Dear Software Vendors: Your network licensing causes me pain.

August 12th, 2013 | Categories: applications, math software, software deployment | Tags:

Right now it’s packaging season (not the official term!) at my university–a time of year when IT staff have to battle with silent installers, SCCM, MSI creation and Adminstudio in order to create the student desktop image for the next academic year.  Packaging season makes me grouchy, it makes me work late and it makes me massively over-react to every minor installation issue caused by software vendors. Right now, however, I am not grouchy because of packaging season..I am grouchy because of concurrent network licensing (or floating licensing if you are Wikipedia).

I like network licenses…they make many aspects of my job easier but they the way they are implemented by some software vendors causes them to be a pain.  Over the years, I’ve bothered many a support-desk with my network license tails of woe and thought that I would collate them all together in one blog post.

The more of these things your software does, the more pain you cause me and my colleagues.

1. You don’t use standard FlexLM/FlexNet. 

Like it or loathe it, FlexLM is used by the vast majority of software vendors out there. We run license servers that host dozens of FlexLM based applications and we have got the administration of these down to a fine art.  In fact, we’ve replaced the vast majority of the process with a script. If an application uses FlexLM, system administration and license monitoring is bordering on the trivial for us now.  The further you stray away from FlexLM, the more difficult our job becomes.

One thing guaranteed to ruin my day is a call from a vendor I’ve worked with for years who says ‘Great news Mike, we’re ditching FlexLM for our own, in house license system.’  Fabulous! Rather than use our lovely, generic, one-size fits all scripts, we are going to have to do a load of extra work and testing just for you.  I look forward to all the new and interesting bugs your system will generate.

2. You don’t support redundant license servers.

The idea behind redundant license servers is this:  Instead of your application relying on just one machine, it relies on three; only two of which have to be operational at any one time.  This gives us resiliency and resiliency is a good thing when you are teaching a lab with 120 students in it.

I’ll keep this simple.  If you don’t support redundant license servers, it means that you don’t believe that your software is important. It tells me that you are just playing at being a big, grown up piece of software but you don’t really think anyone will take you seriously.

3. You support redundant license servers but can’t select them via the installer.

At install time, there is no option to give three severs. The user can only give one. You then expect the user to copy a pre-prepared license file that has details of all three servers as a post-installation step.

What usually happens here is that users give the primary license server, find that the application will launch and stop reading the installation instructions.  At some point in the future, we take down the primary license server for maintenance and the vast majority of self-serve installations break!

4. You use the LM_LICENSE_FILE environment variable

The problem is, so does everyone else. We end up with a situation where the LM_LICENSE_FILE variable is pointing at several license servers and some client applications really don’t like that. Be a good FlexLM citizen and use a vendor specific environment variable.  For example, MATLAB uses MLM_LICENSE_FILE and I could give them a big hug just for that!

5. You ‘helpfully’ tell the user when the license is about to expire.

I’ve moaned about this before. 1000 users panicking and emailing the helpdesk…lovely!  Bonus points are awarded if you don’t allow any supported way of switching these warnings off.

6. Your new license doesn’t support old clients.

This should speak for itself and happens more than I’d like.  We can’t upgrade the entire estate instantaneously and even if we could, we probably wouldn’t want to.  Some users, for one reason or another, cling to old versions of your software like grim death. They don’t care that there is a new shiny version available, all they know is that I broke their application and they hate me for it.

When we discover that old versions of your application will stop working, it also delays roll out of the new version since we have to do a lot of user-communications and ensure that nothing mission-critical will stop working.  This makes power-users of your application hate me because they want the new shiny version.

7. You don’t have a silent installer.

Strictly speaking not a network license moan but closely related.  We use network licensing because we deploy your software to lots of machines.  When I say ‘lots’ I mean thousands.  It turns out, however, that you don’t support scripted installation (sometimes called ‘silent installation’ or ‘unattended installation’).  This means that your software is a lot more difficult to deploy than your competitor!  I’m now a big fan of your competitor!

8. You have a silent installer but it’s a bad one.

If I install manually, via point and click, I can configure every aspect of your application.  Your silent installer, on the other hand, is just a /S switch that does a default install…no configuration possible.  Bonus points for ‘silent’ installers that include pop-up dialogue boxes that can’t be switched off.

While on the topic of silent installation, can I just ask that you directly support deployment by SCCM on Windows please?  It will help with next year’s packaging season big time!



  1. August 13th, 2013 at 10:50
    Reply | Quote | #1

    Brilliant post, thanks Mike! Hope all our software suppliers read this.

  2. August 13th, 2013 at 13:59
    Reply | Quote | #2

    Software licensing is a huge problem for everyone. It’s not the cost that is a problem for me, it’s the lack of ubiquity. If my clients or students do not have the same software array I have, then collaboration is eroded or denied. I have been slowly migrating to open-source solutions for this reason in recent years. In particular, software such as R ( are taking over my analytics practice. Being able to load R onto any machine is vital for me, both with clients and students. Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

  3. Matthew MacGregor
    August 14th, 2013 at 12:55
    Reply | Quote | #3

    Some very good points here. Can I suggest another one for your list… Your licence manager requires a physical server to run on.

  4. Mike Croucher
    August 15th, 2013 at 09:48
    Reply | Quote | #4

    @Matthew — good point. I’d go a step further, ‘Your license manager requires a physical dongle to be attached to your physical server’

  5. August 16th, 2013 at 10:29
    Reply | Quote | #5

    Hear, hear!
    And you’ve only just scratched the surface on installers. I’m currently playing with a self-extracting automated installer which would normally be ok, except this one is a mere 2 GB in size…! Trying to do anything with it just takes an age…

  6. May 15th, 2014 at 14:18
    Reply | Quote | #6

    This is such an accurate reflection of what admins have to go through (doubly-so for those working in education) that it’s actually amusing. You have to wonder what the vendors were thinking. Even when they have a silent installer, the switches never seem to follow any standard.