CERN goes Open Source, bye-bye Microsoft

It is an interesting development that is currently emerging at the CERN research facilities. They have set up the ‘Microsoft Alternatives project’ (MAlt) to switch to Open Source Software (OSS) in the coming years. Reason: Increasing license demands from Microsoft.


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CERN provides the details and background for this project on this website. From my point of view the reading should open the eyes of decision makers.

Just a side note: At CERN Tim Berners Lee invented the ‘Internet’ (World Wide Web) with HTML pages – on a NeXTStep server (was from Steve Jobs, who later switched back to Apple).

Taking back control using open software

The Microsoft Alternatives Project (MAlt) was launched a year ago to mitigate the expected increase in software license fees. MAlt’s goal is to use open software to give CERN back control over the software it uses and the costs it incurs. After the year’s lead time, CERN decided to broaden this project and explain how it will shape the computer environment at the research facility.


(Source: CERN)

Background information on the CERN decision

At CERN it was the same as at many authorities, companies and research institutions. Over the years, CERN’s activities and services have increasingly relied on commercial software and solutions to provide core functionality. This is also because CERN has often been able to take advantage of favorable financial conditions based on its status as an academic, non-profit or research institute.

But it’s like a fishing hook when the fish has bitten: Once installed, well spread and used, the leverage disappears. This is because companies like Microsoft have only used it to win over CERN service managers (IT decision-makers) for commercial solutions. At some point, the switch is flipped and the manufacturers replace the previous agreements with licensing systems and business models tailored to the private sector.


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Exploding (Microsoft) license fees

Given the collaborative nature of CERN and its broad community, a large number of licenses are required to provide services to all. If traditional business models are applied on a per-user basis in this environment, the cost per product can be enormous and can become prohibitive in the long run.

A prime example of this is that CERN has enjoyed special conditions for the use of Microsoft products for 20 years due to its status as an “academic institution”. Recently, however, Microsoft decided to abolish CERN’s academic status. A measure that came into force at the end of the previous contract in March 2019 and was replaced by a new contract based on user numbers.

As a result of this change, license costs have increased by a factor of more than ten. Although CERN has negotiated a ramp-up profile over a ten-year period to obtain the necessary time for adaptation, these costs are not sustainable. Against this background, the IT department launched the Microsoft Alternative Project MAlt a year ago.

The goal of MAlt

The first objective was to investigate the migration of commercial software products (Microsoft and others) to open source solutions. The aim was to minimize CERN’s exposure to the risks of unsustainable commercial conditions. Thus, the laboratory (CERN research facility) has taken a pioneering role among the public research institutions, most of which have recently faced the same dilemma.

MAlt is a multi-year initiative and is now entering a new phase with the first migrations. The principles of the project’s commitment are as follows:

  • Deliver the same service to every category of CERN personnel
  • Avoid vendor lock-in to decrease risk and dependency
  • Keep hands on the data
  • Address the common use-cases

In particular, avoiding being tied to a supplier and keeping the data in your hands is fundamentally contrary to Microsoft’s strategy. In 2019, the first major change will be a pilot mail service for the IT department and volunteers. This will be followed by the start of CERN-wide migration. At the same time, some Skype for Business connections and analogue phones will be converted to a softphone telephony pilot.

Many other products and services are being developed: Over the next few years, evaluations of alternative solutions for various software packages for core IT services, prototypes and pilots will emerge. The progress of the project can be followed in the CERN blog.


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