CERN leaves Microsoft programs behind for open-source software

A price tag hike has CERN, one of the world's leading scientific research organizations, moving from Microsoft programs for more affordable open-source software.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

We all use open-source software every day. What? You don't? Have you used Google, watched a Netflix show, or liked a buddy's Facebook post? Congrats, you're an open-source user. 

But, true, most of us don't use end-user open-source software every day. Even staffers at CERN, one of the world's great research institutions, don't -- and they run the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's largest particle accelerator, on it. But, on the desktop, they use Microsoft-based programs like many users around the globe. That's changing now.

Beginning a year ago, CERN launched the Microsoft Alternatives project (MAlt). The name says it all. 

CERN wants to get away from Microsoft programs for a very prosaic reason: To save money. 

Iban Eguia, a CERN software engineer, tweeted: "At @CERN, we are moving away from @Microsoft products due to their license fee increases for our research laboratory. We will try to use open-source software as much as possible. :)"

Emmanuel Ormancey, a CERN system analyst, explained that commercial software licenses, with their per-user fee structure are unaffordable, for CERN. For decades, CERN could afford Microsoft programs because it paid "academic institution" rate. All good things must come to an end. Recently, Microsoft revoked CERN's academic status, and it replaced the old contract with user number-based one. This increased "the license costs by more than a factor of 10. Although CERN has negotiated a ramp-up profile over q0 years to give the necessary time to adapt, such costs are not sustainable."

So, CERN started the Microsoft Alternatives project (MAlt). It's initial goal is "investigate the migration from commercial software products (Microsoft and others) to open-source solutions, so as to minimise CERN's exposure to the risks of unsustainable commercial conditions."

CERN is far from the only group that feels the pain of per user licensing. CERN, Ormancey claimed, however, is leading the way in exploring open-source alternatives.

The project's principles of engagement are:

  • 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

Now, CERN is moving from planning to migrating. 

Ormancey said: "The first major change coming is a pilot mail Service for the IT department and volunteers this summer, followed by the start of CERN-wide migration. In parallel, some Skype for Business clients and analogue phones will migrate to a softphone telephony pilot."

Moving end-user software stacks is not an easy job. Fortunately, CERN already has some in-house Linux and open-source expertise.

On the cloud, CERN is a long-time supporter of the OpenStack Infrastructure-as-a-Server (IaaS) cloud. Before that, until recently, CERN, with its partner organization Fermilab, had its own Linux distribution: Scientific Linux. The groups recently stopped developing Scientific Linux, which was a Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) clone. They did this since CentOS -- a general-purpose Linux based on RHEL sources -- made Scientific Linux redundant.

CERN knows building end-user software won't be easy. "While the Microsoft Alternatives project is ambitious, it's also a unique opportunity for CERN to demonstrate that building core services can be done without vendor and data lock-in, that the next generation of services can be tailored to the community's needs," Ormancey concluded, 

Other organizations and companies, which don't want to be tied to proprietary business models, would be well advised to keep an eye on MAlt.

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