The onus is on IT to decipher virtualization licensing models

Virtualization licensing models have come a long way on the server side, but making sense of virtual licensing models for the desktop is a complex endeavor.

CIOs' demand for more reasonable virtualization licensing models on the server side led virtualization and server software vendors to build flexibility into their licensing terms. Now IT execs need to rely on their negotiation skills once again, as they decipher and, in some cases, develop favorable licensing terms for desktop virtualization.

Traditional software licensing models have been tied to the number of processors or servers, but the nature of virtualization makes those models impossibly arcane because they prohibit the movement of workloads or the divvying up of resources. It's been a pain point on the server side for some time, and will continue to be one as businesses launch desktop virtualization initiatives, said Chris Wolf, a research vice president at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

"Two years ago, there wasn't much consistency in how vendors were licensing software in virtual environments," Wolf said. But as enterprises began to use specific language in their requests for proposals that tied purchases of virtual server software to particular software licensing models, vendors paid attention and began to offer one-off deals that eventually became standard offerings, he said.

In the server area, experts say enterprises now can expect to find software licensing models bound to the following:

  • The physical hardware on which a virtual machine (VM) resides, determined by the number of CPUs, cores or sockets.
  • A physical instance, with a license assigned per server.
  • The virtual hardware, determined by the VM's emulated hardware, such as virtual CPUs.
  • A virtual instance, assigned per VM, virtual environment, container or running instance of an application.
  • A hybrid of a virtual instance also bound to underlying hardware.
  • The number of clients, determined by the total number, or the maximum concurrent clients.

They might not be able to negotiate terms of use, but CIOs can negotiate other terms, including price. "The licenses we're most concerned with are on the operating system side and hypervisor -- either Citrix [Systems Inc.'s] Xen or VMware [Inc.'s] vSphere," said Todd Thomas, CIO at the Austin Radiological Association, a provider of medical imaging services to patients and physicians in central Texas. "We've worked closely with Microsoft and VMware to get a good price," he said. "A lot of the applications we use internally are not priced per processor, but by terabytes on the back end or by the number of procedures per year."

Virtualization licensing in flux

It's not easy for IT to stay on top of constantly shifting virtualization licensing models. To wit: VMware recently announced it would price vSphere 4.1 by the VM, rather than by the processor, the way it has in the past. Oracle Corp., a competitor in the hypervisor space, has agreed to support its Real Application Clusters in VMware environments, albeit with caveats -- and those are just two examples in the server arena, which Wolf and others said has pretty much settled down. The issue will persist, however, as enterprises look to virtual desktops, where software licensing models have yet to be addressed by client application vendors.

"Today, the challenge for our customers is that they don't know what the [software licensing] rules are," said Nathan Coutinho, virtualization solutions manager at CDW LLC, a global technology solutions provider in Vernon Hills, Ill.

What it comes down to is negotiation, backed up by knowledge, experts said.

"It's about knowing what other people are paying in their licensing," said Henry Mayorga, manager of network technology at Baron Capital LLC in New York. "I would like to see a website -- and maybe I'll get this going -- where there is an exchange of information about licensing. Plug in how many clients -- or processors or VMs, whatever you desire -- and up come the numbers," he said. "Without that information, it's like the price of gas: You don't think about it because you need it, but then the price changes and you don't know why."

Then there is "the dark side, the unspoken evil," Mayorga said, "where they will charge you for support and maintenance [and] a separate amount of money for the 'right to upgrade.' At the current rate, in less than two years my costs in maintenance and the right to upgrade will be more than the software cost. I should be getting patches and support, but if I don't pay the 'right to upgrade,' I'm screwed," he said. "I resent this position because I feel powerless."

VDI: The third wave

Mayorga, who is up to his elbows in licensing contracts as he pursues a virtual desktop infrastructure strategy, feels a deep-seated and long-held frustration. As far back as 2002, when VMware first came out, companies that wanted to virtualize servers "ran into a brick wall" with operating system vendors who didn't know how to license software in a virtual environment, Coutinho explained. By the fall of 2006, Microsoft had recognized virtualization as a platform, and tiered its software licensing models. "They needed to do it because everyone who was going to virtualization put pressure on Microsoft, Red Hat [Inc.] and Linux," he said. "That was the first wave."

Today, the challenge for our customers is that they don't know what the [software licensing] rules are.

Nathan Coutinho, virtualization solutions manager, CDW LLC

Frustrated enterprise customers drove a second wave of licensing models for virtual environments from independent software vendors, according to Gartner's Wolf. The trend is to licensing policies that use purely software-based metrics to bind licenses to system instances, IP addresses, virtual CPU counts or client seats, he said. Ideal licenses are hardware-agnostic, and even are becoming hypervisor-agnostic.

The third wave for virtual desktops is still forming, Wolf said. "Most of the client application vendors -- Microsoft, Adobe [Systems Inc.] and so forth -- are just getting started. For many of them, the problem is that the software license is based on a physical endpoint device. [In a virtual environment], there might be users that have three devices, and want to access the virtual application from each device."

Wolf expects that virtual desktop licensing will follow a trend similar to the licensing of server virtualization, and will be hardware-agnostic, or priced per user or maximum concurrent users.

"You still need a per-device model," Wolf said. "Think about a family of four people using the same device; you don't want to buy four licenses. The real issue is for the vendors to offer greater choice that would support a virtual desktop environment, with physical endpoint, named users and concurrent users."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Laura Smith, Features Writer.

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