The Adventures of Systems Boy!

Confessions of a Mac SysAdmin...

Software Licensing and Registration Hell

Is it just me, or has software licensing and registration in some quarters become a total nightmare? Case in point: Today I'm trying to install Autodesk's Combustion 4, a fine compositing and effects program, somewhat akin to Adobe's AfterEffects. From a SysAdmin's standpoint, however, the two are night and day. To activate AfterEffects, one simply need install it and enter the serial number provided with the software bundle. That's it. It's done. Ready to use. Moreover, this one serial number is valid for the number of machines specified by our license agreement with the company. Adobe trusts me to install the software only on the number of machines agreed upon by our license contract, or to otherwise monitor licenses on our network. The software does not perform network license checks to see if we've exceeded our licenses. Adobe leaves that to me. That's my job, after all, and I get in big trouble if I fail to do that job. In this scenario, the onus of license enforcement falls to me. Adobe trusts me to do my job, and in return, installing software is fairly straightforward. It's a good deal.


Autodesk Combustion Splash Screen
(click image for larger view)



Other software manufacturers, however, are not so trusting and approach software license management via far more convoluted and Byzantine methods. Autodesk is among these companies. To install Combustion, not only do I have to provide a serial number, I also need to provide an authorization number. This authorization number can be obtained by registering each and every copy of Combustion I intend to use. The process of installing just one copy of Combustion goes something like this:

1. Install the software from disk.
2. Launch the application and type in the serial number for this copy.
3. Activate the "Licensing Wizard."


Autodesk Registration Splash Screen: Here We Go...
(click image for larger view)



4. Upon magical transportation to the Autodesk registration page, register the software by entering every personal or professional detail they can think to ask you about, including the serial number of said copy of said software.
5. Check your email, where you should shortly receive the authorization number for your copy of Combustion.
6. Enter this Authorization Code into the special box.
7. You should finally be able to use Combustion.
8. Lather, rinse, repeat for every copy you bought.


Autodesk Registration Panel: Are We Having Fun Yet?
(click image for larger view)



Whew!

Okay, there are a couple of big problems with this scenario. First off, if there's any problem along this insane route, you can get quite stuck. In my case, the registration site did not work. The error page directed me to file a Customer Service Request, but the link to said request was also broken. This means that I will have to register my software either by fax, mail or possibly telephone. It also means I will have to do this myself for each and every copy of Combustion I've purchased. I have five copies. Thank god I don't have more, because it's going to take me a while to install this software. And this is the other problem with this sort of arcane licensing scheme: It doesn't scale. Imagine if I had a hundred machines I wanted to install Combustion on. It's practically infeasible at worst, unbelievably annoying at best. And I have to say, all it makes me want to do is buy any product other than Combustion, just to avoid the install hassles.


Autodesk Online Registration: Broken!
(click image for larger view)



There are a number of software companies besides Autodesk that use these sorts of tactics: Cycling '74 and Digidesign spring immediately to mind as some of the most heinous offenders, but there are others. They seem to think that the best way to protect their intellectual property is to make their products difficult to install and maintain. The companies that do it right are ones like Apple, Adobe and, shockingly, Microsoft. These companies have volume license schemes and educational versions of their products that are relatively easy for institutions to install and maintain. They recognize the value of getting their software in the hands and minds of young users, and they make it as easy to do so as possible. And I think they recognize the value of happy SysAdmins, too. They know we're the ones who make the recommendations for future purchases, and that maybe — just maybe — it might be a good idea to not make our lives a total living hell.

So, to Autodesk and others like you, here's a little secret: Systems Administrators hate you. We hate your fucking guts. Because, for us, installing your software is ten kinds of torture. There's no reason for you to do this except for a clear contempt on your part towards the SysAdmin community, and most likely your users in general. Or just general stupidity. You're not stopping anyone from stealing your software, and frankly you're keeping those of us who plan to use it legitimately from even wanting to do so. In fact, I'd argue that stealing your software is far easier than installing it legitimately. So all you're really doing is punishing your legitimate users. It's so stupid, and I'm so sick of it, and I'm sure I'm not alone. But more than that, it's just bad business. The next time someone asks me to recommend a piece of compositing software, I'll think of all the hassle I had to go through to install Combustion.

And then I'll recommend AfterEffects.

UPDATE:
In the comments some astute readers have provided a link to a whole site that deals with application installers and requirements that present problems from the standpoint of educational lab administration. The site is more concerned with apps that require user-level authorization files or user-level access to parts of the filesystem that should be protected, while my article deals more with plain-old annoying installers and licensing schemes. Still, it's a great site, and a good compliment to this post, and I wanted to link to it directly:
Poorly-Made Applications

Amazingly, some of these practices are holdovers from the OS 9 days, when security and multiple users weren't really issues to Apple or developers (or Lab Admins). It's shocking to me that after all this time a lot of software developers still can't figure out how to properly, securely, or even conveniently install apps in Mac OS X.

Thanks to those who sent in the link.

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8:00 PM

Bah. That's nothing.

Trying keeping a lab of Native Instruments products registered....

I feel your pain though. This is where imaging utilities like radmind are worth their weight in gold, as you can examine the differences before and after all these actions to work out where the files are stored, and give different machines different files....

I've found Max/MSP to be a bit of a pain, but not so bad as Reaktor is.    



4:05 PM

Hah! I'm lucky in that I have a separate SysAdmin for A/V machines in our lab. So I don't have to deal with all those ProTools and audio plugins, which would drive me up a frickin' wall.

One day I'll have to figure out Radmind. I've tried a few times and failed. One problem for me is that we have so many different configurations for our Macs that it's pretty hard for me to find a place to store Radmind builds. I've had other problems with the app too, but that was a long time ago. I just need some time to crack that nut. Everyone's using it but me.

Maybe someday. *sigh*

-systemsboy    



9:55 AM

I'm sooooooo glad that I don't have to deal with this anymore :-)

One of our vendors - FemLab? I don't remember would only issue a valid license key for a single release - and would only give us a weeks of demo license time to make sure we could deploy their program to our labs. Needless to say, that often failed in spectacular ways. Software licensing was by far the most stressful part of my job as a systems manager in a college/department.    



2:31 PM

He he. Feel your pain. I was a tech for the Sound Design school. It was quit the culture shock, after dealing with the floating license, Adobe loves us, easy software installs in the Multimedia school. He He. Installing the mtools software to access the sample library involved going around with a USB floppy drive to each station, locking some unique key on each station. Machine goes bad in a lab, replace it and relicense everything. What a massive waste of time. And don't get me started about Native Instruments and all the rest of the software they used. I thought when they came out with the iLok usb keys we'd be saved from having 10 usb dongles on a station. But at first you couldn't read what auths were on the usb key, you would have to launch pro tools and try every plugin to see what had been auth'd. Ouch. Now in VFX, license servers are nice, especially with floating licenses. Locking software to unique computers is still happening for some apps and it still sucks. They're used to be a list of "crappy apps" started by the U of Utah kids, we should do our own for "Auth Hell"

-x    



2:35 PM

"Poorly made" apps:

http://www.macos.utah.edu/documentation/administration/poorly-made_apps.html    



2:37 PM

crappy    



12:53 PM

Thanks guys. Adding the link to the post.

-systemsboy    



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