No Software Assurance? No software

Last September, Microsoft said that Vista Enterprise would be available to only those shops that have Software Assurance. The company wasn't kidding.

Microsoft really, really wants IT shops to buy its Software Assurance maintenance program. So much so, in fact, that Windows enterprise customers who choose to forego an SA subscription will indeed be excluded from receiving Vista Enterprise.

The software maker said last September that this would be the case. Software Assurance was launched in 2003 and was never embraced by many IT shops. Since the program's inception, Microsoft has offered other releases free to SA customers.

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The most recent example is Systems Management Server R2, which will be available in May. Microsoft is offering Systems Management Server licenses with a 30% discount in an effort to gain SA members. Non-SA customers can download R2 for a fee.

SA has struggled with renewals over the years, said Paul DeGroot, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash., consulting firm. Offering products exclusively to SA clients may not only be a way of luring new customers, but could also stave off defection of existing ones, he said.

While Microsoft did not offer figures about the actual number of clients currently enrolled in SA, the company said its SA renewals are at about 75%.

Actually barring some IT shops from products without an SA contract is the newest lever in the company's SA strategy, DeGroot said. He expected IT managers and Microsoft partners would both be unhappy about their inability to receive Vista Enterprise.

"There has already been some backlash that prompted Microsoft to change the Vista SKUs," he said. "Initially, many security features were restricted to Vista Enterprise. Now they have included them in Vista Ultimate Edition."

DeGroot said enterprise shops that choose not to purchase an SA contract will have no other choice than to go with Vista Ultimate if they want to get their hands on a version of the new desktop OS, expected to ship later this year. However, Ultimate Edition may not be viable for every large IT shop, said Alvin Park, an analyst at Gartner Inc., the Stamford, Conn.-based consulting firm.

"Ultimate Edition is not for volume customers," he said. "It is not set up so you can easily deploy it across the enterprise."

Park said that while the SA program has grappled with expansion since it began, its value and benefits have grown enough so it is now a worthwhile investment for many Windows shops. Microsoft is even expected to offer some new perks later this month.

"In the beginning, the only benefit it really had was the right to upgrade," Park said. "But since [Microsoft] has added so many new benefits over the years, many more people are looking at it now."

Park said in the case of Vista, Microsoft has added four features to the enterprise version that were previously available for purchase a la carte. He expected one feature in particular, a multilingual user interface, would make Vista an important upgrade for international businesses. He doubted the SA requirement would be a deterrent.

"My position is SA will, at some point in time, become mandatory and something customers feel they can't live without," he said.

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