Microsoft is offering corporate users a scorecard for evaluating their internal asset management processes. The new feature will included as part of the company's controversial software asset management (SAM) programme.

The SAM Optimisation Model, which is being announced at Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference in Houston this week, is a free tool that can be used by corporate customers or by value-added resellers and other Microsoft business partners. Companies undergoing an evaluation - always performed internally or by partners, never by Microsoft directly - are given a rating for their SAM efforts on a four-stage scale, from Basic for worst to Dynamic for best.

According to an interview with Michael Beare, Microsoft's director of licence compliance, companies that treat software like they do other assets, such as real estate and intellectual property, are less likely to waste money buying products that end up being unused. Their networks also are less likely to be hit by vulnerabilities because of the presence of unmanaged and unpatched software, Beare contended.

In addition, companies that actively manage their software assets are more apt to engage in smart business practices, such as funnelling purchases to a single reseller in order to maximise their volume-based discounts, Beare said. And finally, he maintained that they are less likely to consciously pirate software or inadvertently be out of compliance with their software licensing contracts.

The compliance issue has made many IT managers wary of taking part in Microsoft's SAM initiative.

Some users said in the past that they were uncomfortable with the idea of giving Microsoft and its agents so much insight into their IT infrastructures. Others have complained that the SAM programme arms Microsoft with ammo for possible software audits that could occupy customers for months even if they're vindicated in the end.

Beare indirectly acknowledged that the SAM process continues to have a poor reputation with many customers. "Unfortunately, in many areas of the world, there is still much confusion about what SAM is; in these areas, we see a focus only on licensing reviews or audits, which . . . is really only part of the picture," he said.

But he insisted that the SAM Optimisation Model evaluations are separate from formal software licence reviews or audits that could be conducted by Microsoft or other parties, such as the Business Software Alliance in the case of companies suspected of piracy. "The focus is only on SAM policies, processes and tool evaluations," Beare said. "Partners don't want to be software compliance enforcers."