LAN Licenser: Monitor and Manage Software Licenses

Hands On: LAN Licenser

LAN Licenser from ABC Systems & Development is a software metering and control tool designed to help harried administrators address the problems of both monitoring and managing their software resources.

To test the capabilities of LAN Licenser, we installed it on a Dell PowerEdge 4100/200 server and managed application use on a small number of sample workstations.

The first and most obvious benefit of LAN Licenser is helping a company remain within the legal limits of various software licenses, while ensuring that employees are provided with adequate resources for their daily work. LAN Licenser allows software licenses to be shared proactively across an entire organization, while giving administrators a fairly fine level of detail in the control mechanisms.

A secondary benefit, not always apparent at first glance, is that LAN Licenser can help keep an administrator aware of unanticipated applications being run on the network. The product can even be useful in preventing problems such as network intrusion by Trojan horse and similar threat programs.

LAN Licenser approaches both of these issues with a two-tiered approach to the tasks of administration and monitoring. Central to the structure is an application called the Site Server, which is a completely different product from Microsoft Corp.’s Site Server for Web server management, but caused some confusion among our administrators because of the name. LAN Licenser’s Site Server runs on NT 4.0 Server, and serves to coordinate that actions of the second-level component called the Software Metering Server. Administrators can activate an optional Enterprise Manager component to allow coordination among multiple Site Servers in larger organizations with more than 2,000 workstations.

During our installation, we chose to have both the Site Server and Software Metering Server use the included FoxPro database for all of the record keeping, though we could have chosen to have the Site Server use Microsoft SQL Server. Our installation failed on the first attempt, but a call to the regular support number revealed that we had mistyped a password. The support rep was able to quickly talk us through correcting the problem.

The Software Metering Server application is available for NT, NetWare and Unix platforms. It may be run on multiple systems, allowing dynamic balancing of license distribution across a complex network. In our case, we ran a single instance on the same server platform as the Site Server application. The Site Server coordinates a list of Software Metering Servers, so that each server is aware of the others.

A license monitoring application is then run on each Windows workstation (Windows 3.x, Windows 9.x or Windows NT). This application may be installed through login scripts, distributed as an attachment to an e-mail message, or run through other manual means. ABC Systems is developing a future version that will automatically re-install itself if a user attempts to remove it. The current version installs itself completely without sound or visual indicators, so that a user receiving the application through a logon script or similar automated mechanism has no opportunity to interfere with the process.

Once installed, the monitor program watches for the startup of any application on the workstation, and then checks against a Software Metering Server for licensing information. The administrator assigns each Software Metering Server a number of licenses for each licensed application, which it may distribute to workstations as requested.

It is at this point that LAN Licenser introduces some interesting concepts beyond simple license lists. A central feature of the tiered approach is that, when a Software Metering Server has no licenses left to distribute, it can request the "loan" of a license from a pool of licenses at the Site Server. The Site Server can also move licenses between Metering Servers, based on trend analysis.

Another useful addition is the concept of license "checkout" in which one or more licenses are assigned for a time to a specific workstation. This allows the proper metering of licenses that may be in use on traveling systems, such as a sales rep's laptop. When the system is reconnected to the network, those licenses that were checked out are returned to the appropriate pool of available licenses.

LAN Licenser allows the administrator to set a number of rules for how licenses are to be managed, including describing the relationship between an application suite such as Office and its individual pieces. The administrator can also determine such things as whether multiple licenses are required for multiple instances on a single machine. We found the rules capabilities to be quite comprehensive in what they allowed us to do.

Users who try to use a controlled application when a license is not available are greeted with a licensing message, which may be tailored by the administrator. They may also be given the option of having the system notify them when a license becomes available. We found that this gave a very good level of responsiveness, especially when combined with the power of the system to detect that a license is being held open by an inactive workstation, and to request or even force application closure after a specified delay.

One of ABC Systems' other claims is that the system cannot be evaded by renaming applications, though they declined to explain the mechanism. In our testing, this did not at first seem to be the case. We renamed a copy of Microsoft Word for Windows, and were able to start more copies of the application than the licenser should have allowed. However, further checking revealed that the behavior is controlled by an optional setting, which was not obvious. We changed the setting and LAN Licenser then behaved as we expected.

However, beyond LAN Licenser’s ability to track and control the use of specifically licensed software, we were impressed by the ability of LAN Licenser to monitor and report on all application usage at the workstation level. A generic category of unlicensed software is included by default. All applications not specifically set up for license control are reported under this umbrella category, enabling the administrator to see statistics for all of the applications actually in use.

An application discovered to be in use this way may then be added to the list of "licensed" software, and limited or eliminated from the network entirely by setting the appropriate license count. This is especially useful for controlling both inappropriate system use such as games, and defending against threat software such as known virus and Trojan horse programs. Such an approach is far more effective than roving from system to system in person to check for the latest hostile program downloaded from the Internet.

Overall, we found LAN Licenser easy to install and operate. The rule definition screens were quite easy to understand, allowing us what seems to be a great deal of flexibility. Both the hierarchical nature of the license management and the checkout feature for remote and traveling users were useful. But the hidden strength is in LAN Licenser's ability to monitor and collect statistics on the use of applications beyond those specifically licensed.

LAN Licenser
ABC Systems & Development Inc.
Burlington, Mass.
(781) 270-0699
+ License loaning from a pool of licenses at Site Server.
+ License "checkout" enables proper use of licenses on systems used by traveling employees.
+ Comprehensive set of rules for manageing licenses.- Confusing optional setting for prohibiting the starting of more copies of the license than should be allowed.