In my last column, I introduced some of the virtualization options in Microsoft Azure and showed how easy it is to set up a virtual workstation or server in Microsoft's cloud.

If you're deploying a server for production use, using the Azure cloud eliminates a lot of headaches. You'll need to crunch the numbers and determine whether the hourly rate for a VM is worth it; just be sure to factor in the amount you'll save on antacid from with the absence of stress over sudden hardware failures and licensing issues.

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Those virtual machines are also tremendously useful for testing purposes, especially for software developers and anyone in the pilot phases of a Windows 10 deployment. Depending on your workload, you might find it more economical to invest in an MSDN subscription that includes both access to on-premises software and a monthly allowance for Azure usage.

Microsoft dropped its TechNet subscriptions, which had been popular among IT pros and enthusiasts, several years ago. But the MSDN offerings, although more expensive across the board, are arguably more useful.

Which MSDN subscription makes most sense for you? Microsoft doesn't make that calculation easy. Determining what's included at each level is so mind-bogglingly complicated, in fact, that the company has created a comparison matrix and a companion spreadsheet with more than 1,300 rows that lists what's in each edition.

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Making the comparison even more difficult, you have to factor in some additional licensing-related considerations:

  • A traditional subscription with a perpetual license and a fixed end date lets you continue using evaluation software after the subscription ends.
  • Subscriptions purchased through Volume Licensing (VL) programs offer some savings but also require a minimum two-year commitment.
  • An annual cloud subscription costs less than a perpetual license, but the licensing rights end when you stop paying for the subscription.
  • Monthly subscriptions? Don't bother. That offering doesn't include most of the benefits that come with an annual commitment.

And, of course, there are restrictions on how you can use this software. It isn't intended for production use but instead is meant for users to "design, develop, test, and demonstrate" programs. You can also use software included with a Visual Studio subscription "to evaluate the software and to simulate customer environments in order to diagnose issues related to your programs." Most of the software available to subscribers can also be run in Microsoft Azure VMs.

But don't expect to use software or services on your production machines for doing daily work. That's specifically precluded by the licensing agreement.

With those issues out of the way, here are your choices.

Visual Studio Community

This subscription is free for non-enterprise users doing non-commercial work, but it lacks any of the software or services that you get with a paid subscription. Strictly for starving students.

MSDN Visual Studio Professional

At the Professional subscription level, you pay a not-insignificant sum: $539 per year for an annual cloud subscription or $1,199 for the first year of a perpetual license subscription, with renewals costing $799 per year. That's a pretty hefty difference, although VL customers can take advantage of some savings.

Each Professional subscription includes an assortment of Windows and Windows Server software for testing on physical machines, as well as $50 a month in Azure credit. If you use that full allotment of credit, you get $600 worth of Azure time each year for $539, at which point the evaluation software is actually free.

MSDN Visual Studio Enterprise

Consider this your upgrade to Business Class. A standard Visual Studio Enterprise subscription with MSDN costs $5,999 for the first year and $2,569 annually for renewals. VL customers get a discount, of course. An annual cloud subscription (with non-perpetual license) is a flat $2,999 per year.

With that jumbo price tag, you get $150 a month in Azure credits, for a total of $1,800 annually. That's not quite enough to offset the total cost, but it will let you accomplish a lot. This level also includes Microsoft Office Professional Plus (with full use rights), an Office 365 Developer subscription, and a passel of other software (Exchange, SharePoint, and Power BI Pro, among others) not included at the Professional level.

MSDN Visual Studio Test Professional

As the name suggests, this package is not for developers. It's aimed at those who put software through its paces and need integrated test case management and manual and exploratory testing tools. It's available only as a perpetual license product, costing $2,169 for the first year but dropping to $899 for renewals. Each subscription includes $50 per month in Azure credits.

MSDN Platforms

This package is probably the best-kept secret at MSDN. It's available only through VL programs and is aimed specifically at "IT Operations staff and Java developers" who don't need the full Visual Studio product. Each annual subscription costs more than $2,000 (resellers set the price) but includes $100 per month in Azure credits.