Licensing is never a popular topic. But for most organizations, it's a crucial one. And with System Center 2012, Microsoft has completely changed how System Center is licensed for the management server, managed servers, desktops, and other hardware on the network. The change is definitely for the better; Microsoft has reduced the number of SKUs—the license types an organization can buy—for managed servers from more than 30 to just 2. This huge cut is in large part because of the merging of formerly separate products into the System Center 2012 product.

What's in System Center 2012?

Prior to System Center 2012, System Center was not a product but a family or suite that contained separately purchasable products. These products could also be bought in various combinations, which is why there were more than 30 ways to buy and license System Center. With System Center 2012, all these products, along with some brand new ones, are now components of a single product. So, which components make up System Center 2012?

  • System Center 2012 Configuration Manager—The former version of Configuration Manager was System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) 2007, and Systems Management Server (SMS) before that. Configuration Manager provides capabilities such as OS, application, and patch deployment; hardware and software inventory; troubleshooting tools; and configuration management. System Center 2012 Service Pack 1 (SP1) adds support for Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012, as well as integration with Windows Intune to support single-pane-of-glass management for mobile OSs such as Apple iOS, Google Android, and Windows Phone 8.
  • System Center 2012 Virtual Machine Manager—Virtual Machine Manager provides virtual machine (VM) management for Hyper-V, VMware ESX, and Citrix XenServer environments in addition to host management for Hyper-V installations. System Center 2012 adds support for storage and network fabric management and for the concept of the cloud as the primary building block of a Microsoft private cloud solution.
  • System Center 2012 App Controller—App Controller is a new component in System Center 2012. It provides a Microsoft Silverlight web portal for end users to create and manage VMs provided by Virtual Machine Manager. With System Center 2012 SP1, App Controller also enables the creation and management of Windows Azure-based services and hosters that leverage the Service Provider Framework (SPF).
  • System Center 2012 Operations Manager—You might know Operations Manager under the name of its earliest version, Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM). Operations Manager provides monitoring capabilities to many data center systems, including non-Microsoft systems, network equipment, and custom applications.
  • System Center 2012 Data Protection Manager—Data Protection Manager is a best-of-breed backup, continuous data protection, and recovery solution for Microsoft products including SQL Server, SharePoint, Hyper-V, and desktop computers. One differentiator of Data Protection Manager over many other backup solutions is its powerful recovery features, which include end-user self-service recovery, where appropriate.
  • System Center 2012 Service Manager—A configuration management database (CMDB) that includes information from the other System Center components, Service Manager provides a single "point of truth" about assets in your company. It also provides a central service catalog that can utilize all the other System Center components to deliver services. Service Manager also adheres to many IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) principles and allows creation of incidents, change requests, problems, and so on.
  • System Center 2012 Orchestrator—Another new component, Orchestrator (formally the Opalis product, acquired by Microsoft) has connectivity capability to almost any IT system and the ability to perform actions on those systems. By combining the actions into a sequence, runbooks are created. These runbooks can then be executed to automate entire processes and can be used by other systems, including Service Manager.

It's important to note that although System Center 2012 is one product, the components that it comprises are still installed separately on separate OS instances and have separate agents for managed OSs. The Unified Installer component in System Center 2012 RTM performed all the installs for you but was only for simple, proof-of-concept environments and was dropped in System Center 2012 SP1.

With all these components brought together into one product, System Center 2012 now provides heterogeneous management for the entire data center, desktops, physical systems, virtual systems, Windows, Linux, Mac, and much more. These products all integrate tightly with one another for many capabilities, which is why Microsoft took the step to combine them. So how do we buy it?

Licensing Management Servers

The easiest part is licensing the management servers that run the various components and provide the System Center services to managed clients. In the past, a license needed to be purchased for the management servers, but that is no longer the case. Management Server licenses have been effectively discontinued. You can deploy as many management servers as you need to run any of the System Center components to support your deployed, licensed, managed OS instances. There is no System Center cost for the management servers themselves, so you can architect the correct System Center management server layout to provide the optimal environment, without worrying about management server licensing costs.

Every System Center component uses SQL Server in some way to store information such as configuration and historical data. System Center 2012 includes license rights to deploy SQL Server Standard for the sole purpose of supporting System Center 2012, so there are no additional SQL Server license costs, either. Note that if you want to use the SQL Server instances for other uses beyond System Center, you will need to license SQL Server in the typical way. The included license covers only use by System Center and only SQL Server Standard.

Licensing Managed Servers

Now we get to the real licensing consideration: licensing of the server OSs being managed by the various System Center components. If you are familiar with Windows Server 2012 licensing, then you'll understand System Center 2012 licensing. As I previously mentioned, there are now only two System Center 2012 types of license for server OSs: System Center 2012 Standard and System Center 2012 Datacenter. Both types of license cover two physical processors and both have the same features.

So what's the difference? System Center 2012 Standard includes management rights for up to two virtual instances (i.e., server OSs running in a VM, also called Operating System Environments—OSEs). System Center 2012 Datacenter includes management rights for an unlimited number of virtual instances. With this license, you can use all the various capabilities of the System Center 2012 components on the covered OS instances. You'll typically purchase System Center 2012 Standard for a physically deployed OS (i.e., one that does not use virtualization) or perhaps very light virtualization, in which you have only a couple VMs (maybe in a branch office). System Center 2012 Datacenter is used for virtualized environments and covers all the VMs and the hypervisor host itself.

Remember that each license covers two physical processors, so if a server has four processors, then two copies of System Center 2012 Standard or Datacenter will be required to cover all processors in the server. (Yes, you have to cover all the processors in a server.)

It is possible to "stack" System Center 2012 Standard licenses. For example, if I had a two-processor server and wanted to cover four VMs, I could buy two licenses for System Center 2012 Standard, which gives me four virtual instance rights (each Standard license covers two virtual instances). As the number of VMs increases, the Datacenter license becomes more cost efficient. Remember that you can't move System Center 2012 Standard virtual instance rights between servers more frequently than every 90 days. So if you want to cluster servers and use live migration technologies, the Standard license is unlikely to be a good fit.

Notice that I say server OSs and not Windows Server instances. System Center 2012 provides a lot of features for non-Windows server OSs, so you might also want to cover Linux servers, for example. The licensing would be the same. For a physical Linux server, you would buy a System Center 2012 Standard license; a VM would then count as a virtual instance for Standard or Datacenter. Any server OS that is managed by System Center 2012 must be licensed and managed for any communication of data between System Center 2012 and the OS, for the purpose of discovery, configuration, or control of actions.

The public cloud introduces a new licensing consideration. What if you have VMs running in the public cloud (i.e., on Windows Azure or Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud—EC2) and you want to manage them by using System Center 2012? A single System Center 2012 Standard license covers two virtual OSEs running in the public cloud. You cannot, however, buy one System Center 2012 Datacenter license and cover every VM that you have in the public cloud. That arrangement wouldn't be viable for Microsoft, and since there are no physical processors visible in the public cloud, a Datacenter license covers eight virtual OSEs hosted in the public cloud. Therefore, if you wanted to manage 100 VMs in the public cloud, you'd need to buy 13 System Center 2012 Datacenter licenses.

So far, the licensing choices seem obvious. However, there are a few scenarios in which the licensing requirements might be less apparent.

First, consider System Center 2012 Orchestrator, which can connect to and perform actions on almost any IT system. Those actions might actually instruct that system to perform other actions on still other systems to which it is connected. So in effect, Orchestrator provides indirect management of those servers as well. The server OSs that Orchestrator indirectly manages must also be licensed for System Center 2012, even though Orchestrator does not communicate with them directly.

The second component to consider is System Center 2012 Service Manager—specifically, server instances that are not managed by any other System Center 2012 component. Service Manager contains the organization's CMDB, and users and administrators might raise incidents about systems. If the managed system or product is present in the CMDB and has an OSE, then it needs to be licensed for System Center 2012. If the product is not in the CMDB or does not have an OSE, then no System Center 2012 license is required.

Note that a license is not required in the following conditions:

  • The OSE has no software instances running on it.
  • The device functions as a network infrastructure device only (basically, OSI layer 3 or lower).
  • The device performs out-of-band (OOB) management only.

If you are unsure about a particular product or configuration in your environment, the best option is to contact your license reseller or Microsoft directly. Things can get a little muddy when it comes to infrastructure components.

Licensing Desktops

Although System Center 2012 can primarily be thought of as a server-management solution, the reality is that it also provides a lot of functionality for desktop OSs, particularly from components such as Configuration Manager, Data Protection Manager, and Service Manager. Three types of System Center 2012 desktop license cover different components of System Center 2012. Which licenses you need depends on which System Center 2012 components the desktops are using. Note that the following licenses are not cumulative in any way, so you might need to purchase all three licenses for a given set of desktops.

  • System Center 2012 Configuration Manager Client Management License (ML)—As the name suggests, the Configuration Manager Client ML allows the covered desktop to be managed by Configuration Manager. This management includes deployment of the OS, deployment of applications, patching, inventory, and so on. It also includes Virtual Machine Manager management. This might seem an odd mixture, but consider a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) environment that comprises desktop OSs running in VMs. Most likely, these VMs would be managed by Virtual Machine Manager in addition to Configuration Manager, hence the former's inclusion.
  • System Center 2012 Endpoint Protection subscription—Configuration Manager includes powerful malware-protection technologies that were previously part of the Microsoft Forefront security family. Endpoint protection is available not only for Windows OSs but also for Linux, UNIX, and Mac OS. Any system that utilizes System Center Endpoint Protection requires this subscription. Note that the System Center 2012 Configuration Manager Client ML does not include this subscription. So if a desktop is being managed by Configuration Manager and utilizes Endpoint Protection, then both licenses are required.
  • System Center 2012 Client Management Suite Client ML—This Client ML allows the covered desktop to be managed by Data Protection Manager, Operations Manager, Orchestrator, and Service Manager.

The System Center 2012 desktop licenses are included with some of the other desktop CALs, which will likely be a common way that organizations acquire System Center 2012 capabilities for desktop OSs that also use other Microsoft technologies. The Core CAL for desktop includes both the System Center 2012 Configuration Manager Client ML and System Center 2012 Endpoint Protection subscription. The Enterprise CAL for desktop includes all three System Center 2012 desktop licenses.

Simpler Licensing

With a few minor exceptions, the licensing for System Center 2012 is far simpler than in the past. However, for organizations to get real value for the new single-product license, it's crucial that multiple, if not all, components are deployed and used, which is what Microsoft intends with this merged product. If the integration between the components is explored, especially through Service Manager and Orchestrator, the most functional deployment is one in which all the components are deployed and linked together. And with the new licensing, if you own one component you own them all!

For organizations that previously owned licenses for individual products that were covered by Software Assurance (SA), Microsoft offers a grant that converts the individual product licenses to a new System Center 2012 license. Make sure your organization has taken advantage of that, and talk to your license reseller if you need more information.