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Server licensing: why doesn't Microsoft make it easier?

Posted on 1 Nov 2010 at 11:59

Jon Honeyball wonders how many Microsoft customers are confident they're buying they right licence

When it comes to server licensing, I consistently hear two very different views.

One says “well, we phone up our licensing agents and they just send us a big bill”, while the other says “we looked at the documentation, couldn’t make sense of it, decided on a particular solution and bought that, and hope we’re doing it right”.

Neither approach is particularly satisfactory, so you’d think Microsoft would explain and clarify the various issues surrounding licensing. And it does, up to a point.

SQL example

Take SQL Server as an example. It’s actually a good example, because not only do a lot of people use it raw as a database engine, but it lives underneath a lot of Microsoft technologies too.

In fact, it’s quite difficult to find a server-side product that Microsoft ships today that doesn’t employ some flavour of SQL Server.

It’s difficult to claim that tiddly fish is just a shrunken version of the supertanker edition, but Microsoft decided to call all of them SQL Server

At the high end SQL Server scales up to huge databases running on monster servers, while at the other end it scales down to desktops, laptops and even Windows Mobile – it’s difficult to claim that tiddly fish is just a shrunken version of the supertanker edition, but Microsoft decided to call all of them SQL Server.

The document “SQL Server 2008 R2 Quick Licensing Guide” is a PDF file available for download that runs to eight pages. Another document, “SQL Server 2008 Licensing Guide”, runs to a more reassuring 60 pages spread over ten chapters.

Both are fabulously complex and contain mentally entangling sentences like “Microsoft offers a Per Processor licensing model to help alleviate complexity”, which might fool you into believing that the world is indeed flat.

Virtual problems

If you thought things were complicated running SQL Server on a physical server, they become brain scrambling when you run SQL Server on virtual machines.

At this point you fall into the world of “OSEs” (Operating System Environments), how many cores you have, whether Hyper-Threading is turned on, whether you’re using the multiplexing software model and so on.

There’s more complication still when you deal with multiple sites, datacenters, and the whole upgrade route is enough to make your head spin.

I can understand why Microsoft does this: it wishes to provide a functional product at each price point while maximising its revenues – and clearly, if it sold the Datacenter edition for £100 it would be losing money, while customers wanting low-end functionality won’t pay thousands of pounds per processor. Nevertheless, it’s far too complicated, and fewer, simpler price points would suffice.

Microsoft probably would respond that they’re cheaper and less complicated than those of Oracle, which may be true but isn’t much reassurance to us customers.

It would be interesting to know how many readers are confident that they’re buying the right licence, and whether or not they had to call on third-party assistance.

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User comments

What about CALs?

Oh but what about those CALs?
Microsoft's favourite way to extract more money than you planned to pay. One CAL per server system, that can be per user or per computer, sometimes and then you can get the standard or enterprise versions depending on which features you want to unlock and you need to keep records off all this as the software doesn't care and won't ask for licence keys but if you get caught short boy will you squirm when they hand you the bill, still Microsoft can sell you APPv which can help manage and monitor all this at the client end, but don't forget to buy the CALs for that one too....

By Lorribot on 2 Nov 2010

If my experiences are anything to go by it's not just customers that don't understand Microsoft's licensing. Their license agents don't know either. When I wanted to find out my downgrade rights when Vista came out I got three different answers from three different agents. In the end I had to buy a copy of vista just so they could generate an XP license key (even though XP was licensed with the machines).

By magicmonkey3 on 8 Nov 2010

CALs again

Agree with the points above, but don't forget to check what licenses are valid for what! A server 2008 license isn't valid for Server 2008 R2, but Server 2008 CALs are valid for either version (and indeed there aren't any specific R2 CALs). Then you get into terminal services...

I've not read up on it yet, but apparently VMWare have changed with the most recent release to licensing by amounts of memory installed. Clearly, the previous system wan't complicated enough!

By valeofyork on 23 Apr 2012

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Jon Honeyball

Jon Honeyball

Jon is one of the UK's most respected IT journalists and a contributing editor to PC Pro since it launched in 1994. He specialises in Microsoft technologies, including client/server and office automation applications.

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