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Licensing Remote Desktop Services (RDS) in Azure

Do you need to license Remote Desktop Services CALs in Azure? You would typically "pay-as-you-go" for Microsoft Windows Server licences in Azure. You also don't need Windows Server CALs (Client Access Licences) for the Azure instances. But what about RDS CALs?

Let's dive in. For busy people, we'll start with FAQs.

Note: last updated in February 2022.

Frequently asked questions about RDS CALs in Azure

Do I need RDS CALs in Azure?

The short answer is yes. You need RDS CALs or equivalent licenses in Azure if you provide access to a Windows Server graphical desktop or stream an application using RDS, Citrix or similar technologies.

Do I need RDS CALs for Windows Virtual Desktop?

You only need RDS CALs for virtual desktops using Windows Server. Azure WVD runs on Windows 11 and doesn't require RDS CALs.

What is an RDS CAL?

RDS CAL is a license that you need to access a Remote Desktop on Windows Server. It is essential for Work-from-Home licensing and running desktop applications in the Cloud.

It is also known as a "Terminal Services CAL".

What does RDS CAL stand for?

RDS stands for "Remote Desktop Services".

CAL stands for "Client Access License".

Are there different types of RDS CALs?

There are two types of RDS CALs:

  • RDS User CAL – you assign them to users who become "Licensed users" and may access RDS from an unlimited number of devices. It is the only type of RDS CAL you may assign to Azure.

  • RDS Device CAL – you assign them to client devices – desktops, laptops, tablets, phones – and any user may access RDS from a "Licensed device". Device CALs are not allowed to be assigned to Azure.

Can I mix and match User and Device CALs?

Yes, you may mix and match them. However, only RDS User CALs are permitted in the Cloud.

What are RDS CAL equivalent licenses for Azure?

  1. RDS SALs. SAL stands for "Subscriber Access License"; it is a monthly subscription. You can only acquire RDS SALs from a service provider authorised to use Microsoft SPLA. However, it will only work until September 30, 2025. We aren't sure how this is going to work after. This article will be updated as soon as there is clarity.

  2. RDS User SLs, which are effectively subscription versions of RDS CALs. These are available via CSP and Microsoft Volume Licensing programs.

Providers! RDS SAL is the only option for service providers to offer compliant Remote Desktop solutions in Azure. However, it will only work until September 30, 2025. We aren't sure how this is going to work after. This article will be updated as soon as there is clarity.

Can I bring my own RDS CALs to Azure?

Yes, if you have Software Assurance on RDS User CALs. If you have RDS User CALs purchased, for example, as a Microsoft Enterprise Agreement license, you may use them in Azure. RDS Device CALs do not have this benefit.

You must submit a License Verification Form to Microsoft no later than ten days after you deployed a Windows Server with a Remote Desktop Service and let your users access it.

Can I use my RDS User CALs with multiple service providers?

No. You may use your RDS User CALs with Software Assurance only with one provider at a time, plus on-premises. Licenses get "attached" to the chosen provider, or Azure, for 90 days.

Are there Pay-as-you-go RDS CALs in Azure?

No. Microsoft decided not to provide RDS CALs or RDS SALs in Azure. You must bring your existing RDS CALs with Software Assurance or pay for RDS SALs via a service provider.

Do administrators require Remote Desktop Services CAL?

Two simultaneous connections to Windows Server are allowed for free for system administration and maintenance. To avoid compliance "grey areas", use "Remote Desktop Administration" connections for these purposes, not "Remote Desktop Services". Hint: connect with the "/admin" switch.

Can I provide services to my clients using my own RDS CALs?

No. You must sign a Microsoft SPLA agreement and provide services using RDS SALs.

Can I buy RDS CALs from Microsoft directly?

There are RDS CALs in the Microsoft online store. However, those RDS CALs cannot be used in Azure because they don't have Software Assurance.

Remote Desktop Services - when do you need them?

Here's an example scenario. Suppose your servers are located in the USA or the UK. Your users work from home all the time or occasionally. Your channel partners are located all around the world. Your boss has a holiday house in the Maldives. They all need access to your CRM/ERP that runs on your servers. It is not a web application but a traditional piece of software, so you need a Windows desktop (or a Windows Server desktop) to run it. Well, there we go. To be compliant, you must license the basic Windows Server and RDS access for all of them.

Here's a video explanation if you are tired of reading by now:

Windows Server client access licensing basics

In addition to server licences, Windows Server always requires Client Access Licenses or their equivalents.

  • You may decide to license access per client device. In such a scenario, you must license the servers with server licenses and, in addition, every client device with a Device CAL.

  • You may choose to license every user with a User CAL instead and thus avoid counting all kinds of client devices. Server licenses will still be required.

  • You may even mix and match User and Device CALs.

Suppose you run Windows Server and want to host a graphical interface – known as Remote Desktop or Terminal Services – for your employees, partners, or even your clients. In that case, you must assign them with RDS CALs in addition to Windows Server CALs.

What's different in Azure?

Let me repeat, CALs are always required. When CALs are not required, it is an exception, not a rule. In Azure, there's one such exception. Azure virtual machines do not require the basic Windows Server Client Access Licenses. However, other CAL types are still needed, including RDS CALs.

Azure provides you with a choice when it comes to licensing Windows Server virtual machines:

  1. Pay per minute,

  2. Bring your licenses via Azure Hybrid Benefit.

But when it comes to RDS CALs, that's when people get confused with Azure.

Suppose you're a startup. You have no Microsoft volume licenses. Typically in Azure, you rent virtual machines and pay per minute for "compute", storage, and licenses. It doesn't require Windows Server CALs – they are "included" in the service. What's not evident and confusing to many is that RDS CALs are still required.

Frustratingly, Microsoft decided not to provide pay-as-you-go, pay-per-minute, or even "user subscription" licences. You must purchase them somehow else and bring them in.

Can you use your existing CALs in Azure?

Yes, you can. If you have RDS User CALs – RDS Client Access Licenses per User – with active Software Assurance, you may use them simultaneously on-premises and in Azure.

The core requirement is that your licenses must have current Software Assurance. You can bring these licences to Azure and use them. Don't pay anything extra.

SPLA option – RDS SALs

Using a service provider's solution, you may subscribe to RDS SALs and pay monthly for all authorised users via SPLA.

Please pay special attention to the word "authorised". If a user has access to Remote Desktop Services, you must pay for them monthly even if they don't actively use the service.

IMPORTANT! This solution will only work until September 30, 2025. Nobody is sure how it will work after that. This article will be updated as soon as it is clear.

How to take your RDS CALs to Azure?

  1. Confirm that they are RDS User CALs. You may not use RDS Device CALs in Azure.

  2. Verify that your RDS User CALs have active Software Assurance.

  3. Read the License Mobility through Software Assurance guide from Microsoft.

  4. Find the link to the License Mobility Verification Form in the above guide and follow the instructions.

How to take your RDS CALs to Amazon AWS and Google Cloud?

  1. Ensure that you have RDS User CALs. You may not use RDS Device CALs this way.

  2. Verify that your RDS User CALs have active Software Assurance.

  3. Read the License Mobility through Software Assurance guide from Microsoft.

  4. Find the link to the License Mobility Verification Form in the above guide and follow the instructions.

  5. Let the provider know that you are using your RDS User CALs with SA and send them a copy of the form signed off by Microsoft.

How to take your RDS CALs to other providers

All providers and outsourcers that are not Microsoft, Amazon, Google or Alibaba are "Authorised outsourcers".

From October 01, 2022, any subscription licenses may be taken to any Authorised Outsourcer. It includes RDS CALs too. There is also no limit on Device RDS CALs.

Providers that are CSP-Hosters will help you verify your licenses for eligibility.

Other providers and outsourcers may also choose to verify your licenses for compliance and eligibility before allowing you to BYOL (Bring Your Own License).

Please contact the provider of your choice for assistance.

Technical limitations for RDS User CALs in a workgroup

This is not a licensing issue, but you should know that RDS User CALs only work in an Active Directory domain.

The bottom line

If Azure users want to use an application like Excel, Word, Microsoft Office or any third-party application, for example, Adobe Acrobat, deployed on a Windows Server, they must be licensed with RDS CALs or RDS SALs. These licences cannot be acquired directly from Azure.

Still confused? Talk to an Azure licensing expert

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