Thursday, March 01, 2007

Licensing Hullabaloo

I love using the word “hullabaloo.” I don't get to use it often, but it is a great word to describe the cacophony of voices currently debating virtualization licensing practices.

It began with a New York Times article by Steve Lohr in which he described the competitive challenge that virtualization (and VMware) poses to Microsoft's operating system business. Then VMware posted a white-paper describing the licensing practices and their potential negative impact on customers. And Microsoft responded with a statement from Mike Neil, the General Manager of virtualization platforms for Microsoft. No doubt the analysts will begin weighing in on the matter soon. Why all the buzz? Why now? Because the impact of virtualization on the software industry promises to be similar to that of the Internet, and everyone wants to find a control point from which to steer their fortunes.

Virtualization is disruptive because it fundamentally changes the relationship between the hardware, the operating system that runs on the hardware, and the applications that run on the operating system. The hypervisor (virtualization platform) becomes the new layer on the hardware, and the operating system simply becomes an extension of the application as part of a software appliance. If the hypervisor becomes the “new” standard operating system, and any application can run on the hypervisor as a software appliance, it stands to reason that Microsoft and the other big operating system vendors such as Red Hat would be threatened by this change because they lose their point of control – how applications get attached to computers.

But what does all this have to do with licensing? Historically, there has been a strong correlation between the number of physical computers owned by a customer and the number of operating system licenses that a customer required. With virtualization, it is conceivable that every application is a software appliance with its own operating system attached. Moreover, these software appliances might come and go on the network based upon demand for the application. For example, a payroll application might run for a couple of days every month, but otherwise, it is not needed. With software appliances, the payroll software appliance would be deployed to a computer (atop the hypervisor) to run during the days before payday, and then be removed from the machine to make room for other applications to run more speedily during the rest of the month. Should the customer pay for a “full time” license to the operating system that is inside the payroll software appliance? Or should they have a “part time” license that more closely reflects the manner in which they use the payroll software appliance?

There is a lot at stake here for Microsoft. If the hypervisor becomes the “full time” operating system on the hardware that enables the “part time” software appliances to arrive and run as needed, Microsoft surely wants that hypervisor to be a Microsoft product, not one from VMware. If the operating system in the software appliances is simply an extension of an application, Microsoft may experience price erosion due to the minimalist nature of the operating system and the “part time” usage scenario.

In any case, Microsoft has a right to license their technology in any manner they see fit, so long as it does not break the law. If the licensing is not in the best interest of customers, customers will vote with their wallets and seek alternatives. Best of all for me, it gives an opportunity to use a great word like “hullabaloo” to describe the ruckus.

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At 11:22 AM, Blogger Dennis Byron said...

I think Microsoft's move to a Services business model makes it all moot, Billy. It doesn't matter much to ConED whether the dynamo is priced by the number of MKwh it generates or the cubic feet of natural gas it consumes to make them (in fact, increasingly ConED is two steps removed from power generation).

I think there is a battle within Microsoft whether to make the move to a services business model or continue as a technology products supplier but the implications of your analysis is going to force the issue. I commented on this choice Microsoft faces in context of Ray Ozzie's remarks at Goldman Sachs earlier this week; see seekingalpha, Software section, March 1. Red Hat and others in the OSS ecosystem are already the mechanics down in the Hoover Dam (sorry but I can take this utility thing a dozen ways).


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