You’ve heard the stories about licensing compliance nightmares, and you know that one of your biggest challenges as an administrator is keeping track of what software is installed where and whether it’s properly licensed. As frustrating as this task can be, there are ways to make it easier.

In response to our article “See how this company recovered from a licensing nightmare,” members offered suggestions on how to avoid the headaches and legal entanglements that can result from software licensing noncompliance.

Member ideas point to these considerations:

  • Don’t put off implementing some type of license-tracking system.
  • Use one of the many software programs designed to automate license tracking.
  • Consider open source alternatives that may save money and effort.

Start tracking at the beginning
Regardless of the method you use to track software licenses, it is imperative that you start the process at the beginning of the PC life cycle, said Troy Tate, corporate network manager for CTS Corporation. “Until the software is retired,” Tate said, “there must be a method of accountability.” That means recording information about the software installed on every PC on the network and making sure that it’s properly licensed. It’s obviously easier to track something from the start than it is to try to pick up the pieces later, which the company described in the aforementioned article had to do.

Tate also said that the better a company’s software tracking system is, the better informed the company will be about support requirements and costs.

Licensing compliance may be easier to control, one member noted, if you limit software installation responsibility to certain members of your IT staff, usually the administrator(s). While this increases the burden on the administrator(s) to ensure compliance, it prevents users from installing home programs on their work systems. As Rob11 observed, even if such an installation happens only once, you’re out of compliance. So it’s important to implement some controls either by establishing company policy on software use or by employing utilities to limit end users’ ability to add and remove programs.

Tracking compliance is something every company must do to avoid legal repercussions. If you take steps to manage the process at the start of a PC’s life cycle in your company, you won’t have to worry about Business Software Alliance (BSA) audits or find yourself scrambling to get into compliance later.

Management buy-in
Although it’s critical for administrators to recognize the need to establish a tracking system, upper management also needs to come on board. As one member put it, “Effective control can be maintained only with buy-in from all stakeholders,” including managers who set policy.

As a number of members pointed out, managers often don’t understand the importance of licensing compliance. “I have to fight tooth and nail to get [company management] to understand that one CD doesn’t guarantee that it is legal to use it on all PCs,” said Dorian Stanley, network administrator for Rauschert Injection Molding,

Thomas Bradley, owner of ICC-data, said that small businesses typically have little understanding of the licensing issue. “I even had a customer buy the copies of the software they needed,” said Bradley, “and then throw them all away after the install.”

As these experiences indicate, a clear understanding of the licensing issue by all parties in IT and management is paramount. Only when management understands licensing can a company begin to implement tracking policies and procedures that follow the software on PCs (as well as servers and other equipment) from birth to retirement across the entire network.

Fortunately, maintaining compliance needn’t be an arduous, headache-inducing task. Establishing a license-tracking policy early in system life cycles, combined with the act of using automation software, can allow you to accomplish the goal with minimal effort. Let’s take a look at how software can aid in this process.

Automate the process with software
A number of members suggested automating the process of tracking software licenses using various programs, many of which are inexpensive or even free. The BSA offers its software, GASP, free for 60 days. The unlicensed version allows you to track software on your system. (The full version lets you inventory all your hardware, as well.) Member Christopher Smith, of Smith & Young, suggested using GASP as an interim solution until you determine how you want to police software compliance over the long term.

Another member recommended checking out Belarc‘s BelManage for larger companies or beITsmart, its Web hosted service for smaller companies.

Member jfowler believes that Novell’s ZENworks is a good solution, offering “hardware/software inventory, disk imaging (control what users add/remove [to or from] their systems), automated software installations and uninstalls, help desk utilities, and lots more.”

A wide variety of tools are available to help companies maintain licensing compliance, but as Tate pointed out, using software to automate the process does not absolve management of the responsibility to take steps to remain in compliance. Still, using tracking software can ease the burden and help you maintain more accurate records.

Download our database to track software licensing compliance

If you’re looking for another way to track software licensing, download this Microsoft Access database to help manage licensing in your company.

Consider open source alternatives
Many readers feel that the current licensing challenge reinforces the need to consider alternatives to the proprietary model for business software. According to jeffs, opting for Linux, FreeBSD, or OpenBSD can help companies avoid some licensing problems altogether.

The licensing issue is at least prompting many administrators and managers to explore options other than Microsoft (especially on the desktop), as evidenced by the TechRepublic poll results shown in Figure A.

Figure A

Sujai Nath, of NMR Inc., argued that following the general public license (GPL) route can help companies avoid the nightmares associated with software licensing. Nath said that with the availability of open source and GPL alternatives, companies no longer have to be “proprietary software hostage[s].”

Christopher Smith agreed that the licensing problem is a strong argument for making the switch to Linux. He believes that as the management of software becomes a bigger problem requiring the commitment of more resources, users will increasingly begin turning to less restrictive options.

Although many companies are reluctant to make such a switch, the financial burden of licensing compliance alone may force them to explore Linux and other alternatives.

Is Linux a good option for your company?

If you’re wondering whether Linux represents a viable option for your company, the information in this article may help you decide.

Track or jump ship
Unless you decide to make a wholesale open source switch, you’re stuck with the burden of maintaining compliance with software licensing laws. Linux is certainly a viable option, but it may not be right for everyone or for all systems in an organization. In the meantime, you’ll have to take the necessary steps to track licensing in your company and to establish policies and procedures that facilitate software management.

As our members noted, you have to begin the process early in the system life cycle and continue to be diligent to avoid the hassle of catching up after the fact. Whether you’re just getting started or you’re conducting a licensing compliance audit, a number of software programs are available to make things easier and to ease the tracking burden.