I can’t refute that it makes sense from a cost perspective. Which leads me to a final conclusion:

Microsoft really needs to fix the VDA license

Leave a Comment


  • Gunnar,

    I agree with everything you said – although since most orgs considering virtual desktops already have the physical variety, it is even less expensive to simply lock those units down rather than purchasing a new PC. Once the old units finally die, then they can consider replacing them with a TC or ZC. By that point, the VDA licensing, assuming it’s still in effect, should wash out in terms of the overall ROI advantages of running virtual desktops (with the appropriate enabling back-end infrastructure in place of course).

  • @guisebule says:

    Great life hack Gunnar !

    I have a bunch of enterprise customer sitting on stacks of XP boxes gathering dust, I will go and tell them this story and report back on how they do with it. This will appeal to a LOT of big orgs out there holding onto lots of legacy XP boxes.

    Microsoft really needs to fix the VDA license < If they do not, the DaaS space will thrive without them, we do not need MS blessing to do real DaaS in this world amongst SA holders.

    DaaS is exploding without Microsofts blessing and its all underpinned by VDI rather than RDS, only crazy people build DaaS out of RDS.

  • Chris Marks says:

    Hi Gunnar,

    Though this is a good idea, I don’t think your OEM plus SA will be a vaible license option.

    As OEM licenses never have Transfer Rights (even if you add SA,which will need to be done within 90 days of the OEM license purchase) it is not a viable license to provide to a VDI instance, as you’d need to re-license the OS to run in a VM.

    So you’d need to make a volume license purchase to deliver VDI from your datacentre (on top of your OEM license). All the SA license on the OEM build will get you is upgrade rights.

    As far as I understand it, you can transfe the SA itself but not the OEM license it’s sitting on….

    …you are however right , the VDA/SA situation remains a big hurdle to many orgs adopting VDI.

    And don’t get me started on RUR for office…. 🙂

  • Stephen Bennett says:

    Hi Gunnar

    Great article

    i’ve just spent the last 4 months looking at different options to replace 150 physical Windows XP Dell Desktops within a small-medium business and the Microsoft Licenses are killing the whole solution.

    These desktops are about 9 years old and luckily for us we’ve had about 200 desktops spare since the credit crunch to replace them with. Today we have 1 spare and i’ve come to my final conclusion about a replacement.

    Buy another physical PC with an OEM version of the latest Windows OS (preferably Windows 7 Pro) and Office.

    I can forward you the details if required of my summary, but basically i’ve compared the above with Dell VDIAB running Citrix (found to be the cheapest solution on the market for a single site solution) based on an OVP agreement which gives us the flexibility of migrating our desktops on a gradual basis albeit more expensive rather than an OVS (which we would need to go company-wide andi don’t understand why you would want to purchase a desktop capable of running a Windows OS desktop to connect to another Windows OS desktop – It’s adding extra cost !!!). The costs difference without Office is around ÂŁ40k per annum over a 5 year period. I’ve done a simple spreadsheet which outlines a 30/75 and 150 user solution if this would help inform your customers. It’s certainly helped me decide on a solution and will probably wait till Microsoft sort their licensing out.

    One vendor however said. Why not just run Dell VDIAB and purchase a data centre license. Run as many shared/personal Windows Server 2008/2012 servers and run these as desktops for your users over RDS. This way you don’t have to pay for a VDA license. You can just buy a one off RDS Cal. Simple !! You can even skin these server images to look like a Windows 7/Windows 8 Desktop Operating System. Apparently Citrix don’t care what Operating System you run on VDIAB. It can be a Desktop OS or Server OS. Which makes me think….why call your product Virtual Desktop In a Box?

    It’s basically cheating VDI to get around the licensing costs.

    Hope this helps your case.

  • Stephen Bennett says:

    I forgot to add what solutions i looked at as the above means nothing without some facts. The below summary are based on cost without the on-going cost of a Microsoft OVP agreement. I love vendors who promise they can deliver a solution and compete in the market, but clearly can’t

    1. Oracle VDI – Double the cost of Dell VDIAB – didn’t even try to compete. Has since (last week) ditched all Sun Ray Server and Clients from their VDI model. Wonder why?
    2. Dell – Citrix VDIAB – Best in the market for small-medium businesses who want a grid architecture. N+3 would be sufficient for 150 users (with a backup strategy). Anything more than 500 users then look at enterprise products.
    3. Pivot3 – VMware View Horizon (in a box) – To expensive, to complex (additional management servers required), don’t have any disaster recovery solutions in place (they said you’ll need additional products like Veeam to achieve this). More like suitcase in a box.
    4. Dell – RDS with Windows Server 2008/2012 (Not really VDI) but cheap (only CAL’s required). This tech has been around since i was teenager (i’m 30+) so not really driving the future of technology.
    5. XenDesktop – Like VMware not best fit for small to medium companies. Requires additional management/broker servers. Less expensive than VMWare but less expensive than VDIAB.
    6. XenApp – Great for delivering applications via browser or shared desktops. Not best fit for companies who require personal desktops (might as well go out and buy a PC).

    Whatever solution companies go for, all 6 (except point 4) require a Microsoft OVS / OVP or Open License agreement. Either way you’re stuck in paying additional costs above everything else for Microsoft Licenses. Well done Microsoft !!

    We even considered using OpenOffice / LibreOffice to try and reduce the cost but even this doesn’t beat going out and buying a simple desktop with OEM Windows and Office.

    Doesn’t make sense to me and i’m sure over the next 2-3 years with Hyper-V becoming more and more influential and competitive with the likes of Citrix and VMware, they’ll end up shooting themselves in the foot with their own licensing. But that’s Microsoft for you (ensuring they get the monopoly legally).

    I don’t want to put any small-medium business off going down the virtual desktop route, but the best businesses for this solution are very small (1-10 user) businesses / government funded or charities who get massive discounts on Microsoft Licensing or Enterprise Businesses (500+ users) who require central management or have multiple sites.

    Good Luck Virtual Desktop Admins ? Hope this simple review helps someone out there.

  • G. Simonson says:

    This creates an interesting perspective on the BYOD and non-corp devices, which won’t have VDA/SA on them anyway. This seems to mean that RDS/XenApp is a cheaper way to deliver an application to those devices, removing the need to buy a 100$/year VDA for every iPad or personal laptop brought into the office.

  • M. Tigerman says:

    I wonder if there are any details behind the comment “We even considered using OpenOffice / LibreOffice to try and reduce the cost but even this doesn’t beat going out and buying a simple desktop with OEM Windows and Office” Stephen Bennett posted. What factors make the LibreOffice less cost effective especially for a thin client environment?

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  • Bob Smith says:

    Good news for me!
    Thanks a lot…

  • I would like to know we have 8 thinclient hosted in vm ware and we have remotedesktop cal licences for the above, my clarification is whether we should have 8 microsoft office licences. please clear this doubt.