What Licenses Do I Need?

Earlier this week, I had a long discussion with a client (you know who you are) about what licenses they would need for a deployment of “zero client” devices. We’ve written a lot about Microsoft and Citrix licensing, about XenDesktop and XenApp, about the Citrix trade-up, etc., but it occurred to me that it might be beneficial to pull all the licensing information together into one post instead of expecting you, gentle reader, to have to sort through multiple posts to pull it all together.

So, let’s discuss Citrix licensing first, then move on to the Microsoft licensing.

First of all, if all you want to do is to deploy VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure), and you have a limited number of users, then you should probably purchase VDI-in-a-Box. [Edit: ViaB is no longer available from Citrix]

If you decide that VDI-in-a-Box is not the right fit foryou, the next question you need to answer is whether to use XenApp licenses or XenDesktop licenses. Beginning with the introduction of XenDesktop v4.0, Citrix concluded, reasonably enough, that an organization that was deploying VDI probably wouldn’t get much leverage from a concurrent-use licensing model, because their concurrency ratio (by which I mean the ratio of total users to concurrent users) would be pretty close to 1:1. So XenDesktop v4.0 was introduced with a per-named-user or per-device license model. These licenses were roughly half the cost of the comparable XenApp concurrent-use license: XenApp Enterprise Edition, for example, carries an MSRP of $450 per concurrent user. XenDesktop Enterprise Edition carries an MSRP of $225 per user/device.

At the same time, Citrix made the decision to include XenApp rights in the XenDesktop license. So if you buy XenApp, you get only XenApp. But if you buy XenDesktop, you get both XenDesktop and XenApp – so you can use XenApp to stream applications to your virtual desktops, or have your virtual desktops function as client devices that run published applications that execute on the XenApp servers, or simply deploy a mixture of XenDesktop and XenApp to your user community depending on what delivery method is best for a particular use case. This is what Citrix refers to as the “FlexCast” delivery model.

This created the interesting situation where, because of the difference in license cost, if your concurrency ratio was less than 2:1, you were better off financially to purchase XenDesktop licenses even if all you really wanted to run was XenApp. And, since delivering what Citrix calls “hosted shared” desktops from XenApp servers makes more efficient use of the underlying hardware and storage infrastructure, the bias should probably be toward XenApp unless there is a clear use case for why users need to connect to individual desktop OS instances rather than a shared XenApp desktop (and it isn’t just appearance, because with XenApp v6.5 on Windows Server 2008 R2 we can deliver a XenApp desktop that looks and feels like a Windows 7 desktop). But, for the sake of this discussion, let’s move on down the XenDesktop trail.

Citrix has since introduced a concurrent-use license option for XenDesktop, which is a better choice for organizations who want to deploy both XenDesktop and XenApp, but have a concurrency ratio greater than 2:1, but so far, I haven’t seen very many use cases where that license model made sense. One situation where it may make sense is when a customer – like, say, a health-care institution – is open around-the-clock, and has shift workers who use the same devices at different times of the day.

If you already have XenApp licenses, and want the ability to deliver VDI as well, you can take advantage of the Citrix trade-up program to transform your XenApp licenses into XenDesktop licenses. And if you trade up all of your XenApp licenses, you can get two XenDesktop user/device licenses for each XenApp license. So 250 XenApp licenses would become 500 XenDesktop user/device licenses. If you want more information on how the trade-up program works, and what your trade-up options are, check out the handy Citrix Trade-Up Calculator.

As of the release of XenDesktop v5.0 Feature Release 1, the license service got pretty smart in terms of how it managed those user/device licenses. This is good news for, say, a hospital, which may have devices that are used by multiple users and other users who use multiple devices. The license server can intelligently and dynamically reassign licenses between users and devices to make the most efficient use of the available licenses. For example, consider the following scenario for a brand-new environment where no licenses have yet been assigned:

  • User 1 logs on from client Device 1. The license server will, by default, check out a license to User 1.
  • User 1 logs off, and User 2 logs on from the same client device. The license server, now sensing that two different users have logged on from the same device, will take the license that was assigned to User 1, and reassign it to Device 1. Any subsequent users who log in from Device 1 will not cause any action by the license server, because Device 1 is already licensed.
  • If User 1 logs on again from a different client device, the license server will again check out a license to User 1 (so, at this point, two licenses are checked out: one to Device 1 and one to User 1). Since User 1 has logged on from two different devices, the license will remain assigned to User 1 unless/until manually released by an administrator (e.g., in the case of the employee leaving the organization), or unless User 1 doesn’t log on for a period of 90 days, in which case it will be automatically released due to inactivity.
  • Likewise, since two different users have logged on from Device 1, that license will remain assigned to that device unless manually released or automatically released due to 90 days of inactivity.

So…how do you know how many licenses you really need? There is actually a formula that will tell you that. You need to know how many total users you have (let’s call that number “A”), how many shared devices you have (let’s call that “B”), and how many of your users will use only shared devices (let’s call that “C”). The formula is A – C + B. So, if you have 1,000 total users, 300 shared devices, and 600 of your users will use only shared devices, you need 1,000 – 600 + 300 = 700 total licenses.

For more information on exactly how this works, see the Citrix Community Blog post by Christophe Catesson, which in turn links to a recorded session from Synergy 2011 that was a deep dive discussion of XenDesktop licensing.

Now for the Microsoft licensing component.

If you have users who will be executing applications on a XenApp server, you will need a Remote Desktop Services (RDS) CAL for that user, or for the client device that user is using. It is very difficult to manage a mixture of user CALs and device CALs in a Remote Desktop Services environment. Since each Remote Desktop Server must be set to request either User CALs or Device CALs (a single server cannot utilize both), you would have to build and manage two separate server farms – one consisting of servers that are configured to request User CALs and the other consisting of servers that are configured to request Device CALs – and then manage your user groups such that users get their apps from one farm or the other depending on what kind of device you want them to use. It’s generally less confusing to simply purchase user CALs and maintain a single farm.

If you have users who will be attaching to a virtual desktop instance, the licensing requirements are different, depending on the client device. If the client device is a Windows PC whose Operating System is covered by Software Assurance, you do not have to purchase any additional Microsoft license to use that PC to connect to a virtual desktop. If the client device is not a Windows PC, or that copy of Windows is not covered by Software Assurance, you need a Virtual Desktop Access (VDA) license for that client device. VDA licenses are only available under the Open Value Subscription license model at present, meaning that you will continue to pay for them every year. Forever.

But wait! That’s not all! As Gabe Knuth outlines in a recent article on Techtarget.com, there is a very strange loophole in the VDA license terms. If you have a VDA license for your primary device (or if it’s covered by Software Assurance), you have what Microsoft calls “Extended Roaming Rights,” which allow you to also use your home computer to access your virtual desktop, or use your iPad when you’re at home or traveling. But, technically, it does not entitle you to bring your iPad into the office and use it there! To solve that (using the term “solve” loosely), Microsoft recently announced something called a “Companion Device License” (CDL) which allows you to use up to four other devices (in addition to the primary licensed device) to access your virtual desktop. No word yet on what the CDL will cost.

So let’s see if we can summarize what our client would need for a VDI deployment of “zero client” devices (like, for example, the Wyse Xenith thin client).

  • You’re going to need some kind of Citrix license, either VDI-in-a-Box, XenDesktop, or XenApp.
  • Since the thin client is not a Windows PC, and therefore cannot be covered by Software Assurance, you would need to purchase a Microsoft VDA license for it.
  • If the thin client will be used only to attach to a virtual PC desktop and execute applications within that desktop OS environment, no additional Microsoft license is needed. However, if the thin client will also be used to attach to applications that are executing on a XenApp server – either directly or indirectly by having the Citrix client baked into the virtual PC desktop – you will also need a Microsoft RDS CAL.
  • You do not need an RDS CAL if you are only using XenApp to stream packaged applications to a virtual (or physical, for that matter) desktop for execution there. Since you are not actually utilizing Remote Desktop Services by executing code remotely on a Remote Desktop Server, no RDS CAL is required.
  • If you want to institute a BYOD program, where users can bring whatever client device they wish into the office and use it to access your VDI, you’ll probably need some of the new Microsoft CDL licenses.

Now the standard disclaimer: I am not the definitive source for Microsoft licensing information. The definitive source is the Microsoft Product Use Rights document, which is frequently updated and the latest version of which can be downloaded at https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/licensing/product-licensing/products.aspx. If I’ve overlooked anything, feel free to submit questions via comments on this post, and we’ll try to get them answered. Let the discussion begin!

2 Thoughts to “What Licenses Do I Need?”

  1. […] our post entitled “What Licenses Do I Need,” we discussed the licensing required, from both Citrix and Microsoft, for a XenApp or XenDesktop […]

  2. […] to purchase all the licenses that would be required for their own on-site VDI deployment (and we’ve written extensively about what licenses those are), and provide those licenses to the service provider, which must then provision dedicated hardware […]

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