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Licensing changes in IOS 15 target use of illicit Cisco IOS emulators

Users are breaking their silence about widespread but illicit use of Cisco IOS emulators without software licenses in home labs now that Cisco Systems' latest version of its operating system, IOS 15, threatens to crack down on them.

It's one of the skeletons in the proverbial wiring closet. One blogger considers talking about it a violation of...

the first two rules of Fight Lab. But users are breaking their silence about the widespread but illicit use of Cisco IOS emulators without software licenses in home labs now that Cisco Systems' latest version of its operating system, IOS 15, threatens to crack down on them.

A lot of people can't afford to buy $10,000 to $20,000 worth of equipment to practice on.
Jeremy Stretch
BloggerPacket Life

"It boils down to pirating IOS software, which obviously I don't condone," said Jeremy Stretch, a network engineer in Fairfax, Va., and blogger who runs a free community lab on his site, Packet Life. "Cisco is well within [its] right to protect [its] property but, unfortunately, there is this unintended consequence that people may have been doing this illegally but for completely benign purposes … to better themselves as engineers."

Although users can buy simulators that attempt to recreate a limited experience akin to using IOS without any legal ambiguity -- though users often complain simulators are riddled with programming errors -- a Cisco IOS emulator is free and actually runs IOS, the operating system that runs on Cisco routers and switches. Cisco released its latest version of the software, v. 15, in October 2009.

With the release of IOS 15, users will need to punch a registration key into every machine running it to verify the software license. Cisco licenses its IOS feature sets at the time of purchase and when users purchase upgrade licenses at a later date. But students and professionals who have sought to experiment and practice at home -- but didn't want to pay thousands of dollars to do so -- had found a loophole years ago.

As long as you had a Cisco Connection Online (CCO) account, or knew someone who would share one, you could update any router with any feature set without Cisco's checking the license, according to users. Those same IOS software images could be used in a free and powerful Cisco IOS emulator, such as Dynamips, to give users the same experience as working on an actual Cisco router.

"The problem is at the upper certification levels, you pretty much have to do practical labs using real hardware on your own. A lot of people can't afford to buy $10,000 to $20,000 worth of equipment to practice on," said Stretch, who is calling on the company to develop "educational" licenses that are feature-rich but limited in some performance, such as maximum throughput support.

Cisco has always operated with a trust model -- we assume that since you bought the router, you bought the software.
Cisco Systems,

In response to questions about the IOS 15 updates, Cisco issued a statement defending its changes and encouraging users who want to practice and learn -- without a Cisco IOS emulator -- to utilize its Learning Partner Training Program and Cisco Networking Academy.

"Cisco has always operated with a trust model -- we assume that since you bought the router, you bought the software. IOS 15.0 is completely consistent with our licensing policy," the company wrote. "What is new in IOS 15.0 is our 'pay as you grow' model, which is extremely appealing to our customers since it allows them to pay for only those services they need at the time. For instance, pay for mobility today, bolt on fault management tomorrow."

Network management: Another victim of IOS 15?

Cisco's argument also fell on deaf ears for other users, including Greg Ferro, a networking consultant in the U.K. who blogs about the industry on his site Ethereal Mind.

"We will lose the biggest training resource we've had in the past five years -- in the history of [Cisco]," Ferro said. "I know the people who are most concerned are people in the developing countries."

In the enterprise space, he added, requiring a license key on every router "drastically changes the status quo" for Cisco's biggest customers, such as large enterprises and telecom operators with thousands of routers to manage.

"Carriers have hundreds of thousands of devices, of which hundreds are under repair, replacement and upgrades at any point in time," Ferro said. "These repairs now need licensing and re-licensing to be added to workflow. This is going to radically change the way we look at [network operations]."

Although Cisco provides software, Cisco License Manager, to transfer licenses between routers, most large enterprises are probably unaware of the changes, nor are they likely to be planning that process, Ferro said.

Attack on Cisco IOS emulators may backfire on the company

Zeus Kerravala, a distinguished research fellow at Yankee Group, said Cisco needs to be careful that its plan doesn't backfire, recalling how Novell drove away many customers because of its frustrating 90-day reinstall cycle for trial software in the early 1990s.

"What you saw very rapidly was all these engineers coming out of college were using Microsoft … because Microsoft looked the other way on the licensing issue," Kerravala said. "And when all those people got out of college and got jobs, what did they want to use at work? Microsoft."

Kerravala estimates that Cisco has lost millions of dollars over pirated software licenses. He said the company has a right to protect its intellectual property, but it may not be the best strategic move.

"While they have every right to be doing what they're doing … what it takes away from is the customer's ability to experiment and play," he said. "Whenever [vendors implement] more stringent licensing policies, you have to make sure you're not chasing fool's gold."

Meanwhile, the changes to IOS 15 aren't necessarily a windfall for resellers either, according to Gary Berzack, chief technology officer and chief operating officer of TribecaExpress.com, a Cisco-partnered solution provider in New York City.

"At the outset, it would appear [to be] a better revenue opportunity for us because the customer will be forced to have more compliance and more cost in their licensing," Berzack said. "But customers are already looking for savings in other ways, and I'm not so convinced that -- in the core routing and switching business -- we wouldn't be pushing away the midmarket [user base]."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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