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How much should employees know about Microsoft software licensing?

Here are some guidelines for what Microsoft licensing information that employees -- from line-of-business managers to systems administrators -- should be familiar with.

Given the complexity of Microsoft software licensing, most employees have more urgent things on their minds, like getting their real jobs done. Now it's time to talk about what they should know about licensing.

In general, front-line employees who only use the software (and rarely, if ever, install it) do not require extensive licensing knowledge. They should be given some fairly simple dos and don'ts, along with a place to go if they have more questions.

But people in other roles -- particularly IT management and business functions, such as procurement -- can benefit from knowledge about licensing. Even the CEO needs enough licensing awareness to provide direction to the financial and human resources departments to ensure regulatory compliance and efficient use of software resources.

Software licensing expertise is a useless skill for most business employees, so the guidelines should be clear and simple so they can read (and remember) them in 60 seconds. The guidelines need to cover questions like the following:

  • What software will the help desk assist me with? This would be a short list of approved business software, such as operating systems, desktop productivity suites, Web browsers and any custom software in broad use at the organization.
  • Can I install personal software on my work PC? The answer here should be limited to about 100 words and describe whether users can rely on automatic software updates, or download music or software from the Web and install it -- even for work purposes.
  • Can I use a computer or phone that I own to access my work e-mail or company documents and other resources? This can trigger significant additional licensing costs, but it can also enhance worker productivity considerably.
  • Can I access Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other social networking, music or video sites from my work computer?
  • Will the company ever remove software that it finds on my work computer or a personal computer used for work?
  • Where can I get more information? The answer should point to an intranet location that describes the policies in more detail, lists staffers who are knowledgeable about licensing, and has a more comprehensive list of software that users can deploy. It may even offer approved downloads or links to approved download sites if software publishers don't permit redistribution of their code. In addition, the guide may point to rules that are specific to certain jobs or business divisions.

Line-of-business managers
Those who supervise users should, of course, be familiar with the rules for users and have contacts at the help desk, IT department or business office who can help them with borderline cases, exceptional circumstances, and new or upgraded applications that the help desk should support. The goal is to put the answers to frequently asked questions close to the users so that line managers don't have to deal with too much information.

Depending on how complex an organizational hierarchy is, this level of information may suffice for several management levels.

Systems administrators
Individuals in charge of provisioning new users or changing information in a network directory should be familiar with the organization's basic licensing rules and restrictions. For example, some users may be allowed to access certain SharePoint resources, such as SharePoint-based Excel spreadsheets, advanced search technologies or enterprise resource planning (ERP) integration -- all of which require a SharePoint Enterprise Client Access License -- while others are not. Ensuring that such rights are mirrored in server access and file permissions is important in maintaining compliance.

Admins who install, deploy and manage server products should have in-depth knowledge about licensing for those products. For example, admins should understand which Microsoft products permit unlimited installs per device (some desktop and server applications) as well as rules that limit the use of applications and server operating systems in virtual machines. They should also know which software is purchased with Software Assurance or other licensing add-ons that confer additional rights, such as unlimited installs per OS environment.

Someone at this level of the IT department should document actual use and help track (ideally, in an asset management database) various upgrades, downgrades, known but not deployed software entitlements, and other changes that have licensing or compliance implications. He should also ensure that admins have access to in-depth documentation about products in use and any changes in use rights that could affect the organization.

This need not be a full-time job, and responsibility can be shared to ensure that operations staffers have access to licensing expertise during various shifts. Some organizations have product "champions," such as a Microsoft SQL Server champion. Such people are expected to not only be technical experts but licensing experts as well, and they must ensure that any changes are communicated immediately to co-workers who need to know about them.

IT management
The IT organization as a whole needs substantial expertise in software licensing, since licensing is rarely designed around the way organizations -- or even their technology -- actually work. In general, the larger the organization and the more diverse or distributed its IT shop, the more important this becomes, and it may even require a full-time employee. This licensing expert can do the following things:

  • Ensure that software architects design compliant systems;
  • Create and update documentation for help desk workers, IT staffers and end users;
  • Ensure that software requisitions are complete;
  • Time purchases where possible or use appropriate volume-licensing programs to reduce spending;
  • Advise procurement staffers on existing or planned IT projects that have licensing and budget implications.

The licensing expert should also be very familiar with the correct use of developer and evaluation software -- an area that is often overlooked. Technical staff members who develop and evaluate software frequently consider licensing issues as an afterthought, if at all, and Microsoft's rules have their limits.

Software asset management
Managing the software lifecycle efficiently can pay big dividends for a company. Enterprises can reuse surplus software, harvest licenses from retired computers and be able to respond to a vendor's demand for an audit quickly and at low cost. In addition, they can track actual software usage to avoid overlicensing and target software purchases exactly where needed -- and no further.

These tasks place asset management at the hub of an organization's licensing infrastructure. This involves maintaining the configuration management database, helping IT to track deployments, and informing procurement about any mismatches between deployment and purchasing. Mismatches can force a business to purchase more licenses to remain compliant or to drop licenses because surplus licenses are available. In the best case, asset management can identify noncompliant installations soon enough to avoid the need to purchase licenses at all.

Knowing what the organization owns and what it actually uses (which are rarely identical) is also critical to effective negotiations with software vendors and budgeting for upgrades or new IT projects. Ask questions such as, "How many desktop PCs will need upgrading or replacement in order to run this solution?"

Procurement and business office
Procurement and business employees, such as an organization's finance and contract management staff, must deal with many vendors. Expecting them to be totally familiar with Microsoft's licensing rules is often unrealistic.

Larger organizations usually have enough procurement staffers to let some focus on a few key vendors. Any Microsoft specialists should be intimately familiar with the software maker's volume-licensing programs, since they will often be involved in negotiating volume-licensing agreements and determining the optimal purchasing paths.

Procurement personnel should have excellent communications with the business leadership, which defines high-level goals, and with IT management, which creates a technology road map to achieve or at least complement those goals. Knowing the timing of important IT projects such as desktop upgrades and transitions to the cloud is critical to developing a licensing plan that purchases the right software at the right time.

The business staff also needs to know enough about licensing to design business processes around it. The workflow for evaluating, budgeting, purchasing, delivering, tracking, metering, reevaluating and documenting an organization's software assets should be understandable. This transparency can save many hours of frustration for employees who need simple answers to their questions about licenses.

Business leadership
Software licensing need not be a top-of-mind issue for business leaders, other than that it is a necessary aspect of most modern businesses.

But these leaders determine corporate policies and directly or indirectly hire the people who manage software licensing. They must set expectations for compliance with licenses and provide resources to ensure that it happens.

A good licensing team may never qualify as a profit center, but it can be a highly effective cost-reduction team. In an age when top-line business growth is slow, effective licensing management can still add to the bottom line. A licensing team can save an organization millions of dollars without requiring layoffs, crippling production or substantially raising costs elsewhere.

Thus, an organization's leadership should understand the need for software management, provide adequate resources to ensure that expertise is nurtured and ensure that all of the players in the software management lifecycle communicate effectively.

Paul DeGroot is a writer, trainer and principal consultant at Pica Communications, which specializes in Microsoft licensing strategies and policies.

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