Which Visual Studio Do I Need?

The “Visual Studio” moniker has expanded over the years to a full-fledged family of products tailored to facilitating the implementation and support of high quality software. The versatility of Visual Studio makes it a good choice for software development whether your language or framework of choice is .NET, web client, or open source.

The website www.visualstudio.com is the hub for all things “Visual Studio”. There is a lot of good content on this site, as well as access to free and trial editions of products. The challenge that this site has is how to distill the Visual Studio offerings into a format that a technologist, manager, or purchaser can absorb to make decisions on which software best satisfies their needs. Since Visual Studio has grown into multiple products, and each of those products has an ever-expanding feature set, the straightforwardness of conveyed information is often eschewed in favor of highlighting new and improved features. Industry terms and branded feature names are also commonplace in describing Visual Studio capabilities, making it harder to comprehend the amount of relevancy and value to your own development team.

So, with this in mind, let’s take a simpler look at Visual Studio from the ground up from the perspective of a decision maker needing to assess what software is needed for a software development team to work effectively.

The Visual Studio family embraces Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) with tools that extend beyond development to include software architecture, testing, continuous integration, bug and task tracking, and agile planning.

Microsoft creates distinct tools for development versus collaboration. Here’s a breakdown of the choices in these two areas:

Development Tools

  • Visual Studio Express (Desktop / Web / Windows)
  • Visual Studio Code
  • Visual Studio (Community / Professional / Enterprise / Test Professional)

Collaboration Tools

  • Team Foundation Server Express
  • Team Foundation Server
  • Visual Studio Team Services

Free Visual Studio Software

Individuals and small teams can get started with development and collaboration tools at no cost. For smaller projects, there may be no need to invest in the paid tools. Regardless of whether you stick with free or not, you have access to a comprehensive toolset for developing software and managing your project.

Here’s a quick look at Visual Studio tools that are available at no cost:

Visual Studio Express — Although Microsoft did release updates to the Express tools for the 2015 edition, it appears likely that Express editions will be discontinued in the future. The new Visual Studio Community Edition is a better alternative for individuals and small teams.

Visual Studio Community Edition — This edition is identical to the Professional edition, save for the CodeLens feature. Individuals, or organizations with <250 PCs and $1M annual revenue, are allowed to use the Community edition.

Team Foundation Server Express — Use if you need an on-premise collaboration server and your team is five users or less. Seamlessly upgrade to Team Foundation Server when your team grows beyond the five user limit.

Visual Studio Team Services — Get the same functionality as Team Foundation Server, but provided as a cloud-based service. It is free for up to 5 users (and the next 5 are only $6 per user per month).

Visual Studio Code — The new kid on the block for pure code-based modern web, cloud, and node development scenarios. Lightning fast, cross-platform (Windows, Mac, Linux), and free without restriction. Ideal for non-Enterprise applications.

Premium Visual Studio Software

The premium tools offer more features and benefits. The pricing model for Microsoft development tools has been evolving to bring support for cloud subscriptions, in which a fixed price is paid per month or year, for use of the software. The traditional pricing model is still available in which you purchase the software one-time then optionally pay an annual renewal fee to receive upgrades and continued benefits. Both models optionally include MSDN subscriber benefits, which provides access to additional software, services, support, and training. One thing to note is that with the traditional pricing model, you only get the annual renewal option with the subscriber benefits. That means if you go bare bones and buy the software standalone (an option for professional only), then you have to re-purchase it to upgrade to a newer version in the future. Microsoft went with a different strategy entirely with their cloud subscription pricing. The MSDN subscriber benefits are automatically included when choosing the annual billing option. Since the annual price is basically the same as 12 monthly installments, choosing this option is very compelling, and likely will be the preferred purchase method adopted by organizations in the future.

Here’s a quick look at the pricing for the premium Visual Studio software products:

Visual Studio Professional — For most organizations, this is the primary IDE for development work across all kinds of Windows and web platforms.

License Type Subscription Benefits Price
Standalone License No $499 (no renewal)
Standard Subscription Yes $1,199 ($799 renewal)
Cloud Subscription No $45/month
Cloud Subscription Yes $539/year

Visual Studio Enterprise — Advanced enterprise features to support more demanding quality and scaling needs, with comprehensive tools for production support and the richest set of testing tools. A standalone license is not available.

License Type Subscription Benefits Price
Standard Subscription Yes $5,999 ($2,569 renewal)
Cloud Subscription No $250/month
Cloud Subscription Yes $2,999/year

Visual Studio Test Professional — Teams with dedicated testing staff can use this specialized version of Visual Studio that includes many of the testing capabilities only found in the Enterprise edition, while eschewing features relevant to a developer. Only available as a standard subscription.

License Type Subscription Benefits Price
Standard Subscription Yes $2,169 ($899 renewal)

Team Foundation Server / Visual Studio Team Services (formally known as Visual Studio Online) — TFS and VSTS are essentially the same product, the first deployed as an on-premise installation in your network, and the second delivered as a cloud service.

License Type Price
TFS (On-Premise) $499 ($399 renewal)
+ User/Device CALS (client access licenses)
VSTS (Cloud) First 5 users: free
Users 6 through 10: $6 each / month
Users 11 through 100: $8 each / month
Users 101 through 1000: $4 each / month
Users 1001 and above: $2 / month

Some neat features of CALS:

  • Useful for organizations using both TFS and VSTS: VSTS users also count as User CALS for accessing your local TFS.
  • Editions of Visual Studio that are purchased with Subscription Benefits include a VSTS user account (which doubles as a TFS CAL).

It seems impossible to find current CAL pricing for TFS on Microsoft websites. My expectation is that organizations will purchase VSTS user accounts for local TFS access, even if VSTS is not being used by the organization.

Choose Your Visual Studio

It’s decision time! You are responsible for (or involved with) making purchasing decisions for acquiring Visual Studio licenses. Here’s a brief guide for making informed decisions.

  1. If you are a small organization on a shoe string budget, take a look at Visual Studio Code or Visual Studio Community and determine if either of these products can effectively fit your project development needs. If so, you can be confident that as you grow and the demands on your development and operational teams grow, you have a seamless upgrade path to premier versions of Visual Studio.
  2. Unless have a corporate-wide license, don’t waste your money on Visual Studio Enterprise for every team member. Consider the Enterprise edition for your senior members who will be responsible for any of the following tasks:
    • Designing the software architecture
    • Debugging hard-to-trace production problems
    • Creating virtual testing labs
    • Managing code review / quality control
    • Load and performance testing
    • Unit test code coverage (Although Intellitest really is useful for every developer. I hope Microsoft makes this available in the Professional edition in a future release).
  3. If your team includes staff with dedicated testing responsibilities, consider the Test Professional edition, but be careful in this assessment because certain testing tasks, such as web load & performance testing and coded UI testing, are features only available in the Enterprise edition.
  4. Utilize the annual cloud subscription option over all others if possible. It is a more stable way to purchase software and ensures you’re always up-to-date and have access to subscriber benefits. Oh, and make sure your team takes advantage of the Pluralsight training courses available in the subscriber benefits.
  5. Use collaboration tools! Visual Studio Team Services goes way beyond just providing Git source control. Take your time to explore everything this cloud service has to offer — it will transform your application development and management methodology to a new level of efficiency and it’s a joy to use. Make sure every team member has access (fyi — business folks get access for free via the stakeholder user type).
  6. If you’re concerned about the risk of an occasional hiccup with the frequently updated VSTS cloud-based service, or you just want to keep all your data in-house, then opt for Team Foundation Services instead. You’ll need to maintain a platform for the software, but in return you control when to deploy software updates.


One thought on “Which Visual Studio Do I Need?”

  1. A very comprehensive discussion of the Visual Studio offerings and description of their functionality. What I am puzzled about has to do with overlap between two of their products. I am using VSTS with the Test Manager Extension. We’ll be switching over to Visual Studio Enterprise instead of using the Test Manager Extension to pick up Test Manager. We’ll continue using VSTS for team collaboration. As a build, release and test guy, are their any benefits to using VSE in addition to VSTS? It seems to me that if I’m not doing development that VSE is unnecessary if I have VSTS and the TM extension.

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