Yet the metered utility model may extend further up the stack than just CPU cycles. While today's SaaS (software-as-a-service) models typically charge a subscription price, the industry may start moving to more of a cell phone model: Customers get a baseline of usage, then pay for extra time.
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Driving this change is the discovery by software makers that the trend toward virtualization is shrinking their revenue stream. As companies move their applications to virtual machines running in their own data centers -- so-called private clouds -- software developers are often getting the short end of the stick, according to a survey by software-rights management firm SafeNet.
"Over time, people are going to have to move to more usage metrics for their licensing," says Chris Holland, vice president of SafeNet's SRM division. "Whether it is the number of users or whether it is the amount of time the software is operating, some metered metric is going to emerge as a more suitable model."
The survey of 300 IT decision makers, which will be released next week, found that 9 out of 10 companies had already or planned to have their software running on virtualized infrastructure by the end of 2011. Yet for software makers who do not take virtualization into account in their licensing, their customer's move to the cloud costs money: Nearly 50 percent of companies switching to virtualized systems spent less on software, far exceeding expectations.