Changes in automation software licenses, upgrades

Software upgrades: Industrial software users should take advantage of new features and innovations without subscribing to costly annual software maintenance contracts or paying for each individual software version release. With less expense and hassle, software manufacturers can increase customer satisfaction and loyalty and nurture innovation.

By Daymon Thompson September 20, 2015

Software licensing models should be fair and flexible, offering the ability to update to the newest available release and implement new features. In a world where software advances propel manufacturing toward a greater wealth of tools for increased efficiency and production capability, the distribution of software tools is vital to continued industrial growth. Also of critical importance is maintaining intellectual property (IP) and budgets to fund software development.

An example of IP preservation can be found with the following software model. If, for example, users bought an automation design and programming software license in 2000, they, he or she should be able to download the newest version or build off the software today and run it on the original license. Similarly, licenses from a 2010 software release should be valid for today’s current downloadable version. Users should be able to take advantage of new features and innovations without having to subscribe to costly annual software maintenance contracts or pay for each individual software version release. 

Free runtime

A useful feature is to give customers the ability to generate a free trial runtime license for seven days without restrictions. This license may be regenerated as often as needed, which, for example, enables engineering computers to run without a commercial license. Creating a model where engineering tools can be freely downloadable from the web and used without registration allows engineers to use the tools they feel necessary to complete their projects.

This removes the design constraints of limited software licenses, which often stifles machine development and innovation. This model works so well that even a majority of the software vendors’ applications and support engineers do not have licenses. Continued seven-day license regeneration provides all necessary functionality needed for everyday use. 

Avoid licensing downtime

Production is the end goal for a controls vendor, original equipment manufacturer (OEM), or end user, and, to this point, programming software licensing philosophy should ensure that no production machine will ever be down because of a runtime licensing issue. Trial licenses can be generated in emergency situations for permanent or temporary controller replacement on the production line.

Licensing on the runtime side also should be very flexible with software module pricing based on the performance level of the industrial PC (IPC) platform and the software components used. Runtime software is broken up into smaller modules so that the user only acquires licenses for the modules used, not having to purchase a massive $1,000+ programming package, as is common among controls suppliers in the industry today.

Performance levels

By categorizing each IPC or embedded PC (ePC) into a performance level, cost for software modules is based on the performance class of the CPU, allowing even further cost effectiveness of licenses. For example, a machine with a lower power CPU, using only programmable logic controller (PLC) functionality and OPC Unified Architecture (OPC UA), will not be overcharged for functionality not used in the application, such as motion control, for example. Additional runtime licenses can be added at any time, providing a simple path for upgrade, should company needs change.

The built-in ability of a unified programming platform to run PLC code on a laptop and simulate motion control, industrial Ethernet slave devices, and other processes, without fees or licensing, enables users to take machine control and test code offline from the production machine and perform the bulk of testing before running a line of code on the live machine. Once new features are implemented or tested in a new version, the necessary permanent license can be purchased, and the fully tested and approved code can be implemented into the system. This alleviates many headaches associated with debugging code in the machine after commissioning, as well as avoids any potential lost revenue from a malfunctioning system. 

License by association

Along with the idea that licensing should be flexible, multiple options for licensing can be offered. License files can be associated to the IPC or other controller, much like a Microsoft Windows license would be associated to a consumer PC.

Licenses also can be associated to a USB dongle, as is commonly seen with other software packages. A disadvantage of the USB license key is that it can be confused with a USB memory stick and removed from the controller. A cure for this is to associate the license to a special industrial Ethernet I/O terminal. The terminal can be installed in the standard I/O rack and contain the runtime license information for the programming software, removing the need to associate the license with the controller hardware.

Other licensing reforms benefit the equipment manufacturer. OEMs often create software that is filled with equipment- or application-specific IP that needs to be distributed, while maintaining a necessary level of security. The software package can give OEMs the ability to use the license structure to protect the OEM application and software IP against reverse engineering and unauthorized copying or cloning.

For example, an OEM can add assurances that if certain aspects of the code are included in the machine, it will require license(s) from that specific OEM. Unauthorized copy protection ensures that while using the programming software license mechanism in the software, it still provides provisions for the OEM to require a license and generate this license securely at the OEM’s discretion, without the original software vendor’s involvement. This protects the valuable IP and codebase of the OEMs.

Overall, licensing structures are trending toward a more accessible, flexible model, as customer demand continues to move in that direction. By removing much of the expense and hassle, software manufacturers can increase customer satisfaction and loyalty, as well as nurture innovation.

– Daymon Thompson is TwinCAT product specialist, Beckhoff Automation. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

Key concepts

  • Industrial automation programming and design software licensing structures are changing.
  • Licensing changes offer the ability to use runtime version free, buy only what’s needed, or associate the license with certain hardware provides flexibility.
  • OEM intellectual property can be protected.

Consider this

Do rigid software licensing rules restrict innovation and creativity?

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For more information: 

OPC Foundation 

Author Bio: Daymon Thompson, automation product manager – North America, Beckhoff Automation.