The Future of ESRI ArcGIS Concurrent User Licenses

The life of a license administrator at a company that uses engineering software for its business has become increasingly complex recently. Many of the major software vendors are moving away from the concurrent user model to a pay-per-use model, as a response to the growth of cloud-based offerings. Now ESRI has also decided to discontinue concurrent licenses in favor of single user licenses. Customers discovered towards the end of 2016 that this would take effect as at 1/1/2017, which did not give them much time to prepare.  

An added complication in understanding the already complex ESRI licensing options is that new product ArcGIS Pro (“Pro”), has a different licensing model from ArcGIS Desktop  (“Desktop”). Existing users of Desktop have access to Pro, which is included in the package, as long as they have a maintenance contract for Desktop in place, in order to encourage them to experiment with Pro. The drive is for ESRI customers to move to Pro, as the latest release 10.5 of Desktop is slated to be retired in December 2022 . However, it seems that more consultation with existing customers should have been done, based on community feedback and discussion.

ESRI’s Different License Types

Phrases like “concurrent user” and “single user” mean different things to different vendors, and ESRI is no exception. Here are some license type definitions according to ESRI.

  • Named User – The Named User license can be used on any machine, as it is linked to the person authorized to use it. That user can run the ArcGIS on up to 3 machines simultaneously. This is the default license type for ArcGIS Pro.
  • Single User – A Single User license is linked to the MAC of a specific machine and can be used by anyone who has access to that machine. This has become the new default license for other ESRI products.
  • Concurrent User – The user books out a license from the ESRI License Manager Server, and, as long as there are available licenses in the pool, can work on any machine. The ESRI License Manager will deny service if the maximum number of licenses have been booked out. The number of machines with the software installed can exceed the cap of concurrent licenses. Standard (or perpetual) licenses are available for ArcGIS for Desktop, which require the customer to pay an annual maintenance fee. This is the license format that most long-standing customers of ESRI have in place to manage their concurrent users. If the maintenance fee lapses, the customer’s access to ArcGIS Pro is revoked. However, ArcGIS for Desktop can still be used, without the benefit of future upgrades.

Concurrent User Licenses in 2017

ESRI’s original stance on concurrent licenses was that they were to be discontinued at the beginning of 2017. This definitely still applies to any new customers, who will be required to buy named licenses. Unfortunately, ESRI’s communication process was less than perfect, and many long-time users of ArcGIS only found out about the planned changes via the community grapevine. Even where a formal communication was made by the account manager, this was done very late during 2016, with little time for customers to assess their current and future license needs. This caused a considerable backlash, and for now, this is the situation:-

  • Existing Desktop customers will still be able to purchase concurrent user licenses, presumably until Desktop is retired. The oldest version still supported is 10.1, but this will be retired by the beginning of 2018, so any Desktop 10.1 users will have to decide whether to migrate to Desktop 10.5 or Pro or take another path entirely in the very near future. Any maintenance agreements must be kept current, as access to Pro is revoked if the maintenance agreement expires.
  • Customers who purchase Pro are issued named licenses by default. However, the license administrator can convert named licenses either to single or concurrent licenses with the aid of My ESRI. My ESRI is a self-service website for managing the customer-ESRI relationship and facilitating license modifications. It must be noted that the change to a single or concurrent user license model is a one-way change, although if one reads between the lines, it does appear that one can revert after discussion with one’s account manager.

Should one migrate to ArcGIS Pro?

Pro is a true 64-bit application that allows all the artifacts from the project to linked together easily. It has specifically been designed to work with ArcGIS Online (“AGOL”), the cloud-based mapping product, and ArcGIS Enterprise, the mapping platform. It can be run in tandem with ArcMAP on the same machine. The customer will also be able to obtain fixes and upgrades automatically (advisable with a new product).

While users of the new product are generally appreciative of its new features, and it is cost-efficient for certain customer setups, most large users see this as a massive price hike. Where a company has several hundred users, the license administrator manages costs via a concurrent user model and will generally have far less licenses than GIS users. ESRI has recognised this and made an offer where such companies can exchange one concurrent license for 3 named licenses. However, more than one customer has commented that they have a concurrent usage basis of up to 1:5, and moving to a named license option will definitely harm their software budget. Using the right license management software, this ratio can be even higher. Also, many companies only use GIS software sporadically, and the acquisition of full named licenses for occasional use is obviously not in their best interests.

Some Unintended Consequences

The decision on whether to move to a named user model and Pro is very dependent on the unique GIS requirements of an organization. What has happened in some cases is that long-standing users are evaluating whether they even want to upgrade to Desktop 10.5, which is surely not what ESRI expected. The license situation is still in flux, even for Pro, – ESRI has expanded the named license option to a two-tier system, with a type 1 and type 2 user, which makes the licensing model even more complicated. It is hoped that the license debate will be sorted out sooner than later, but until it is resolved, there will be some discomfort in the GIS marketplace.