While volume activation is a process that many have utilized over the years, today's post offers guidance to help you ensure that all your devices have been properly activated regardless of their connection to your organization's network.
First, a refresher. Volume activation enables a wide range of Windows devices to receive a volume license and be activated automatically and en masse versus tediously entering an activation key on each Windows device manually.
The most common methods of volume activation require that devices to be connected to an organization's network or connected via virtual private network (VPN) to “check in” from time to time with the organization’s activation service to maintain their licenses. When people work from home and off the corporate or school network; however, their devices’ ability to receive or maintain activation is limited.
Volume activation methods
There are several methods to activate devices via volume licensing. For detailed information, see Plan for volume activation. Here, however, is a summary for easy reference.
Key Management Service
Key Management Service (KMS) activation requires TCP/IP connectivity to, and accessibility from, an organization’s private network so that licenses are not accessible to anyone outside of the organization. By default, KMS hosts and clients use DNS to publish and find the KMS key. Default settings can be used, which require little or no administrative action, or KMS hosts and client computers can be manually configured based on network configuration and security requirements.
KMS activations are valid for 180 days (the activation validity interval). KMS client computers must renew their activation by connecting to the KMS host at least once every 180 days. By default, KMS client computers attempt to renew their activation every 7 days. If KMS activation fails, the client computer retries to reach the host every two hours. After a client computer’s activation is renewed, the activation validity interval begins again.
Multiple Activation Key
A Multiple Activation Key (MAK) is used for one-time activation with Microsoft’s hosted activation services. Each MAK has a predetermined number of activations allowed. This number is based on volume licensing agreements, and it might not match the organization’s exact license count. Each activation that uses a MAK with the Microsoft-hosted activation service counts toward the activation limit.
You can use a MAK for individual computers or with an image that can be duplicated or installed using Microsoft deployment solutions. You can also use a MAK on a computer that was originally configured to use KMS activation, which is useful for moving a computer off the core network to a disconnected environment.
Active Directory-based activation
Active Directory-based activation is similar to KMS activation but uses Active Directory instead of a separate service. Active Directory-based activation is implemented as a role service that relies on Active Directory Domain Services to store activation objects. Active Directory-based activation requires that the forest schema be updated using adprep.exe on a supported server operating system, but after the schema is updated, older domain controllers can still activate clients.
Devices activated via Active Directory maintain their activated state for up to 180 days after the last contact with the domain. Devices periodically attempt to reactivate (every seven days by default) before the end of that period and, again, at the end of the 180 days.
Windows 10 Subscription Activation
Starting with Windows 10, version 1703 Windows 10 Pro supports the Subscription Activation feature, enabling users to “step-up” from Windows 10 Pro to Windows 10 Enterprise automatically if they are subscribed to Windows 10 Enterprise E3 or E5.
With Windows 10, version 1903 the Subscription Activation feature also supports the ability to step-up from Windows 10 Pro Education to the Enterprise grade edition for educational institutions – Windows 10 Education.
The Subscription Activation feature eliminates the need to manually deploy Windows 10 Enterprise or Education images on each target device, then later standing up on-prem key management services such as KMS or MAK based activation, entering GVLKs, and subsequently rebooting client devices.
To step a device up to Windows 10 Education via Subscription Activation the device must meet the following requirements:
Windows 10 Pro Education, version 1903 or later installed on the devices to be upgraded.
A device with a Windows 10 Pro Education digital license. You can confirm this information in Settings > Update & Security > Activation.
The Education tenant must have an active subscription to Microsoft 365 with a Windows 10 Enterprise license or a Windows 10 Enterprise or Education subscription.
Devices must be Azure AD-joined or Hybrid Azure AD joined. Workgroup-joined or Azure AD registered devices are not supported.
If you activate devices in your organization using MAK, the activation process is straightforward and the devices are permanently activated. If you are using KMS or Active Directory-based Activation, each device must connect to the organization’s local network at least once every 180 days to “check in” with either the KMS host or the Active Directory domain controller. Otherwise, the user will be warned to activate Windows again.
With many users working or taking classes from home, a connection to the organization's network may not exist, which would ultimately leave their devices in a deactivated state. There are a few options to avoid this:
Use a VPN. By having the device connect to your organization’s network via a VPN, it will be able to contact a KMS host or Active Directory domain controller and will be able to maintain its activation status. If you manage your devices through a wholly on-premises solution to deploy policies, collect inventory, and deploy updates and other software, there is a good chance you are already using a VPN. Depending on the VPN configuration, some manual configuration of the client device may be required to ensure the KMS service is accessible through the VPN. For more details on these settings, which can be implemented via script, see Slmgr.vbs options for obtaining volume activation information.
Convert the devices from KMS to MAK activation. By converting from KMS to MAK activation, you replace the license that requires reactivation every 180 days with a permanent one, which requires no additional check-in process. There are some cases—in educational organizations, for example—where each device is re-imaged at the end of the school year to get ready for the next class. In this case, the license must be “reclaimed” by contacting your Microsoft licensing rep or a Microsoft Licensing Activation Center.
One way of converting a device from KMS to MAK activation is to use the Windows Configuration Designer app (available from the Microsoft Store) to create a provisioning package, which includes the MAK, and deploy the package through email or a management solution such as Microsoft Intune.
You can also deploy a MAK directly within Intune without creating a provisioning package by creating a simple PowerShell script with the following commands and deploying the script to a user group:
Use Subscription Activation. This requires the devices to be joined to your Azure AD domain, enabling activation in the cloud. This is possible if you have one of the following subscriptions:
Windows 10 Enterprise E3/E5
Windows 10 Education A3/A5
Windows 10 Enterprise with Software Assurance
Microsoft 365 E3/E5
Microsoft 365 E3/A5
Microsoft 365 F1/F3
Microsoft 365 Business Premium
If you need assistance and have one of the preceding subscriptions with at least 150 licenses, you may be eligible for assistance through FastTrack. Contact your Microsoft representative or request assistance from FastTrack and a Microsoft FastTrack representative will contact you directly.
Windows volume activation has been around for a long time, but the increased number of users working from home may require your organization to re-evaluate how to best keep your devices activated if they cannot reach your on-premises activation service if you are using KMS or Active Directory-based Activation. It is important to consider the options available to you to ensure your devices stay activated. As always, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach, so consider the pros and cons of each option as you plan on how to best support your remote workers and students.