Tech & Work

Get IT Done: Recovering from a licensing dilemma

How a company used the Track-It inventory product to assess software licensing in use.


Several years ago, my company—which is in the oil industry—began growing rapidly, adding new oil fields and facilities along with all the personnel and infrastructure required to operate them. Unfortunately, oil prices were dropping around that time, and with all the new additions, money was becoming very tight. Thus started the slide into what would become a software-licensing nightmare.

When the company was still small, it was easy to keep up with the licensing of operating systems and the applications required to run the business. But in the space of a few months, the company almost doubled in size. The small IT department was stretched to the breaking point. It was easy to create a standard system image with ImageCast and blast it onto a new computer. We were so busy trying to keep up with the growth that the last thing on our minds was purchasing licenses for the operating systems and applications we were loading on these new machines.

Recognizing the problem
Eventually, things stabilized a bit, and a rudimentary attempt was made to come up with some figures for what was owed for all the software we were running. The tab came to over $50,000. The budget was still tight, and management almost completely balked at coughing up this amount of cash. They did release $10,000 to cover some of the expenses, but it was not nearly enough.

Since the IT department was not well represented in management, we were unable to convince it of the seriousness of the situation. We took the money, bought what licenses we could, and continued about our business. The problems we had running the network in the old building that housed the company kept us busy, so we didn't worry too much about what was happening with the licensing, and we continued with our slack practices of loading apps as needed.

A new era
Early last year, we moved into a new building with a well-designed network infrastructure and acquired a new boss who could bring IT problems before upper management. With less time being spent on keeping the network running, we were able to look at some of the long-term projects the IT department needed to work on. One project that stood out above the rest was getting the licensing straight.

Around this time, we started hearing commercials on the radio about the Business Software Alliance (BSA), the consortium of some major software producers that had been “visiting” certain companies and getting large judgments from them for using unlicensed software. The impetus that really motivated us to get our act together on licensing was learning how the BSA usually found out about unlicensed software in companies: They got tips from disgruntled employees.

At the time, we had a highly disgruntled employee who had some ties to the IT department. We did not know if he knew about the BSA, but the company would be in serious trouble if the group made a call to our facilities.

Assessing the damages
We had a mishmash of various machines: some older clones purchased a few years before with OEM Windows 95, some recently purchased HP VL400s with OEM Windows NT 4.0 (which we were trying to standardize on at the time), and a number of HP VLi6 computers that came with the purchase of the new facilities. The latter machines came with nothing on the hard drive, and ImageCast made life easy for us to deploy software on these machines.

All the machines had started off with Microsoft Office 97. As time went on, additional apps were purchased for single machines. These were also installed as needed on other machines, without purchasing new licenses. Thus, by the time we were ready to start the licensing assessment project, the situation was completely chaotic.

Visiting each machine and using something like the Belarc advisor to inventory the system would have produced good results, but it would have taken far too long using the free version of the software. The purchased version of the Belarc software would have probably worked fine; however, we had already purchased Track-It to help us get a handle on our help desk and on purchasing and inventorying our equipment, so that's what we used. All we had to do was set up a script to run the Track-It inventory program from the server it resided on, and a complete hardware and software inventory was deposited in the Track-It database.

We then spent many weeks going through the database tweaking the entries and adding serial and asset numbers to make it a more useful and accurate tool. With the help of Track-It’s canned and custom reports, we were able to start tracking down unlicensed software. What we found was a frightful mess.

Track-It was not the only tool we used to help us with the inventory. The Microsoft Web site offers links to the Microsoft Software Inventory Analyzer (MSIA) and to a tool called GASP, used by the BSA when doing its investigations. The Microsoft tool is free, but the BSA tool is limited to 100 computers and 60 days of use before you have to start paying for it.

Although we didn't use GASP, we did use MSIA. The tool inventories NT-type machines with no problem, but Win9x systems need to have some settings changed on each machine, which was more work than we wanted to do in our spread-out facilities.

While it was helpful to run Track-It and MSIA together, it was rather frustrating to see how many differences had to be ironed out between them in the results that were produced. Track-It showed every executable, most of which did not need to be inventoried since they came with the OS or some other app. We wound up producing reports and then exporting them to a spreadsheet to remove these thousands of entries that did not need to be accounted for.

MSIA did account for all the Microsoft software, but it naturally missed the non-Microsoft stuff. We also had to manually extrapolate what was on our Win 9x machines, since these were not inventoried.

This process was long and tedious, hampered in part by our liberal use of disk images. Duplicate serial numbers for operating systems and applications were everywhere. We were helped a lot by the recent practice of computer manufacturers to put the OEM serial and computer serial numbers on a sticker on the side of the computer. Eventually, we wound up with a result we could compare to our entries in the Microsoft eOPEN license database and the physical CDs we owned. Then, we had to do manual comparison of other non-Microsoft applications and add them to the spreadsheet. The results were pretty ugly.

Pony up the big bucks
We took the damages to our boss—all $80,000 worth. He then took it to upper management and told them what the consequences could be if the BSA dropped by. Upper management signed the Authorization For Expenditure (AFE) on the spot.

Since we are basically a Microsoft shop, we've resigned ourselves to the fact that we are pretty much stuck with Microsoft’s licensing and upgrading policies at this point. The thought of transferring to Linux or some other operating system to keep the cost down is just too difficult to contemplate.

Ultimately, it appears as if we dodged the bullet on this licensing issue. Now when we get demands from users for software to be loaded, they must get approval from their boss for the software to be ordered. This is still a somewhat inefficient and expensive way to do things, since we buy a limited number of licenses at a time. But it is almost impossible to get people to come up with projections on software purchases for the year, which would enable us to do more bulk license purchasing.

Final word
The lesson we learned from this whole sordid episode was this: Do not use unlicensed software under any circumstances. Fines that come from BSA investigations can be staggering, and the cost in time and money in trying to get licensing back on track can be far better spent on keeping the network running smoothly, keeping users happy, and doing various other valuable IT tasks.

The problem is that it is so easy to slide into noncompliance on licensing. Even with the best intentions of buying the software shortly after installing it, it is still easy to forget in the hustle and bustle of daily life. As a result, we feel that it is better to put the responsibility onto the department that wants the software, have it put in an order, and then just wait until the software arrives.

There may come a day when our company can afford to hire a person who tracks licensing and inventory, but until that time, keeping up with this chore is part of the job of being in IT, and we cannot afford to let it slip again.

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