Licensing for Hosted Application Services: Why it costs what it costs

Licensing for Hosted Application Services:

Why it costs what it costs

Application hosting services are experiencing resurgence in popularity these days, due to the prevalence of messaging about the benefits of a “cloud” technology model.  While hosted application services aren’t really cloud (according to cloud technology purists, anyway), they can look and feel and be paid for just like cloud solutions, so the name fits OK.  Hosted applications are desktop or network applications you access via the web, where the software is implemented and managed by a 3rd party application service provider (the host) rather than being installed on your local PC or LAN.  Some software products may be rental-licensed by the ASP, and when combined with the hosting service, the entire subscription service is more like SaaS (software-as-a-service) than the old “purchase and install” approach.

An important supporting program for application hosting service providers is the Microsoft Service Provider License Agreement program. Under a formal agreement with Microsoft or via an SPLA reseller, service providers and independent software vendors are able to license the latest Microsoft software to provide software services and hosted applications to customers. With the SPLA, service providers and ISVs can lawfully license Microsoft products on a monthly basis to host software services and provide application access for their customers. The SPLA supports a variety of hosting scenarios to help providers deliver highly-customized and robust solutions to a wide range of subscribing customers, and it’s the only valid means for obtaining subscription-based provider licensing for these products.

Because the software products being hosted are essentially desktop or LAN-based products, the underlying technology to “deliver” those applications is generally of a similar foundation.  In cases where the provider is offering hosting of Windows-based QuickBooks desktop editions or Microsoft Office applications, for example, the platforms and servers used by the service provider are almost certainly Windows-based.  This operating system, as well as the rights to allow remote user connections to it, is licensed to the provider from Microsoft under the SPLA.  These elements are referred to as “user” licensing elements.

An aspect of Microsoft reporting and licensing which is not well recognized (or frequently complied with) is the difference between user and application licensing.

User licensing, which includes the Windows server access license as well as the remote desktop user license, is a named user access license. This means that the provider need only report and settle for the user license if the user actually accesses the system during the reporting period (usually each month).  Not quite like a concurrent user model, where only the high count of users is reported, the named user model requires that the license for each user be paid if that user logged in at any time and remained logged in for any length of time during the reporting period.

Application licensing applies to the application software license acquired through and governed by the use-rights provided for and granted under the Microsoft SPLA. Rental application licensing is assigned to a specific, named user, and is to be reported fully on a monthly basis regardless of whether or not the user accessed the software. This is in direct contrast to the named user access licensing described above. Providers are required to report and settle on a monthly basis the total number of subscribed application licenses available to users, including Microsoft Office applications, Exchange, SQL and others, regardless of whether or not the user actually logged in and used the products.  The license is assigned to the user and is therefore required to be paid.

Being an application hosting service provider is a complicated business, and there is a lot to consider when developing subscription services for broad customer delivery.  Pricing is one of the complaints customers voice relating to these services, but the reality is that it takes quite a bit in terms of system resources and licensing to provide an acceptable hosted application experience.  This is one of the areas where SaaS and true cloud solutions benefit from a scale economy – where the application is designed for the platform, and one instance of the solution and platform can serve a large number of customers more affordably.

When working with a hosting service provider, it is wise to recognize that the platform and software licensing costs are there to support the type of applications being hosted.  If you have an SQL-based application, you will need the SQL licensing to support it, just like you have to pay for licensing of an Exchange mailbox or a hosted copy of Word.  Enabling only a portion of the total business software requirement may make it difficult to cost justify hosting just one solution.  However, if the business utilizes the host to manage all the desktop applications and data, the cost-efficiency of the approach can increase dramatically.  Regardless of whether the business elects to continue to run software on local PCs, or if it decides to outsource IT to a host and run it there, the company will have to pay the price for software licensing.

Make sense?



Licensing the Cloud: Software Distribution and Use in a Remote Access World

Licensing the Cloud: Software Distribution and Use in a Remote Access World

Whether we like it or not, and whether we agree or not – software developers have a right to decide how and where their licensed products are run.  There have always been arguments in this area, where software license purchasers take the position that they should be able to do what they want with their licenses, and where commercial software developers believe they have the rights to dictate authorized usage.  Truly, when it comes down to the legalities of it all, the software companies will win because they have the legal footing to fall back on  – the EULA containing use rights and terms which licensed users have agreed to.

The problem has been ongoing, with software developers constantly and consistently seeking methods to reduce unauthorized software distribution and unsupported use, and users spending amazing amounts of time and resources finding ways to break the rule.  Copy protection, “phone home” license validation models and all sorts of approaches have been developed to prevent software theft and unauthorized distribution.  But it happens anyway – a lot – and the cloud is turning into a great facilitator.  Surprisingly, it’s an “in your face” approach, too, where the previous iteration of web-enabled software theft (unauthorized digital downloads and license cracking) was fairly quiet and tried to be secretive to stay out of the gun sights of the developer.  Today’s “flavor” is right out there, being marketed to any and all who care to view the ads.

With businesses more frequently turning to “cloud” server providers to run business applications, it is no wonder that the IaaS and PaaS companies would want to make their services easier and more valuable to acquire than the next guy’s.  Aside from a groovy control panel and great networking and VM pricing, the added value from these providers is in the applications they are able to service.  More frequently, hosting service providers are marketing their solutions in the context of the applications customers run on the service (which makes sense, because the application’s what really matters).  Leveraging the brand value and recognition of popular commercial software products makes sense, as it improves overall visibility and increases the potential of the “right” kind of prospect engaging and becoming a customer.

The problem arises when these service providers sell hosting services for, or which support, applications they are not authorized or licensed to deliver, and this is where the argument comes full circle.  The hosting provider wants to host applications customers use, customers have licenses for those applications, but not a right to have them hosted.  The host deploys the application anyway, because that’s what the customer wants.  “What’s the risk?” they ask… “the customer has the software license”.

The risk is, unfortunately, greater for the service provider than for the customer.  Even if the customer has a license for the software product, that license may not actually be eligible to run on a hosted server.  “Businesses lease computer equipment all the time, and they can run the software on those systems” is the next argument generally offered by the service provider.  But, in the eyes of the software developer, there may be a big difference between leased equipment run in-house versus subscribed platform services deployed via a commercial hosting provider.  Even Microsoft recognizes the benefit and value of providing “mobility” of application licensing, and has specific licensing models to allow commercial hosts to deploy customer-owned licenses.  While many service providers understand and recognize the requirements to ensure that customer applications are properly licensed for hosted delivery, there are a great many who think the rules simply do not apply to them.  These folks are introducing a great deal of risk into their hosting businesses, even if they are not willing to recognize it.

When a customer runs their software in an unauthorized manner, they risk losing the rights and benefits associated with their software license.  When a commercial hosting company runs software on their servers that they have no right to install and run… they are potentially guilty of unauthorized software distribution and copyright theft.

Actions against facilitators of unauthorized content distribution – you can equate “software” with “content” – have received much press in past months, yet much of the discussion centers on music and video content (as in the Megaupload story).  Actions involving commercial software products tend to be somewhat less visible, probably due to reluctance by commercial developers to have what could be perceived as negative press flowing through social media venues.  It’s popular to protect music and videos, but hosting providers aren’t seeing the wisdom of preserving the integrity of a commercial software product license.  Instead, they’re relying on the customer to indemnify them (the customer has a license, remember?).   But the customer can’t protect the host; the host must protect the host – it’s the prudent business approach.

Infrastructure providers, platform providers and businesses operating as application hosting companies should pay close attention to the content living on their servers.  Taking a position that the customer has the right to do whatever they want with the system is not a viable position; the precedent has been set that the hosting provider is responsible for the content on their systems.  In the case of hosts offering service for small business applications like Microsoft Office and Intuit QuickBooks, for example, it is essential that a service model which conforms to and supports proper license usage be in place, and that any required authorizations are, too.

Software is just another form of content, and the cloud makes distribution of and access to content a lot easier, even when it shouldn’t be.

Make sense?