Surge in home working highlights Microsoft licensing issue: If you are not on subscription, working remotely is a premium feature

Customers on-premises with perpetual licences 'don't have a good story' for remote working


Working from home and want to access your PC at work? The best solution may cost thousands in additional Microsoft licensing costs.

In the scramble to migrate employees to home working, there are issues for businesses who normally have staff in an office working on desktop PCs, or accessing network file shares and intranet applications, or running applications that connect to an on-premises database.

This poses some difficult and potentially risky and expensive questions for organisations that are not already set up to have all or most of their staff working remotely. Business continuity is top of mind, but as security expert Bruce Schneier has observed: "Worrying about network security seems almost quaint in the face of the massive health risks from COVID-19, but attacks on infrastructure can have effects far greater than the infrastructure itself."

One area of concern is the risk from users on home PCs accessing corporate assets. "These systems are more likely to be out of date, unpatched, and unprotected. They are more vulnerable to attack simply because they are less secure," noted Schneier – and that is before taking into account the variety of websites visited and software installed by family members, including children.

Staff working at home could use a VPN to connect to the corporate network. VPNs have many advantages, but by putting the remote machine in effect on the internal business network, it also poses risks, for example if malware on the remote machine is able to damage business assets.

Microsoft has some solutions for remote access without a VPN, including a feature of Windows Server called Remote Desktop Gateway (RDS Gateway). Users can connect to the gateway over SSL (no VPN required) and use a Remote Desktop client to access their work PC, or a desktop session on Windows server, or a desktop application running on the server.

The snag here is that using RD Gateway requires a Remote Desktop Services Client Access License (CAL), as Microsoft makes clear in this document [PDF]:

"An RDS CAL is required to use any functionality included in the Remote Desktop Services role in Windows Server. For example, if you are using RDS Gateway and/or Remote Desktop Web Access to provide access to a Windows client operating system on an individual PC, both an RDS CAL and Windows Server CAL are required."

An RDS CAL can cost over £100 per user – we found a single CAL on sale from Microsoft for £186.53, though you can do better from other resellers and with bulk licensing deals.

Just the thing for a pandemic: an extra fee to have your users work remotely

Just the thing for a pandemic: an extra fee to have your users work remotely

In addition, some vendors have curious rules about remote access to their applications that incur additional fees. Rich Gibbons, a licensing trainer at IT Asset Management (ITAM), noted that Citrix and/or Remote Desktop Services are "the easiest way to quickly become non-compliant with a LOT of vendors."

Clash of cloud cultures

The problem here is a fundamental one, which is that companies including Microsoft are in a hybrid world, part based on cloud concepts where everything is on the internet and easily accessed from all kinds of devices, and part based on traditional business networks with servers, locally installed software and desktop PCs. The licensing model for these two types of environment is different, with the traditional environment generally being more complex. Customers who license applications like Windows and Office on a per-user subscription are much better placed than those with perpetual per-device licenses.

Wes Miller, is a research analyst and licensing specialist at Directions on Microsoft, based in Kirkland near Seattle. He told us that Microsoft is trying to move to the cloud model, but "a lot of customers are stagnating; they don't want to pay for the subscription. It's on-premises versus cloud. It's per-device vs per-user. And it's perpetual licensing vs subscription licensing. You have to put all three of them together.

"What we've got is a lot of customers, especially regulated and institutional customers, who either for regulatory or cost reasons don't want to go into the cloud and subscriptions, they want to sit on-premises with perpetual product, and they don't have a good story of how to help their employees go remote today."

Crisis measures

Security is one thing, but in the midst of a global pandemic, does anyone care about licensing? "You're not going to get audited right now," Gibbons told The Reg. "But in six months or whenever this is over, you need to know what you've done."

Miller concurs. "I think we’re going to see a grace period here. When those audits do start back up, I think businesses may well be able to ask for some sort of grace period or leeway, but the reality is, if you put something in place to meet these new work scenarios, you need to expect to pay for whatever Microsoft’s current licensing model is for that."

If you need Windows and Office, and are on a Microsoft 365 licence (not just Office 365), it is worth noting that Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) running Windows 10 can be used without an additional licence or RDS Cal. You still need an RDS CAL for accessing Windows Server desktops and apps, if needed. Optimising licensing costs is a specialist task but can make a big difference to costs.

Miller says a virtual desktop environment is a good answer. "Solutions like Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) or using the server-based variant of Amazon Workspaces, have been license-proven and the technology is proven, at least in the case of Amazon Workspaces, WVD being newer. The biggest thing is, approach it in context with either what you own, or what you are willing to buy, which is weird to think about given the current time we’re in."

For customers not on subscriptions, Microsoft's habit of treating remote access as a premium feature looks out of date, and in the current circumstances particularly unwelcome. These problems do not exist if you are using born-in-the-cloud solutions like Google's G Suite, and largely disappear if you are on a Microsoft 365 subscription. Remote access is now the norm, which means Microsoft should give up its addiction to things like RDS cals. Customers too will have to adapt, with subscription licensing now hard to avoid. ®


Other stories you might like

  • Lonestar plans to put datacenters in the Moon's lava tubes
    How? Founder tells The Register 'Robots… lots of robots'

    Imagine a future where racks of computer servers hum quietly in darkness below the surface of the Moon.

    Here is where some of the most important data is stored, to be left untouched for as long as can be. The idea sounds like something from science-fiction, but one startup that recently emerged from stealth is trying to turn it into a reality. Lonestar Data Holdings has a unique mission unlike any other cloud provider: to build datacenters on the Moon backing up the world's data.

    "It's inconceivable to me that we are keeping our most precious assets, our knowledge and our data, on Earth, where we're setting off bombs and burning things," Christopher Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar, told The Register. "We need to put our assets in place off our planet, where we can keep it safe."

    Continue reading
  • Conti: Russian-backed rulers of Costa Rican hacktocracy?
    Also, Chinese IT admin jailed for deleting database, and the NSA promises no more backdoors

    In brief The notorious Russian-aligned Conti ransomware gang has upped the ante in its attack against Costa Rica, threatening to overthrow the government if it doesn't pay a $20 million ransom. 

    Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves said that the country is effectively at war with the gang, who in April infiltrated the government's computer systems, gaining a foothold in 27 agencies at various government levels. The US State Department has offered a $15 million reward leading to the capture of Conti's leaders, who it said have made more than $150 million from 1,000+ victims.

    Conti claimed this week that it has insiders in the Costa Rican government, the AP reported, warning that "We are determined to overthrow the government by means of a cyber attack, we have already shown you all the strength and power, you have introduced an emergency." 

    Continue reading
  • China-linked Twisted Panda caught spying on Russian defense R&D
    Because Beijing isn't above covert ops to accomplish its five-year goals

    Chinese cyberspies targeted two Russian defense institutes and possibly another research facility in Belarus, according to Check Point Research.

    The new campaign, dubbed Twisted Panda, is part of a larger, state-sponsored espionage operation that has been ongoing for several months, if not nearly a year, according to the security shop.

    In a technical analysis, the researchers detail the various malicious stages and payloads of the campaign that used sanctions-related phishing emails to attack Russian entities, which are part of the state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec Corporation.

    Continue reading
  • FTC signals crackdown on ed-tech harvesting kid's data
    Trade watchdog, and President, reminds that COPPA can ban ya

    The US Federal Trade Commission on Thursday said it intends to take action against educational technology companies that unlawfully collect data from children using online educational services.

    In a policy statement, the agency said, "Children should not have to needlessly hand over their data and forfeit their privacy in order to do their schoolwork or participate in remote learning, especially given the wide and increasing adoption of ed tech tools."

    The agency says it will scrutinize educational service providers to ensure that they are meeting their legal obligations under COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

    Continue reading
  • Mysterious firm seeks to buy majority stake in Arm China
    Chinese joint venture's ousted CEO tries to hang on - who will get control?

    The saga surrounding Arm's joint venture in China just took another intriguing turn: a mysterious firm named Lotcap Group claims it has signed a letter of intent to buy a 51 percent stake in Arm China from existing investors in the country.

    In a Chinese-language press release posted Wednesday, Lotcap said it has formed a subsidiary, Lotcap Fund, to buy a majority stake in the joint venture. However, reporting by one newspaper suggested that the investment firm still needs the approval of one significant investor to gain 51 percent control of Arm China.

    The development comes a couple of weeks after Arm China said that its former CEO, Allen Wu, was refusing once again to step down from his position, despite the company's board voting in late April to replace Wu with two co-chief executives. SoftBank Group, which owns 49 percent of the Chinese venture, has been trying to unentangle Arm China from Wu as the Japanese tech investment giant plans for an initial public offering of the British parent company.

    Continue reading
  • SmartNICs power the cloud, are enterprise datacenters next?
    High pricing, lack of software make smartNICs a tough sell, despite offload potential

    SmartNICs have the potential to accelerate enterprise workloads, but don't expect to see them bring hyperscale-class efficiency to most datacenters anytime soon, ZK Research's Zeus Kerravala told The Register.

    SmartNICs are widely deployed in cloud and hyperscale datacenters as a means to offload input/output (I/O) intensive network, security, and storage operations from the CPU, freeing it up to run revenue generating tenant workloads. Some more advanced chips even offload the hypervisor to further separate the infrastructure management layer from the rest of the server.

    Despite relative success in the cloud and a flurry of innovation from the still-limited vendor SmartNIC ecosystem, including Mellanox (Nvidia), Intel, Marvell, and Xilinx (AMD), Kerravala argues that the use cases for enterprise datacenters are unlikely to resemble those of the major hyperscalers, at least in the near term.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022