Which changes trigger reactivation in a Windows guest?

Discussions about using Windows guests in VirtualBox.

Which changes trigger reactivation in a Windows guest?

Postby mpack » 22. Sep 2009, 12:56

This topic is not about some specific problem I have, this topic exists because of recent discussions with Sasquatch, PerryG etc, in which it became clear that it would be a good idea to have a dedicated discussion thread in which facts about Windows activation can be separated from fiction. Note that all Windows versions from XP onwards have an activation feature (Win2K was the last version that didn't).

Here are some basic questions (off the top of my head) which I expect this discusson to answer.

What VirtualBox VM settings can (if changed) trigger a reactivation message? The answer may be different for different Windows versions.

Is true that once Windows decides that reactivation is required you must reactivate? Or will Windows be happy again if you just correct the settings problem?

Are there VirtualBox VM settings which the user cannot control which may also trigger reactivation? (VM UUID triggers Win7 guest activation?).
Last edited by mpack on 14. Oct 2009, 17:31, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Activation issues with Windows guests.

Postby Sasquatch » 22. Sep 2009, 13:48

I will start with a few answers that I found with Windows 7.

What VirtualBox VM settings can (if changed) trigger a reactivation message?

With W7, you can change the MAC address and HD UUID (the UUID of the virtual hard drive file) and the CPU ID (boot the VM on a different computer, or replace your CPU) without triggering the reactivation. I have not looked at other options, like I/O APIC, PAE, SMP and all that. I don't have Hardware-V hardware, so I can't test those settings.
Is true that once Windows decides that reactivation is required you must reactivate? Or will Windows be happy again if you just correct the settings problem?

When I triggered an activation by booting the VDI in a different VM, it went to activated status when booted from the original VM.
Are there VirtualBox VM settings which the user cannot control which may also trigger reactivation? (VM UUID triggers Win7 guest activation?).

The W7 activation trigger that I found, was the UUID of the VM itself. I edited the XML file to change the UUID (not just the VM.xml file, but also VirtualBox.xml is need for registration of the VM) slightly and it wanted to activate again. Restoring the original UUID made it activated again.


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Re: Activation issues with Windows guests.

Postby mpack » 23. Sep 2009, 11:17

Just to add to the confusion, Windows is delivered through several different distribution channels: boxed(retail), OEM, and Volume Licensing. It is known that a CD Key for one distribution channel will not work with CDs intended for other channels, and the activation issues may be different too. Some or all of these channels may also have "Upgrade" variants too, but I assume that variation has no relevance once you get past the install step.

Anyway, I've just been doing some tests trying to get my XP guest to give me a reactivation message, and so far I can't! This is an OEM license of XP Pro SP2 which I bought specifically to install and use on the VirtualBox VM "hardware". It was noticeable on my first installation that I was not prompted to activate: but I know I've had problems with XP activation in VMs the past, obviously that was a factor in my decision to buy a separate license in the first place.

Anyway, I tried changing the MAC address in an existing VM. Nope. I tried creating a new VM (hence a new VM UUID), allowing the new VM to use a new MAC address. Nope. I tried changing the IDE controller type. Still nope! I'm at a loss now, there isn't much left I can change!

Yesterday I did a P2V migration of a physical retail XP Pro machine: I have a new home PC with another XP retail license coming, and it was my intention to practise the use of the "sysprep" tool inside a VM, because I intend to use the sysprep+image method to setup my new PC. Anyway, the P2V VM started fine, but of course gave me the reactivation message. No problem, it's what I expected... but it seems that the activation is message is more easily encountered in retail versions?

My company has (had, they're on Vista now) a volume XP license, but I never had to install one. I believe VL doesn't have activation either.
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Re: Activation issues with Windows guests.

Postby mpack » 23. Sep 2009, 11:33

Btw, a warning for our readers. A few days ago I decided to order a new XP Pro retail license (I don't like Vista, and Win7 is too bleeding edge for now). So, I checked on Amazon.co.uk. I found that pucker boxed retail XP Pro prices have gone sky high! Long story short, I decided to try buying a used license through Amazon resellers, after all, I reasoned there must be millions of unwanted XP licenses sitting on peoples shelves. I stupidly assumed that Amazon must vet their resellers for legitimacy, I also stupidly assumed that anything that didn't mention OEM must be retail: the CD that turned up was an OEM CD. Worse, it was an HP "royalty" CD key, with the letters "HP" scratched off the COA. The seller didn't even do a good job of that, since I could still make it out. There was no way I could use this. Caveat emptor I guess!

I have now bitten the bullet and paid the sky high price for a legit XP Pro retail. :-(

Why retail? Because I wanted the freedom to image the drive again in the future, for my next new PC.
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Re: Activation issues with Windows guests.

Postby Sasquatch » 23. Sep 2009, 12:15

Windows XP VLK doesn't have activation. I have one thanks to my school and installed it on several systems, never got an activation question after installation, or a few years running. So trying to trigger one with that will of course never work.
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Re: Activation issues with Windows guests.

Postby mpack » 23. Sep 2009, 12:40

Sasquatch wrote:Windows XP VLK doesn't have activation. I have one thanks to my school and installed it on several systems, never got an activation question after installation, or a few years running. So trying to trigger one with that will of course never work.

I've had such little success getting my OEM to give an activation message - and of course the fact I never had to activate it when first installed - I'm wondering if late model (post Vista release) generic (not BIOS locked) OEM XPs also lost the activation requirement entirely? This is just speculation, I doubt anyone outside of MS can answer that with authority.
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Re: Activation issues with Windows guests.

Postby Sasquatch » 23. Sep 2009, 12:44

Some OEM versions, like that of HP and the sort, are a sort of OEM VLK versions, which might be locked to hardware and have the BIOS activate the system, but it appears there are similar licenses that isn't bound by hardware and BIOS.
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Re: Activation issues with Windows guests.

Postby mpack » 27. Sep 2009, 10:07

It strikes me that another obvious question that could be raised here is: "what's the big deal, if Windows prompts for activation, why not just activate"?

And the answer: MS will only let you activate a license at a certain frequency, if you do it too often the activation fails. As I understand it, activation always works if your last activation with that license was at least 120 days ago. If you try it more often than that then it might get bounced, then you have to try and get some MS rep on the phone. I discovered to my cost in my early messing with VMs is that it pays to delay activation until you are quite sure you are done fiddling!
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Re: Activation issues with Windows guests.

Postby mpack » 27. Sep 2009, 10:19

Another tip: say you want to make a clone, the VM you are cloning has eaten up a lot of your time getting it just right: you don't want to start again from scratch, but you are worried that you may have activation problems, or that it violates the license. If you have a spare license (a different unused CD key) then no problem. The "sysprep" tool from the Windows CD can be used to provoke the clone into running a mini setup which prompts for a new CD key, hence a new license and a separate activation. Be warned that the CD key has to be from the right family, e.g. XPhome-OEM, XPPro-Retail etc. There are other ways to make an existing install prompt for a new CD key (eg. "repair installation"), but sysprep is the fastest method I know.
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Re: Activation issues with Windows guests.

Postby Sasquatch » 28. Sep 2009, 10:07

As for the license key for a clone, if an activation is triggered, you can enter a new key too. It's one of the options you get when you go through the activation wizard. I think it was under the Activate by Phone option.
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Re: Activation issues with Windows guests.

Postby mpack » 28. Sep 2009, 12:22

Sasquatch wrote:It's one of the options you get when you go through the activation wizard. I think it was under the Activate by Phone option.

I did two XP activations in the last three days (I P2Ved my old home PC and then set up a new home PC using a sysprep'ed image). I don't remember seeing any mention of being able to enter a new CD key. The only options I remember getting were activate and (optional) register for support. This was online activation. I can't see how activation by phone would be more flexible? (unless you end up talking to a guy who talks you through some other way to enter a new CD key! :-))
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Re: Activation issues with Windows guests.

Postby Sasquatch » 28. Sep 2009, 12:39

There really is an option to change the license key from there. It was on all the 'howto's' to make your Windows appear legal, by entering a new key. Here is the image to prove it ;)
Image
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Re: Activation issues with Windows guests.

Postby kilves76 » 12. Oct 2009, 18:24

I'd like to know if anyone has managed to get their Dell/other OEM preactivated XP version to work in a virtual machine.

There was another topic perhaps slightly more suitable to this, but it was locked on the morose assumption that the licence is tied to the single machine hardware it was sold with. It is not so, I have installed a single Dell OEM copy of XP Pro (original, no service packs) on 3 different Dell models from year 2001 to 2009; the latter two had Vista32 and Vista64 licences as original OS installations.

However I've been unable to get my XP to work in VB by editing the BIOS DMI strings. IF someone has gotten theirs to work, I'd be very interested to know how.

I've heard that VMWare allows for more detailed emulation of the guest BIOS and there preactivated OEM copies can be got to work. But this is just hearsay, I am not a professional in this nor do I know for sure. Would be nice to be able to run my own real legal XP Pro in VB, too.
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Re: Activation issues with Windows guests.

Postby Sasquatch » 12. Oct 2009, 19:19

The only real legal method to run Windows in a VM is to make sure the license allows that. Retail is the only one that does (not counting VLK), because it's legal to transfer the key to other hardware. OEM versions aren't, they are bound by hardware. The reason you got the same key working on three different systems is because that activation is done through the BIOS, hence the DMI information you can pass to the VM. You have to somehow extract that information and put it in the DMI code for the VM.
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Re: Activation issues with Windows guests.

Postby mpack » 12. Oct 2009, 23:32

kilves76 wrote:it was locked on the morose assumption that the licence is tied to the single machine hardware it was sold with.

An OEM license is indeed tied by the license terms to the hardware it was bundled with - which is not the same as saying that the install CD won't work on other machines. Using a common CD is no problem at all, provided each machine is individually licensed with its own CD key. Anything else and you are asking for trouble.

Btw, I dislike the use of the term "legal" (e.g. as in "legal copy") that people bandy about when having this discussion. What we are talking about is Microsoft's licensing terms, which a contractual issue, not an issue of criminal law.
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