Microsoft Windows MultiPoint Server – globally available from March 1, 2010 – is a “shared resource computing solution designed for educational institutions”. It is a Presentation Virtualization solution based on Windows 2008 server, and sharing codebase with Remote Desktop Server (i.e. the product formerly known as Terminal Services). It is designed to deal with a specific market requirement in Education: the sharing of a single desktop computer by multiple students. The anticipated use case involves installation of “zero client” devices – typically USB-connected devices that offer connectivity for mice, keyboards and monitors. It also can be used to persuade people no longer to share Windows XP licences in ways that are “a bit dodgy”. The press is full of “yes this really works, there is enough power on a PC for more than one user”, which given the recent increases in processing power will hardly come as a shock those who remember 50 Citrix users on an NT4 server in 2000, or indeed a dozen vt52 terminals into the back of a PDP11 in the early 1980s.
MultiPoint Server has the management advantages of a typical Presentation Virtualization solution – install only on the server, no need to manage desktop builds. It also has the “green” credentials – the zero client devices use less energy, have a lower materials input and are reputed to have a longer renewal cycle, and “green” matters a lot in today’s schools.
The model has been popularized by a start-up hardware vendor called nComputing (www.nComputing.com) which has a server technology called vSpace which drives its proprietary zero client devices across either USB, a proprietary hardware link on a PCI card, or ethernet. For some time it has been possible to take a single Windows XP desktop machine, install nComputing Server on it and run multiple simultaneous XP sessions on monitors, keyboards and mice connected via nComputing devices (USB peripherals are still attached to the desktop machine). In later versions of XP, a patch was required to geth this to work, and nComputing has disclaimers on its site suggesting the practice is contrary to the licensing model for Windows XP (which it is). The Microsoft web site is fairly unequivocal, Windows client licenses cannot be shared (even for access by devices which themselves have a client license), you need to go down the Windows Server route, and up to now your only option was essentially to license for Windows Server and Windows Remote Desktop/Terminal Services (with Windows Server CAL, and TS CALs) in the same way as you would in the Enterprise.
Windows MultiPoint Server changes that model, but not radically. There are two routes to buying the technology, via an Academic License or via an OEM where it is pre-bundled onto the hardware, and only sold to academic institutions. Analogous to Terminal Services you need a license for the Server, and a license for each client machine or user (your choice) connecting to the server. The Academic License allows unlimited users on a server (actual scalability is determined by the mix of applications and hardware, HP is quoting 24), and additionally requires a Windows Server 2008 CAL for each user. The OEM version is limited to 10 users per server but does not require a separate 2008 Server CAL. The OEM version is nobbled to stop it from joining a domain (reducing its utility in most corporate environments, should some of these boxes “leak” out of the channel). Both versions have been nobbled to preclude “remote access” in the traditional sense, so you can’t use it as a Terminal Server and in an academic environment you can’t let your students or staff in remotely.
It is also important to remember that the technology doesn’t change the number of licenses you need for your applications. In most educational environments these are negotiated campus-wide for both Microsoft and other educational programs, and the number of users against which these are calculated will not change. There is also some byzantine interaction with institution or campus-wide Operating System licenses. Basically if you are on one of these licenses (and many academic users with substantial exiting Windows environments will be) if you introduce MultiPoint Server into this mix, for the purposes of calculating the number of O/S licenses you need, the zero-client devices are included – you need to pay for desktop operating system licenses even if the users never use that operating system, or devices connected to the MultiPoint Server are not physically capable of running that operating system!
Leaving aside the legal question of how it is possible to “licence” an impossible scenario, for many big existing licensees the move only really makes sense “all-or-nothing” and many larger schools have rolling hardware renewal schedules so opportunities to move are few and far between. However, for educational users who are currently only licencing a small number of PCs, perhaps those in developing countries and/or Eastern Europe, who are moving to larger deployments, it does give Microsoft some flexibility in dealing with the threat of Linux in the classroom (as the Jesuits said, Give me a child till he is seven and I will give you the man).
Clearly if you pick up a bunch of nComputing devices and use their free vSpace software on an Ubuntu Linux client machine (and this works well) you don’t have to pay either for the operating system or the OpenOffice suite. Differential pricing around MultiPoint server gives Microsoft more flexibility in engineering a competitive price-feature point against free product. People don’t generally want to go with Linux on the desktop, if Microsoft can offer an alternative.
It is noticeable that in the other main strand of the academic marketplace, “one laptop per child” netbooks had initially been supplied almost universally with a Linux operating system, Microsoft has fought a very successful rearguard action with Windows 7 Starter edition now nearly ubiquitous on new netbook models, protecting its use in corporate environments by precluding the joining of domains.
One thing that may impact though, is that there is volume in these academic markets. nComputing quote 15 million devices sold, and claim to be able to do country-wide deals for one device per child (at least in the case of a country the size of Macedonia rather than one the size of China). Clearly nComputing could take on the bigger players if it gets volume and channels, after all it has Ethernet-connected devices, so it may change the dynamics amongst the thin client vendors and give Wyse and HP something to think about or Dell and Lenovo someone to buy.
So the other question is will we see MultiPoint Server elsewhere in the marketplace. It might actually be quite a good solution for many branch offices (in the version that can join a domain), but the most obvious option is the SMB. For many low-end application mixes the model would work, although if USB devices were used, the physical proximity constraints would imply a very cosy office. But this marketplace is about channel and it is hard to see the channel being motivated to move across (after all it has largely ignored Terminal Services for SMBs). Correspondingly Microsoft is well-protected by its channel so there is little incentive to actively move them. Perhaps a more interesting marketplace is the home, which is already linked to the academic marketplace in the low-end Microsoft Office product set, and in the Netbook. Many of the comments about the MultiPoint Server announcement have been “I’d like one of these for my house”. Many people with children have half a dozen PCs (one per child, one per adult and one or two old ones kicking about), and managing them all is a pain.