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The facts about Windows 7 licensing

Windows 7 licensing can be complicated, partly because the OS has had multiple predecessors and editions. Get control by using helpful tools and avoiding common problems.

This is Part 4 in a four-part series on key elements of a Windows 7 migration. Part 1 discusses the pros and cons of enterprise desktop migrations and whether Windows 7 is compatible with an organization. Part 2 covers the effect of legacy applications, and Part 3 examines the link between migration tools and licensing.

All enterprise deployments of Microsoft products seem to have one thing in common -- complex licensing. Windows 7 is no different. Complicated licensing schemes seem to be the natural order of things, so understanding these schemes is crucial to maintaining legality.

Licensing is complex partly because there are multiple editions of the operating system -- six major editions, in fact. What's more, those editions can be purchased through different mechanisms. Administrators can get Windows 7 preinstalled on a new PC, purchase upgrade media, perform an in-place or an anytime upgrade, buy a complete retail version of the product, or opt for volume licensing.

For the enterprise, the formula is a little simpler. Most business users will have a Windows Server domain in-house, and their PCs must be able to join or at least access the domain. That requirement culls the field of Windows 7 editions down to three: Windows 7 Professional, Windows 7 Enterprise and Windows 7 Ultimate. Windows 7 Enterprise, however, may not even enter the equation for smaller businesses because it's meant for large-scale deployments -- organizations that use Microsoft's volume-licensing agreements or its Software Assurance program. Therefore, many businesses will choose between Windows 7 Professional and Windows 7 Ultimate.

Windows 7 installation complexities
Simplicity of choice evaporates when considering the various ways to deploy Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate in the enterprise. The complexities stem from the upgrade market, not just upgrades from previous generations of Windows.

For example, most netbooks come with Windows 7 Starter Edition, but that version won't let admins access a Windows Server domain. As such, a Windows Anytime Upgrade may have to be purchased to move from Windows 7 Starter to Windows 7 Professional. The same can be said for purchasing new PCs or laptops, which may come installed with Windows 7 Home Premium and will have to be upgraded to the Professional or Ultimate edition.

In addition, consider the OEM versions of Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate. Name-brand PCs usually come with a preinstalled version of Windows 7 that has been programmed to work with the manufacturer's hardware. The typical OEM version requires registration and activation and cannot be moved to another system -- at least not legally.

Licensing pointers and tools
With so many different ways to obtain a license or perform an upgrade, it's no wonder that IT managers are uncertain if their deployments are legal or have been obtained properly. One reason for the confusion is a lack of tools and hands-on management, which cannot be attributed solely to Microsoft. You'll have to set up your own project management practices for auditing, documentation and organization in order to maximize the value of the licenses purchased and maintain legality.

The first step in taming the licensing beast is proper documentation. IT needs to perform licensing audits and record licensing keys. Admins should also track which keys have been assigned to which machines. In smaller organizations, documenting licenses can be done simply using a spreadsheet. However, this tracking method can become difficult as deployments grow.

Some third-party tools can help reduce the chaos. Third-party asset management tools, such as Dell Kace, Kaseya IT Automation Platform, LANDesk Asset Lifecycle Manager, Novell Zenworks Asset Management and ScriptLogic Asset Manager can automate license tracking, among other things. By first deploying an asset management package, you can avoid many of the problems associated with licensing, migrations and audits. These tools can also cut some of the time and effort spent on an OS installation. And, because many of them are compatible with other OSes, their value extends far beyond just a Windows 7 migration.

The majority of asset management tools audit PCs, track licenses of installed OSes and applications, and can create managed groups in which new keys can be assigned or transferred from one PC to another. What's more, many of those products can facilitate a move to Windows 7 from earlier OSes or simplify in-place upgrades.

However, there is another option -- one that supports the phrase "ignorance is bliss." Since all retail and OEM versions of Windows 7 require activation, Microsoft actually takes on the burden of license management. For smaller deployments that don't use the Enterprise edition of Windows 7, allowing the activation process and Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage program to manage licenses eliminates the burden of validating whether or not a particular installation of Windows 7 is legal.

For most IT managers, it all comes down to how a company purchases Windows 7, deploys it and determines which schemes to use for license management. But environments of almost any size can benefit from asset management tools that not only monitor licensing, but also bring advanced management and reporting capabilities to the mix.

Frank Ohlhorst
is an IT journalist who has also served as a network administrator and applications programmer before forming his own computer consulting firm.

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