Windows Vista product activation for volume license customers

This content is 18 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

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.

7 thoughts on “Windows Vista product activation for volume license customers

  1. I was interested to note Microsoft’s official policy document (available at the bottom of this page) to note that practically all their discussions were related to making sure everyone followed the new system of activation. I do have a number of queries, though, which I would be interested if you or anyone else would try to answer:

    1) What exactly is the DISadvantage of an illegal copy of Windows? The document talks about “the advantage of genuine windows” but when all said and done, it’s a program. There’s no difference in code from a cd a pirate has created and a cd Microsoft have created. The advantage of a genuine copy from Microsoft’s point of view is obvious – the licence fee – but what advantage does the user get?

    2) If I change the motherboard or hard drive on a machine, for example if I upgrade from an Athlon 32 bit processor to an Athlon 64 bit processor and motherboard, essentially I’m running the same system, because unless I spend extra money re-creating another machine from the bits I just made redundant, I’m still only using one machine. When XP first came out, Microsoft accepted this, but recently they’ve taken the view that any such major upgrade requires a new purchase of the Windows operating system. My question is, how can they legally justify selling a product that they make redundant through their own definitions, given that on a new system I am still complying by the original license conditions, to only run ONE licensed copy on ONE machine at any ONE time?

    3) DRM – If I compose a song, write the lyrics, record it into a digital format and store it, will Microsoft add a DRM flag to it, as they would if I used the Zune player, and if so – given that they are doing this without my explicit permission – could I sue them for breaching MY copyright by adding THEIR DRM flag to my song? (incidentally I’d love to see this tested in court with regards to the Zune player)

    I’d love to see your input on these questions.

  2. Whisperwolf,
    You make some interesting points here. I’ll add my views on each and see what you think…

    1. On Windows XP – none at all, as far as I can see. On Windows Vista a product key will be need to be revalidated every 180 days or so – if it’s known to be pirated then it will not be allowed to activate. If Vista fails to activate then it will enter reduced functionality mode (RFM), which, according to a ZDnet article means that “the default Web browser will be started and the user will be presented with an option to purchase a new product key. There is no start menu, no desktop icons, and the desktop background is changed to black. The Web browser will fully function and Internet connectivity will not be blocked. After one hour, the system will log the user out without warning. It will not shut down the machine, and the user can log back in. Note: This is different from the Windows XP RFM experience, which limits screen resolution, colors, sounds and other features”. I’m sure that RFM will be cracked but I’m okay because Microsoft has given beta testers who logged at least one bug a free copy of Vista ;-)
    2. Windows licenses are tied to individual computers. Microsoft uses a points system to weight hardware upgrades and deem whether a complete change of hardware has taken place (therefore making an upgraded computer “new”) and I understand they have relaxed their position on this recently. Basically it seems that a motherboard change is unlikely to trigger re-activation, but a motherboard and hard disk might.
    3. Go for it! I’d love to see someone win such a case!


  3. I have windows vista business 25 licenses.
    1. Is there any mean to activate them without
    connecting to internet.
    I have no internet in my area
    2. what is difference between Volume Activation 2.0
    and Volume Activation 1.0
    3. Volume Activation 1.0 applies to which Operating Systems
    and Volume Activation 2.0 applies to which Operating Systems.

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