As you probably know, Microsoft sells our software through partners - just like consumer goods manufacturers, or people who make cars, we appoint a range of partners to supply our various products to our customers, including education.

However, there are different types of partner - and knowing about the differences will help you to get the best deal when you are buying academic licences. Let me explain a bit more in a minute, but first I'll explain what our different licences are...

Now, because this is me writing this, without a lawyer over my shoulder, then you can take this as a general guide, but to check anything specific you'll need to consult an official source - start with the Licensing information on the UK Education website, or talk to your Microsoft partner. And all of this info is specifically written with schools in the UK in mind - if you're not from a UK School, you'll definitely need to check with your usual Microsoft partner.

The Windows licence supplied with a new computer

When you buy a new computer there is a standard licence for Windows, which is provided to you by the computer manufacturer.

COAEvery PC you buy should have a Windows licence provided with it (you can easily check to see, by looking for the Certificate of Authenticity (we call it a COA) stuck to the case. You'll need to have this licence to buy Academic upgrades for your Windows, for example to add a Windows Vista Business upgrade, or to move to a higher version (eg from Windows Vista Home Premium to Windows Vista Enterprise Edition). The reason that I've included the last bit, is that it is normally more cost effective to buy a Windows Home Basic/Premium licence with your new PC, and then upgrade to Windows Vista Business or Enterprise through the Select licence scheme (below).

Types of licence - for your other Microsoft software

Step One: For use in an education establishment, always buy an Academic licence.
This is sold at a significantly lower cost than normal commercial licences - normally saving you about 80%. I'm 99% certain you already buy Academic licences, especially if you're buying a few at a time. But it is worth checking if you're not sure.

Step Two: Decide whether you want to buy perpetual or subscription licences.
'Perpetual' licences are exactly what they say - you buy them, and keep the licence forever. You are only licensed for the version you have bought. So if you buy a licence for Office 2003, you can't run Office 2007 without buying another licence.
'Subscription' licences are where you pay to use the software for an agreed amount of time, usually a year. Of course, this costs less up-front, but more over a number of years (but does come with the automatic right to upgrade to newer versions).

Perpetual Licence types
For schools there are two main types - Select and Open licences.

Select Licence
This is normally the best deal of these two types, but there's a catch to be aware of (wouldn't you know it!). Select licences are designed for customers who normally buy lots of software - typically people with 250 PCs or more. In the rest of the world this isn't much of a problem, because local or central governments buy in bulk, on behalf of schools. But here in the UK, each school has complete choice - so you mostly buy individually. Secondary schools are normally large enough to buy Select licences, and most do. But for primary schools, it is normally difficult to reach the minimum purchasing quantities, so what you should do is identify whether you are able to join up into somebody else's Select agreement. For example, if your local authority education team have one (what's called a Master Select Agreement), which you can then buy through. This could save you quite a bit of money. There are other organisations that have these master agreements, like the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT), so if you're a member, you can buy through their agreement.

Open Licence
This scheme is normally more expensive than Select, but is handy if you want to just buy a single bit of software quickly, with a copy of the disks etc, and you don't have a Select agreement already in place. For example, if one member of staff needs a copy of Microsoft Project to help plan the new Sports Hall, and you need it now...

Subscription Licence Types
Or more accurately, subscription licence type - because for schools, the subscription is called School Agreement. This is a one year or three year option, where you decide which software you want (maybe a licence to upgrade all of your computers to Windows Vista Enterprise Edition, plus Office 2007 and licences to access a Windows Server and SharePoint server). You then count up all of your computers, and pay a fixed fee for them each year of the agreement. If you increase the number of your computers every year, you pay for those extra ones too. One of the best things about this is that you automatically have the right to upgrade yourself to the latest version - so schools that currently have an Agreement can start using Office 2007 from day one, without having to pay more. But bear in mind, that at the end of the agreement, you either have to continue with a new one, or stop using the software - because you've only paid for the right to use it for a set period of time, not forever. (If neither of these options sound appealing, you could also opt for "buy out" licences - where you convert from a licence for a set period of time to a perpetual licence. The info on that is here)

Phew, we've got this far. Let me summarise:

  • You need a Windows licence with your new PC, which is normally provided by the manufacturer. Consider Select licence upgrades to get from basic versions to the advanced versions of Windows.
  • For all of your other Microsoft software, your best option is to buy a Select licence or a School Agreement licence.

The "Partner" bit

There are two main types of partner that can sell you Academic licences.

  • Education Large Account Resellers (or EdLARs)
    Stop. Just before you think "I'm not a large account" and skip this bit, read on!
    These partners are our largest education partners, and they can sell you any of our Academic licence types. We call them "Large Account Resellers" because they are our largest resellers, not because you have to be "large account" to buy from them. So even the smallest primary school should get a quote from them!
  • Authorised Education Resellers (or AERs)
    These tend to be partners that are either much smaller, or where education customers are just a small part of a bigger business. They can only provide some of the Academic licences I've mentioned above. So you can get a School Agreement or Open Licence from them, you can't get a Select Licence (which is the lower priced of the two perpetual licences).

    I can hear you thinking "So, if AERs can't always sell me the lowest cost licence, why would I buy from them?". Good question.
    Well, back to the example of a small primary school - you may prefer to deal with a bigger company, because you think that's how you get the best value; or you may prefer to deal with a local company, just around the corner, because you think that's how you get the best service. So if you wanted a couple of computers, with the software installed for you, and an agreement that they'll pop around and fix any problems, you could got to a local company, who is a Microsoft AER, and will supply you with Academic licences under the Open scheme. It might cost a little more, but you may be willing to pay for that to get a local supplier. It's your choice.
    You should always check that you get the licence paperwork - for example, the original software CD and the licence key - when you buy an Open Licence, and especially if the software has already been installed for you. If you don't get this, you'll have no proof that you own the licence for the software you are running on those computers.

Okay, let me summarise again:

  • I'd recommend that you always consider buying your Microsoft software from an Education Large Account Reseller, because they can offer you all the possible licence types, including the Select licence option, and therefore can offer the most cost effective one for your circumstances.

Finding the right partner

The UK Education website contains the lists of partners.

EdLARs all work nationally, so there's a page with all of their contact details (at the time of writing, there's 20 to choose from)

AERs tend to work more locally, so you can search in your local area by county or town, or by company name

Licensing can be complex, but it is worth spending a little time to understand a little more - you could save your school money.

Let me ask you a question now - Did this article help you at all? Did it make licensing easier to understand? If I hadn't written this, would you have noticed? Please add a comment to the blog or email me, and let's talk about it... 

Remember what I said at the beginning - because this is me writing this, without a lawyer over my shoulder, then you can take this as a general guide, but to check anything specific you'll need to consult an official source - start with the Licensing information on the UK Education website, or talk to your Microsoft partner. And all of this info is specifically written with schools in the UK in mind - if you're not from a UK School, you'll definitely need to check with your usual Microsoft partner.