Microsoft RDS Pricing Overview

Last Updated:
April 11, 2024

Microsoft RDS Pricing Overview

Remote Desktop Services (RDS) is a set of Microsoft® Windows Server® components that allows users to remotely access virtualized applications and desktops on a server. Since RDS is part of Microsoft Windows®, its cost is included in whatever you are paying for Windows Server licenses, which depends on a variety of factors, including the Windows Server edition you plan to purchase, the licensing model you choose, and enrollment in a Microsoft Licensing Program and/or Microsoft Software Assurance.

Where the rubber meets the road when implementing RDS is client licensing, which is far more complex. Depending on the role, in addition to Windows Server licenses, you may also need to purchase Client Access Licenses (CALs). The type of CAL you need when implementing RDS depends on the role of the client.

There are two types of CALs licenses that directly impact your use of RDS to enable remote access: Windows Server CALs and RDS CALs.

Windows Server CALs

You need a Windows Server CAL for every user or device that directly accesses the Windows server. Licensing is dependent on the Windows Server edition that you purchase and its corresponding licensing model. Purchasing using a ‘Server + CAL’ model requires that you pay for Windows Server CALs separately from the server license; purchasing using a ‘Licensing per Core’ model means that Windows Server CALs are included in the server license.

Windows Server 2022 Standard Edition, which uses the ‘Licensing per Core’ model, includes 10 Windows Server CALs. These CALs can be used for Windows Server 2022 or previous versions of Windows Server. If you need more Windows Server CALs, or purchase Windows Server using a ‘Server + CAL’ model, you can purchase additional Windows Server CALs as singles or in packs of five licenses.

Common scenarios for using Windows Server CALs are admins that need to manage Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP), filesharing, printing, etc., directly on the Windows server, or when end users need to access the server to run an application installed directly on that server. In both scenarios, every user will need a Windows Server CAL.

While Windows Server CALs never expire, they are backward-compatible only—so, if you are installing Windows Server 2022, you cannot repurpose a Windows Server 2019 Windows Server CAL for the server running Windows Server 2022.

Windows Server CALs are assigned to users in Active Directory. While CAL usage is not enforced by the server, usage is tracked, so if Microsoft performs a licensing audit, and finds that you are out of compliance with licensing policy, you may be fined by Microsoft for being out of compliance.


End users accessing Remote Desktop Services running on Windows Server to deliver virtualized applications and desktops will need an RDS CAL—either a Per User CAL or Per Device CAL. Note that an RDS CALs license is required whether users are accessing a single application, multiple applications, or a desktop.

With Per User CALs, you’ll need one CALs license for each user accessing RDS, regardless of the number of devices that they use to connect. With Per Device CALS, you’ll need one CALs license for every device that accesses RDS, regardless of the number of users utilizing that device.

Per User CALs are most commonly used with organizational employees who need remote access to RDS to run applications or desktops to do their job. A Per User CAL allows an employee to use a variety of devices to do their work from anywhere. To accommodate employee turnover, Microsoft allows admins to reassign Per User CALs every 120 days—which may not accommodate unexpected personnel changes—so most organizations buy additional Per User CALs in anticipation of fluctuations in employee counts.

Another example of an organization utilizing Per User CALs is a Windows ISV using RDS to make an application available to customers, where every customer may be using the application on more than one device.

Per Device CALs are most common in work environments where employees share a workstation, like a call center or on a factory floor. For example, if you are the systems administrator in a call center with 100 stations running 3 shifts, you will need to purchase 100 Per Device CALS, one per station, for your helpdesk employees.

Continuing the call center example, you will need to decide which RDS CAL type to purchase for the call center employees in managerial or administrative roles. Many Microsoft consultants advise that organizations stick to one RDS CALs model when implementing RDS to avoid licensing confusion, even when using both license types can reduce overall costs.

You use the Remote Desktop (RD) Licensing component in Windows to install, issue, and track RDS CALs. When a user or device connects to an RD Session Host server, the RD Session Host Server will determine if an RDS CAL is needed for access. When using Per Device CALs, the first time the device connects to the RD Session Host, a temporary license is issued; when the device connects for a second time, the license server will issue a permanent Per Device Cal for that specific device. Microsoft allows an up to 89-day grace period for Per Device CALs.

Per Device CALs are electronically enforced. If 5 Per Device CALs have been installed and issued on the server, and five devices are connected, if a sixth user tries to connect, and the license server has no additional Per Device CAL licenses installed, the connection will be refused.

In contrast, since Per User CALs are issued from a pool of Per User CALs available on the licensing server, Per User CALs are not electronically enforced like Per Device CALs. Microsoft allows an up to 120-day grace period for Per User CALs. But, if Microsoft discovers that you are out of compliance with Per User CAL policy, your organization will be fined—and licensing fines can be significant, often starting at $100K.


RDS CALs Costs

Most editions of Windows Server requires RDS CALs for user access to Remote Desktop Services. One exception is Windows Server Essential edition, which is designed for small businesses with basic computing needs, allows up to 25 users and 50 devices to access Windows services without CALs.

For companies with more than 25 users or 50 devices accessing Remote Desktop Services, RDS CALs can be purchased in packs or as single licenses. Purchasing in packs reduces the per-CAL price. Enrollment in a Microsoft licensing program (Volume Licensing, Open License, etc.) can also influence how your RDS CALs are priced and packaged.  Like Windows Server CALs, RDS CALs are backwards compatible only, i.e., you cannot use an earlier version of RDS CALs to access a later version of Windows Server.

The price for RDS CALs varies widely. As of this writing, the price for a five-pack of Windows Server 2022 RDS user CALs ranges from $480 to $1000 depending on the vendor.

When RDS CALS are used in a private cloud (i.e., a data center owned by the company purchasing the licenses), the organization is not required to pay for maintenance, but all RDS implementations hosted on a public or partner-hosted cloud require Microsoft Software Assurance, which charges a yearly maintenance fee of 25% of the volume license fee for server products. And, when you upgrade to a new version of Windows Server, you’ll need to buy RDS CALs for your new version of Windows Server to accommodate users and/or devices.

Other RDS-Related Cost Considerations

If you're running RDS within a virtualized environment, such as Hyper-V, there might be additional licensing costs in addition to RDS CALs.

Some Microsoft 365 subscription plans include RDS rights for certain Office applications. This means that users with eligible subscriptions can access those Office applications in a Remote Desktop environment without needing additional RDS CALs. However, if users utilize Office apps plus even one additional Windows application, they will need an additional Per User CAL.

Microsoft RDS licensing and pricing is highly complex, and the consequences of violating Microsoft licensing policies are significant. When in doubt, your best bet is to consult a Microsoft licensing expert to ensure that you have accurate and updated pricing for your specific use case.

Out-of-Compliance Penalties

Penalties for customers found to be out of compliance vary depending on the region in which the company is located and the version of their Microsoft licensing contract. Penalties that may apply include paying 125% of the list price (applies to volume licensing agreements) and paying an additional 5% for all products found to be unlicensed; if non compliance exceeds 5%, the out-of-compliance company may be required to cover audit costs.

If a company ignores or refuses to cooperate Microsoft’s request for a Software Asset Management (SAM) audit, Microsoft can issue an LLC audit, which is mandatory and conducted by a major accounting firm. Penalties for LLC audits are mandated by software piracy laws, which allow fines of up to $150,000 per infringement.

Wow. That’s a Lot. Is There an Easier Way?


If you are a Windows ISV using Remote Desktop Services to make your application available to customers, consider GO-Global to provide access to Windows applications from any public, private, or hybrid cloud—without utilizing RDS.

GO-Global enables multi-user remote access to Microsoft Windows applications without using either RDS or the multi-session kernel functionality built into Windows. Unlike products that wrap features around RDS, GO-Global provides full replacements for Microsoft’s multi-session functionality and its Remote Desktop clients, display driver, protocol, internet gateway, and management tools. GO-Global’s unique architecture eliminates the need for RDS components to be installed on Windows desktops or servers.

And, instead of multiple licensing models, GO-Global has one easy choice—concurrent user licensing.  With GO-Global, rather than paying for users or devices (or both!), you pay just for actual usage.

Despite its low cost, GO-Global delivers enterprise-level scalability but is easy to install, configure, and use, with considerably less technology overhead required for implementation, and provides a great customer experience, including fast logins and minimal latency, even over low-bandwidth connections.

How Much Can I Save?

One GO-Global ISV client saved $90K per month on licensing costs after moving from Remote Desktop Services to GO-Global.

Reduce licensing confusion and cost and get GO-Global! To learn more, request a demo here or download a free 30-day trial.

Concerned about RDS Costs?

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