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Bypass Microsoft SA with the Windows 8.1 volume license

Windows 8.1 Enterprise doesn't require Microsoft Software Assurance, which could save organizations money, but watch Windows 8.1 volume license terms.

Windows 8.1 Enterprise is now available without Software Assurance, a first for Windows Enterprise edition. Prior to that, companies either had to take on the Software Assurance annuity or settle for the Professional edition. But the Windows 8.1 volume license rules have changed, giving organizations the option to get features such as AppLocker and BranchCache without the annual service fees that have normally accompanied them.

Not everything is different, though. Microsoft licensing structures remain just as confusing as ever, and the new standalone version only adds to the complexity. Let's try to make sense of what you can or cannot do if you want to upgrade to Windows 8.1 Enterprise. Just remember, Microsoft likes to mix things up on occasion, so whatever we cover here is subject to change at any time. That's just the Microsoft way.

Why upgrade to Windows 8.1 Enterprise?

On March 1, 2014, Microsoft made Windows 8.1 Enterprise available as a standalone product, rather than being tied to a Software Assurance (SA) agreement. For many companies, features that were previously out of reach are now available. The new edition is now treated as a separate product listing, with its own SKU.

Windows 8.1 Enterprise offers a number of technologies not available in the Professional edition. The Enterprise edition simplifies management and makes it easier to customize security. It also better supports mobility and enables end users to more easily access corporate resources.

DirectAccess, for example, provides an always-on virtual private network (VPN) so users can securely connect to corporate resources via the Internet without having to launch a separate VPN. Windows BranchCache, on the other hand, lets users in remote locations cache files, websites and other content so they don't have to be repeatedly downloaded across a wide-area network.

With AppLocker, administrators can specify what scripts and applications are permitted to run on desktops, and they can use Windows To Go to deploy Windows 8.1 to bootable USB drives. In addition, the Enterprise edition includes sideloading, which lets IT install new apps on user desktops without going through the Windows Store.

How do you get a Windows 8.1 Enterprise volume license?

Windows 8.1 Enterprise is available only through the Microsoft Volume Licensing program, which defines the terms and condition for the products and services that organizations buy in bulk. The program starts with a minimum of five licenses and goes up from there.

Volume Licensing offers a number of programs for different types and sizes of organizations. However, only the Open, Select and Select Plus programs let organizations purchase Windows 8.1 Enterprise as a standalone product.

To complicate matters, Microsoft plans to retire the commercial Select Plus program on July 1, 2015, to make room for the Microsoft Products and Services Agreement (MPSA), which it said will consolidate and simplify various licensing programs.

Currently, this change does not apply to government and academic Select Plus customers, but the MPSA is a relatively new entity and adds a certain measure of uncertainty to the structure of future volume-licensing programs.

Licensing is only part of the issue, however. Windows 8.1 Enterprise is available as an upgrade only. You have to start with a licensed operating system and move up from there. And it can't be just any Windows OS.

For example, you can upgrade to Windows 8.1 Enterprise from the Windows 7 Enterprise, Professional and Ultimate editions, but not from the Windows 7 Home Premium, Home Basic and Starter editions. Windows Vista and Windows XP follow comparable restrictions.

Also be aware that Windows 8.1 Enterprise cannot be updated from the Windows Store. You must use media downloaded from the Volume Licensing Service Center. In some cases, you might need to remove the existing qualifying OS in order to deploy the Windows 8.1 volume license upgrade.

A world without Software Assurance?

While you no longer have to purchase Software Assurance to get Windows 8.1 Enterprise, you should be aware of what you're giving up in the standalone plunge.

Software Assurance provides tools and resources for deploying and managing volume-licensing purchases. With SA, subscribers have access to new Windows releases, in-person and online training, and Microsoft deployment planning services.

SA grants a number of additional user rights related to Windows features such as sideloading, virtual desktop access and Windows To Go. In addition, several unique technologies are available to subscribers, the most notable being the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack. This is a suite of tools for better leveraging desktop virtualization, managing Group Policy, administering BitLocker, and performing diagnostic and recovery operations.

Software Assurance includes numerous other benefits, but they all come at a price. According to Microsoft, SA on a desktop product costs 29% of the license fee for each year of coverage. Some licensing programs include SA in the price, while others do not. Either way, you're paying for the coverage.

So tread cautiously. There is much debate about the wisdom of buying into the Software Assurance program. Be sure to do a careful cost analysis comparing Windows 8.1 Enterprise with and without the extra benefits -- not always an easy process with the way volume licensing is structured.

Moving to Windows 8.1 Enterprise

Some organizations might find they simply don't want to commit to an annuity. For others, internal policies prohibit them from entering into such agreements. In these cases, the Enterprise standalone edition could prove useful.

If your organization is not under such restrictions, consider your options carefully. First determine whether you even need -- or would use -- all those Software Assurance extras. If your organization won't be using them, or you'll use them only minimally, the standalone edition might better suit your needs and budget.

In fact, you should determine whether you even require all the features that the Enterprise edition offers. Windows 8.1 Professional edition might prove a better fit.

Whichever direction you go, at least you now have a better choice of Windows 8.1 volume license options.

Next Steps

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Have you had any difficulties with Microsoft licensing? Do you or would you benefit from Windows 8.1 Enterprise without Software Assurance?
We have encountered issues of sight licensing in the past with Microsoft but with a few calls and some tech assistance these problems were easily overcome. We don't see the benefit of Windows 8.1 Enterprise without Software Assurance, but if in the future it appears to be a functional and useful tool we will implement the Enterprise without Software Assurance offered by Microsoft. At this point we simply do not need it in our enterprise.