Microsoft's licensing team answers 'Do I need a CAL?'

Microsoft's licensing team answers 'Do I need a CAL?'

Summary: There's a new Microsoft Q&A that aims to provide answers to some of the most common questions around Microsoft's client-access licenses.


Selling client-access licenses (CALs) is big business for Microsoft. In fact, it's believed to be a $1 billion a year business for the Redmondians.


CAL licensing is a regular source of confusion, and something about which I and no doubt other Microsoft watchers get lots of questions.

Any user or device that accesses Microsoft server software directly or indirectly legally requires at least one CAL, Microsoft officials say. There are a number of different types of CALs: Device CALs, User CALs, Base and Additive CALs, Premium CALs, Enterprise CALs and more. Different Microsoft products often require different kinds of CALs. And "external users" -- those who aren't employees or onsite contractors -- also may require CAL coverage, too.

On March 10, the Microsoft Licensing team attempted to make CAL licensing a bit less murky by posting seven CAL questions and answers to Microsoft's Volume Licensing blog. Among the topics addressed are everything from "Does my multifunction printer need a CAL?" (short answer, yes, if connected to a Windows Server network), to "Can I use my CALs to access someone else’s server?" (yes, if they are "affiliates").

The volume licensing team also posted links to a few additional CAL-related resources, including "Base and Additive CALs: An explanation" and "About Licensing -- Client Access Licenses and Management Licenses."

I've taken an occasional stab at trying to parse the Microsoft CAL licensing terms in areas such as CALs required for Remote Desktop Services on ARM-based Surfaces. Definitely headache-making stuff. So anything like the latest Q&A is most welcome.

Update: As a few readers noted, if you have to ask whether you are supposed to pay for a CAL, the Microsoft answer is far more often than not, "yes." But there are still questions worth asking to make sure you don't overpay for CALs.

Topics: Enterprise Software, Consumerization, IT Priorities, Microsoft, Networking, IT Policies, Windows Server


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Still massively confusing...

    Here is what is says about multifunction printers: "Yes, if the multifunction printer is connected to a Windows Server network. A multifunction printer accesses server software to; receive an IP address, to receive a job, to communicate that the job is finished, etc. In short, it communicates with the server software. If the multifunction printer is accessing any server software licensed via the Server / CAL licensing model it requires a CAL for that software. The one caveat is, if your users who use the printer have CALs then the printer is covered by their use via their CALs. If not then the printer itself requires a device CAL. The same CAL requirement applies to any other type of networked device – such as networked scanners, networked fax machines, etc. Devices that do not connect to the network or the server software (generally referred to as peripherals) do not require CALs."

    So, I still have a number of questions:

    1> What if I hard code the printer rather than use DHCP and don't create a print queue - directly printing from the clients. Do I need a CAL then?

    2> If I deploy the printer driver to the clients via a GPO, but still follow #1, do I need a CAL?

    3> What does "The one caveat is, if your users who use the printer have CALs then the printer is covered by their use via their CALs. If not then the printer itself requires a device CAL." mean? Wouldn't all users already have CALs? Confused by that language.

    4> "The same CAL requirement applies to any other type of networked device". So does that mean switches, routers, and firewalls need CALs? How about LDAP anti-spam devices? Journaling devices? Load balancing devices? Wireshark - does that need a CAL?

    Beyond myself having a hard time understanding - still - why I would need a CAL for a printer at all - ever, this language is so complicated and so complex with so many loopholes and bizarre thought processes that I'll bet 95% of all companies are currently out of compliance - even if they are trying not to be. This is way too complex and needs to be simplified tremendously.
    • Don't Disagree

      Before today, I've never heard of a printer requiring a CAL. What corner case business use of their products required printers CALs? Perhaps it was someone like Kinkos or Office Max that had networked printers that were used by walk-up customers? Was it a web site that spooled a print job for warehouse device that printed pick/ship tickets? What about a non-MS NAS device that authenticates clients using AD credentials? Does the client's CAL cover that use or does the NAS device require a CAL? Seems to be along the same lines as a printer.
  • And...

    More questions: "Server software licensed using CALs permits up to 2 users or devices to access the server software for the purposes of administration without CALs. However, if your administrators also use the software for anything other than administration (for example, they check their email), CALs will be required for them as well."

    1> Aside from e-mail, what does "use the software for anything other than administration" mean? Can I print to their printers? Can I use wireshark? Can the users e-mail me request tickets? Can I deploy SCCM/SCOM objects? Can I manage Hyper-V and move VM's? Can I use a DHCP server to grab an IP?

    2> What if I am a partner brought in for help desk outsourcing and I already have an Exchange server and CAL for my server. I don't own 50% of the other company as an "affiliate". Can I use an e-mail account at the company I'm monitoring to asset with calendar scheduling and such...or do I need an additional CAL for that? If I use a help desk monitoring system that deploys an agent on the remote server, do I need a CAL for that? If I use Whats Up to send a scripted ping response to a SQL I need an AD CAL and a SQL CAL...or is that covered under administration and I need no CAL?

    3> If I do an e-mail migration and set up test an administrator. Do I need CALs for those?

    Totally confusing beyond belief. My head is spinning. As I look at Microsoft's CAL page and their responses I can think of 100 more questions and it's all bizarre stuff that sometimes makes little sense.
    • Making your head spin is exactly the plan

      Then they can just come around and do licensing audits if revenue is down, they can come down as hard on the CALs as they need to.
      Every question you've asked - "yes, mr lawryll, you will need a CAL for that".
      • Can we get a better understanding of all this?

        This is ridiculous. By their reasoning if I invite people into my office for a conference and they happen to use my network for Internet access, and I use Microsoft DHCP servers, then I need a CAL for each of them? If those same users - who are not part of my AD and only there temporarily want to print to my printer queue then I need a device CAL for the printer. If I go into a company and send a test e-mail from an admin account - I need a CAL?

        Get out of town. No way. That's totally unreasonable and crosses the line into entrapment. Basically there is no way for any reasonable person to license anything correctly and everyone can be found out of compliance for any reason whatsoever.

        Microsoft can go fly a kite if that is seriously their CAL requirements.

        Mary - Is there any way to get a better understanding of all this? From what I see, you'd need a phD in MS licensing to get all of this right - and that's not something that is even reasonable to expect of companies who are just trying to do the best we can. Requiring a device CAL for a printer just because it uses a Windows DHCP server and non-AD guests are using it temporarily is ludicrous IMO.
        • PHd in licensing

          You nearly DO need that. This is why a number of consultants have entire businesses dedicated to helping customers try to save $ and figure out MS licensing. It is crazily complex. MS officials say they are trying to simplify it, but in certain areas, like CALs, it's still way, way too complicated.

          This MS post helps a tiny bit (imho) in clarifying things. That's why I mentioned it. MJ
          Mary Jo Foley
    • Sounds like the Remote Access license

      As I understand it, servers support two concurrent remote desktop sessions. Those sessions are free if they are used for admin purposes. If you need more than two or you want those desktops to do other than admin work, then they assume you are using the server as a "terminal server" and they require commensurate licensing.
  • looks cheaper to just get a Linux based print server...

    No licenses required.
    • And based on that FAQ language

      The Linux based print server would still require for CAL.

      Most MFC printer can manage it's print queue by printer driver anyway. If it doesn't require AD/LDAP authentication I don't see the point why it needs a CAL.

      It should say if the MFC printer is "Managed" by Windows Server, then it needs a CAL.
      • no - because you don't have to go through the MS server

        to get to it.

        Go direct. As in not managed by Windows server.

        Basically, if you have to ask if something needs a CAL, then the answer is always yes, and get used to being forced to pay extra.
        • If it's not managed by a Windows server queue or uses DHCP services...

          but...the driver is deployed via a GPO to the clients...does that require a CAL? I guess it does? I have no idea.

          This is too complex and seriously stupid.
          • It's not stupid...

            The OP wants to use Windows desktop management features to make sure the printer is properly configured (driver, IP address) on all desktops. I'm guessing they want to install the printer as a "local" printer that uses a TCP/IP "port" rather than the more common local serial, parallel or USB ports. This means the client would print directly to the printer via TCP/IP address. It would not spool the job to the server which would then send the job to the printer.

            If the printer's IP address is hard-coded and that hard-coded IP address and printer driver are installed locally on each desktop, the printer shouldn't require a CAL since the printer won't be using any Windows server services -- not even DHCP.

            On the other hand, if the printer is covered by the client's CAL and the organization has purchased a CAL for every desktop account, it sounds like printer CALs are not required and may make the entire issue moot.
  • MS licensing... just ridiculous (period). CALs are just top of the ice berg. Windows licensing for consumer is a joke too. There are OEM licenses, upgrade licenses and some sort of full licenses. And then the consumer has to fight with support about how the system was installed and what components were in use during activation. Why any of this should matter? If you have a license you have. Just do the pricing so that any of this doesn't matter and its clear and easy.
    • Remember Who Taught Microsoft About Licensing...

      IBM -- the undisputed king of licensing.
  • What is going on?

    I do not follow MS licensing very much, not my area. But from the comments it sounds like it is incredibly convoluted and thus one-sided in favor of MS.
  • Completely ridiculous

    The US tax code is easier to understand.
  • MS licensing is so complex that...

    ...they have people called "licensing specialists" in their sales teams who help their own sales folks understand licensing. While that may be a somewhat well-known fact, what may NOT be so well known is that even the licensing specialists carry a sales quota!!!! So you already know how they are going to interpret any ambiguous questions (like the ones posted so far) on the need for CALs or any other type of licenses...
  • Franz Kafka would understand

    Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.
    Franz Kafka
  • Impressive

    Microsoft has managed to make Oracle licensing seem almost reasonable in comparison.

    • And cheaper too!

      MS licensing is waters we all must to our best to avoid.

      So from here onward avoid MS products and you might and stress night not have to pay for a CAL.

      In fact we are considering redoing everything, as it ends up being cheaper than paying for MS licenses.