EDITOR'S NOTE: Some vendors you might expect to see in this Buyer's Guide said they didn't have a product that exactly matched the criteria or didn't respond to our requests for information about their products.

You might have heard stories about software compliance auditors breaking down doors, barging into offices, and inspecting computers for unlicensed software. Scenarios like this are rare, but audits do take place, and software piracy—whether intentional or accidental—can have serious consequences such as civil and criminal penalties. Even if you aren't audited, if you don't know how many software copies your company is using and how many licenses you own, you could be paying for more licenses than you need. This Buyer's Guide looks at 25 software inventory management products to help you select the product that best fits your needs.

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Please note that one product, NetSupport DNA was accidentally excluded from this article. Please see their website and this article's comments for more information.

Software Audits
Two independent groups perform software audits: the Business Software Alliance (BSA—http://bsa.org) and the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA—http://siia.net). Both groups collect software piracy reports via email and piracy hotlines and might ask to perform an audit of your company if they receive credible information that software piracy is occurring. Companies that don't comply with an audit request can face legal action by these groups on behalf of their vendor members. Some software vendors also include a right-to-audit clause in their End User License Agreements (EULAs) that gives vendors the authority to hire a third party, such as a consulting firm, to perform an audit. To find out how the BSA and SIIA work, see the Interact! box for links to interviews with the groups.

The BSA and SIIA typically let you provide your own records of software installations and licenses, then use various methods to validate those records. They also sometimes provide free, limited-functionality copies of some of the products in this Buyer's Guide. If an audit reveals that you're using more software than you've paid for, your company will probably end up settling with the auditors for more than just the cost of the unlicensed software or face going to court. Using a software inventory management product to make sure you're in compliance before you get audited is a good idea.

Software Inventory Management Products
The products in this Buyer's Guide perform discovery (i.e., search the computers on your network for software) from a central console and report the number of software installations they find by vendor, software title, and version; most support Windows XP and Windows 2000 clients. Many products require an agent on each client machine you want to audit but most let you automatically install the agents.

Some products also keep track of licenses. These products can then highlight titles for which you need to purchase additional licenses and even generate alerts. Many of the products are actually client-management tools that do much more than software-license tracking. If you're also in the market for a client-management suite, be sure to consider additional functionality and add-ons.

Software inventory management products use various mechanisms to identify client computers and installed software. Some products search only the NetBIOS browse list for computers or check only Add/Remove Programs for software. Other products use multiple methods, such as scanning Active Directory (AD) and the IP address range. Some vendors maintain a database of software titles that you can use to periodically update the rules the products use; other products let you specify custom rules. If you have mobile and remote users, make sure your product can scan their computers.

More Than Just Audit Preparation
Some products have functions that go beyond audit preparation. For example, Attest Systems' GASP 6 suite searches for copyrighted content such as MP3 files. Other products, such as Centennial Software's Centennial Discovery, record the number of times a user opens a program. System Integrators' License Broker can prevent unlicensed software from running, and Symantec's ON Command Discovery Web Edition can automatically uninstall unlicensed software.

The large number of software inventory management products is a good indication that software inventory management is a necessary part of today's IT environment. Whether you're trying to save money on licensing, prepare for an audit, or prevent an audit, these products should make your job a lot easier.