The Elusive Windows Companion Subscription License – a Solution In Search of a Problem?

In our post entitled “What Licenses Do I Need,” we discussed the licensing required, from both Citrix and Microsoft, for a XenApp or XenDesktop deployment. But there was still an unknown factor: When that post was published, Microsoft had recently announced something that, at the time, was being referred to as a “Companion Device License” – but no information was available yet on what it would cost or how it would be licensed.

The fog has finally cleared, and, unfortunately, it’s not particularly good news if you are a Small or Medium Enterprise.

The question at hand is what Microsoft licenses are required to legally operate a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure that serves up virtual instances of Windows 7 or Windows 8.x to your users. And the answer is that it depends on what the client device is that will be used to access the virtual desktop. If the client device is a Windows PC covered by Software Assurance, no problem – the right to access a virtual desktop instance is one of the benefits of Software Assurance. But if the client device is a Windows PC that is not covered by Software Assurance, or if it is not a Windows PC at all (e.g., Mac, Linux, thin client, etc.) then you must purchase a Virtual Desktop Access (“VDA”) license for that client device. That VDA license is available through Open Value Subscription licensing for roughly $100/year each.

So far, so good. But things start to get more complicated if you want to access that virtual desktop from a personally-owned client device.

According to the Microsoft Product Use Rights document (on pages 74 & 75 of the April, 2014, edition, in case you want to read along), the primary user of a Windows PC covered by Software Assurance, or of another client device to which a VDA license has been assigned, has “roaming use rights” that allow a virtual desktop to be accessed from a “Qualifying Third Party Device” such as a personal PC, MacBook, iPad, etc…”from anywhere off your or your affiliates’ premises.” And therein lies the problem: The user is not entitled to bring a personal device into the office and use it there to access a virtual desktop.

So, if your objective is to enable BYOD and let your people bring in whatever kind of device they want to use, and then use that device to access your virtual desktop infrastructure, what do you have to do? This question is what Microsoft attempted to address with what is now called a “Windows Companion Subscription License.” But it doesn’t address it very well. First of all, the Companion SL must be associated with another client device that is…yep, either a Windows PC with Software Assurance or some other client device that you’ve assigned a VDA license to. For every one of those you have, you can purchase a Companion SL, which will entitle the primary user of that device to access a virtual desktop from up to four Companion Devices in any given 90 day period. Therefore, the Companion SL doesn’t truly enable BYOD in the sense of eliminating the need to purchase company-owned client devices that are covered by either Software Assurance or a VDA license – because you have to have one of those before you can even purchase a Companion SL.

To make matters worse, unless your organization is large enough to have a Microsoft Enterprise, Select, or Select Plus agreement, you’re out of luck, because the Companion SL is not available through any Open License program. So, if you’re an SMB, your only option for legally licensing employee-owned devices for use on your premises to access your virtual desktop infrastructure is to purchase VDA licenses for those employee-owned devices.

If you do have an Enterprise or Select agreement, you can expect to pay an estimated $48 – $84 per year for a Companion SL, depending on your agreement, the size of your organization, and the concessions you’ve been able to wrangle out of your Microsoft account rep. So that may offer some cost savings for large enterprises that want to institute a BYOD policy – although it’s not clear to me how great the savings would be considering that you have to have a client device with either Software Assurance or a VDA license before you can even purchase the Companion SL.

For most organizations, in our opinion, the Companion SL is a solution in search of a problem.

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