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Vendors Face Tough Licensing Choices

The arrival of multi-core chip architectures and the proliferation in virtualization technologies is creating a sea change in the software industry.

These creative methodologies, designed to help customers consolidate server farms and develop a more efficient use of existing computing resources, have many questioning how companies with set licensing schemes will charge for their software.

Models of traditional infrastructure software vendors typically involve charging customers per single processor, a clean one-to-one ratio for single-core chips. But multi-core consists of a piece of silicon, or a socket, with more than one core, or processing engine.

Developing a Virtual Plan

The issue has sparked mixed results. For example, database specialist Oracle has claimed that each dual-core chip -- a single processor running two cores -- runs at one and a half times the processing power of its single-core ancestor.

Accordingly, Oracle has changed its per-processor model, taking the number of cores in a multi-core chip and multiplying them by .75. Previously, each core was counted as a full processor.

While IDC analyst Matt Eastwood praised the improvement, he also questioned whether or not that would work, noting that, as multi-core systems and virtualization instantiations ramp up, Oracle will be forced to make a change that will be fair for corporate customers.

Eastwood, who claims the virtualization market will balloon to nearly $15 billion worldwide by 2009, sees similar questions swirling around Microsoft. As primarily an operating system and applications vendor, Microsoft offers a mixed bag of licensing schemes, making its move to accommodate virtualization and multi-core a tricky one.

Last month, Microsoft became the latest large software maker to lay out a licensing scheme designed to be more amenable to the new computing methodologies customers are looking to implement.

Those that license Windows Server System products that are licensed per processor, such as Microsoft SQL Server and BizTalk Server, can now stack multiple instances on a machine by licensing for the number of virtual processors being used, instead of being charged per physical CPU.

In another scenario, licenses for the upcoming Windows Server 2003 R2 Enterprise Edition will allow customers to run up to four virtual instances on one physical server at no additional cost. Microsoft also said customers can now create and store unlimited numbers of instances and pay only for the maximum number of running instances at any given time.

Eastwood said this is a step in the right direction for Microsoft, but he isn't sure that it will work, because virtualization software running multi-core machines allows customers to carve out different paths for operating systems, applications and databases.

Eastwood said that while Microsoft has improved or at least articulated a strategy, they still have not defined what a license is. This step is crucial at a time when the industry is moving toward more virtual infrastructures where workloads are being moved around on the fly in an automated fashion.

"A license is something that needs to be tied to a physical piece of hardware," Eastwood said. "I believe they [Microsoft] only allow that association to be changed every 90 days. So it's still not dynamic in any way.

"Customers starting to do some provisioning will need to buy more licenses than they need," Eastwood continued. "Over time, I believe Microsoft realizes they'll need to evolve to a model that allows their licenses to be moved around in a much more dynamic way."

AMD's Commercial Strategist Margaret Lewis agreed the technological changes are curve balls for ISVs.

"The model was simpler with one application per server," Lewis observed. "We're blowing that whole model away. What is a server? Do you count it as virtual or physical? Where is the application running? Across multiple servers, or many applications running on one server?"

Lewis discussed the options available for ISVs in a recent presentation at SoftSummit, a conference where software licensing issues filled the day.

She said one solution is to allow people to run multiple instances of software under one license, which is what Microsoft did. Another option is to move to some usage metric for your software that counts the number of users, timed use in CPU hours, number of transactions, number of threads and the amount of data transferred.

Eastwood said companies such as Microsoft and Oracle have to be very careful of going down this path because of their various licensing schemes. He said charging customers for cores isn't going to resonate with users once it starts to get out in the marketplace.

"Customers very much understand the cost benefits of going from 1-way to 2-way to a 4-way. When you start to introduce a new tradeoff, which is the additional throughput of adding cores to the processor, it's not going to be a one-to-one benefit.

While challenges remain, Lewis said AMD is seeing people starting to take a stance in one direction or another, which is progress.

"We find other ISVs are moving to some metrics approach as fast as they can," Lewis said. "It's a way to keep users happy and have a good way of charging for their software."