Ever since commercial organisations began to make use of computer systems, one area has been consistent in its ability to bamboozle IT professionals.
Licence schemes and, more importantly, the cost and complexity of their administration, have been a cause of concern, bewilderment and frustration to every IT manager.
It should therefore have surprised no one when IT professionals and journalists reacted with loudly expressed fury to Microsoft introducing a number of new licence options and removing existing ones.
With so much confusion surrounding licensing issues in general, the cost of the licences deployed, and the expenditure arising from the administration of licences to ensure that organisations are operating legally, the management of software is a nightmare.
So what are the options and what alternatives do people really want?
The first point to make is that the major computer platforms have created their own range of licensing offerings. In the Windows/Intel desktop market, the starting point is for every workstation, desktop and laptop to have individual licences obtained for each product loaded onto the individual machines.
However, when it comes to server systems there is a quantum leap in the complexity of the licence schemes in use.
The sheer number of licensing methods employed by the vendors makes it impossible to list each one. But the bulk of schemes in use can be grouped together into a relatively small number of categories.
Some software may be licensed on a flat-rate basis. One example of this would be the 'per server' model, whereby a flat fee is paid to use the software on every server on which it is run. A variation on this theme is the 'per CPU' or 'per processor' model, in which every processor in a server needs to be licensed.
A step up in complexity arises when the processing power of the servers running the software forms the basis for licensing. These schemes are typified by the 'per mip' and 'per msu' models commonly used in the mainframe market.
Similarly, there are schemes in the Unix and Windows sectors which catalogue each server as having a certain power rating, with licences for higher power machines being more expensive than those for the lower specification systems.
Another twist is licensing by users, exemplified by 'per named user' and 'per concurrent user' models.
Some suppliers may use a combination of several schemes in their licence models. This frequently makes it difficult for customers to determine the most cost-effective model to adopt, especially in scenarios where high-end servers use logical partitioning features to create a number of virtual servers of different capacities and power, or where servers are clustered together to build supercomputers.
These dynamic management features can make the licensing of mainframes especially complex. IBM recently introduced a number of new licensing options with workload usage charging schemes to address some of these issues.
Several software suppliers offer a number of alternatives to the purchase of perpetual right-to-use licences, by which a customer can use the software in perpetuity. For example, licences based on the rental of software or the charging of monthly usage fees are a common approach in mainframe software environments.
Interestingly, while mainframe communities appear happy to accept this model, Microsoft ran into strong criticism when it attempted, in effect, to move its customers to similar schemes.
Finally, the introduction of 'volume' licence agreements can create yet another level of complexity for customers to handle. In some instances, especially in larger organisations, many applications are covered by corporate agreements or site licences.
These empower the user organisation to deploy either an unlimited number of copies of the software to its own internal users, or to a specified number of users. The possible number of licence permutations that can be employed is enormous.
In addition, the terms and conditions associated with every product licensed vary widely, further adding to the difficulties of managers charged with licence compliance. Experience has shown that there is no one simple model that fits all requirements. Complexity is here to stay.
In this light it becomes obvious that managers with responsibility for managing the software licences of their organisations must ensure that, whatever the combination of licensing models they use with their many suppliers, they obtain the most cost-effective solution.
The task of comparing and evaluating options will take time. Indeed, when it comes to managing licences, it is essential that software asset management tools and procedures are in place and that accurate, up-to-date information is available.
For their part, software suppliers have a duty to ensure that their terms and conditions, along with the various licensing options and costs, are available to customers in a timely fashion.
Clarity is essential and suppliers need to ensure that software licence conditions have a useful lifetime. Stability is valuable.
In their turn, customers must take action. The manager must evaluate the options to select the most appropriate licence terms available. Signing the licence renewal contract without considering all of the alternatives costs money.
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