"Enterprise fanboys" push back on TechNet subscription shutdown

Microsoft's sudden decision to shut down its TechNet subscriptions isn't sitting well with some IT pros and trainers. A new online petition has passed 5000 signatures, and some longtime Microsoft supporters are wondering whether the company is giving up on one of its most strategic assets.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft’s abrupt decision to end its TechNet subscription program has inspired pushback.

An online petition at Change.org, “Continue TechNet Or Create An Affordable Alternative To MSDN” has now gathered more than 5000 signatures. And several Microsoft MVPs have spoken out in support of that petition as well.

How Technet subscriptions have changed through the years:

After 15 years, IT pros have grown to love their TechNet Pro subscriptions. For a very modest cost, you get access to a treasure trove of business-focused Microsoft software—including Windows, Office, and nearly every server product Microsoft ships.

Yes, the program has been misused by pirates, which is why Microsoft has been progressively tightening its terms over the past few years. The number of Windows product keys you get has dropped from 10 to 5 and now 3, for example, and some products, such as home editions of Windows, have been removed.

But it’s also of tremendous value to IT professionals, who have for years been Microsoft’s best weapon in business. Although there are alternatives to TechNet, they generally come with limitations or cost significantly more. Put those two facts together and it’s easy to see why the pushback from what one TechNet Pro subscriber called "enterprise fanboys" has been so vocal.

Thomas Lee, whose bio says he’s been an MVP for 16 of the last 17 years, is unhappy, to put it mildly:

With the TechNet subscription, I get an affordable way to obtain non-crippled software and could install it and use it. I could test things out and learn more about the products and how they interoperate. I know hundreds of others value this ability, which Microsoft has now decided to do away with.

Lee points out, correctly, that using time-limited evaluation software isn’t a workable solution for IT pros and trainers. People who create independent documentation, including book authors and bloggers, are also in that group. They might or might not have dedicated physical spaces with a sign on the door identifying it as a lab. But that’s exactly what those spare PCs and separate networks and virtual machines are for.

I interviewed several of the signers of the Change.org petition via email. Most of them are full-time IT pros who use a wide range of server and client programs. None of them could reasonably be called hobbyists.

The petition’s organizer, Cody Skidmore, for example, develops software for a large insurance company:

I use TechNet for researching and testing problems requiring long setup and testing cycles. For example I recently worked on a project demonstrating how our applications would interact with Security Token Services (STS). It involved WCF services, WPF applications, Web applications, and web services. I needed SQL Server, Windows Server, a STS provider accessible across the Internet, and various security certificates configured. Setting everything up in a lab locally using TechNet made the research possible without long delays required to reconfigure out company network and obtaining resources.

To get the same capabilities with an MSDN subscription that he gets today with a TechNet subscription ($349 for the first year, $249 a year for renewals), Skidmore would have to pay more than $6000 for the first year and more than $2500 per year for renewals. That's an enormous increase.

Dan Kregor, another signer, is an IT pro by day and runs the Inside Podcast Network as a side project. Here’s his prime reason for signing the petition:

I get the sense that Microsoft may have miscalculated the audience who will be impacted the most by this decision. It is the veteran IT Pro, those who are dedicated to not only expanding their knowledge but also evangelising their Microsoft product of choice (again I point you to the previous link). These are IT Pros who have dedicated home labs with multi node clusters running dozens of VM’s and they use this to assist the broader community by blogging, discovering, building, testing etc. They are, I guess, the closest thing Microsoft have to an enterprise fanboy.

Stewart Simpson dismissed Microsoft's recommendation of online labs as a viable alternative:

The online labs do not allow us to fully simulate things. For example, most of my customers use VMWare. I also, as an Exchange admin, need to muck with certificates, domain names, connect multiple forests, interface with Blackberry and Good devices, and really dive down into the RSS and Chimney features of the networking. I need to simulate the customer's environment as closely as possible and solve REALLY COMPLEX HARD PROBLEMS. I can't do that with what Microsoft provides in their online labs.

Other MVPs (a Microsoft program that recognizes outsiders for their contributions to the community) have spoken out as well. Aidan Finn, a six-time MVP who specializes in Hyper-V, calls it a "stupid move":

Somewhere a bean counter has looked at the bottom line and forgotten that hybrid cloud only works if the private cloud part is implemented.  Who exactly is going to implement that?  A person who has seen 5 minute videos on Virtual Academy?  Get a grip!

Another MVP, Paul Cunningham, says TechNet helped him with his career: "I was a long time TechNet subscriber before becoming an MVP and credit a lot of my career development to the testing and evaluation I did with the software."

Lee’s post calls out Microsoft for “the cynical way the announcement was made.” I have to agree.

Last year, when Microsoft made significant changes to the way TechNet subscriptions worked, I got a heads-up and a lengthy briefing from the decision makers. They were extremely candid about the reasons for the changes—to cut down on software piracy—and were clearly aware of the reaction the changes would cause in the community.

This year, the changes were more radical and the story was told with little or no finesse. Microsoft dropped the news at the beginning of a holiday week in an unsigned note on the TechNet homepage. It was accompanied by an FAQ that said the shutdown was the result of unspecified changes in “IT trends and business dynamics.” Not a word about piracy.

It might be difficult for Microsoft to separate serious IT pros from hobbyists and pirates, but that’s not the case with the most affected group: registered members of the Microsoft Certified Trainers program. Microsoft calls this group “the premier technical and instructional experts in Microsoft technologies.” The benefits package for an MCT currently includes a not-for-resale subscription to TechNet Pro. Those subscriptions will expire on March 31, 2014, and there’s no replacement offered.

There are alternatives that might be appropriate for trainers, including the Action Pack subscriptions offered to registered Microsoft partners. Anyone whose primary business can be categorized as “Training Services” is eligible to become a partner. But Microsoft’s FAQ steers subscribers to the more expensive MSDN subscriptions.

Microsoft is going through a significant and difficult transition right now, with its enterprise side holding down the fort as the consumer business collapses. It’s hard to believe that the company really wants to kick away its “enterprise fanboys” with an ill-timed, tone-deaf move like this. And yet this is what it looks like, especially if you’re one of the ones getting booted.

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