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Soft Where? Licensing Struggles in a Virtual World

Software licensing has not kept pace with the shift to virtualization on campus. IT administrators discuss the challenges they face, and debate the future of licensing.


Illustration by J.D. King

As virtualization becomes commonplace in higher education, it's clear that the traditional licensing options for software are woefully inadequate. The definitions of who is licensed to use what--and where--are blurring, as users move from physical to virtual spaces and can access software from a variety of devices.

In discussing the need for new options, some college IT administrators speak in terms of a revolution, asserting that the old ways of handling licensing simply cannot be adapted to the new reality. Vendors are understandably nervous, though. With an eye on the bottom line, many appear cautious about moving to new models that might prove less lucrative. So today, in the absence of any meaningful change, institutions and vendors often cobble together makeshift solutions that essentially drive a square peg into a round hole.

Long before the issue of virtualization even arose, the software-licensing arena already resembled a bizarre puzzle. "Software licenses are notoriously challenging and difficult," says Sharon Pitt, executive director of the division of instructional technology at George Mason University (VA), which has a virtual computing lab (VCL) as well as traditional computer labs. "Virtualization has exacerbated the challenge and added a whole new set of difficulties to the conversation."

And, without doubt, some software vendors are struggling to come up with solutions for a virtual environment. "Each vendor has a different agreement," says Raechelle Clemmons, CIO of Menlo College (CA), a four-year business school. "Some might allow sitewide access, others only to a particular course, or there might be a one-classroom license."

Even for a small institution such as Menlo, which has about 600 students, licensing is "very challenging when you think beyond the classroom as a one-room construct," notes Clemmons. Menlo's computing environment is almost completely virtual, and its need to run a number of special applications poses a variety of licensing problems.

"We have a vendor who is OK with virtualization, but the company doesn't provide any support for it," explains Clemmons. "And one of our statistics program vendors has a campus version, single-user version, home version, and concurrent version. Which one do you use? Many of those agreements carry through from institutions to faculty home use, but some vendors make you pay more for that environment. But if a campus version is accessed from home, is the license 'home' or 'campus'?"

Certainly, physical location is looming as a key issue. According to Pitt, a traditional license may permit use of the software only on a computer physically situated on the campus. "A lot of our licenses talk about the device or the location of the device," she says. "But when you virtualize, the software may be running at the institution, whereas the student may be accessing it from elsewhere."

Vendors Evaluate New Options

Although colleges appear to have taken the lead in virtualization, some vendors are working quickly to respond to the new environment. For now, though, that environment is rather hazy. "We're very much in the infancy of what's going to happen," notes Daniel Griggs, solution architect for CDW. In Griggs' view, however, virtualization will definitely change the way higher ed institutions view licenses.

"Universities will be able to tell what they have licenses for," he explains. "Today, a lot of them don't even know what they have." He also feels that the impetus for a licensing shake-up will come from the colleges and universities themselves. "It's going to be the users who are driving the changes," he says. "On the vendor side, we may see some vendors go to a type of quota-based scenario."

Griggs points to the case of Citrix, which launched a campuswide licensing option for educational organizations back in December 2009. Part of Citrix's Education License Program, the system allows the company's XenDesktop 4 to deliver different types of virtual desktops that students can access from any location or device for one low, fixed cost.

IBM is also making vigorous efforts to change licensing practices, according to Steve Gold, director of worldwide marketing and global education for IBM's SPSS statistics software. Over the past year, in response to the growing use of virtualization, IBM has been offering an SPSS Campus Edition licensing plan that provides optional contract riders for home, hospital, and virtual computer lab use, as well as a variety of software bundles. The plan will eventually be extended to other IBM software products.

"Engaging educational institutions is critical to showing our support for virtualization," says Gold. "Virtualization reduces a number of critical costs for universities so they can redeploy the funds in other areas. The 'win' for the vendor is that universities get the latest and greatest technologies that are in demand in the private sector. The private sector gains from students who are better skilled. If the vendor doesn't supply those technologies, universities may drop the vendor. So it's essential to take the long-term view."

Multi-Device Users
Another challenge is what Pitt calls the "consumerization" of technology: the easy availability of devices with capabilities formerly available only in classrooms or labs. "Students come to campus with an iPad, a laptop, and a smartphone," she says. "They expect to access the same software from any of those devices. Why should we pay for four copies of a particular license when they use the same software on different devices?"

That's a question several college IT heads are asking. They claim that software should be licensed based on the number of users, not by the device or location. It's certainly an approach that has achieved some traction on campuses. Institutions such as George Mason and Weber State University (UT) have been able to forgo site licenses in favor of cheaper individual licenses by installing scheduling software in their VCLs. Students now reserve a time slot to use the software, ensuring that only one student can use a license at any one time.

To Henry Schaffer, a noted information technologist and professor emeritus at North Carolina State University, this kind of approach represents a viable, simple solution. "I don't think vendors should be concerned whether I buy 100 small computers or one big computer," he says. "Instead, they should be concerned about how much of their software I use. A lot of vendors are very nervous, but much of that is not justified. My experience with the vendors is that they are uncertain what virtualization really means."

Ironically, virtualization--and its ability to generate detailed usage data--may lead colleges to purchase more software, not less as some vendors fear. "We're more confident that we can plan what software we need," says Art Vandenberg, an information technologist at Georgia State University, which began its virtualization efforts years ago and is now implementing open source VCLs. "In a VCL, we have a better and more granular way of seeing who is using what. We can take our limited dollars and allocate those dollars in a wiser and better way."

And, in Vandenberg's view, those dollars are likely to go toward purchasing additional software modules that a department always wanted but couldn't afford. "Vendors would think there's a whole new marketplace here," he says.

Lee Thompson, deputy CIO at California State University, East Bay, concurs. His university recently began a VCL pilot project, and Thompson is working with vendors to make sure it's advantageous to them. "We see it as adding to their business," says Thompson. "It should be a win for them as well as for us."

A Virtual World Free of Piracy

Few vendors have experience working with colleges in a virtual environment, says Henry Schaffer, an information technologist and professor emeritus at North Carolina State University and a key architect of NCSU's pioneering virtual computing lab (VCL). As a result, "there's a lot of uncertainty and a lot of fear," he notes. "I believe that vendors are afraid of piracy, but they're also afraid of the unknown, and that the unknown will enable more piracy."

Piracy, he emphasizes, is not an issue at NCSU. "I will not put up with piracy on my campus," he declares. "We allow virtual access and we use virtual hardware, but we follow all the software license requirements just as if they were separate computers."

NCSU uses mostly site or concurrent licenses. What virtualization has made possible, though, is the precise administration of those licenses. The college's VCL, built primarily on the VMware virtualization platform, lets system administrators know exactly which application is in use and by whom.

Users first log in to reserve access to an application. On the next screen, a drop-down menu allows them to choose when and for how long they need the reservation: While the maximum permitted is four hours, it's possible to schedule time for an entire semester-long project. The applications listed in the drop-down menu that follows are controllable on a per-user basis. For example, some software may be licensed to be available only to particular groups, such as a specific class. If a user disconnects (i.e., shuts down his computer) and does not reconnect within a set period of time, the system ends the reservation and makes the "seat" available to other users. In special cases, such as long simulations, the system can be set to ignore a disconnect.

Schaffer is confident that the system ensures complete compliance with licensing requirements. The VCL uses the LDAP client-server protocol for user authentication, and can check with vendors' software license-management programs (such as FlexNet Publisher and KeyServer) to determine if a seat is available. If users ask for a reservation when none is available, they receive a scheduling timetable showing when the next seat will open up.

Facilitating License Management
Reallocating software costs isn't the only benefit of virtualization: For IT administrators, it makes it easier to manage the thousands of licenses a typical institution uses.

"In our environment, we have a lot of named-user licenses to track," explains Sharon Blanton, CIO at Portland State University (OR). "And keeping track of individual licenses can be costly. If you move to a virtual desktop, you put the licenses on a server. When the person needs the license, they can check it out, use it, and give it back."

But, laments Blanton, "not every vendor will let you do that. We have to meet with every single software vendor and negotiate."

For now, both vendors and higher ed institutions are feeling their way along the licensing maze, negotiating terms on an ad hoc basis. A notable first step toward defining standards was the Virginia Software Summit, held in August 2010 at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Participants--all higher ed IT directors--focused specifically on the licensing challenges that new technology and new service-delivery models present. The consensus, according to the meeting notes, was: "There are a great deal of options and we do not know what is right." But it's clear that new licensing standards are inevitable, and that they're likely to shake up the industry.

"Vendors don't know how to approach a virtual world," says Cal State's Thompson. "Eventually they will see this as something to their advantage. But for now it is new. This is a paradigm shift that we're all going through."

A License to Dream

What will academic software licensing look like a few years from now? Campus IT directors have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer, but here are the top items on their wish list:

Change outmoded licensing definitions. As physical and virtual spaces converge--and technology advances--such definitions as campus and site licenses may become obsolete. "The definitions will need to be clarified and the licensing terms and conditions will need to change," says Raechelle Clemmons, CIO of Menlo College (CA). "The type of support may need to change, too."

Revamp pricing structures. At the Virginia Software Summit, held in August 2010 at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, campus IT heads agreed unanimously that license pricing needs to be streamlined. Suggestions included scaled pricing, with heavy users paying "full price" and light users a lower fee; site licenses only for commonly used tools that software-as-a-service can track; and a new pricing structure for campus/cloud/VCL environments. Virtualization can help develop such a structure, says Art Vandenberg, an information technologist at Georgia State University, since it allows campuses to negotiate more forcefully with software providers. "We can go to a vendor and say, 'We have records of usage: We need only 800 licenses, not 10,000 like we had before.'"

Collect and share data. Gathering precise information about software usage is vital to defining standards. And vendors can help by tracking and sharing that data, says Sharon Pitt, executive director of the division of instructional technology at George Mason University (VA). "We often end up paying for tools that we don't use. The more forthcoming vendors are, the better we can work with them."

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