Windows Vista product activation for volume license customers
Working mostly with corporate clients has one significant advantage – I’ve largely been shielded from Windows product activation, as I’ve generally had access to volume licence keys (VLKs) – also known as volume activation (VA) 1.0; however with Windows Vista and VA 2.0, this looks set to change and there seems to be a lot of misinformation on the subject (e.g. rumours of enterprises having to run licence servers on Windows Longhorn Server, which is still a beta product and hence not recommended for production use). With that in mind, I thought I’d write a bit on the subject to (hopefully) clear up any confusion.
At a Microsoft event today, Microsoft UK’s James O’Neill was reluctant to discuss this (in my experience, Microsoft consultants and evangelists do tend to shy away from anything remotely related to licencing) but luckily I got chatting to Scotty McLeod from Perot Systems, who was extremely helpful and knowledgeable on the subject.
Scotty explained to me (and others) how the arrangements for corporate product activation will work. Basically, Microsoft has two systems for volume license customers:
- Multiple activation keys (MAKs) will be made available, with each key valid for a defined number of installations. Activation will require contact to Microsoft servers and, once the maximum number of activations has been reached, the key will be prevented from activating any further copies of Windows. That sounds fair enough but these keys should be guarded closely (more closely than traditional VLKs) because if a key is leaked and administrators do install unofficially, Microsoft is unlikely to “unlicence” a machine. In effect, if you release the key and it gets misused, then it’s your problem!
- Volume licence keys (VLKs) require that an organisation maintains its own key management server (KMS) – ideally two – to act as a proxy between Microsoft’s licencing servers and enterprise clients, validating and activating Windows Vista computers. Each client actively searches out an appropriate KMS for activation, which must occur within 30 days, retrying every 22 hours. If activation fails, then the installation will run in reduced functionality mode (RFM). Then, every 180 days, the Windows Vista computer will reactivate, with a 30 day grace period before reduced functionality mode is enforced. Effectively, Windows Vista machines will need to reactivate approximately every 6 months. Group policy can be used to control the warnings experienced by users.
So, when would administrators want to use MAKs and when would they use VLKs? MAKs only require activation once (unless there are a lot of hardware changes) and so are ideal for organisations with a dispersed user population that rarely contacts the corporate network. For the majority of users in most organisations that regularly connect to a corporate network then VLKs will probably be more appropriate.
There are some gotchas with VLKs though – for example, a multinational organisation with local purchasing policies will probably have many volume license agreements and will need to implement 2 KMS servers per territory. This is for two reasons:
- To retain control and stop one territory from using all the licences purchased by another.
- Because license prices vary globally and licencing terms generally prevent low cost licenses from one territory from being deployed in another.
KMSs also require Windows Vista or Windows Server codenamed Longhorn – with installation being performed via a script within the operating system installation (no GUI interface is provided). Fortunately, Microsoft also provides web-based reporting tools for VLKs, including computer names and how long is left until license expiry. One more positive aspect of the VLK arrangements is that if a licence is not successfully reactivated, then it returns to the pool – so if a laptop is stolen, then at least the licence will be returned within six months or so!
So, that’s Windows Vista product activation for corporate users in a nutshell. The Microsoft website has more information on VA 2.0 (as well as an FAQ) and there’s a My Digital Life article that also has information on the software protection platform (SPP), which is the version of product activation that users who are not subject to volume licence agreements will encounter.