Sorry, no server for you today

Imagine that you are leasing a new car. Of course you plan to stay current on your lease payments. When you take delivery of the car, it comes with a loaded gun mounted on the dashboard and pointed at the driver’s head. The sales guy assures you that the gun has been programed to only discharge if your fall behind in your payments. As long as you keep paying, what could go wrong he asks?

Ask this poor VMWare customer (whose virtual machines suddenly refused to power up) what could go wrong. According to a company spokesman, “an issue has been uncovered with ESX 3.5 Update 2 and ESXi 3.5 that causes the product license to expire on August 12”.

Why does anyone accept to use mission-critical infrastructure software that has such a kill switch? Enough things can go wrong with complex software that we don’t need to engineer additional causes of failure.

[UPDATED 2008/8/15: A less dramatic but related example: a Microsoft employee has his Win Server 2008 release candidate license expire on him. Sure it’s an RC so you shouldn’t have production-quality expectations¬† on it, but that means that the “kill switch” code is there. Even if you plan to free the final release from this constraint, the fact that the code was there at one point means that things can go wrong. This is what happened with VMWare BTW: “the problem is caused by a build timeout that was mistakenly left enabled for the release build”.]

[UPDATED 2008/9/2: A more throrough analysis of the importance of asking “why is this (license enforcement) in the code in the first place” rather than “how did this bug slip through”.]

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