Windows licensing got more and more and complicated over the years. With Windows Server 2008 and Vista SP1, Microsoft changed the rules again. In this post, I summarized the most important facts about Windows licensing, KMS 1.1 (Key Management Services) and VAMT 1.1 (Volume Activation Management Tool). And of course, I couldn’t help myself but complain again about the extra work Microsoft imposed on us.

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Product key groups ^

Product Keys for KMS and MAK are associated with a so-called product key groups which are arranged in a hierarchy (see diagram). A product key of a certain group can activate the operating systems that belong to this group as well as lower key groups. There are four product key groups: Vista VL: Windows Vista (the lowest group), Server Group A: Windows Web Server 2008, Server Group B: Windows Server 2008 Standard and Enterprise, Server Group C: Datacenter and Itanium-based systems.

KMS 1.1 (Key Management Services) ^

To activate Server 2008 via KMS, you have to install version 1.1. If you already have KMS 1.0 installed, you can update it by launching the WindowsServer2003-KB948003-x86-ENU.exe which is part of the KMS 1.1 download. Note that KMS is platform and language-dependent. If you want to activate Server 2008 machines, KMS has to run on a server. You won’t be able to activate Server 2008 if your KMS is installed on a Vista box.

Determining your KMS version ^

KMS_1.0KMS_1.1After the update, it is difficult to figure out which KMS is actually running. “Add and Remove Programs” in the Control Panel doesn’t display the version and the KMS command slmgr doesn’t display it either. However, the help screens are different for KMS 1.0 (left) and KMS 1.1 (right). KMS 1.1 has more options. Check out the screenshots to see the differences.

KMS activation thresholds ^

KMS only starts activating its Vista clients if at least 25 physical Vista machines are in the network environment. A Server 2008 installation can be activated if at least 5 servers contacted the KMS. KMS can activate virtual Windows installations, but they don’t count for the threshold.

VAMT 1.1 (Volume Activation Management Tool) ^

VAMT 1.1 has also been released recently. Like KMS 1.1, its main enhancement is the support for Windows Server 2008. I have reviewed VAMT 1.0 a while back. I played a little with VAMT 1.1 and didn’t find significant differences. You can use VAMT to get an overview of the licensing status of your Vista and Server 2008 machines and you can also use it to deploy MAK keys.

License states ^

Basically, there are five license states for Windows Server 2008 and Vista SP1:

  • Licensed: After activation
  • Initial Grace: After the installation of the OS
  • Out-of-Tolerance Grace: Hardware changes make re-activation necessary
  • Non-Genuine Grace: If genuine activation failed when you try to download software from Microsoft.
  • Unlicensed: When any of the grace periods (30 days) expires, the system will enter a notifications-based mode of operation.

One of the improvements of Service Pack 1 for Vista is that it abolishes Reduced Functionality Mode (RFM). So Vista SP1 and Windows Server 2008 will just enter a mode where the desktop background turns black and where notifications in the lower right corner over the system tray tell you that your copy of Windows isn’t genuine.

The fact that Microsoft gave up on RFM is certainly a step into the right direction. However, I am still unhappy with the current situation. My main complaint is that KMS is a much too simple tool for such an important task. I want a central licensing tool that logs all activation attempts, displays all machines with their last known license states, allows me to push activation for clients who had problems and so on. And, of course, I want a GUI for KMS.

VAMT is nice for deploying MAKs, but it is more or less useless if you want to get an overview of the license status of your whole network. VAMT is only able to scan the network to gather the license states of your Windows machines. Computers that are not online during the scanning process won’t be included.

I want to be able to get the exact licensing status of my whole network with just a mouse click. If Microsoft imposes extra work on us because they want to sell more licenses, they should at least give us the tools to manage licensing without hassle.

4 Comments
  1. Lukas Beeler 14 years ago

    Baw, this looks really bad.

    I still think Business Software should just work, enforced licensing just adds a layer that's not necessary and could introduce failures.

    Unfortunately, we don't live in happy dreamland.

  2. Jarred Fehr 14 years ago

    You said it. I'm all for Microsoft protecting their wares, but the MAK/KMS implementation leaves a lot to be desired. I can only hope things will be better quickly.

  3. Lukas, yeah we don’t live in dreamland, but we can complain in our blogs which might help make our dreams come true. 😉

    Jarred, I hoped MS would offer a better KMS when Server 2008 comes out. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. I suppose it will take some time until companies experience problems and will demand better tools. Configuring KMS is fairly easy. However it can take quite a while until you realize some machines weren’t activated. The weakness of KMS and VAMT will only become obvious when more organizations start deploying Vista and Server 2008.

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