The Dog Ate My License

Imagine that! Microsoft doesn't eat its own dogfood.

Which large American corporation, a large user of Microsoft software, has never purchased an Enterprise Agreement or Software Assurance, never bothers to buy Client Access Licenses (CALs), and spends nothing on license administration?

Maybe Red Hat? Not large enough. Wal-Mart? Big Microsoft customer. Sun? Hey, Scott McNealy and Steve Ballmer are old buddies these days, and Sun's servers are now some of the hottest Windows machines around.

The answer: Microsoft.

Yes, Microsoft. The company may know less about the practical issues associated with Microsoft licensing than any other large corporation does, for the simple reason that it doesn't license its own software. That disconnect emerges in a couple of important ways:

Product Development. Microsoft will increasingly ship a single set of bits for multiple versions of its products. You want to buy the low-end version of Windows Vista? Fine, here are the bits for the high-end edition. Just don't use all the features that we shipped you. Feature segregation and product editioning will be achieved by setup routines and license activation applied to a single store of bits. Managing editions won't be a problem for Microsoft. They just download an internal-use version of Vista Ultimate from a server on the network and install it on as many machines as they like. Business customers may find the choices trickier, particularly if the're low on the IT org chart and not familiar with the version that their company actually licensed.

Marketing & Feature Segmentation. The next version of Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server will not only have Enterprise and Standard editions of the server, but Enterprise and Standard CALs that license different feature sets on either edition. This is too complicated to explain in this column. But here's the critical point: Microsoft put no work into enforcing these permissions in its technology. If you use the wrong CAL and end up accessing features you're not licensed for, nothing pops up saying "Permission denied." The onus is on customers to just know they're violating the licensing terms.

Microsoft may know less about the practical issues associated with Microsoft licensing than any other large corporation does, for the simple reason that it doesn't license its own software.

So the hapless sys admin who isn't intimately familiar with a) SharePoint licensing rules, b) which SharePoint features fall into the standard set and which into the enterprise set, c) which licenses his company actually purchased for which users and for which servers, could put his company out of licensing compliance. Is this going to happen? You betcha. And you, dear partner, will have to be an expert on this because your customers will need your advice on the matter.

Microsoft so loves the idea of simply making customers keep track of the features they use, instead of delivering different SKUs with different features, that you'll probably see it in all of their server products in the future. Just think how simple this makes product development: no testing of multiple editions with different feature sets. Just test everything against the maximum version, ship the bits for everything at once to reduce fulfillment and inventory costs, and let the customer sort it out (and send in the check).

Not that Microsoft has ever tried it. But if it did, the company would offer this solution: Just buy a license for everything.

I have that from no less an authority than Steve Ballmer. When I once had the temerity to suggest during a Q&A that it would be useful if Microsoft ate its own dog food on licensing as well as products, Ballmer said, "We'd just write ourselves one big check and that's what customers can do. You don't have to use all the software. Just write one big check for everything."

Works for Microsoft. Does it work for you?

About the Author

Paul DeGroot is principle consultant with Pica Communications, which provides consulting services for customers with complex Microsoft licensing issues.