Installing Office 2016 (VL, MSI) together with Visio and/or Project 2016 (click-to-run, C2R): Deadlocked

While the particular scenario I am describing here is likely common only at educational institutions, for those affected, it is a major showstopper. This blog post details the common licensing and deployment practices for higher education labs and the particular conundrum it causes with Office 2016 and Visio/Project 2016. I am proposing two workarounds that could help and one I’ve included just for completeness. I am calling on Microsoft to address the issue with a real fix.

UPDATE: May 2017: There is a solution that is available to higher education institutions (only) and it is called Device-Based Activation. I am preparing a new blog post to detail how this works.

TL;DR; The conundrum that education lab administrators are presented with is this:

  • We need to use MSI-based installers and volume license keys to activate Office products for the computer (as opposed to the user).
  • There is no MSI-based installer or volume license key available to Imagine Premium subscribers for Visio and Project 2016.
  • MSI and click-to-run installers cannot be combined on the same computer.

Result: Catch-22.

Higher Ed Lab Licensing

I am going to describe the licensing and deployment scenario commonly found in an education institution as it relates to computer labs first. The institution may or may not have an Office 365 Education plan; it’s not relevant here. The institution likely has a Microsoft Imagine Premium (formerly DreamSpark Premium, formerly MSDN Academic Alliance) subscription. Imagine Premium does not license the Office suite, with the exception of Visio and Project. Visio and Project in particular have a rather unique activation scenario: the provided activation key for lab use is actually a retail key but a special one that has no activation limit. I’ll call it the “super-lab key.”

In a computer lab, software activation should be tied to the machine, not to the user. In the busiest lab in my area, an average computer is used by over 40 different students per semester. Per-user licensing and activation of Office products is thus not feasible. Students would quickly run out of their maximum of five allowed activations. Therefore, we opt for KMS or MAK-based activation of Office Professional Plus with the MSI-based installer. The Office suite is activated for any user that uses the computer. They can still sign in to Office with Office 365 accounts to have convenient access to OneDrive for Business and SharePoint Online sites, but it does not affect activation.

Putting It All Together In a Deployment Scenario

So we used to deploy Office 2013 Professional Plus sourced from the Volume Licensing Service Center (MSI-based installer). Up-to-and-including Project and Visio 2013, those applications too were deployed with MSI-based installers obtained from the MSDN Subscribers download site. Visio and Project were activated with the aforementioned super-lab keys. Everything’s great.

Enter Office 2016. We still deploy Office 2016 using the volume-licensed MSI-based installer and activation is based on the computer. Visio and Project 2016 however no longer have an MSI installer from the Imagine Premium download site. They only have a click-to-run installer. Until June 2016, that click-to-run installer would not even accept the super-lab key for activation. This issue is resolved now, but it is not possible to mix MSI and click-to-run installers of the same Office version (e.g. 2016) on the same computer. You simply can’t install the second product. If you try, this is the nastygram you’re presented with:

05384c84-6916-4720-963d-ce2f0b4bf94b
Screenshot of the error message trying to install a click-to-run application side-by-side with an MSI-based application (showing Office 2013, same for 2016) (source: Microsoft)

Possible Workarounds

There are a few workarounds I am currently investigating – though by virtue of those being “workarounds” and not solutions, they have issues of their own.

1. Using Virtual Machines for Visio/Project

Our lab computers are capable of running virtual machines in terms of availability of memory, CPU features and in most instances also disk space. The students who are using Visio and/or Project obtained from Imagine are by definition in a STEM degree program and it does them well to use virtualization.

But… it’s not practical/possible because:

  • A VM takes a while to boot.
  • A VM is a second OS to deploy and patch.
  • Only one virtualization solution can be set up per PC. We can use Hyper-V to work around this issue (presumably… I think our OS licensing with Microsoft Imagine Premium would allow for it), but our students also learn about virtualization using VMware Workstation. We can’t have both installed and the way I read the VMware Academic Program licensing, we could not use a VMware VM to run Visio and Project since we wouldn’t be teaching virtualization but just Office apps.

2. Using Shared Computer Activation

I am unclear if this workaround would actually work. Read about Shared Computer Activation here: https://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/dn782860.aspx. However, even if it does, here are the concerns with this approach:

  • Every student who logs on to a computer will need to activate Office 2016. This takes extra time and will likely cause confusion.
  • It is also particularly questionable how this will work with administering Microsoft Office Specialist certification exams. The Certiport Console 8 exam software runs as the local Administrator account because we are not about to give 20,000 students administrator privileges to systems. However, I don’t know how we would activate the Office 2016 applications under that user account…
  • Even though the page referenced above indicates that the usage of Office 2016 C2R on a Shared computer does not count against the five activations each user has, it does state there is “a reasonable limit” of shared computer activations in a “given time period.” Neither “reasonable” nor “given time period” are defined and knowing how many different computers students would use around campus, I suspect we would hit that limit. (Most likely during final exams…)

3. Paying a Lot of Extra Money to Volume-License Project and Visio

Have you heard most public education institutions are facing budget crises? It’s a non-starter, which is of course why the Imagine Premium program is so valuable. (If I were being facetious, I would say it’s a lot less valuable now…)

Real Solution(s) Microsoft Needs to Provide

There are two ways (IMHO) for Microsoft to resolve this for its customers:

  1. Provide Microsoft Imagine Premium subscribers with a volume license key and MSI installer of Visio and Project. Those things exist, enterprise volume license customers get them.
  2. Allow Visio and Project to use the different installation method (C2R) than the other products in the Office suite.
    I suppose somehow “the” Office installer on a machine expects everything to be consistent but that’s really a decision Microsoft made. It could be addressed (just like the inability to install x86 and x64 versions on the same system) though it will take some effort.

How will Microsoft get around to addressing this issue? Let’s all contact our Developer Evangelists and account managers and make it known that this issue is affecting a large user base of impressionable future customers.

Further Reading

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