This is a Canonical Question about Licensing.

Questions on licensing are off-topic on Server Fault. If your question has been closed as a duplicate of this question, then this is because we want to help you understand why licence questions are off topic rather than just telling you "it just is". In all likelihood, this question will not address your question directly, it was not meant to.

I have a question regarding software licensing. Can the Server Fault community please help with the following:

  • How many licenses do I need?
  • Is this licensing configuration valid?
  • What CALs do I need to be properly licensed?
  • Can I run this product in a virtual environment?
  • Can I downgrade this product to an earlier version?
  • Am I entitled to feature X with license Y?
  • 24
    The idea of this question is so we can close all future licensing questions as duplicates of this question. Dec 22, 2010 at 18:07
  • 39
    Contrary to the general opinion here, I'm down voting this (for what that's worth) because I don't agree with the idea of referring all licensing questions to this generic answer. Essentially this is making the subject of licensing a taboo subject on SF. If the same logic is applied to other subjects, SF would cease to be a useful resource.
    – Bryan
    Feb 22, 2011 at 19:50
  • 7
    @Scott Warren - There's conflicting information on the internet because clearly nobody knows what's right or wrong (even Microsoft by the sounds of your question). We don't want to add to the confusion. As we always say: Speak to Microsoft, they don't bite. Apr 8, 2011 at 13:51
  • 8
    To everyone complaining about this question. If it didn't exist all licensing questions would be outright closed as Off Topic or Too Localized. At least this gives people an explanation about why and gives some cursory info that might be helpful.
    – MDMarra
    Jan 13, 2012 at 17:37
  • 5
    To those who believe licensing questions should be allowed I'd like to point out that many products have different licenses for different localities. As an example, Microsoft doesn't have just a single license for each version/variant of it's products. Those licenses vary depending on where they are purchased, often in order to comply with local laws, which frequently don't allow Microsoft's abhorrent terms and conditions. For such reasons licensing information must always be obtained locally from the vendor if you want accurate information. As a global site, SF simply can't do that. Jan 12, 2013 at 7:38

5 Answers 5


Licensing is a hard and absolutely vendor-specific problem. Not only that, many vendors, especially the larger ones like Microsoft, have multiple types of licensing regimes that change pricing based on:

  • How large you are (either by seat count, annual revenue, or a combination of both)
  • What industry you're in (non-profits, education, government, enterprise, large corporation, small corporation, and SMB are all discrete licensing categories with their own quirks)
  • How much licensing you purchase (volume discounts vary)
  • What kind of contract you buy (monthly subscription versus one time payout)
  • Where you are located or where the licenses will be deployed
  • Whether you're buying off a master contract, or are making your own.

Especially for the larger companies like Microsoft, licensing is its own career-track and one that more and more often is not found in the SysAdmin/DevOps/SRE office. It is found in either your Purchasing office, your value-added-reseller's office, or the LargeCorp's sales office.

In our company we have one person who specializes in purchasing IT license-bearing software. She handles Microsoft and Adobe licensing, as well as a host of other complex entities like ESRI, MatLab, Apple, Novell, and AutoCAD. It is her entire job to know these things and we've made significant savings because she can focus her whole effort into figuring the fiddly bits out. It has saved us a lot of money. She is neither Server person or Desktop person. When license-servers need setting up I do that, but she provides the license keys that goes into them and all of the legal mucking about that does into obtaining them in the first place.

She's a licensing person, and is mostly the kind of person who can answer these questions. I'm not, neither are people like me. But even she would be hard pressed to answer questions for a 30 person small business, since she spends her entire day enmeshed in a large, public (and therefore governmental) higher-ed organization that has completely different licensing options.

So you're a sysadmin, you're still told to fix a licensing problem, and you don't have that wonderful licensing professional I rhapsodized about. What do you do?

  • Ask the company that makes what you want to buy. They'll at least give you some idea what market-segment they think your organization belongs in. You may even be able to buy from them directly.
  • Do this especially if your question is on appropriate usage of licenses.
  • If at all possible, ask for written answer — it's not unheard of for the sales people of larger software vendors to be lost in licensing details too.
  • Ask a value-added-reseller of some kind, preferably one you already have a relationship with. They deal with this a lot more than you do, and likely have such a licensing professional.
    • The majors like CDW have whole departments dedicated to this.
    • They will keep you inside your market segment in ways you won't even notice (this is a good thing).
  • Don't ask your peers, they likely don't know either. This is why your question got closed as a duplicate of this one.

I know this is not the usual answer, but I felt this POV should appear somewhere in the responses. If you decide to use only free software, then in addition to the expected benefits of never being artificially constrained by your choice of software, deprived of information necessary to make it work, or unable to lawfully share it with others who would benefit from it, you get the handy side-effect of never having to worry about software licensing audits, licence counts, or licence terms (unless you redistribute software, in which case there are certain conditions, but they're very easily satisfied).

A long time ago I decided as both a personal and a commercial proposition to use only free software. If I couldn't do it with free software, at home or at work, it wasn't worth doing. My life became immensely simplified and I've never regretted the decision.

  • 1
    This may not be the usual answer, but it is by far the best answer.
    – Tony Adams
    Nov 25, 2015 at 16:16
  • @TonyAdams thank you! Five years on from that answer, and I'm still very much stuck to those guns.
    – MadHatter
    Nov 25, 2015 at 16:19
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    Needs a better name than 'free software'. No cost licensing perhaps. There is a hidden cost in FOSS. If you have to resolve a problem, you have to resolve it yourself. There is no vendor support. That's fine if you're running cookie cutter configurations, but not everyone does. When you have to integrate OS, and multiple services and application packages, and you run into compatibility issues, you have to become an expert and resolve the issue, or go out and hire an expert. These are not inherently bad options, but they include a cost which is obscured when we say, "Free Software."
    – Jeter-work
    Aug 19, 2016 at 14:08
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    @Xalorous I can't agree with you about the naming; the community is fairly clear that it's "free as in speech, not as in beer". You're right about the lack of vendor support, though if you've ever called vendor support for anything other than a very simple question, you may be depressed at how poor the "paid for" support offerings can be.
    – MadHatter
    Aug 19, 2016 at 15:46

One of my duties used to be (Yay! passed it on to someone else, finally!) dealing with licenses. Every so often, I'd have to dive into licensing and figure out how it worked for some vendor or another.

With Microsoft, it was about every two years: I'd talk to our reseller(s), read whatever I could find, ask questions at seminars and webcasts, and figure out what the optimal strategy was and we'd follow that as long as possible, until the situation changed. For most other vendors, it was similar, except the stakes were lower - the cost of licenses was much less, so if we ended up with extras, or a sub-optimal upgrade strategy, it wasn't as big a deal.

The point is that in order to answer your questions for my environment, I had to put in at least a couple weeks of effort every year - and that's for a network I was intimately familiar with. There's no way to shortcut that effort by asking here.

  • 7
    +1 for that last paragraph.
    – Chris S
    Dec 22, 2010 at 22:15

Please ask your local reseller - they will be much better informed than the Server Fault community are.

Your reseller will know all about the licensing intricacies, and usually have contacts within the appropriate organisation to get a definitive answer. They will also know of any special offers, restrictions or other licensing oddities that exist in your country or local area.

Software licensing is a very complex and vendor specific topic, and as such we do not generally answer licensing queries as they have no legal standing.

If you ever go through an audit with a software publisher, an email from them (or your reseller) is going to be much more credible in the event of any discrepancies than a post on a community based Q&A site will be.

  • RedHat will gladly point you to your local regional reseller. They will go over the options and are typically experienced enough to show you the cheapest way to go, and the best way to go.
    – Jeter-work
    Aug 19, 2016 at 14:09

For Microsoft licensing, this is a helpful resource to get some idea of how their schemes work in broad details, which will be some help to understand what is going on when you contact a local microsoft specialist and they start asking all kinds of questions rather than just giving you a simple price.

As for the reasoning behind closing questions as a duplicate of this one, I happen to know that even within a narrow sphere (product licences for education) both Microsoft and some other major players have slightly different licence terms depending on what area of the world you're in, what type of education establishment you are and which one of the schemes on offer you have opted to join.

In other words, I can go and talk to 2 other people who work for educational establishments in the same city as me and we can all have different deals for how our licensing works.

Annoying and over-complex for sure. And something that imho makes it impossible to give a useful answer to a question on software licensing.

  • The link from the first paragraph to an artcle written in 2012 is unfortunately of historical interest only. Nov 24, 2021 at 18:41

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