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Volume Activation Updated for Windows 8 and Office 2013

January 21, 2013
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Activation, which limits software piracy by associating a valid product license key with a software product to reduce illegal software copying, is being updated to accommodate new versions of Windows and Office. Volume licensing customers with an existing Key Management Service (KMS) infrastructure need to update it before it can activate these new versions. Although updating the existing activation infrastructure is relatively simple, organizations need to be aware of subtle changes to the activation process, such as the embedding of a license key in a computer's firmware during manufacture, and a new activation option based on Active Directory (AD).

New Products Trigger Some Activation Changes

To accommodate the various ways that customers acquire and license its products, Microsoft supports a number of activation methods to perform and manage activation, and with the releases of Windows 8, Office 2013, and Windows Server 2012, Microsoft has updated its activation technologies to version 3.0. (For a summary, see the chart "Activation 3.0 Methods".) Because most large organizations already deploy large numbers of computers with versions of Windows and Office that require activation, they have already implemented a combination of Volume Activation methods, including both KMS and Multiple Activation Key (MAK) activation, particularly if they reimage computers purchased from an OEM with a standard corporate image.

After the release of Windows 8 and Office 2013, there were some changes to activation, including the requirement to update an existing KMS; the embedding of a license key in firmware of computers activated by OEMs; a new method of activation using an organization's AD infrastructure; changes to the grace period for activation of Windows 8 and Office 2013; and improvements to the Volume Activation Management Tools (VAMT).

Updating an Existing Activation Infrastructure

Before the latest Windows and Office versions can be activated, an organization must update its existing KMS server or install a Windows Server 2012 running the KMS role.

Updating the KMS running on an existing Windows server should be relatively easy, and the update software can be downloaded from the Microsoft download center. Once updated, the existing KMS infrastructure can be used to activate Windows Vista, 7, and 8 client OSs; Windows Server 2008, 2008 R2, and 2012 OSs; and Office 2010 and 2013 products.

Instead of updating an existing KMS infrastructure, an organization can install a Windows Server 2012 server. This too is relatively easy, particularly as the KMS service is now an installable role with a wizard to guide an administrator through the process of installing, configuring, and authenticating the KMS host key with Microsoft. (For an illustration, see "Volume Activation Services".) However, the organization should remember that as soon as a Windows Server 2012 server running KMS is installed and running in the organization, all the Windows Server Client Access Licenses (CALs) in the organization must be updated to 2012 CALs. (Any user or device must have an equal or higher CAL to the version of Windows Server being accessed.)

If an organization uses MAK activation for some computers, such as computers in remote locations that cannot connect to the organization's KMS infrastructure, they can continue to use MAK without making any changes. No changes are required because MAK activation remains unchanged from previous versions and MAK-based activation relies on Microsoft's Internet-based activation service.

OEM Activation Updated

Starting with Windows 8, large-volume OEMs can use a new activation method (called OEM Activation 3.0). As part of this new method, the OEM embeds the license key for the product in the device's firmware. For most organizations, this will have little or no impact. There is no longer a printed Certificate of Authentication (COA) with the product key affixed to the device, although there may still be a Windows 8 branded label.

Organizations will still be able to reimage these computers with a standard corporate image. The Generic Volume License Key (GVLK) used in reimaging will be activated by the organization's KMS or AD activation infrastructure. Windows 8 does not require a BIOS marker for volume activation using either KMS- or AD-based activation. However, if customers install an earlier OS, such as Windows 7, they should remember that the earlier OS does require Windows BIOS data for KMS activation to succeed.

Active Directory—Based Activation

AD-based activation is a new role for Windows Server. It uses an organization's Active Directory Domain Services (AD DS), which have been updated to the Windows Server 2012 AD schema level. This schema supports the storing of activation objects for Windows 8, Windows Server 2012, and Office 2013 products.

With AD-based activation, the licensing service on the client automatically queries the AD domain controller for an activation object when a domain-joined computer running a supported Microsoft product connects with the AD. If no AD activation object is found, the computer will attempt to locate a KMS to activate the products.

AD-based activation and KMS-based activation follow the same rules or guidelines for initial and ongoing product activation.

The main advantages of using AD in place of KMS for activation are as follows:

  • AD activation can run on existing domain controllers (including read-only domain controllers once the activation object is installed)
  • If all the products that need to be activated support AD activation, no KMS is needed
  • There is no minimum combined number of computers or threshold required to use AD activation. (KMS requires that an activation threshold of a minimum number of servers and clients be maintained or KMS will stop activating computers.)

The main disadvantage of using AD in place of KMS for activation is that it does not currently support all of the Microsoft products that require activation. If an organization still has older software versions deployed, such as Windows 7 or Office 2010, it might want to stay with KMS, which, once updated, can activate all versions and does not require maintaining both the AD and the KMS infrastructure.

Initial Grace Periods

Previous versions of Windows and Office products had an initial grace period between the completion of installation and successful activation of the product. This grace period allowed users to evaluate the product prior to activation or accommodated installation without Internet connectivity (using a telephone).

With Windows 8, Windows Server 2012, and Office 2013, the license key is used by the installation process to determine which features to install. That is, the license key tells the installation program whether to install the features for Windows 8 Pro or Windows 8 Enterprise. Now the grace period is no longer needed, because without a valid license key (including a valid GVLK for the version) installation cannot be completed.

Volume Activation Management Tool

The VAMT is now a free downloadable application that is included in the Windows Assessment and Deployment Kit (ADK). Formerly, it was a Microsoft Management Console Snap-in. The VAMT enables administrators to automate and centrally manage the Windows and Office volume activation process. VAMT 3.0 can manage volume activation using MAK-, KMS-, and AD-based activation.

VAMT 3.0 adds an improved interface, data storage in a SQL Server database for greater scalability and speed, new reporting options, and the ability to use Windows PowerShell to manage activation.

Availability and Resources

The Activation 3.0 update for an existing KMS is available at support.microsoft.com/kb/2691586.

An overview of volume activation is available at technet.microsoft.com/library/hh831612.aspx.

A planning guide for volume activation is available at technet.microsoft.com/library/jj134042.aspx.

An overview of Active Directory-based activation is available at technet.microsoft.com/library/hh852637.aspx.

Volume activation methods for Office 2013 are described at technet.microsoft.com/library/jj219430.aspx