Can Microsoft SA be a cheaper option to VDA for thin clients? If the stars align, maybe...

It's not about skirting SA/VDA, but more about trying to find the most cost effective licensing program when using non-Windows clients.

Somehow, both Brian and I were on a licensing kick this week, and I was surprised to see his article yesterday about Windows Server 2008 as a way of skirting the SA/VDA requirement at the same time I was knee-deep in Microsoft licensing fun. For me, it's not about skirting SA/VDA, but more about trying to find the most cost effective program when using non-Windows clients. 

Ask most people about what you need when using thin clients, and you'll hear "Thin client…yeah, that's VDA." I was talking to Jack last week after a conversation he had with ClearCube (yeah, they're still around…just a bit quiet outside of high security environments), and they had an interesting offering with their thin clients where they'd either:

  • Sell you a thin client that you'd have to buy VDA for
  • Sell you a thin client with a real Windows license that has SA

The first option is the no-brain answer. Since the device doesn't have Windows and/or wasn't purchased through the normal channels, you wind up having to buy VDA for each device at $99/yr.

The second option is interesting to me. Essentially, you're buying a Windows license for which you'll buy SA (at 29% of the cost of the license every two years), and throwing that license in a drawer somewhere since you're not actually going to install Windows on the thin client. It sounds crazy when you consider the acquisition costs ($99 for VDA, or ~$200 for a Windows license + SA), but it might be the most cost effective way to get your devices access to Windows VDI images. While the initial cost would be higher, the year over year cost would be lower. Please keep in mind that the pricing here may not represent what you actually get from Microsoft, and that anything I've come up with is essentially a SWAG - Scientific Wild-Ass Guess. I tried :)

What ClearCube is doing isn't all that groundbreaking, but it's a unique take on a problem that plagues everyone in this space - making sense of Microsoft licensing. I decided to take a look from a generic perspective, looking to use any device that does not currently have SA as a VDI client. I made two charts, one with retail pricing for Windows 7 Professional, gleaned from, and another with estimated pricing for Windows 7 Enterprise. I'm leaving the hardware costs out of the picture, since those are what they are. This is only to compare two ways you can get SA privileges to run/access Windows virtual machines.

Chart 1: VDA vs SA, Retail Pricing, Windows 7 Professional

This assumes a Windows 7 Pro price of USD$249, with 29% of that due every two years for SA. This is a bit of an oddball solution, though. From what I understand, you can buy SA for a retail copy of Windows, but each copy has to have its SA subscription activated and maintained separately, as opposed to part of an agreement. So, while there are visible cost savings after four years, there is a lot of administrative overhead maintaining the subscriptions.

Chart 2: VDA vs SA, Agreement Pricing, Windows 7 Enterprise

This assumes a Windows 7 Enteprise price of USD$150, with 29%, or USD$43.50, of that due every two years for SA. Of course, to get Enterprise, you need to have an Enterprise Agreement with Microsoft. Maintaining the agreement is already being done, though, and the cost per license is significantly less expensive. If you have an EA, this is for sure the way to go.

There's one other option that perhaps thin client manufacturers could use, and what I suspect ClearCube uses: The COA license. The COA, or Certificate of Authenticity, is relegated for system builders. Now, you can go to Amazon and buy a COA license of Windows 7 Professional for $139.99 (only slightly less than my estimated Win 7 Enterprise cost), but you'd only be allowed to use it if you were building a machine from scratch (and, I believe, for resale). Still, this is something that thin client manufacturers could offer to help their customers avoid purchasing VDA. And, since the OS would never actually get installed, it could be whatever the lowest (cheapest) possible edition of Windows is that allows SA.

While you can't technically get COA licenses for all of your VDI clients, thin client manufacturers could, I think, help out with that by bundling them with their devices. I'm reserving the right to be totally wrong on this one, though :).  I believe that there is some sort of restriction that only allows you to buy a Windows license with SA for a device that can actually run Windows (even if it doesn't run it, it has to be able to run it), too, which means you probably can't get away with buying a COA (or any other Windows license) for your Xenith thin client.

So what does this all amount to? It's pretty obvious that buying SA is significantly cheaper than buying VDA after a relatively small amount of time. Even against retail pricing, the cost savings start to appear in Year 4. Against OEM pricing, though, the savings are almost immediate, and tangible in Year 2. The savings of having SA instead of VDA after four years in the OEM scenario nets a savings of $159 per user. Stretch that out to six years, and the savings is $314 per user ($594 for VDA, and $280 for SA). 

The question is, how doable is this? A lot has to happen for this to pay off, it appears. To get the huge savings, you need to be operating under an enterprise agreement, have clients that can run Windows (even if they don't actually run it), and be able to acquire the Windows licenses for those devices. If you can satisfy all of those, you can save a lot of money on licensing. This is also helpful for planning out your thin client deployment, because purchasing more powerful devices could end up costing less money in the long run if they can run Windows and save you the cost of VDA.

Let me know what you think. I could have this twisted in my head, but I've tried to go over a few times. I certainly wouldn't be the first to get confused by Microsoft licensing...

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I looked at the possibility of doing this when VDA was first announced and from what I recall MS explicitly forbid this approach.   It's VDA or nothing for your non windows capable hardware.  

Next year it will get more interesting.  With Windows 8 running on ARM and ARM being the defacto standard for tablets and smartphones it 'may' just be possible that SA will be on the cards as a cheaper way of getting into VDI.  Not that I hold out much hope though.


Thought I would also mention that corporate owned devices IPads, Android Tablets, Iphones etc also need need to be covered if connecting to VDI. If these devices are instead BYOD (owned by individual) then they would be covered by 'Extended Roaming Rights'.

VDA requirements for thinclients, is not helping the green cause. As a fat client with full OS can be covered under SA and therefore VDA.


Here is a weird one instead of going SA or straight VDA...  you could go Windows Intune only which includes VDA plus OS upgrade right benefits.


2rahvintzu: Yes, but Intune license is more expensive than VDA :( $11 per month as far as I know...

Regarding BYOD and extended roaming rights - there is one catch, you cannot use this device on-premise, which is rather annoying...

2Gabe: As I see it, the most cost effective solution is to use SA with Windows ThinPC. Many people don't know about it, but ThinPC is NOT based on Windows7, but it's based on WES (so it's truly thin client OS). You can run both operating systems (endpoint + VDI) under one SA license and you don't need to replace your existing endpoints.



Whats SAD is that we are still dealing with this and still (in the comments of an article getting things like:

Simon "I looked at the possibility of doing this when VDA was first announced and from what I recall MS explicitly forbid this approach.   It's VDA or nothing for your non windows capable hardware. "

If licensing isnt easily understood (for any other company) we would not use it. I mean really. Only MS can get away with this. hell look at the vSphere 5 licensing, the changes after the community anger, the VDI licensing, etc.

This crap will never change. That someone new to this  has to read 4 or 5 articles, then read the MS crap, then call his boss to ask about what they have, then think about it for 5 days, call the lawyer, a judge, and priest to bless it is completely sickening.

Nothign we can do about it. MS has become like a huge governement agency you call to get a question answered and you get the run around. They wont change this until they feel pain and they've never had to feel any pain in licensing loss.


Well said, Ron. I consulted a few resources for this, including past BriForum speaker Nathan Coutinho. He straightened me out on a lot, but of the other people I talked to, they had slightly different things to say.

One thing I've heard a few times is that MSFT has been known to look the other way in certain situations, which does nothing but complicate the issue more. It's asinine that we have to jump through all these hoops.

@Martin - I wrote about ThinPC a while back, and while I like the potential of it, Microsoft sort of limits it's usability. I know that it should work just fine as a thin client, but I have trouble getting past the fact that I'm being artificially limited to what I can do with it.


Gabe "One thing I've heard a few times is that MSFT has been known to look the other way in certain situations,"

No doubt. Those of us that have been in the game a while have seen this. And I think that while MS could win in court the cost to win in court when licensing is so confusing isnt worth it. They look the other way or look offer the folks in violation a cheap out.

But that is the problem. Customers are willing to pay for licensing. Just give them the rules and make it understandable. A flat licensing model would kill. If MS would release a license (Yes I know we have all asked for concurrency for ever) that just licensed per OS deployed, even at a high water mark, they could then make it EASY to get Windows OS's on any device. iPads, Driods, whatever.

What they dont realize or turn a blind eye to is the number of places that either are ignoring their licensing and connecting with other devices anyway and probably in violation or are doing it with no bad intentions and just dont know.

It would be interesting to see if the community could come up with a SIMPLE licensing scheme for Virtual MS desktops that is realistic (from an MS point of view, they still get some cash) and usable / understandable (from a customer perspective.


Ron: "It would be interesting to see if the community could come up with a SIMPLE licensing scheme for Virtual MS desktops that is realistic (from an MS point of view, they still get some cash) and usable / understandable (from a customer perspective."


Think of all the JOBS THAT WOULD BE LOST! Brian and I wouldn't have had two articles this week, Nathan and countless other licensing experts wouldn't have jobs!

You're right, though. I bet there could be a better way that still let Microsoft make all their money. It's not necessarily about them charging too much, it's about making it so damned difficult to get it right.


keep in mind that MSFT goal is not to put Windows everywhere but Windows on everything... Helping virtualization will probably kill the Windows model (for the time they will become ready to place Windows on something else than PC's).


It's me again... the Free Software and Open Source guy.  I guess I've have purposefully kept my career rather simple... where I wasn't in a high production corporate environment with hundreds or more customers to support... and I've always chosen the free stuff.  Because of that I don't have to worry too much about licensing or its direct costs.  Yes, I know there are more costs associated with software than just the licensing... so I guess those are the areas where I prefer to pay.

Anyway, I attended a presentation from a couple of Microsoft licensing professionals who attempted to explain all of the licensing... and they had a whiteboard where they were drawing diagrams and arrows.  There licensing explanation was similar to what one would imagine if they were explaining football with five teams on the field and three footballs in play at any given time.  It was pretty obvious that the end result, even it it wasn't their goal... was that if you thought you had some understanding of Microsoft licensing and the costs associated with it... you completely lost that confidence and were at best more confused than when you started.

The whole thing just made me happy to be where I was using what I use... and avoiding the nonsense almost completely.  That isn't to say that I don't support any Windows stuff, because I do... just not very much.


Ron: "It would be interesting to see if the community could come up with a SIMPLE licensing scheme for Virtual MS desktops that is realistic (from an MS point of view, they still get some cash) and usable / understandable (from a customer perspective."

There is a simple and obvious answer to that - just allow customers to choose between per-device or per-user licensing for VDA and Office in the same way that they can for CALs. Problem solved. (Remember that if you use Office in your VDI environment then you need an office license as well as the VDA license for your iPad or other device).

Microsoft has resisted per-user licensing for Office and Windows Client for a long time, but I think the time is coming when they will be forced to embrace it. My bet is that it won't happen until the release of Windows 8. At the moment it doesn't serve their interests to make anything to do with the iPad easier for corporations because they have no competitor yet, but once Windows 8 is released with its tablet focus they will have to do something different with licensing if they want enterprises to embrace the whole tablet concept - people are happy to pay, but don't want to pay for Office and VDA twice simply because they use two devices. If Microsoft are going to make this change then the Windows 8 release would be a great time to do it.



Sorry Windows Intune is not an option  - Intune is a remote admin\mgmt tool not a remote desktop access solution.



How about just licensing the damn copy of Windows?

I mean We can talk User (I pay for user A and he can connect in anyway he wants) or Device...

BUT how about I buy a copy of Windows. I put it in a VM or on a laptop or wherever and you can use it any F'n way you want to.

Now if I have a VDI environment with (lets think a college) that has 1000 concurrent users. 1500 thin clients, 8 Billion macs and Ipads...

I buy 1000 Windows licenses, I install/create 1000 VMs and my users can connect to to windows however they want. Thin client in the lab or library, ipad in the dorm, faculty from their Mac, or from Windows laptop they brought in.

If you have a corporate environment and want 200 actual PCs w/ windows and 1000 windows VMs to support 2000 shift  workers may or may not use a thin client or a mobile device, just a high water mark of 1000... fine, thats 1200 copies of windows. Done.

this, well you connected from an iPad and a desktop and a thin client. But the windows copy isnt licensed this certain way, so you need....

Complete BS. Again. Any other company out there would pay through pain.

Sorry... Licensing from MS gets my hackles up. I had to delete several cuss words from this and drink a beer just to get through it. They just want you on the hook year after year paying for stuff you probably dont need or want.


@ Simon, I think you might have missed my point. I was throwing a left ball here...  Intune comes with certain sub features of SA, which includes a valid VDA subscription. I was mentioning this in context of Gabes post in purchasing a Windows Client OS license then apply an Intune subscription. The idea was you never manage the actually device in Intune.

Downsides is that Intune <250 count is $11 RRP.

Volume discounts apply but they aren't that significant.

Also to qualify an OS for volume benefits its meant to be installed on the device.



I stand corrected - thanks.  It sounded so unlikely that MS would include a VDA license with Intune, but I checked and it's there.  


Nice set of articles, Gabe.  A couple of tips for the readers - Open and Select licensing offer a lot of mix and match options that you won't see in an EA.