Software License Models Shifting to Accommodate Multicore Processors

The shift from per-CPU software licenses to per-user and subscription models is well under way, according to industry analysts, but a new generation of dual-core processors, which has been a driver of this trend, is sparking new concerns about customer compliance with older licenses.

Customers who use software from vendors that license by individual processor cores may face increased software costs when they upgrade to multicore processor systems. And sorting out which license applies to which system is likely to inject a troubling level of complexity into the lives of IT managers, says Graham Lovell, senior director of x64 servers in Sun’s Network Systems Group.

“I haven’t yet met a customer who doesn’t want to be compliant," Lovell says, "and I haven’t met one who isn’t putting in a lot of effort to make sure that their organization is compliant. But when you get a new system delivered, and it has multiple cores in it, it’s not always clear that it has a set number of cores per processor. [Managers] are having to analyze closely what the hardware is and then refer back to the different software licenses they have to make sure that they remain compliant.”

There's evidence that the per-CPU model has had its day. A 2004 survey of 396 software industry execs and 100 enterprise users sponsored by Macrovision, along with the Software and Information Industry Association and the Centralized Electronic Licensing User Group, concluded that only about 25 percent of software vendors were licensing software on a per-processor basis. More than half the vendors in the survey offered per-seat licenses (for individual machines or servers). Concurrent user licensing was offered by 40 percent of the vendors. One in three software companies in the survey were already offering subscription-based models as their primary pricing model, and half the survey's respondents expected to offer that model by 2006.

In the near term, however, customers are likely to find themselves navigating a maze of licensing options, observes Margaret Lewis, AMD's senior software strategist. Some ISVs that currently license on a per-core basis are offering other licensing options. Some of the transitional schemes require a bit of consideration. Oracle, for example, which has long sold its software on a per-CPU basis, has changed its policy of counting each core as a separate processor. Now the company counts the number of cores in a multi-core chip by multiplying by a factor of .75.

The operating system vendors (most notably Microsoft) came out early in support of licensing server software on a per-processor model, Lewis notes. "Microsoft took a real leadership position among vendors that have embraced the idea that you license by the piece of silicon that's in the socket, regardless of how many cores it has or how fast its clock speed is," she says.

Sun began offering per-employee licensing terms for its Java Enterprise System middleware when it started shipping dual-core SPARC IV processors last year. "It's essentially a site license for unlimited use across the entire organization," Lovell says. "It completely alleviates any need for the IT operations organization to track software license compliance. It's a different way of establishing the value of software. We strongly believe that that value needs to be attributed to the organization’s use of the software, rather than the number of CPUs it’s turning on."

Lovell and Lewis have been making the rounds as something of a tag team on the software licensing issue. "We’ve been lobbying hard with the software community to say, let’s look at charging software on some other aspect than a characteristic of the processor or even the server," Lewis says.

Dual-core processing is not new. Both Sun and IBM have been providing processors with two or more cores for high-end UNIX machines for years. But dual-core is going mainstream. Led by AMD, which is now shipping its dual-core Opteron processors, virtually every chip maker is offering or planning to offer dual-core processors that will soon be running every type of software.

What should IT managers do while the software vendors sort out licensing strategies?

"Go back to your software vendors and express your concerns about software licensing today," Lovell says. "Do some comparison shopping. Talk to competitors, and then come back and have that conversation with your vendor about what you do and don't like about their particular software licensing model."

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].