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Managing Licenses with Activation Keys

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An activation key is an encoded bit string that defines the list of features to enable, how long the key would stay valid upon activation, and the specific serial number of a Cisco ASA device. A series of five hexadecimal numbers, as shown at the top of the output in Example 3-1, typically represents that string. Each activation key is only valid for the particular hardware platform with the specific encoded serial number. The complete set of activation keys resides in a hidden partition of the built-in flash device of a Cisco ASA; other nonvolatile internal memory structures maintain a backup copy of that information. After Cisco generates a key for a given device, you cannot separate individual features from this licensed package. You can request and apply another key with a different set of features to the same Cisco ASA device at any future point in time. All features encoded in a particular key always have the same licensed duration, so activation keys can be classified as permanent or time-based.

Permanent and Time-Based Activation Keys

Every Cisco ASA model comes with a certain set of basic features and capacities enabled by default; the Base License permanently activates these features on the particular platform. Even though these core features do not require an explicit activation key, one usually comes installed anyway. This is the permanent activation key, which never expires. Although the system does not require this key for basic operation, some advanced features, such as failover, depend on the permanent activation key in order to operate correctly. You can enable additional features without a time limit by applying a different permanent activation key. Because a Cisco ASA device can have only one permanent activation key installed at any given time, every new key must encompass the entire set of desired features. The feature set enabled by the new permanent activation key completely replaces the previously enabled permanent feature set, instead of merging with it. In rare situations in which the permanent activation key becomes lost or corrupted, the output of the show activation-key command displays the following value: Don bradman cricket 17 for pc.

If this happens, the system continues to operate with the default set of basic features for the platform. Reinstall the permanent activation key to restore the desired feature set. Although you can always obtain the replacement key from Cisco, it is a best practice to always maintain a backup of all activation keys used by your Cisco ASA devices.

In addition to the permanent activation key, you can install one or more time-based keys to enable certain features for a limited period of time. All premium features can be activated by either permanent or time-based keys, with the exception of Botnet Traffic Filter, which is only available via a time-based license. Even though you can apply multiple time-based activation keys on the same Cisco ASA concurrently, only one license remains active for any particular feature at any given time. Thus, several time-based keys can stay active on the ASA as long as they enable different features. Other time-based keys remain installed but inactive until needed. Only the currently active licenses for each feature continue the time countdown; you can stop the timer by manually deactivating a key or installing a different time-based license for the same feature. In Cisco ASA Software version 8.3(1) and later, time-based key expiration no longer depends on the configured system time and date; the countdown occurs automatically based on the actual uptime of the ASA.

Combining Keys

Even though only one time-based activation key can be active for any particular feature at any given time, two identical time-based keys will license a feature for the combined duration. All of the following conditions must be satisfied for this to happen:

  • Both current and new time-based keys enable only one feature. Typically, this is how you receive all time-based activation keys from Cisco.
  • Both keys license the feature at exactly the same level. If the feature is tiered, the licensed capacities have to match.

For example, assume that you have a Cisco ASA 5555-X with an active time-based key that enables 1000 AnyConnect Premium Peers for six weeks. If you add another time-based key for 1000 AnyConnect Premium Peers that has a duration of eight weeks, the new key will have the combined duration of 14 weeks. However, the new key will deactivate the original time-based license if it enables 2500 AnyConnect Premium Peers instead or also adds the Intercompany Media Engine feature. If you install another time-based key for the IPS Module feature on the same device, both keys will activate concurrently because they enable different features. To ease the management of time-based licenses and receive the maximum advantage of combining their duration when possible, always make sure to use separate time-based activation keys for each feature and tiered capacity.

When activated on the same device, the features and capacities of the permanent and active time-based keys also combine to form a single feature set, as such:

  • The system chooses the better value between the two key types for any feature that can be either enabled or disabled. For example, the ASA enables the Intercompany Media Engine feature based on the permanent key even if all active time-based keys have this feature disabled.
  • For AnyConnect Premium Sessions and AnyConnect Essentials licenses that are tiered, the system picks the highest session count between the active time-based and permanent keys.
  • Total UC Proxy and Security Contexts counts combine between the permanent and active time-based keys up to the platform limit. This way, you can configure a total of 22 virtual contexts by adding a time-based license for 20 contexts to a Cisco ASA 5515-X with the permanent Base License for 2 contexts.

Example 3-1 illustrates a Cisco ASA that derives its feature set from the permanent and one time-based activation keys. Both activation keys appear at the top of the output. Features denoted as perpetual come from the permanent activation key; these licenses never expire. Time-based features show the remaining number of days before expiration; even if you enable one of these features via the permanent key later on, the countdown will continue until the applicable time-based key expires or becomes deactivated manually.

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Time-Based Key Expiration

When a time-base key is within 30 days of expiration, ASA generates daily system log messages to alert you of that fact. The following message includes the specific time-based activation key that is about to expire:

When the active time-based license expires, a Cisco ASA looks for another available time-based activation key that you previously installed. The system picks the next key according to internal software rules, so a particular order is not guaranteed. You can manually activate a specific time-based key at any given time; after you do so, the deactivated time-based key remains installed with the unused licensed time still available. When all time-based keys for a particular feature expire, the device falls back to using the value in the permanent key for this feature. Upon any expiration event, an ASA generates another system log message that lists the expired key and the succession path for the license. The following message shows that the states of all licensed features from the expired time-based key reverted to the permanent key:

As time-based licenses expire, certain features may deactivate completely and some licensed capacities of other features may reduce. Although these changes typically do not affect existing connections that are using a previously licensed feature, new connections will see the impact. For instance, assume that a Cisco ASA 5545-X appliance has the permanent activation key for 100 AnyConnect Premium Peers and a time-based license for 1000 AnyConnect Premium Peers. If there are 250 active clientless SSL VPN peers connected when the time-based key expires, the ASA appliance will not admit any new SSL VPN users until the session count drops below 100. However, the existing user sessions would remain operational with no impact. On the other hand, the Botnet Traffic Filter feature disables dynamic updates when the license expires; this removes the benefits of the feature right away.

Some features may show no impact from the time-based key expiration until the Cisco ASA system reloads; because the feature is no longer licensed upon the reload, the device may reject some elements of the startup configuration. When a Cisco ASA that was previously licensed for 20 security contexts reloads with the default license, only two virtual contexts will remain operational after the system loads the startup configuration file. To avoid unexpected network outages, it is very important to monitor time-based licenses for expiration and replace them in advance; always use permanent licenses for the critical features when possible.

Using Activation Keys

To apply an activation key to the Cisco ASA, you can use the activation-key command followed by the hexadecimal key value. Both permanent and time-based keys follow the same process, and you cannot determine the key duration until you attempt to install it. Example 3-2 shows a successful attempt to activate the permanent key. Keep in mind that an ASA supports only one of such keys at any given time; the feature set of the last installed key completely overwrites the previous one.

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Example 3-2 Successfully Activated Permanent Key

As shown in Example 3-3, the system specifically notes a time-based key as such during the same activation process; you can see the remaining time before expiration as well.

Example 3-3 Successfully Activated Time-Based Key

When you add a new time-based activation key that enables a single feature at the same level as another currently active key, the remaining time from the current key adds to the new key, as shown in Example 3-4. Keep in mind that both the current and new time-based keys must enable only one feature with the exact same capacity, if applicable; otherwise, the new key will deactivate and replace the current one.

Example 3-4 Time-Based Activation Key Aggregation

You can also deactivate a previously installed time-based license using the optional deactivate argument at the end of the activation-keykey command, as shown in Example 3-5; this keyword is not available for the permanent activation key. After it is deactivated, the time-based key remains installed on the Cisco ASA. You can always reactivate this license later either manually or automatically upon the expiration of another time-based license.

Example 3-5 Deactivating a Time-Based Key

In rare cases, the new permanent key that disables certain features may require a reload of the system before the change occurs. Example 3-6 shows the warning that the system displays before the strong encryption feature gets disabled by the new permanent license.

Example 3-6 Disabling a Feature with Reload Requirement

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Because activation keys tie to a particular device using the serial number, it is possible to attempt to activate a key from one Cisco ASA on another; the software automatically checks for such errors and rejects an incorrect key. Example 3-7 illustrates such an attempt.

Example 3-7 Invalid Activation Key Rejected

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In older Cisco ASA Software versions, it is also possible for the system to reject an activation key when it contains unknown features. In Cisco ASA 8.2(1) and later software, all keys are backward compatible regardless of whether new features are present or not. For instance, when you downgrade from Cisco ASA 9.1(2) to 9.0(2) software with the IPS Module license enabled, the same activation key remains valid after the downgrade even though the older software no longer supports this feature.