Understand TFS Licensing



Team Foundation Server (TFS) is an excellent code version control tool AND the hub of Microsoft’s App Lifecycle Mgt. (ALM) solution. Learn more here.

Now, let’s attempt to demystify some of the aspects of licensing of TFS for enterprise use now:

As illustrated in the below graphic, TFS is licensed on a Server/CAL model. Thus, you need 1 Server license for the TFS server and 1 TFS CAL (client access license) for each user that will use TFS features. That TFS CAL covers the usage no matter how the user accesses TFS (i.e. Visual Studio, Eclipse, Web Access client, Excel, MSProject, 3rd party tool, ect, etc).

 The two ways to acquire TFS CALs are:

   1) Purchase a TFS User CAL   (sku: 126-00196)

   2) 1 TFS CAL (and 1 TFS Server license) is included in each Visual Studio/MSDN subscription. Thus, anyone who has an active MSDN subscription assigned to them is covered with a TFS CAL.




Finally, there is one exception to the TFS User CAL.   To enable organizations to have an enterprise/central way to capture enhancements requests & bugs from the user population, TFS provides a Work-Item only version of the Team Web Interface.  There are also additional non-CAL capablities around viewing reports coming for TFS 2012.


To read more specfics on all VS/TFS/MSDN licensing... check out the Visual Studio & MSDN Licensing WhitePaper.

Comments (30)

  1. Reading your post above it would lead one to think that you purchase the server and then need CALs for every user that isn't covered by MSDN no matter how, or what, they access it from.  This isn’t the case.  A few points below around the TFS licensing.  One shouldn’t apply these conditions for anything but TFS.  You’ll still need Windows Server OS/CALs, SQL Server/CALs, & SharePoint Server/CALs where applicable.

    Server Licenses

       •  A Retail TFS Server license grants you the equivalent of 5 TFS CALs.  After the 5th non-msdn user you would need to purchase TFS CALs

       •  MSDN User are granted 1 server license and 1 CAL.  It isn’t clearly stated, but I’ve had several licensing specialists tell me, that the MSDN server license can be accessed by the none MSDN people as long as they have a TFS CAL.  So this being the case an MSDN user provides the TFS Server License.


    A TFS CAL is NOT required for accessing TFS if you meet one of the below:

    Accesing TFS Directly:

       •  Accessing Team Foundation Server via the “Work Item Only View” of Team Web Access. This enables users to enter and edit their own work items, such as for defects/bugs or enhancement requests.

       •  Accessing Team Foundation Server reports.

       •  Accessing Team Foundation Server using Microsoft System Center Operations Manager. This enables operations staff to take operational issues encountered in production and raise them as issues to the development team, automatically creating a work item in Team Foundation Server.

       •  Viewing static data that has been manually distributed outside of Team Foundation Server.

       •  Up to two devices or users that only access Team Foundation Server to perform system administration, such as creating Team Projects or Project Collections.

    Accessing TFS Indirectly:

       •  Project Server to TFS Integration does not require a TFS CAL for Project Server users.  Project server can read/write to TFS based on user’s direct changes/input.

  2. Marc Wallace says:

    Thanks for clearing that up BIll, re Server license also grants 5 TFS Cals.  We are looking to adopt TFS in our environment here in the UK but I am struggling to actually buy the licensing. I am waiting for a call back from Microsoft pre-sales but it really shoudn't be this hard surely.

  3. Karan Chaudhary says:

    Thanks Bill for explaining in details. I  have a question though…if a user has SharePoint CAL and is set as “Work Item Only View” user. Does he/she require a TFS CAL to access Team Project portal on SharePoint?

  4. AliasAlias says:

    The SharePoint CAL is somewhat irrelevant to the question.  If the user is a "Work Item Only View" user, that is all they will see when they hit the link for the Team Project Portal.   In other words, the 'Work Only Item View' is the (SharePoint) Team Project Portal with much of the functionality hidden to the user based on their TFS permissions.

  5. So if i have 1 ultimate msdn subscription, and 2 other developers with vs prof. without subscription, i need 2 additional cals for all 3 to participate in tfs versioning, correct?

  6. AliasAlias says:

    Your statement is correct because your 2 Professional do not have MSDN.  The TFS CAL is included in all versions of MSDN Subscriptions.

  7. Rusty Shackleford says:

    We are working on Plug-Ins and would like to avoid developing/debuging against our live TFS instance.  Can TFS, considering the fact that we have an Enterprise license, be installed on a development machine for non-production, pure development use?

  8. AliasAlias says:

    You need a TFS Server license for every TFS instance you stand-up.   Doesn't make a difference if the location is considered Dev or Production.   Remember, each MSDN subscription includes 1 TFS Server license or you can purchase them stand-alone.   If that is not an option, look into the express version as an option:  http://www.microsoft.com/…/visual-studio-team-foundation-server-express

  9. ginpin says:

    We have many users of VS w/MSDN subscriptions, quite a few TFS CALs (for users with no MSDN and an external connector.

    We now have some contractors where their own company purchased their VS subscriptions and they need to acess our server. Is the CAL that come with their subscription sufficient or do we need to provide a CAL to access our server?  This is somewhat confusing.  Can you help?

  10. How do I setup users who do not require a Cal?

    Work-item only:  Limited Access and add the user?

    Reporting only:  Is this part of the Limited Access or is there another setup for report only?

  11. Matthias says:

    I want to use TFS to save my Matlab and python code into our companies TFS server instead of using SVN (which I use currently). I do not need Visual Studio for development. Which would be the cheapest licence? I do not understand what "TFS User CAL" actually is. If it is just a licence without the required program it would not be of any help for me.

  12. Robert Meier says:

    I know this is an old thread but I just want to make sure I am clear. We have a small office, 9 developers, 8 support. We have a server running 2008 and one running 2012 the 2012 box also has SQL server on it. 2 developers have MSDN the others just standard VS licenses.  If I understand what you wrote here we need 17 Server use cals, 17 Sharepoint cals, 1 sharepoint license, 1 tfs license and 2 tfs user cals (because the retail version of tfs comes with 5 and we have 2 with msdn) in total? And we do not need SQL user cals if we will not be accessing that sql server for any usage except the TFS storage?

  13. Bill says:

    Could you provide a link to threat of the license. My legal review team needs the text to believe I don't need a license for requirements and bug level interactions.

  14. GC says:

    Can someone explain why I cannot license TFS at the moment. I have downloaded and installed the trial version and want to license it now. I have $499 burning a hole in my pocket. On the MS online store for TFS 2013 it says 'Out of Stock'! On the entry for just a User CAL it says 'out of stock'. How can you be out of stock of a license? How can you be out of stock of a DOWNLOAD!!!???

  15. Brian Jordan says:

    @Bill – The definitive source of licensing information on Visual Studio, Team Foundation Server and MSDN is the Visual Studio and MSDN Licensing White Paper.  It depends on what version of Visual Studio or Team Foundation Server that you have as we have granted additional license use rights in later versions.

    Latest (2013) Edition – http://www.microsoft.com/…/details.aspx

    2012 Edition – download.microsoft.com/…/Visual%20Studio%202012%20and%20MSDN%20Licensing%20Whitepaper%20-%20June-2013.pdf

    2010 Edition – download.microsoft.com/…/Visual%20Studio%202010%20and%20MSDN%20Licensing%20Whitepaper%20-%20Aug-2011.pdf

    Look under the section "When a Client Access License is Not Required"

  16. Brian Jordan says:

    @GC – I am not sure what the issue is with the Microsoft Store and unfortunately, I can't help you with purchase of either retail or enterprise licensing.  You need to work with a commercial or government reseller to purchase Team Foundation Server.  If this is just for your personal use, you might want to consider Visual Studio Online: http://www.visualstudio.com .

  17. Brian Jordan says:

    @Robert Meier – Your MSDN license for the two developers grants you the ability to stand up a TFS instance for each if you choose to do so at no additional licensing costs.  For your team, one TFS instance is sufficient as it can easily support 400+ people on a single dual-core box with 4GB ram and a few hundred gig storage (what you can buy cheaply off-the-shelf or virtualize).  As you note, you don’t need a SQL Server license as a single use license for the support of TFS is granted (also on a per MSDN license).  You could if you want stand up a two-tier (TFS Application Tier on one box and Database tier on another box) if you want.

    The MSDN license for the two developers also grants a TFS Client Access license.  Everyone else who interacts with the TFS instance (see exceptions in the licensing white paper) needs to have a TFS CAL.  In some cases, there is higher level functionality that is the TFS Web Access that requires a minimum of a VS Test Professional with MSDN license.

    The TFS installation comes with SharePoint Foundation 2010/2013 (depends on the TFS version) which is also included as part of the licensing for Windows Server.  You do not need additional SharePoint CALs for SharePoint Foundation. You just need to have the appropriate Windows Server licenses.  If you want to use SharePoint Enterprise 2010/2013, then you will need to purchase SharePoint Enterprise CALs (ECALs).

    Based on the looking over you post, from a licensing standpoint here is the minimum you need:

    • Windows Server license for Windows Server 2008 and Windows Server 2012 – one each server

    • Windows Server CALs for Windows Server 2008 and Windows Server 2012 – This will cover SharePoint Foundation as well – one for each user per server

    • Team Foundation Server license – no additional license required as you have two from MSDN

    • Team Foundation Server CALs – 15.  You only have two TFS CALs granted as part of your MSDN licensing.  You do not get five free TFS CALs when using a MSDN TFS license.

    • SQL Server for TFS – No additional license required. You are licensed for SQL Server as part of the TFS license.

    Clear as mud?

    Another option that you may want to consider is using Visual Studio Online: http://ww.visualstduio.com.  In this case, you would have free access for the two MSDN licenses but you would need to have a VSO monthly subscription for your remaining 15 users.  You don’t have to manage anything and you get the benefit of getting updates to TFS functionality first.  See this for more subscription details: azure.microsoft.com/…/visual-studio-online

  18. Brian Jordan says:

    @Matthias – A TFS Client Access License (CAL) is basically a piece of paper that covers your access to your company's TFS server.  If it is not purchased with software assurance, you are only covered for the TFS version it is associated with (i.e. 2010, 2012, 2013).

    Once you have the license right to access TFS, you then need to be grated user access to one or more team projects by a TFS Admin, TFS Project Collection Admin or Team Project Admin.

    Once you have the permission to access a specific Team Project, you need to have client software to connect to TFS.  There are basically two clients you can download for free.  One for Windows OS and one for most other OS (Linux, Solaris, AIX, HP-UX, etc.) — Team Foundation Server Explorer and Team Foundation Server Explorer Everywhere (Eclipse plugin).  Additionally, if you are on a Windows platform you may want to install the TFS Power Tools to get a Windows Explorer interface to use for checking code in and out (you need to install the TFS Explorer client to add the required DLLs).  Both of the TFS clients also include command line support.

    Please see the following links:

    Team Foundation Server Explorer – http://www.microsoft.com/…/details.aspx

    Team Foundation Server Power Tools – .  visualstudiogallery.msdn.microsoft.com/f017b10c-02b4-4d6d-9845-58a06545627f

    Team Foundation Server Explorer Everywhere – http://www.microsoft.com/…/details.aspx

  19. Mike says:

    We have purchased 5 VSPro w/ MSDN does this mean We have 5 TFS server license and 5 TFS CALS?

  20. Brian Jordan says:

    @Mike – Yes, you are licensed to stand up 5 TFS servers (everything on one box) or deploy components for a TFS Server onto 5 machines.  For example, 2 Application Tier front ends (2 TFS licenses), an Active-Passive SQL Cluster (2 TFS licenses) and a separate SQL Server Reporting Services server (1 TFS license).  You also have the 5 TFS CALS for the individual MSDN users to access this infrastructure..

  21. Ian Guénard says:

    Quick question, how would I know if the views we are using are of type "Work item only view"? Thanks!

  22. Johannes Eggers says:

    Just to clarify the statement that an MSDN subscription includes a server license: If your MSDN "subscription" is the one that comes with Microsoft Action Pack, then the TFS Server license is NOT included. You'll need to purchase TFS, most likely from the regular retail channel.  As stated, that TFS license is good for 1 server and includes 5 CALs (clients).  The official retail product name is "Microsoft Visual Studio Team Foundation Server 2013 English 1 License DVD" and if you're looking for the best price, I'd google the Microsoft SKU for this product, which is 125-01261

    The street price is around $450 for this (as of Oct. 2014), so that comes to $90 per user.  For what you get, I think that's a bargain.

  23. Tori says:

    Is there a documented licensing grant for TFS External Connectors to individual CALs anywhere or is it just a repurchase of L/SA CALs required (if SA is wanted of course).

  24. Brian Jordan says:

    @Tori – It is a separate SKU that needs to be purchased.  Please get with you local Visual Studio Solution Sales person or reseller for more information.

  25. Laurent (523) says:

    @Brian: I'm wondering about SQL Server reporting. This diagram show the reporting is include within TFS license. Does this mean if a user access a report hosted on SQL Server Report this user does not need a SQL Server access license ?

  26. Brian Jordan says:

    @Laurent – The licensing model changed from TFS 2010->2012->2013.  You will want to review the MSDN Visual Studio Licensing White Paper for the TFS Server you currently have deployed.  With TFS 2013, the viewing of reports no longer required a TFS CAL.  If you used the SQL Server Standard license that comes with your TFS Server license and SSRS is deployed with the database services, you do not need a SQL CAL.  If you separate SSRS from the Database Service you will need a SQL CAL unless you have multiple MSDN licenses to cover the use of SQL Database Services, SSRS, SSAS on separate servers.  

  27. Laurent (523) says:

    @Brian: Thanks, it's exactly what I needed 🙂

  28. Donnie says:

    Hello All, I'm not sure how many CAL licensing i need to buy. I called MS pre sales and they couldn't answer, then I got transferred to corporate tech support and tech support said I have to submit this question on their OAS site.

    My organization has 100 programmers using VS and TFS right now and licensing is covered for our programmers. We have an additional 120 support team that uploads MW Word and excel files. These 120 support team doesn't use VS, but they will use Microsoft Visual Studio Team Explorer 2010 (its a VS Shell and is free to download from MS website).  So, do I 120 CAL licenses? is there floating licenses I can buy instead? we assume less than 10 users will connect to the server at any time.

  29. Brian Jordan says:

    @Donnie – I am assuming that the support team folks are adding/modifying workitems with the uploads. With TFS 2010 as you have described the situation, you would need to have 120 CALs as there are no floating licenses.  TFS only has named  client or device access licenses.  

    Now if you upgrade to TFS 2103.4, there is a new Stakeholder license (blogs.msdn.com/…/upcoming-vs-online-licensing-changes.aspx) that would eliminate the need for TFS CALS given the use case you have described.

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