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Key technology to fend off pirates in Vista, Longhorn

Microsoft will add more sophisticated access controls to Longhorn and Vista to keep pirates who fail to activate a key properly from using all of the products features.

Microsoft is taking bigger steps to ensure that users who are running Windows Vista and Longhorn Server have actually paid for the software.

The company said Wednesday it is adding technology to Vista and its next-generation version of Windows Server, code-named Longhorn, that goes beyond what its current Windows Genuine Advantage software protection does to prevent software piracy.

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The new technology will change the way the desktop and server software activates, validates and behaves when someone tampers with the software. Microsoft said it expects to add product activation technology into all of its products as a standard platform.

A shortfall with the current technology is that there are too many ways to get around the access controls.

For example, software distributed from volume license customers does not require activation by Microsoft. It only requires a customer to put in a key. "If someone could get their hands on volume license media and a volume license key, you can take it home and install it as often as you like, said Paul DeGroot, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a consulting firm in Kirkland, Wash.

"They had to come up with a better way to activate volume software that would make it impossible for someone to activate it outside of an organization," DeGroot said.

Although there are no details as of yet for how the technology will be activated on Longhorn, Microsoft has issued some information about volume activation in Windows Vista. The process involves two types of keys -- the Multiple Activation Key (MAK) and the Key Management Service (KMS).

Any Microsoft customer with a valid license agreement can receive a MAK with a limited number of activations associated with it. An administrator can activate a batch of machines by using the key to gather up information from all of the machines in a single setting. A MAK can also be given to someone who places it in the PC to activate it.

With KMS, IT administrators activate PCs as a service within the enterprise. In this scenario, the PCs look for KMS. The end user should never have to see anything, said Cori Hartje, director of Microsoft's Genuine Software Initiative. It is mainly used in environments where there are more than 25 PCs connected to the network, she said.

Vista slips into failsafe mode

If Vista fails to activate, after a certain time period it goes into what is called Reduced Functionality Mode; it's when certain features -- such as Windows Aero, Windows Defender and Windows ReadyBoost -- will no longer work. Microsoft said three events can trigger this mode: failure to activate with KMS within 30 days of installation; failure to renew activation with KMS within 210 days of previous activation; or failure to renew activation with KMS within 30 days of hard-drive replacement.

Longhorn Server, which is not due to ship until late 2007 or early 2008, will also have MAK and KMS options. Microsoft said it will support KMS on Windows Server 2003, with availability scheduled for 2007, but it has not released details about how many servers will be validated at once.

In the case of desktops, the best options for the enterprise will depend on whether end users are managed or unmanaged, local or remote, Hartje said. The company recommends using MAK where there are fewer than 25 clients and where PCs are not always connected to the network.

In general, IT professionals don't seem to have a beef with Microsoft over the company's desire to put safeguards in place to prevent privacy. "I think it's very acceptable for them to take these steps," said Dan Stolts, president and senior systems engineer at Bay State Integrated Technology Inc., a Lakeville, Mass., integrator. Stolts is also chairman of the Boston Area Windows Server User Group.


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