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Clearing Up Some Windows 8 Activation Confusion

With the release of Windows 8 to MSDN and TechNet subscribers worldwide, we're starting to see more and more people setting up their first machines using the final OS code -- and starting to see more questions about some specifics. Unfortunately, Microsoft hasn't been providing much in the way of answers at this point. For example, my colleague, Jason Helmick, contacted me after testing some of the Windows Activation features in Windows 8. I'm providing his narrative below, enhanced with some of my own discoveries and comments in [square brackets]. I'd love to hear your comments and findings, too -- please drop them into the comments area below. With that said, take it away Jason...

Q: I'm confused about the Windows 8 Enterprise/ Pro Activation.
The three download versions of Windows 8 can be somewhat confusing at first, until you realize the purpose for each one. Lack of documentation in this initial stage of release has had more than one person download all three just to see which one they can license.

In my case (TechNet key in hand) I ended up downloading all three to see which one would take the key. The answer is the standard download (not Pro or Enterprise) but after working with the Enterprise and Pro versions I ran into the new activation process and had some questions. Without having any documentation to explain the new activation process I did an initial test. I'm left with more questions than answers.

The Pro and Enterprise downloads are designed to receive their activation through a traditional KMS server or the new Active Directory Based activation (ADBA). The Enterprise version of Windows 8 still supports Multiple Activation Keys (MAK) if that's your preference.

[I'll note here that I was able to help Jason find the right download and confirm his observations. The TechNet "Windows 8 Professional VL" ISO image requires a volume license key and Active Directory, or KMS-based activation; the "Enterprise" ISO also requires on-network activation or a Multiple Activation Key, or MAK. The "plain" Windows 8 ISO will accept a Professional key and activate as Windows 8 Professional.]

So, without a KMS server or MAK available, I decided to test Windows 8 Enterprise to see if there had been changes to the activation process, and to test the time it took the OS to expire when not activated. I'm not a hacker, and I'm not trying to pirate software; I'm just trying to understand from an administrative deployment perspective what is going to happen if activation fails.  Documentation for this seems elusive at best (or doesn't exist). Here are the questions that I had when starting my experiment:

  1. How long does it take before the desktop activation message appears?
  2. How many rearms can I perform?
  3. How long does it take between rearms until the next activation message?

Perfectly legitimate questions if you're deploying Windows 8. After all, we need to know what happens when things go wrong. What symptoms indicate an un-activated copy of Windows? What will users be telling the help desk they're seeing? What can we expect? Crucial concerns, and I was concerned about the differences between Windows 8 and Windows 7. Hopefully, I thought, they'd be identical.

However, the answers I started seeing my experiment weren't what I expected. Perhaps some documentation or feedback could help understand what's happening. Here are the results from my initial experiment. (I'll try more testing soon):



Lingering Question

Changed the clock forward one year (Windows and BIOS) to force activation message.

It did not attempt to activate nor did it display a desktop message.

So, how are they determining when it's time to activate?

I forced activation with the set-forward clock.

Activation failed looking for KMS and again, no activation message.


Reset clock



Checked SLMGR/ dlv for information about activation period (time till activation)

No time period listed, but was shocked to see 1000 rearms available.

1000 rearms? I can rearm this product 1000 times? This seems like a lot.

Tried a rearm – SLMGR /rearm

999 rearms left

I wonder if I can script this to decrement the counter to 0?

I tried to script the rearm

Must reboot after each rearm so I need to make a better script


I decided to leave the box alone to see when it would display the desktop activation required message. The current time was 8:30am

The activation required message appeared almost exactly 24 hrs later.

Ok, so the first activation message occurred in 24 hrs. I have a 999 rearms – Microsoft could not possibly want me to have 999 days without licensing the product. Could they? That's almost 3 years!

Performed rearm and waited for next Activation message



In the interim I parsed the logs for activation.

While you can see events for the activation process, I was unable to find an event logged when the desktop message "Activation Required" occurred.

Why isn't this logged? Such an event could be useful for monitoring computers for this problem.

Activation required appeared on the desktop approximately 8 hours after I rearmed


This makes sense. The activation time is getting shorter, forcing a rearm sooner. That explains the high rearm count as it will get quickly used if the time continues to shorten.

Rearmed the system

Activation required appeared on the desktop approximately 4 hours after rearm

Again, it seems that the time windows is closing.

Rearmed the system

Activations required appeared on the desktop approximately 2 hours after rearm

The time window is definitely getting shorter.


At this point I had to stop the initial test. I may have made errors in this test and I want to examine it further. However, it would be nice if Microsoft would explain it so I didn't have to perform new tests.

Here's the question that is bothering me the most, and what I'm going to script and test for next week: After all the rearms, will Enterprise stop working?

In all previous tests Windows 8 continued to work normally without removing functionality (at least as I could determine). I could join it to a domain, remove it from a domain, etc.

So, what happens when you reach the end?

[Thanks, Jason.

This definitely seems to be a new twist on the old activation strategies used by Microsoft. Granted, the Enterprise edition is meant for… well, enterprise use, so it's nice to see generous terms and a shrinking activation window. It would still be nice to know how small that window can actually get (if it continues to divide by half, it's be down to nanoseconds pretty rapidly), and what happens if you reach the end.]



Posted by Don Jones on 10/24/2012 at 1:14 PM


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