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Guide To Microsoft Volume Licensing Activation Methods

All Microsoft products obtained by nonprofit organisations through Charity Digital Exchange are received through a Microsoft Volume Licensing program. Products received through this program require activation if they are to be used, to verify that the software has been received through legitimate means and is not installed on more computers than permitted. To activate most of these products, including Windows 7 and Windows Server 2012, a 25-character volume license key (VLK) is required.

License-only products, such as client access licenses, management licenses, and external connector licenses, do not require keys or codes for setup (the only exceptions to this rule are the client access licenses for Small Business Server 2003).

To look up your product and see if it requires a VLK, see the Product Activation and Key Information page on the Microsoft Volume Licensing site.

Types Of Volume License Keys

Prior to the release of Windows Vista, there was only one type of VLK for all Microsoft products acquired through Volume Licensing. Starting with Vista, all operating systems acquired through Volume Licensing allow users to choose between two Volume Activation models that each has its own type of key: Key Management Service (KMS) or Multiple Activation Key (MAK). Read the following summaries of the standard VLKs and the newer Volume Activation models or view this diagram to decide which method is right for your organisation.

Note: KMS keys are provided by default for some products on the Volume Licensing website, including Windows 7, meaning that these KMS keys will be the only visible keys on the website. If you determine that MAK keys are more appropriate for your organisation, read the instructions below in "Obtaining MAK Keys When KMS Is the Default."

Standard VLKs

This standard type of VLK is provided for all Microsoft products except Windows Vista and newer operating systems, including server operating systems. The activation process using standard VLKs is fairly simple: enter the VLK obtained through the Volume Licensing website when prompted by the software to activate it. You can use the same VLK on multiple installations of the same software if you requested multiple licenses. For example, if your donation includes 10 copies of Office 2007 Standard, you can use the Office VLK to install that product on 10 separate computers.

Key Management Service (KMS) Keys

KMS is the default model for Volume Activation for every operating system released since Windows Vista, including Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2.

In the KMS model, the KMS key is installed on only one system in a network, known as the KMS host, and all other network users can activate their software through this system. This allows users with network experience to complete activations on their local network and eliminates the need for all computers except the host to connect to Microsoft for product activation. KMS does not require a dedicated system and can be co-hosted on a system that provides other services.

KMS requires a minimum number of computers (physical or virtual machines) in a network environment. The organisation must have at least 5 computers to activate Windows Server 2008 R2 and at least 25 computers to activate Windows 7. These minimums are referred to as activation thresholds. organisations that cannot meet these thresholds or do not have the technical ability to set up a KMS host should activate their products through the MAK model.

Multiple Activation Key (MAK) Keys

The MAK model is used for one-time activation with Microsoft’s hosted activation services. These keys are similar to standard VLKs in that users must enter the MAK keys on their individual computers to activate the products. MAK keys are not the default model for Volume Activation clients, so users will have to request MAK keys from the Volume Licensing website if they want to use this model.

There are two ways to activate computers using the MAK model. The first method is MAK independent activation, which requires that each computer independently connect with Microsoft and be activated, either over the Internet or by telephone. The second method is MAK proxy activation. With this method, a computer acting as a MAK proxy gathers activation information from multiple computers on the network and then sends a centralised activation request on their behalf. MAK proxy activation is configured using the Volume Activation Management Tool.

Like standard VLKs, MAK keys allow a predetermined number of activations, depending on the number of licenses an organisation requests. For example, if your donation includes 10 copies of Windows 7, you can use the Windows 7 MAK key to install that product on 10 separate computers.

Obtaining MAK Keys When KMS Is The Default

As previously stated, KMS is the default Volume Activation model for operating systems released after Windows Vista, including Windows 7. This means that organisations that request one of these products will see a KMS key when they log in to the Microsoft Volume Licensing Service Centre.

To request a MAK key for products that currently have a KMS key assigned to them, organisations should choose Product Keys > New MAK Keys from the Volume Licensing Service Centre menu. Organisations can also visit the page directly. This page lists all the products eligible for a MAK key request. Organisations should check the box next to the product or products they want to receive a MAK key for and then click Request MAK Key.

When this process is complete, the MAK keys for each product will be listed along with the rest of the organisation's existing keys in the Volume Licensing Service Centre.

Product Groups For MAK And KMS Keys

Product keys for both KMS and MAK apply to product key groups rather than to individual operating system editions.

The Windows 7 product key group includes Windows 7 Enterprise and Windows 7 Professional, so the Windows 7 product keys work for both of these products.

There are three product key groups for Windows Server 2008 and Windows Server 2008 R2:

  1. Windows Web Server 2008 and Windows Server 2008 HPC Edition (MAK/KMS A)
  2. Windows Server 2008 Standard and Windows Server 2008 Enterprise (MAK/KMS B)
  3. Windows Server 2008 Datacenter and Windows Server 2008 Itanium-Based Systems (MAK/KMS C)

MAK keys are directly associated with a single product key group and can activate only the Windows editions within that specific product group. For example, the MAK B key must be used to activate Windows Server 2008 Standard or Windows Server 2008 Enterprise. A MAK key for Windows Server 2008 Datacenter (MAK C key) will not work. And a MAK key for Windows 7 will not work with Windows Vista.

KMS keys function differently from MAK keys in that they are hierarchical. For example, if you have licenses for the Windows Server 2008 Datacenter R2 and Standard R2 editions, you should use the KMS key associated with the Datacenter product (KMS C key) to activate your KMS host. KMS will then be able to activate computers with Windows Server 2008 Datacenter R2 installed as well as Windows Server 2008 Standard R2.

Editors note: This article was originally published by our partners TechSoupCanada.