Microsoft Slow to Turn On Vista Activation Tools

Missing volume-activation technologies may block rollouts

Unlike most large organizations, the University of Oklahoma plans to deploy Windows Vista on more than one quarter of its 65,000 PCs by the end of this year.

Because of those early migration plans, Dennis Aebersold, the university's CIO, is already well versed in the new operating system's volume activation features. But Aebersold was disappointed to find that Microsoft Corp. has yet to release its Volume Activation Management Tool, which the school needs in order to use a proxy server to centrally activate multiple Vista desktops via a single connection to Microsoft's systems.

To meet Microsoft's requirement that Vista be activated and validated on systems within 30 days of installation, the university also plans to use an internally hosted Key Management Service developed by Microsoft to support automatic activations.

But Matt Singleton, the school's director of IT services, voiced concerns about that method of activation as well. He said Microsoft's KMS offers no user-based authentication, so to enable students who aren't connected to the university's network to activate Vista, the IT department will have to customize its firewall rules to allow only authorized users to access the system running the KMS.

"We believe the new volume-activation process can be beneficial for license compliance purposes," Aebersold said. "But the existing tools need more work and should have been released sooner."

A Microsoft spokeswoman said the Volume Activation Management Tool, or VAMT, is scheduled to be released in March. She said it contains a version of Microsoft's Multiple Activation Key (MAK) technology that works on a proxy server, plus other tools that the vendor has yet to disclose.

Another missing piece for early corporate adopters of Vista is KMS support for Windows Server 2003. Customers won't be able to run the KMS technology on that operating system until next month, said Cori Hartje, director of Microsoft's Genuine Software Initiative.

For now, that leaves users with a choice of running KMS off a Vista client machine, or a system with a beta copy of the next version of Windows Server, code-named Longhorn. Even Hartje said the latter option isn't "a practical solution."

Michael Silver, an analyst at Gartner Inc., said Microsoft was hoping that users would run KMS off Vista clients until the Longhorn server is available. But IT managers have pushed the software vendor to support Windows Server 2003.

"Customers don't want yet another machine somewhere to maintain," Silver said. "They have enough Win2003 servers out there that could handle running this extra service."

Microsoft released Vista to its volume license customers on Nov. 30 and claimed in a marketing campaign that there was no need to wait to deploy the new operating system. But as part of Microsoft's efforts to thwart rampant piracy problems, the operating system will go into a reduced-functionality mode on systems if the activation and validation process isn't completed within the prescribed 30-day window.

"Since most large companies take 12 to 18 months to test and pilot [an operating system], they're probably not inconveniencing too many people" by not having all the volume activation tools ready, Silver said. "Of course, it's not good to inconvenience those that really want to move early," he added.

Users have an additional activation option -- MAK for individual computers. Under that approach, each PC has to independently connect to servers at Microsoft via the Internet or a telephone connection to activate Vista. But large companies typically prefer to have their end users connect to internal servers.

Bill Lewkowski, CIO at Metropolitan Health Corp. in Grand Rapids, Mich., said he has no intention of deploying Vista before the first service pack of bug fixes is released. And the delayed volume-activation tools are yet another example of why large users should avoid early deployments, he added.

"There's no way I would even be planning a project like this until all the tools are ready," Lewkowski said. "That all sounds like a whole lot of complexity and asking for problems."

Microsoft itself activated Vista systems for employees by running KMS off a Vista client machine in its IT shop, according to Hartje. She said she and her co-workers simply had to do "the regular installation you have to do with any software." The activation and validation of Vista were "transparent," Hartje said. "I didn't ever know that I'd activated it."

But Barry Libenson, CIO at Ingersoll-Rand Co., called the activation system a "nightmare" that he would "just as soon let others sort out." He doesn't like either the MAK or KMS methods and views the process, as defined by Microsoft, as unfeasible for a company with 30,000 users. "We won't migrate until a more realistic approach is available," he said.

"It's a horrible solution and one of the primary reasons we aren't actively evaluating a Vista rollout," said John LaBrue, an operating system administrator at OGE Energy Corp. in Oklahoma City. "The number of licensed machines we deploy makes this a prospect we don't wish to encounter at this time or at any time in the near future. It's the primary catalyst for us to evaluate alternative technologies." 

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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