Microsoft volume licensing isn’t scary

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Spencer Dunford|April 16, 2014
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Windows OS and application imaging projects can be extremely challenging, especially without Microsoft Windows volume licensing.

Getting started with an imaging product like SmartDeploy typically involves hunting down a reference machine. In terms of best practices, it is usually a good idea to start from a clean, known state. That means building out a machine from scratch. And building a machine from scratch means installing a fresh OS, which means starting with Windows media.

So go ahead and grab your Windows disc. But wait, where is your Windows Operating System CD, DVD, or ISO these days?

Most of us might start ruffling through our desk drawers for that elusive disc and then start pouring through the Rolodex of our mind before scouring the internet for a download location. But, there isn’t a download location. At least, not one that you trust or that is legal.

How can you not have an install disc?

Every machine we order already ships with an OS already on it, so it seems like we’d have install discs, too. But, OEMs don’t do this anymore by default. Microsoft doesn’t exactly want Windows install discs laying around everywhere. Plus, OEMs are trying to save costs everywhere and one quick way is to reduce packaging. Notice how few pieces of documentation and media ship in a new machine these days. If you want OEM installation media, it usually involves a support ticket to the manufacturer, shipping time, and extra cost of $100 or more. That seems crazy since you already paid for the machine and for the OS, you have the rights to run it, so what gives?

What you need to do is get a Windows volume licensing agreement from Microsoft. This will solve all your OS media problems.

But quickly the questions flood in. Where do I get a Windows volume licensing agreement? What does that agreement really mean? How much will that cost? The common perception is that it involves paying twice for Windows, and is definitely met with hesitation. So, the most common scenario that we hear about is customers just start from whatever media they can get their hands on.

Problem is, that isn’t legal. Microsoft only allows reimaging rights with OEM media to restore a device back to the way that it shipped. They don’t allow the use of OEM media for a customized image, which is what most organizations want. Companies want to customize their software payload the way they like, which generally means they don’t want the trial version of AOL’s dial-up service on their corporate devices if that’s the way they came.

Retail licensing doesn’t make much sense either because no one wants to run down to Best Buy to purchase a boxed copy of Windows when you already have it running on the machine as it shipped. Plus, retail licensing has its own set of SKUs and keys that aren’t sustainable for imaging at any scale.

Let’s face it Microsoft hasn’t precisely made the proper licensing of their vast number of products particularly easy. That is why nearly every large software reseller will have Microsoft licensing specialists on their team. It is their job to give you the right advice to ensure that your organization is licensed properly for the software that you’re using.

What is Microsoft volume licensing?

In reality, getting a volume license agreement in place for your organization isn’t that difficult, is worth it short and long term, and is the most compliant way to reimage computers. Plus, you gain access to the genuine, supported media, as well as higher end SKUs that aren’t sold in any other capacity. In and of themselves, the higher end SKUs, with greater security and access features, make volume licensing worth it.

Rather than untrustworthy downloads, you get direct access to Microsoft’s portals. You can download what you need, even slipstream media that might otherwise take quite a long time to build up to through an upgrade path. Plus, you can be issued a single license key that is valid for all your endpoints. If you grow as a team, adding additional licenses is also straightforward.

Most customers with 1,000 or less computers get a Multiple Activation Key, or MAK key. This is a single key that is valid for all the machines in the organization. If you buy more computers over time, your MAK license rights can be extended. After a computer is imaged, it will activate against Microsoft’s servers within a couple days. In the case of SmartDeploy you can store this key directly into the image the licensing is completely automated. This is generally the path that we recommend at SmartDeploy.

Some large enterprises may have both the scale and machines that can’t or shouldn’t connect to the internet outside their organization. For this reason Microsoft also has Key Management Servers or KMS which is a role added to a Windows Server device. Instead of the device activating against Microsoft, it can activate internally against a server within the organization.

Of course the type of key, media, and activation methodologies will vary by OS, but this is essentially how it works for Windows 7 forward.

Summing up

In short, volume licensing is the cleanest approach for imaging. It is the most sustainable approach with the fewest moving parts. It is the easiest for IT to manage, and it is the most legal. I wouldn’t do it any other way.

All you need to do is contact your favorite software reseller. Tell them that you need a Microsoft volume license agreement, and how many machines you have. For a minimal fee you get the agreement in place and a credit for the original licenses you’ve bought. Just factor this into the next quote that you request from your reseller and you’ll be glad you did when it comes time to reimage both new and existing devices across your organization.

For more information on Microsoft Licensing and reimaging rights, check out this great how-to over in the Spiceworks Community.

Spencer profile
Spencer Dunford

Spencer was a SmartDeploy employee.

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