Grid (Still) Muddies the Licensing Waters

By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2005-02-03

Grid (Still) Muddies the Licensing Waters

Software licensing is a mess.

As systems grow more open to linking with other grids and more apt to be used by users across the globe, resources are being virtualized like mad.

Web services use is growing, grid computing is leaping beyond academic and scientific usage to emerge in the enterprise, and multicore processors will muddy the definition of just what youre paying for—chip? Core? Machine?

It used to be that you simply bought software and licensed it, paying up front for the maximum number of licenses you thought youd need. That concept is already getting confusing, with the concept of multiple cores on one chip putting the definition of just what is a licensed resource up for grabs.

Grid just adds to the confusion. As Nick Gall of Meta Group put it to me recently, the concept of grid, with its introduction of dynamic spin-up and spin-down of resources, skewers the traditional notion of paying for something in full, up front, and then running it 24x7 in order to get your moneys worth.

Click here to read more about grid computing.

At this point, if you want a 100-node grid and want the capability to run your software on 100 nodes if things really scale up, you have to buy 100 copies up front, at full price, to cover it, although in a normal day-to-day situation, for maybe 300 days out of the year, you only use 10 copies.

Thats great—for vendors. But with grids, it just seems wrong. Users want dynamic pricing to reflect their actual usage, which in most cases will be a fraction of the maximum computing cycles they consume at peak times.

This isnt a problem that arose with Oracles 10g grid technology or the prospect of AMDs multicore processors. Grids have been used, for example, in computer-assisted circuit design for over 10 years. In that sector, highly specialized, compute-intensive software aids in chip layout and wiring algorithms for major semiconductor and chip design.

Its the best-kept secret out there: the chip design industry has figured out the grid licensing dilemma, as have telcos, automotive or aerospace companies—pretty much any company thats involved in compute-intensive design.

Platform Computing, for one, works with software companies in this space to help them grid-enable software and, in so doing, works through their license structures so that licenses are paid for on a per-job or "token" model, governed by a license management server, which in turn is powered by license management software such as that from Macrovision. Platform has worked with design software companies including Cadence Design Systems, Synopsys and Mentor Graphicsin this way.

Next Page: Vendors drag their heels on alternate licensing schemes.

Alternate Licensing Schemes

How license management software works is by the use of keys. If a company such as Wal-Mart, for example, wanted 50 licenses of Oracle 10g, then every time they were to start one instance, one token would be handed over.

Vendors such as Oracle and IBM have been reluctant to go for alternate routes, however. Its understandable.

As Songnian Zhou, founder and CEO of Platform, observed in a recent conversation, charging by CPU or by host or by whatever other metric forces reduced use of vendors wares, thus ensuring stifled revenue growth.

"On the vendor side, theyre trying to sell more to customers," Zhou said. "You dont do that by letting users use 10 percent of your asset."

Nonetheless, times are changing, and vendors must change with the technology.

Oracle, for one, has apparently been loath to do so. Its 10g grid technology has been out over a year now. Larry Ellison originally said, at the OracleWorld conference in October 2003, that the company "might" move to an annual subscription model, although Oracles vice president of global pricing and licensing strategy, Jacqueline Woods, later told eWEEK that there would be no change to Oracles licensing feeswith the advent of grid computing.

Why havent Oracle customers been raising hell on this point? Probably because most 10g deployments are kept on all the time. Not many Meta clients are looking to dynamically expand and contract the number of processors, Gall told me, even with a database.

What theyre looking for instead is cheaper hardware than an eight-node SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) box. Buying four two-ways is very much cheaper than one eight-way. "I havent talked to any users who want to take a database instance and, at any time of day, take it from two nodes up to 20," Gall said.

If and when that happens, the pricing issue will become complicated for Oracle, because the company hasnt worked out a more dynamic pricing model.

For its part, Microsoft did score points when executives announced in October that Microsoft had no plans to change its per-processor software licensing modelfor dual-core and multicore processors on the Windows platform.

But, as Directions on Microsoft analyst Paul DeGroot said to me at the time, a Microsoft application such as SQL Server isnt easily capable of distinguishing between a processors cores anyway. Until its possible to virtualize a single core, customers are basically helpless.

The technology isnt intended, at this point, to give customers the ability to run multiple instances of a database on separate cores. The day that multiple cores can achieve either that or virtualization, in which a dual-core processor is segmented so that an application only sees a single core, will be the time when its perhaps fair to regard dual-core as multiple-processor.

Besides, Microsoft doesnt play in the high-performance computing arena to any significant degree. Not to denigrate the announcement, but it was a pretty easy score for good publicity.

So this is where we stand, heading into GlobusWorld next week: Grid licensing is a mess. There are answers out there, but vendors are recalcitrant when it comes to adopting them.

Ill keep my ears open next week to find out if the vendors have anything promising to tell us, and if they do, youll be the first to know. In the meantime, if youve got questions youd like me to pose to the grid players, write to me at News Editor Lisa Vaas has written about enterprise applications since 1997.

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