Software licensing is complicated enough in its own right. Put it into a mobile environment, add the rising popularity of the “bring your own device to work” (BYOD) movement, and it doesn’t take much to realize that this could be a relationship heading rapidly downhill.

It’s all too easy to trip up on software licensing rules without any intention of wrongdoing. Even in a traditional desktop environment, it takes considerable expertise to navigate the labyrinths of per-seat, per-user, concurrent, and other license models, which is one reason the software asset management (SAM) marketplace is looking pretty healthy. Throw virtualized desktops, the explosion of mobile devices, and alternative application delivery models into the mix, however, and things get even more perplexing, with far less help available from your conventional SAM solutions.

The BYOD revolution

The global mobile workforce is forecast to grow by 37.2 percent and reach 1.3 billion by 2015 according to IDC Research, reinforcing the increasingly widespread enterprise adoption of mobile computing and the BYOD revolution. Mobile device usage was a catalyst for companies to look at ways of bypassing physical software installation in favor of streaming or publishing applications to corporate-owned devices.  BYOD has pushed the needle even further, since the range of user-owned device types and numbers of devices on which corporate applications are used is exponentially increased.

In the BYOD context, licensing complexities also multiply. Perhaps most confounding to IT departments are questions related to how the number of connecting users and devices impact what’s required from a licensing perspective. The costs and difficulties associated with monitoring this dynamic environment (not to mention the licensing costs themselves) can be significant and must be weighed against the operational efficiencies that can be achieved by migrating to virtualized application delivery models.

Unfortunately, this problem has been all but ignored by license management vendors (with a few exceptions), possibly because adoption of “thin app” delivery methods is still overwhelmingly eclipsed by the use of installed desktop software. This has left IT managers struggling to manage the license requirements of multiple software vendors, determine who is using which software on what device, and whether that usage is valid and or valuable in a corporate context. Site licenses are expensive, and don’t necessarily immunize companies against audits and annual counts of which devices are deploying software “for the benefit of the organization,” a very wide-ranging definition.  Unless they have an easy way of monitoring all software usage – whether on company or user-owned devices – your organization is exposed to all the potential consequences of non-compliance, which range anywhere from sleepless nights to the possible ruinous outcome of a software audit.

The licensing snag

The great advantage – and disadvantage – to consider is that mobile migration is user-focused rather than device-focused. Employees can use multiple devices interchangeably and be equally productive on their laptops, smart phones, tablets, and home computers. Many, if not most, corporate applications are licensed per device, meaning that organizations that rely on specific platforms to publish or stream applications to smart phones and tablets rapidly drift out of compliance as these devices are added to their asset pool.

Because the per-seat license model doesn’t translate to a user-focused, multi-device world, licensing uncertainties abound.  How many copies of Microsoft Office or Adobe Acrobat need to be licensed for each end user? Are separate licenses required for each connecting device? This dilemma is a challenge for any organization hoping to avoid a software audit, and it represents a significant risk to companies migrating to a mobile environment.

As a result, paralysis has struck many organizations in the midst of mobile migration, leaving them confused about whom or what to license. Software publishers seem to be doing little to clarify how such environments are to be interpreted based on their existing licensing agreements.  Before finding a big heap of sand in which to bury their heads, many companies either kick their license compliance concerns to the back burner, hoping they don’t get caught, or choose the appallingly expensive option of purchasing “site” licenses to cover all devices – an insurance policy that, while safe, may not make good business sense either.  After all, if only 60 percent of your workforce uses a particular software package, why would you want to pay for the other 40 percent?  And then, of course, there is the backs-to-the-wall option: paralysis.

The many benefits of evaluating your needs

Businesses that address the licensing issue up front when selecting their mobile platform will improve operational efficiencies and promote greater productivity. Just like software that resides on traditional workstations, applications running on mobile servers require a reliable method of being tracked and managed so companies can a) remain compliant with license agreements, b) ensure no more licenses have been purchased than are in use, and c) guarantee that the appropriate users have access to the software they need.

Organizations that don’t implement a best-of-breed asset management solution that works effectively in a mobile environment are heading down a risky path that can lead either to costly license compliance penalties or the needless over-purchasing of licenses. It doesn’t have to be that way. Solutions for managing usage and compliance for applications delivered do exist. Companies that carefully evaluate their needs, and create a detailed plan for managing license exposure will be the ones that reap the most substantial rewards from the BYOD revolution.

Kris Barker is co-founder and CEO of Express Metrix, a 16-year veteran in the IT asset management market, focusing its efforts on computer inventory and software metering solutions.