TechNet subscriptions are going away: Here are the best low-cost alternatives

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TechNet is gone, but it's still possible to get low-cost versions of Microsoft operating systems, applications, and server software. Ed Bott breaks down the various TechNet alternatives.

Microsoft TechNet Subscriptions

Microsoft’s announcement that it plans to retire its TechNet subscription program has left some groups calculating the costs they’ll have to pay when the program reaches its end of life. The exact cutoff date varies for each customer, depending on their subscription’s expiration date, but the lights will go out for good before the end of 2014.

TechNet subscriptions are aimed at IT professionals who need a low-cost way to get hands-on experience with Microsoft software. The program offers downloads of a staggering amount of Microsoft software—11 terabytes of operating systems, servers, applications, developer tools, and more—including both current releases and old versions.

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The TechNet license terms have always restricted use of downloaded software and product keys to evaluation scenarios. Their use in live operating scenarios, including staging or production environments, is specifically prohibited.

But that prohibition isn’t backed up by any technical restrictions. The software that subscribers download from TechNet is identical to the versions Microsoft provides to its retail and enterprise customers. Software that has been activated by a TechNet product key doesn’t stop working when the subscription ends. And there are no Microsoft detectives hunting down customers who flout those license terms and run TechNet software on production systems.

All that is about to change.

What happens after TechNet goes away?

The last retail TechNet subscriptions will run out on September 30, 2014. When that day comes, TechNet subscribers will lose the ability to sign in to the TechNet servers and download from the software stored there, nor will they be able to claim additional product keys. Software and keys that have been acquired from TechNet and saved to local storage will continue to work, but no new or replacement downloads will be available.

Those who’ve been running TechNet software for everyday use on desktops, laptops, or servers have been violating the TechNet license agreement all along. For them, the (almost) free ride is (almost) over. The same is true for software pirates who’ve been buying TechNet licenses and then selling the Windows and Office product keys to unsuspecting customers who think they’re buying legitimate retail licenses.

But that leaves a large number of customers who have a legitimate business need to install and use Microsoft software for evaluation and testing. What’s an IT pro, trainer, or developer to do?

Microsoft offers multiple programs at a variety of price ranges—starting with free—that offer access to its software, including Windows desktop clients, Windows servers, and multiple versions of Microsoft Office. In this white paper, I’ve assembled a comprehensive list of Microsoft offerings specifically designed to meet the needs of IT pros, trainers, educators, and others who have traditionally been part of the TechNet constituency. None of these programs is identical to TechNet, but hopefully one of the alternatives will meet your needs.

I’ve broken this list down not by program but by usage scenario. Find the heading that best describes your situation and see what’s available.

Evaluation copies for training and testing

The paid subscriptions service may be riding off into the sunset, but the free TechNet Evaluation Center lives on. This program allows you to download and install full-featured evaluation versions of Microsoft software, which you can run on physical hardware or in virtual machines.

All of these downloads are time-bombed. When the clock runs out, they stop working or shift into reduced functionality mode. But the evaluation periods should long enough to do some very thorough testing.

What’s available?

You’ll also find trial versions of products in the System Center family, Office Servers (including Exchange Server 2013, Lync Server 2013, and SharePoint Server 2013), SQL Server, and a number of cloud-based services.

Ready-made virtual machines for testing

If you develop or manage websites, you have a legitimate need to test your sites to make sure they run on modern versions of Internet Explorer. To make that testing possible, Microsoft has created a comprehensive set of virtual machines that run combinations of operating systems and browsers. You can pick them up from the Internet Explorer Dev Center, which is cleverly named modern.IE.

Microsoft Internet Explorer Dev Center VMs

They’re free for the download, and they run in multiple virtualization environments on Windows, OS X, and Linux. Here’s a breakdown of what’s available for each platform:

  • Linux: VirtualBox VMs
  • OS X: VMware Fusion and VirtualBox
  • Windows: Hyper-V (on Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1, Windows Server 2012, and Windows 8 Pro), Virtual PC (Windows 7), VirtualBox, and VMware Player

These are 32-bit VMs, time-limited but not otherwise crippled in any way. That makes them ideal for evaluation purposes. The Windows 7 images are good for 30 days and can be rearmed twice, for a total of 90 days of use. After that period is over, you’ll need to create a fresh image and start over.

There are also time-limited images of Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 8 in VHD format.

And a friendly note: Although these VMs are intended for use by web developers, they can do anything you can accomplish in that version of Windows. So feel free to test scenarios that don’t depend on the web.

Software development and testing

MSDN stands for Microsoft Developer Network, which gives you a clue as to what the target audience is. If you write code professionally and need to test it against the software your customers are likely to run, this is the program for you.

But MSDN subscriptions aren’t just for code jockeys. MSDN offers subscriptions at five levels, at steadily increasing prices. The chart below shows pricing for one-year subscriptions in the United States as of July 5, 2013.

Microsoft MSDN Subscriptions Comparison Chart

MSDN subscriptions differ from their TechNet counterparts in several important respects:

  • Subscribers get five product keys for most Windows client and server products, instead of three as with TechNet.
  • Available operating systems in the MSDN subscriptions include consumer versions (Windows 7 Home Premium, for example), which are not available from TechNet.
  • No versions of Office are included with the MSDN Operating Systems or Professional subscriptions. The Visual Studio Premium and Ultimate editions include standalone versions of Office Professional Plus 2013 as well as older versions of Office XP, Office 2003, Office 2007, and Office 2010 (for testing backward compatibility).
  • Those two subscription levels also offer a single 12-month subscription to Office 365 Enterprise (E3).
  • Visual Studio Professional, Premium, and Ultimate include monthly credits for Microsoft’s cloud-based Windows Azure service. These credits can be used for any Azure services, including website hosting and virtual servers; they may not be used for production purposes but are restricted to development and test.

For a full comparison of the features available with each level, see the MSDN Subscriptions comparison chart. For a clear delineation of what the license agreement allows and what it prohibits, see the MSDN Licensing page.

Startup companies

Are you a start-up software developer? If your company is less than five years old, makes less than $1 million a year, is privately held, and develops software as part of its business, you can get free software from Microsoft, some of which you can use for production purposes.

The extremely generous program under which these benefits are offered is called BizSpark. It includes free access to the Visual Studio Ultimate with MSDN Subscription, as well as support help, development tools for Xbox and Windows Phone, and a $150 monthly credit for Windows Azure.

In general, the desktop applications and operating systems may be used “solely to design, develop, test and demonstrate your programs,” and server software can’t be used for internal or administrative systems.

If you’re willing to abide by those restrictions, this can be a pretty good deal.

Microsoft partners

The Microsoft Partner Network offers two extremely valuable subscriptions under the Microsoft Action Pack label. The subscription includes 10 licenses each for Windows 8 Pro (upgrade only) and Office Professional Plus 2013. You also get licenses for Windows Server 2012 and Windows Server 2012 Essentials, Microsoft Exchange Server 2013 Standard, and Microsoft SharePoint Server 2013, all of which can be deployed for production use inside your company. (You can’t resell these licenses or install them on a customer’s premises.)

The Action Pack Solution Provider subscription costs $329 per year and is intended for businesses that “build, install, and service solutions on the Microsoft platform.” That description covers a lot of ground, including hardware and software resellers as well as consultants. The eligibility criteria provide that your company must sell more than 75 percent of its products and services to outside customers. In addition, you must take a 30-minute online course and pass an online assessment.

The Action Pack Development and Design subscription costs $429 per year and is for “partners who test, design, and develop innovative applications and web solutions.” It has the same requirements as the Solution Provider subscription and also requires that you provide a URL that “verifies that your company’s focus is on software development and website design.”

If you’re an honest-to-goodness Microsoft partner, the Action Pack subscriptions are an exceptional deal.

Academic licenses

Students and faculty at colleges and universities get exceptional discounts on software through academic licensing programs. In addition, the Microsoft DreamSpark program offers a wide assortment of software designed to put “professional developer tools and software in the hands of your faculty and students.”

DreamSpark subscriptions are a free benefit for organizations with Academic Volume License Agreements. For others, the cost is extremely low. The software provided with the program includes a perpetual license with the proviso that it is only for non-commercial use.

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