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Microsoft intros virtualization-friendly Vista Enterprise license

Microsoft's new Vista Enterprise license makes it legal – and cost-effective – to virtualize your desktops using VDI.

Microsoft Corp. is rolling out a new licensing scheme called Vista Enterprise Centralized Desktops (VECD) that should give organizations exploring virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) confidence that they are in compliance with their Microsoft license agreements.

The main feature of the VECD license is that it is instance-based, not installation-based.

VDI is a term coined by VMware Inc. that refers to hosting a desktop operating system within a virtual machine (VM) running on a centralized server. In the past couple of years, some large organizations have turned to VDI as an alternative to Citrix and Microsoft Terminal Services.

The main feature of the VECD license is that it is instance-based, not installation-based. What that means is that with VECD, Vista is licensed per user or use, rather than per installed copy. A Vista VM, therefore, can be dynamically moved between virtualization hosts, and organizations can store VMs offline without requiring that they be fully licensed.

The new model came about at the request of a small number of large enterprise customers, said Scott Woodgate, director in the Windows Business Group. "This technology is really new. Only a very small number of customers have asked for [it]," Woodgate said.

Retail Vista
Nevertheless, Microsoft had told customers that had inquired about how to legally run Vista in a VDI setup to purchase a retail version of Vista from a store such as Best Buy or CompUSA until Microsoft had done more research. Needless to say, that approach had its shortcomings.

First of all, you can't actually buy Windows Vista Enterprise from a retail location – only Home Basic, Home Premium, Business and Ultimate -- and thus lose out on features like multi-language support, the Subsystem for Unix applications (SUA) and the right to run up to four virtual operating system sessions. Furthermore, retail Vista editions aren't designed for dynamic environments such as VDI. "In general, the dynamic scenario was not allowed," Woodgate said. Most importantly, enterprises don't tend to buy software from a big box retailer – they like to take advantage of their volume license agreements.

"The retail license was not designed for this use, and certainly not optimal for this use," Woodgate said.

Ostensibly, VECD fixes all of these problems; however, it does cost more than a straight Vista Enterpise license. VECD is available for an annual fee to Microsoft Software Assurance subscribers. Woodgate would not divulge how much Microsoft charges for VECD, except to say that "it provides substantially more value than the retail license."

However, customers that purchase a VECD license are not restricted in the kind of underlying virtualization technology they use, be it Microsoft Virtual Server or VMware, Woodgate said. "This is a Windows license. Customer can choose whatever virtualization technology they want."

Software Assurance alone
But while VECD seems to remove some barriers to deploying VDI, it imposes others, said Brian Madden, an independent industry analyst who specializes in server-based computing.

Madden's biggest gripe with VECD is that it's only available for Software Assurance customers, Microsoft's subscription service, and not everyone necessarily likes the Software Assurance program.

"Microsoft has been trying to push people on to Software Assurance because it's annuity revenue, and they like that," Madden said. "The problem is that Microsoft hasn't always been able to release [new products] within three years." [Ed. Note: Three years is the length of the Software Assurance subscription.] "So, a lot of people opt to buy things the old fashioned way."

What does that mean for non-Software Assurance customers? "Microsoft will surely tell them that they're always welcome to purchase full Windows Vista licenses, but if you don't want to get screwed on license fees, you're going to have to buy Software Assurance," Madden said.

Ultimately, this shouldn't impact too many VDI shops, Madden said, since most VDI users are bigger companies that are also traditional Software Assurance customers. It may however, "stymie VDI's growth among small and mid-size companies," he said.

For now, Microsoft will sit tight with the existing VECD license, "as early adopters prove out this model," Woodgate said. But Woodgate did not rule out change down the road. "In the next 18 months, we will evaluate any feedback we get back from our customers."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Alex Barrett, News Director

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