Many of the Microsoft administrators who I've talked to are up in arms regarding the announcement that Microsoft is winding down their popular TechNet subscription service and feel as if the company is abandoning IT administrators -- or at least trying to gouge them. But in reality, there are plenty of options available that will nicely fill the role.
For those of you who don't know, TechNet is known as a one-stop shop for Microsoft users and administrators where they can learn about products, share design knowledge, and assist in troubleshooting. Along with that, the company included an annual subscription service for IT professionals so they could download and evaluate any Microsoft title. For Windows desktop and server administrators, TechNet was perfect, because for $349 a year, an IT department could build an in-house test lab where security patches and major network changes could be validated before any changes were actually performed in production.
When Microsoft abruptly announced they were sunsetting TechNet subscriptions, administrators felt that this dealt a huge blow to loyal Windows techs as there were seemingly no alternatives for use in lab environments. But in reality, there are three alternatives to TechNet subscriptions that administrators can choose from that will likely fit the bill.
1. Time-limited evaluations: Previous TechNet subscriptions allowed users to download, install, evaluate, or test Microsoft products using free and never-ending keys. And while this was great for Windows administrators that built long-term test labs that mirrored production, it also caused a great deal of piracy as individuals and businesses would simply buy a TechNet subscription, then build-out entire organizations using TechNet licensing. This licensing loophole likely cost Microsoft millions of dollars annually.
To put a stop to that, MS is doing away with never-ending licensing and will instead offer time-limited evaluation software that ranges anywhere from 30 to 180 days depending on the application. This trial software will be free and for some administrators, time-limited licensing will be enough. But for persistent validation labs, it's not an ideal choice.
2. MSDN: The Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) is a subscription-based service that closely resembles TechNet subscriptions. Purchasing an MSDN subscription allows administrators to build in-house labs using MSDN license keys that also never expire. It's interesting to point out that very few IT shops used MSDN subscriptions, instead opting to use TechNet for the simple fact that TechNet was considerably cheaper compared to MSDN. For example, an administrator could build out a Microsoft Exchange lab for $349 in TechNet licensing per year. That same lab would set you back $6,119 using an MSDN subscription.
But here's an interesting fact: TechNet subscriptions were originally meant for evaluation purposes as stated in the terms of service agreement. The agreement states, "The software provided with TechNet Subscriptions is designed for hands-on IT Professionals to evaluate Microsoft software and plan deployments. The software provided with MSDN subscriptions is available for evaluation, development, and testing purposes." So in actuality, if companies wanted to build out a test lab, they should have always been doing so using MSDN subscription licensing.
3. Azure: The last alternative to TechNet subscriptions is to move your test lab into the cloud using Microsoft's Azure cloud service. Many industry analysts believe that Microsoft's true motive for shuttering TechNet subscriptions is to force administrators to use the Azure cloud -- which is part of the company's shift in focus away from physical to virtual in the datacenter.
If that's the case, it's probably going to be successful as Azure allows for the greatest amount of flexibility for Windows software testing. Entire Windows networks can be built, modified, and torn down in a matter of minutes. They can last as long as you'd like and can be modified to exactly mirror a production network as it changes.
So fear not Windows administrators, as the initial shock of TechNet closure wears off, you'll probably come to find that a reasonable alternative is within reach. If you plan to run short-term tests, Microsoft has you covered using time-limited evaluation software. If you need a long-term, in-house lab, you'll have to pay a bit extra for MSDN. Finally, if you are willing to test in virtual environments, Azure is your best bet. Either way, Microsoft has admins covered.