per device vs per user rdp licenses

Types of Windows RDS Licenses: Per User vs Per Device

7 min read

Have you ever wondered how it’s possible for you to connect to a server or another device from any part of the world without having the need to be located in the same place, area or even country?

That is exactly what the power of Windows Remote Desktop Services (RDS) allows you to do! With its incredible functionality, you can connect to not only your virtual private server, but also to your computer in the office, at home and or anywhere else with the click of a single button!

But what exactly is RDS? RDS is a technology developed by Microsoft that allows users to remotely access, operate and manage a virtual desktop or application that is hosted on a server!

As we mentioned before, this is why this technology in particular is greatly valued by people that want to remotely manage their cloud servers, offering freedom and additional functionalities at users’ fingertips! The technology is also incredibly beneficial for businesses and corporations that offer a remote working environment, allowing employees to connect to the office from anywhere and through any device, without having to compromise on security or productivity!

However, similarly to other Microsoft products, in order to utilize RDS, you need to get a RDS client access license (CAL). Generally speaking there are 2 main types of RDS CALs with each having its own advantages and drawbacks.

In this article, we are going to be looking at both license types in more detail, comparing their features and helping you make the right choice when it comes to choosing a RDS client access license for your cloud server or business!

Types of Windows RDS licenses

As we already mentioned, there are primarily 2 types of Windows RDS licenses - per user CALs and per device CALs.

Per user CALs

As you can already tell by the name, per user client access licenses are assigned to individual users, allowing a particular user to access RDS through any device in which they are logged in with their license.

Per user CALs are the more flexible, cost-effective and accessibility-friendly option when compared to per device licenses, as you only need to assign one license to each user which can then be used to log in from any device.

This profile-based system access is great for server owners that require multi-man access to the server through a large number of devices. It is also the perfect option for companies and organizations that have many users/employees that need to access RDS from a bunch of different devices such as phones, tablets and other desktop computers.

Because of this, per user CALs are the most suitable choice for companies that for example focus on product sales, manufacturing as well as software development.

Business applications

E-commerce websites and other applications that offer products or services usually have multiple users that need to be performing actions simultaneously from different devices such as entering data about new products, updating existing ones and changing prices, which is why per user RDS licenses are the better fit.

In manufacturing, there are often many production processes that happen at once, which need to be audited and monitored through a number of devices with people in production having to constantly communicate with people up in the administration through a number of devices. Per user CALs are a perfect way to establish such communication channels, making them great for implementation when it comes to product manufacturing.

Software development is also another area where per user licensing can be extremely useful. This is because large corporations usually have multiple developers working on the same application or website, which needs to be tested on different devices in order to ensure that it is working as intended. With a per user CAL, developers can log in remotely through phones and tablets, perform tests and continue with development uninterrupted!

business applications of rdp licenses

Potential Drawbacks

However, it is also important to mention that per user CALs can be more complex to manage. This is because companies will need to keep track of who has a license and who hasn’t been assigned one. Additionally, management could also want to monitor who has been using a particular device, which will require extra software. This would also make it more difficult to identify potential problems and track user productivity.

Per user CALs are not a good option for organizations that have a small number of on-site devices. They are also not suitable for users that are going to be using only one particular device like a work laptop which will be used in order to work from home.

Per device CALs

In contrast, per device CALs are assigned to each individual device and they can be utilized by any user to gain access through RDS. This is by far the simpler option when it comes to management.

Per device licenses simplify the workflow for many organizations, removing the need of having to track who has access and who doesn’t. This allows server owners and corporations to focus only on tracking who has been using a particular device at a given time.

When it comes to cost-effectiveness, per device CALs offer more benefits to businesses that have less devices and a lower count of people that are going to be using them.

One downside of per device licenses is the fact that they are less flexible than per user CALs, due to the fact that users can only access RDS from a device that has already been assigned a license.

Additionally, it is also important to mention that some applications or services are designed in such a way that they require per user CALs in order to function properly!

Other types of RDS licenses

While per user and per device licenses are the most common and popular, there are also a few other types of CALs.

Subscription Access Licenses (SALs)

SALs are practically a subscription-based option for RDS that come with a few extra advantages. They are billed monthly and get you access to RDS as well as some other Microsoft cloud services such as Azure Active Directory and Microsoft Intune.

Device CALs with Software Assurance (SA)

SA is a maintenance and support program that grants you access to the latest software updates as well as to support resources. When you get a RDS Device CAL with SA, you also receive a bunch of additional benefits such as the option to transfer licenses to new devices as well as the ability to utilize RDS CALs in a cloud environment.

CALs for Education and Government

There is also another license that focuses on offering discounted RDS CALs for educational institutions as well as government agencies.

Per User vs Per Device CALs

While the main 2 types of access licenses are generally useful for granting access and improving security, there are some distinctions between both types. The following table shows the differences between per user and per device client access licenses:


Per user CAL

Per device CAL


More flexible

Less flexible


Expensive for businesses and organizations with a small number of devices as well as for those that have users who only access RDS from one device

More cost-effective for businesses and organizations with a small number of devices and for users who only access RDS from one device


More complex to manage

Simpler to manage

Applications or services licensing

Offers access to all applications and services

Per user CALs could be required for some applications or services

Workgroup servers licensing 

Can be used with workgroup servers

Cannot be used with workgroup servers

Failover clusters licensing

Each user needs a license to accesses the cluster

Each device needs a license to accesses the cluster

How to choose the right RDS license for your organization

As you can see from the comparison table there are quite a few factors that you need to take into consideration when making the choice for your cloud server or organization.

Number of users and devices

The first thing that you need to consider is whether you are going to be using the RDS license on-site through a physical device or online. However, you should also think about the total number of users that are going to be utilizing the device, which will then directly reflect on the amount of licenses that you will need.

Organizations that are going to be employing the CALs on-site could potentially look into per device licenses if they don’t have many users. On the other hand, organizations that are primarily looking to purchase licenses for online activities such as server management, app testing, remote working or product management could benefit more from per user licenses.

Think about the cost

When it comes to price, per user client access licenses are more expensive due to the fact that you need to get a license for each individual user. However, as we mentioned already, this can be more cost-effective in the long run for organizations and companies that have more users and less devices.

You can also purchase RDS CALs in packs of 5, 25, or 50 licenses, which can help you save some money if you are going to buy a large quantity of licenses.

Additional applications or services licensing

Some applications and services require per user licenses, which is something that you need to be aware of. This is because they are designed with the intention of being used by one single user, which requires access to user-specific data.

One such example is Microsoft Office 365 ProPlus because it includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and other tools that need to access their own files. Each software also saves their users’ personal settings and preferences. Another example of such software that requires a per user CAL is Microsoft Dynamics.

Other applications and services are designed in order to be used by multiple users, but each user needs to have their own license. Some ERP and CRM systems work like this, enabling multiple administrators to access the system through RDP and make changes at the same time.

Workgroup servers licensing

It is also important to note that per user client access licenses can be used with workgroup servers, but per device CALs cannot so if you are going to be using workgroup servers, you will need to get a per user license.

This is because workgroup servers don’t track user connections, meaning that per user licenses are the only possible way to guarantee that each user has a valid license to access RDS on a workgroup server.

If you still want to use per device CALs with RDS, you need to utilize a domain controller to track user connections, which makes the entire process substantially more difficult to manage, especially for people with no prior experience in servers and networking.

Failover clusters licensing

A failover cluster is a group of two or more servers that work simultaneously in order to ensure high availability and no downtime for RDS applications and services. They are named like so due to the fact that other servers are capable of handling the load if some fail.

In order to access RDS services that are hosted on a failover cluster, users or devices need to have a per-user CAL.

how to choose a rdp license type

What is the difference between a RDS CAL and a Windows Server license?

This is a very common question that some people find confusing. To put it simply - a Windows Server license allows you to install the Windows Server operating system on a physical or virtual instance like a VPS, whereas a RDS license allows you to access that server remotely.

Think of it like a door and a key, you need to have a door (Windows Server) on which you can use the key (RDS license) in order for it to open.

Overall, RDS client access licenses are licenses that you can use to access remote desktop services with the 2 main types being per user and per device licenses. Both have their own advantages and drawbacks so it is important to take some factors into account before you make the choice for your business or organization. Such factors include the total number of users and devices as well as whether you are going to be using other applications or services.

comparing rdp license types

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