License Windows Server VMs on Azure Stack HCI

Applies to: Azure Stack HCI, versions 21H2 and 20H2; Windows Server 2022, Windows Server 2019 Datacenter Edition and later

Windows Server virtual machines (VMs) must be licensed and activated before you can use them on Azure Stack HCI. You can use any existing Windows Server licenses and activation methods that you already have. Optionally, Azure Stack HCI offers new licensing models and tools to help simplify this process. This article describes general licensing concepts and the new options that are available on Azure Stack HCI.

Summary

The following figure shows the different Windows Server VM licensing options:

VM licensing

First, choose one of two licensing options:

  • Windows Server subscription: Subscribe to Windows Server guest licenses through Azure. Available for Azure Stack HCI only.
  • Bring your own license (BYOL): Apply your existing Windows Server licenses.

For more information, see Compare licensing options.

Next, activate your Windows Server VMs. If you are using Windows Server subscription, activation is handled automatically for you. If you are using BYOL, you must use the corresponding keys associated with your license in order to activate. The most convenient way to activate VMs on Azure Stack HCI is to use Automatic VM Activation (AVMA), available for VMs only on Azure Stack HCI.

To use other methods to activate VMs, see Key Management Services (KMS) activation planning.

Step 1: Get licenses

Compare licensing options

Choose the licensing option that best suits your needs:

Question Windows Server subscription Bring your own license (BYOL)
Where do I want to deploy my Windows Server (WS) VMs? Azure Stack HCI only. Can be applied anywhere.
What versions of WS VMs do you want to use? Evergreen – all versions up to the latest version. Version-specific.
Does this option also allow me to use Windows Server: Azure edition? Yes. Need to have both Software Assurance (SA) and WS volume license keys.
How do I activate my WS VMs? Automatically handled – no keys/true-up. Key based – for example, KMS/AVMA/enter keys in VM.
What are the CAL requirements? No CAL required – included in WS subscription. Windows Server CAL.
What is the pricing model? Per physical core/per month pricing, purchased and billed through Azure (free trial within the first 60 days of registering your Azure Stack HCI). For details, see Pricing for Windows Server subscription. Core licenses. For details, see Licensing Windows Server and Pricing for Windows Server licenses.

Guest versions

The following table shows the guest operating systems that the different licensing methods can activate:

Version BYO Windows Server 2019 license BYO Windows Server 2022 license Windows Server subscription
Windows Server 2012/R2 X X X
Windows Server 2016 X X X
Windows Server 2019 X X X
Windows Server 2022 X X
Windows Server 2022: Azure Edition Requires Software Assurance Requires Software Assurance X
Future editions (Evergreen) X

Tutorial: Windows Server subscription

Windows Server subscription enables you to subscribe to Windows Server guest licensing on Azure Stack HCI through Azure.

How does Windows Server subscription work?

When Windows Server subscription is purchased, Azure Stack HCI servers retrieve licenses from the cloud and automatically set up Automatic VM Activation (AVMA) on the cluster. In other words, you simply enroll in the subscription; there are no other steps required for activation.

Windows Server subscription

Prerequisites

  • An Azure Stack HCI cluster

  • If using Windows Admin Center:

    • Windows Admin Center (version 2103 or later) with the Cluster Manager extension (version 2.41.0 or later).

Enable Windows Server subscription using the Azure portal

  1. In your Azure Stack HCI cluster resource page, navigate to the Configuration screen.

  2. Under the feature Windows Server subscription add-on, select Purchase. In the context pane, select Purchase again to confirm.

  3. When Windows Server subscription has been successfully purchased, you can start using Windows Server VMs on your cluster. Licenses will take a few minutes to be applied on your cluster.

    Purchase confirmation

Troubleshooting - Windows Server subscription

Error: One or more servers in the cluster does not have the latest changes to this setting. We'll apply the changes as soon as the servers sync again.

Remediation: Your cluster does not yet have the latest status on Windows Server subscription (for example, you just enrolled or just canceled), and therefore might not have retrieved the licenses to set up AVMA. In most cases, the next cloud sync will resolve this discrepancy, or you can sync manually. See Syncing Azure Stack HCI.

Enable Windows Server subscription using Windows Admin Center

  1. Select Cluster Manager from the top drop-down, navigate to the cluster that you want to activate, then under Settings, select Activate Windows Server VMs.

  2. In the Automatically activate VMs pane, select Set up, and then select Purchase Windows Server subscription. Select Next and confirm details, then select Purchase.

  3. When you complete the purchase successfully, the cluster retrieves licenses from the cloud, and sets up AVMA on your cluster.

    Confirm purchase

Enable Windows Server subscription using PowerShell

  • Purchase Windows Server subscription: From your cluster, run the following command:

    Set-AzStackHCI -EnableWSsubscription $true
    
  • Check status: To check subscription status for each server, run the following command on each server:

    Get-AzureStackHCISubscriptionStatus
    
  • To check that AVMA has been set up with Windows Server subscription, run the following command on each server:

    Get-VMAutomaticActivation
    

Step 2: Activate your VMs

You can use any existing method to activate VMs on Azure Stack HCI. Optionally, you can use AVMA, which enables activated host servers to automatically activate VMs running on them. For more information, see AVMA in Windows Server.

Activate VMs

Benefits of AVMA

VM activation through host servers presents several benefits:

  • Individual VMs don't have to be connected to the internet. Only licensed host servers with internet connectivity are required.
  • License management is simplified. Instead of having to true-up key usage counts for individual VMs, you can activate any number of VMs with just a properly licensed server.
  • AVMA acts as a proof-of-purchase mechanism. This capability helps to ensure that Windows products are used in accordance with product use rights and Microsoft software license terms.

Tutorial: Bring your own license (BYOL) activation through AVMA

Take a few minutes to watch the video on using Automatic Virtual Machine Activation in Windows Admin Center:

Prerequisites - activation

Before you begin:

  • Get the required Windows Server Datacenter key(s):

    • Key editions: Windows Server 2019 Datacenter or later. For information about what guest versions your key activates, see Guest versions.
    • Number of keys: One unique key for each host server you are activating, unless you have a valid volume license key.
    • Consistency across cluster: All servers in a cluster need to use the same edition of keys, so that VMs stay activated regardless of which server they run on.
  • An Azure Stack HCI cluster (version 20H2 with the June 8, 2021 cumulative update or later).

  • Windows Admin Center (version 2103 or later).

  • The Cluster Manager extension for Windows Admin Center (version 1.523.0 or later).

Note

For VMs to stay activated regardless of which server they run on, AVMA must be set up for each server in the cluster.

AVMA using Windows Admin Center

You can use Windows Admin Center to set up and manage product keys for your Azure Stack HCI cluster.

Apply activation keys

To use AVMA in Windows Admin Center:

  1. Select Cluster Manager from the top drop-down arrow, navigate to the cluster that you want to activate, then under Settings, select Activate Windows Server VMs.

    Apply keys

  2. In the Automatically activate VMs pane, select Set up and then select Use existing Windows Server licenses. In the Apply activation keys to each server pane, enter your Windows Server Datacenter keys.

    When you have finished entering keys for each host server in the cluster, select Apply. The process then takes a few minutes to complete.

    Note

    Each server requires a unique key, unless you have a valid volume license key.

After AVMA is successfully set up, you can view and manage the feature for your cluster.

Change or add keys later (optional)

You might want to either change or add keys later; for example, when you add a server to the cluster, or use new Windows Server VM versions.

To change or add keys:

  1. In the Activate Windows Server VMs pane, select the servers that you want to manage, and then select Manage activation keys.

    Short demonstration showing how to change or add keys in Windows Admin Center.

  2. In the Manage activation keys pane, enter the new keys for the selected host servers, and then select Apply.

    Note

    Overwriting keys does not reset the activation count for used keys. Ensure that you're using the right keys before applying them to the servers.

Troubleshooting - Windows Admin Center

If you receive the following AVMA error messages, try using the verification steps in this section to resolve them.

Error 1: "The key you entered didn't work"

This error might be due to one of the following issues:

  • A key submitted to activate a server in the cluster was not accepted.
  • A disruption of the activation process prevented a server in the cluster from being activated.
  • A valid key hasn't yet been applied to a server that was added to the cluster.

To resolve such issues, in the Activate Windows Server VMs window, select the server with the warning, and then select Manage activation keys to enter a new key.

Error 2: "Some servers use keys for an older version of Windows Server"

All servers must use the same version of keys. Update the keys to the same version to ensure that the VMs stay activated regardless of which server they run on.

Error 3: "Server is down"

Your server is offline and cannot be reached. Bring all servers online and then refresh the page.

Error 4: "Couldn't check the status on this server" or "To use this feature, install the latest update"

One or more of your servers is not updated and does not have the required packages to set up AVMA. Ensure that your cluster is updated, and then refresh the page. For more information, see Update Azure Stack HCI clusters.

AVMA using PowerShell

You can also use PowerShell to set up and manage key-based AVMA for your Azure Stack HCI cluster.

Open PowerShell as an administrator, and run the following commands:

  1. Apply Windows Server Datacenter keys to each server:

     Set-VMAutomaticActivation <product key>
    
  2. View and confirm Automatic Virtual Machine Activation status:

     Get-VMAutomaticActivation
    
  3. Repeat these steps on each of the other servers in your Azure Stack HCI cluster.

Activate VMs against a host server

Now that you have set up AVMA, you can activate VMs against the host server by following the steps here.

FAQ

This FAQ provides answers to some questions about licensing Windows Server.

Will my Windows Server 2022 Datacenter Azure Edition guests activate on Azure Stack HCI?

Yes, but you must use either Windows Server subscription-based AVMA, or else bring Windows Server 2022 Datacenter keys with Software Assurance, which will be available after the general availability of Windows Server 2022 Datacenter Azure Edition on Azure Stack HCI.

Do I still need Windows Server CALs?

Yes, you still need Windows Server CALs for BYOL, but not for Windows Server subscription.

Do I need to be connected to the internet?

You do need internet connectivity:

  • To sync host servers to Azure at least once every 30 days, in order to maintain Azure Stack HCI 30-day connectivity requirements and to sync host licenses for AVMA.
  • When purchasing or cancelling Windows Server subscription.

You do not need internet connectivity:

  • For VMs to activate via Windows Server subscription or BYOL-based AVMA. For connectivity requirements for other forms of activation, see the Windows Server documentation.

When does Windows Server subscription start/end billing?

Windows Server subscription starts billing and activating Windows Server VMs immediately upon purchase. If you enable Windows Server subscription within the first 60 days of activating Azure Stack HCI, you automatically have a free trial for the duration of that period.

You can sign up or cancel your Windows Server subscription at any time. Upon cancellation, billing and activation via Azure stops immediately. Make sure you have an alternate form of licensing if you continue to run Windows Server VMs on your cluster.

I have a license for Windows Server, can I run Windows Server 2016 VMs on Azure Stack HCI?

Yes. Although you cannot use Windows Server 2016 keys to set up AVMA on Azure Stack HCI, they can still be applied using other activation methods. For example, you can enter a Windows Server 2016 key into your Windows Server 2016 VM directly.

Where can I get BYOL keys for AVMA?

To get a product key, choose from the following options:

  • OEM provider: Find a Certificates of Authenticity (COA) key label on the outside of the OEM hardware. You can use this key once per server in the cluster.
  • Volume Licensing Service Center (VLSC): From the VLSC, you can download a Multiple Activation Key (MAK) that you can reuse up to a predetermined number of allowed activations. For more information, see MAK keys.
  • Retail channels: You can also find a retail key on a retail box label. You can only use this key once per server in the cluster. For more information, see Packaged Software.

I want to change an existing key. What happens to the previous key if the overwrite is successful/unsuccessful?

Once a product key is associated with a device, that association is permanent. Overwriting keys does not reduce the activation count for used keys. If you successfully apply another key, both keys would be considered to have been "used" once. If you unsuccessfully apply a key, your host server activation state remains unchanged and defaults to the last successfully added key.

I want to change to another key of a different version. Is it possible to switch keys between versions?

You can update to newer versions of keys, or replace existing keys with the same version, but you cannot downgrade to a previous version.

What happens if I add or remove a new server?

You'll need to add activation keys for each new server, so that the Windows Server VMs can be activated against the new server. Removing a server does not impact how AVMA is set up for the remaining servers in the cluster.

I previously purchased a Windows Server Software-Defined Datacenter (WSSD) solution with a Windows Server 2019 key. Can I use that key for Azure Stack HCI?

Yes, but you'll need to use keys for Windows Server 2022 or later, which will be available after the general availability of Windows Server 2022.

Next steps