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Managing Windows Licensing and Activation : Managing Volume License Activation (part 1) - Centralizing activation with KMS

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4/7/2013 6:35:39 PM

When managing volume license activation of Windows Vista, you must choose to use Multiple Activation Key (MAK) activation, Key Management Services (KMS)–based activation, or a combination of both, whichever best meets your needs. To select an activation method, you first need to understand how each works.

1. Centralizing activation with KMS

The default activation method for volume license editions of Windows Vista is to use KMS. KMS is an organizational, centralized activation solution. The focus of KMS activation is to have a local server at your organization to activate the Windows Vista clients, as shown in Figure 1. The major advantage is that you only need to activate the KMS server itself with Microsoft, and after you activate your KMS server, no further communication with Microsoft is necessary to activate your Vista clients. In fact, you won't have to keep up activation counts either, because a KMS server will activate as many computers as many times as you want. Of course, proper licensing needs to be observed to remain legal, but activation should be much more manageable.

KMS volume activation works in two stages. In the first stage, you manually configure and activate a centralized server running the software licensing service. The software licensing service is included with Windows Vista and Server 2008 and is available as a download for Server 2003. You begin by changing the product key for the KMS server to the KMS key provided by Microsoft when purchasing volume licenses. Each key may activate up to six servers ten times each without having to call Microsoft for a manual exception. After the product key has been changed, the server must be activated either through the Internet or manually by calling Microsoft and entering the activation code by hand.

Figure 1. Example KMS activation infrastructure


Although Vista can host a KMS server, it can only activate other Windows Vista systems. If you need to activate Windows Server 2008 systems, you will need to host the KMS server on a Windows Server system. Further, a KMS key can be used to install up to six KMS host systems (if more are needed, requests can be made to Microsoft's Volume Activation Support Center).

Just as the new KMS key installed on the server dictates it will operate as a KMS server, there are KMS client keys that indicate a workstation or server should activate with a KMS server rather than against Microsoft activation servers. This key is referred to as the generic key and is included on the installation media in a file named pid.txt. To use this key, simply omit a product key when installing Windows and it will use the generic key and in turn attempt to activate with a KMS server. However, on which KMS server?

KMS server location

KMS servers are located by clients in one of two methods. The default and preferred method is to use DNS. When installing a KMS server key, the software licensing service will automatically attempt to register itself with its DNS server. If you are not using dynamic DNS, then you must manually create a DNS entry for the KMS service. When a KMS client requires activation, it performs a DNS query to locate a valid KMS server, as shown in Figure 2. Multiple KMS servers may be used and specified in DNS to provide fault tolerance.

Figure 2. A Windows Vista client activating against a KMS server

Although a KMS server will automatically register itself in DNS, it will not remove itself from DNS when retired. If you retire a KMS server or simply plan to move the KMS functionality to another server, be sure to remove the DNS entries manually for the KMS service referencing the server to be retired.

Second, clients can locate a KMS server by manual configuration. If DNS location of KMS servers is not feasible, then each client may be manually configured to access a KMS server. When manually specifying a KMS server, there is no fault tolerance. Therefore, we strongly recommend that you do not employ this manual configuration unless no other options are available. If manual configuration is necessary, you can use the slmgr.vbs script and its skms argument. This command line can be deployed as a simple task using a desktop management solution (such as Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager, Altiris Deployment Solution, or the KBOX Systems Management Appliance), or you can run this command as a startup script assigned through Group Policy.

Reviewing the limitations of KMS

Although KMS offers a relatively maintenance-free activation solution, it does have some shortcomings and limitations. Specifically, you must have a minimum number of systems requesting activations in order for it to succeed (activation threshold). You must also configure DNS manually if you have multiple domains or multiple KMS servers. Clients need to reactivate on a regular basis. Some OEM systems can have issues with upgrade verification functions. In this section, each of these issues will be discussed.

  • Activation threshold

  • DNS configuration

  • Reactivation

  • Upgrade verification

Understanding activation threshold requirements

The most notable is the activation threshold. The activation threshold is the minimum number of physical computers on a network that must request activation before activation will occur. The threshold for Server 2008 is five activation requests; for Windows Vista it is 25 activation requests. The intent is to ensure that KMS activation is only used in medium to large businesses, where proper licensing is more likely to be observed.

When the first computer requests activation from the KMS server, it responds with a count of one. The second is provided a count of two. When the fifth computer makes its request, it will succeed if that computer is Windows Server 2008; if that fifth computer is Windows Vista, it would not because its activation threshold is 25.


KMS can activate both physical and virtual computers, once the threshold of physical computers is met.

Understanding DNS requirements

Another thing you may need to watch out for in the current KMS implementation is the location of the required DNS entry. The entry in DNS for a KMS activation server is an SRV record in _VLMCS._TCP.yourdomain.com. Using this particular location in DNS poses two problems. One problem is that KMS entries are not site specific and may result in activations being performed across WAN links, even when a local KMS server is available. One possible solution is to use separate DNS domains for each physical location, each with its own list of available KMS servers.

Another problem is that the DNS entry is only automatically registered in the domain to which the KMS server is a member. If you are working in a multiple domain environment, you will need to create an SRV record underneath _VLMCS._TCP manually for each domain you would like the KMS server to service.

Understanding reactivation requirements

Another limitation, or feature, of KMS is the need for client reactivation. When activated using KMS servers, clients are only activated for 180 days and require reactivation to continue to be used. Under normal circumstances, the clients should manage the reactivations in the background without any administrative overhead. Until activated, clients will attempt to activate every two hours. After activated, clients attempt to reactivate every 7 days, which means that on a properly operating network with healthy clients and servers, workstations should always have at least 173 days of activation remaining.

This works well for environments where workstations are typically connected to the network. It even works well with portable computers as long as they connect to the network every few months. Remote locations that connect to the central office through VPN even work well with KMS activation and can help meet the activation threshold. What do not work well with KMS activation are portable computers that connect to the organizational network infrequently. For those, you might prefer to use MAKs as described in the next section.

Understanding upgrade verification functionality

Another less common issue associated with KMS activation is its upgrade verification functionality. As all volume licenses are upgrades, KMS activation will minimally attempt to verify that OEM computers were sold with Windows licenses. If the BIOS of a workstation contains a software licensing (SLIC) table, it must also contain a Windows marker in that table. This presumably means that the computer was sold with a valid Windows OEM license and that the volume license, which is an upgrade, is valid and should be activated. If your BIOS has an SLIC table but no Windows marker, activation against a KMS server will fail. The solution would be to use another activation technique or have your vendor correct the issue.

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