Engineering ethics and software concerns

Virtual machines can solve many problems while keeping operations flowing smoothly, but when companies are duplicating software via virtual machines, this brings up some ethical issues that need to be addressed.


I was at Wright when I first heard about VMWare and virtual machines. While multiple versions of RSLogix5000 can be installed on a computer at the same time, the same is not true of Allen-Bradley's human-machine interface (HMI) software, FactoryTalk Studio. In order to install the newest version, the old version has to be uninstalled. This creates a problem when you need to support old customers while designing for new ones.

A virtual machine solves this problem; an entire hard drive can be cloned along with its software installations. This allows several different operating systems to be installed on the same computer. The user can start up VMWare, open the old version of software, and modify customer's programs in their original version.

I don't know the details of how Wright managed having multiple cloned operating systems and licenses available, but since they are a large company and subject to scrutiny for software, I'm sure they were aboveboard and did things as they should. I left and went back into business at the beginning of 2012, so I have no way of knowing how they do things now.

As I travel around the country and talk to a lot of different people in the controls industry I realize that a lot of people use virtual machines for their programming software. Sometimes it's because they can't run old software on a 64-bit operating system, or maybe because the software doesn't play well with other software on the same machine.

I recently installed VMWare on a Microsoft Windows 7 machine so that I can run my old DVT software (Microsoft Windows XP) on my laptop that has Camtasia installed on it. Since the DVT software was free, there are no licensing issues associated with that. VMWare, VirtualBox, and Microsoft Windows VirtualPC are also free (for the basic versions) so no problem there, either.

The operating system (OS) itself is another story. Microsoft Windows charges for all of their operating systems, but if you are duplicating one off of an existing machine you own you are bypassing their fee. In my case, since the laptop I am cloning is about 10 years old, and I don't use it, I think I'm OK.

However, it's easy to create a new virtual machine and pass it around on a USB stick, and I know of a few cases where that is standard procedure. In this case, very expensive licensed software along with the OS can propagate freely.

For a while, Allen-Bradley and Siemens have been ahead of the license duplication issue by requiring activation of each instance online. Cloning an OS is a different issue, though. I don't see how they can ever prevent piracy outside of requiring users of their software to go online and validate after each power-up. This is not practical for most programmers in the field, so I don't see that ever happening.

Whenever I watch a movie on DVD I see the ad pop up threatening a $250,000 fine and emphasizing that "piracy is not a victimless crime." I also remember all of the histrionics several years ago about Napster and file sharing. Though not as many people use expensive programming software, operating systems and Microsoft Office software are still pretty pricey. Yet, when I looked online for articles about this issue relating to virtual machines, I didn't find much at all. Lots of stuff about cracking installations of software and piracy, but nothing about cloning operating systems.

In engineering and business there are always a lot of ethical decisions that need to be made. Most people try to do the best they can to be honorable about these temptations, but there have always been those who will do anything for a buck. Beyond self-policing by companies and significant penalties for those who get caught, however, there seems to be little that manufacturers can do to prevent this type of piracy.

- Frank Lamb is the founder of Automation Consulting Services Inc. This article originally appeared on the Automation Primer blog. Automation Primer is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering,

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