Microsoft Alternatives project (MAlt)

The Microsoft Alternatives project (MAlt) started a year ago to mitigate anticipated software license fee increases. MAlt’s objective is to put us back in control using open software. It is now time to present more widely this project and to explain how it will shape our computing environment.


Over the years, CERN’s activities and services have increasingly relied on commercial software and solutions to deliver core functionalities, often leveraged by advantageous financial conditions based on the recognition of CERN’s status as an academic, non-profit or research institute. Once installed, well-spread and heavily used, the leverage used to attract CERN service managers to the commercial solutions tends to disappear and be replaced by licensing schemes and business models tuned for the private sector.

Given the collaborative nature of CERN and its wide community, a high number of licenses are required to deliver services to everyone, and when traditional business models on a per-user basis are applied, the costs per product can be huge and become unaffordable in the long term.

A prime example is that CERN has enjoyed special conditions for the use of Microsoft products for the last 20 years, by virtue of its status as an “academic institution”. However, recently, the company has decided to revoke CERN’s academic status, a measure that took effect at the end of the previous contract in March 2019, replaced by a new contract based on user numbers, increasing the license costs by more than a factor of ten. Although CERN has negotiated a ramp-up profile over ten years to give the necessary time to adapt, such costs are not sustainable.

Anticipating this situation, the IT department created the Microsoft Alternatives project, MAlt, a year ago.

MAlt’s objective

The initial objective was to 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. By doing so, the laboratory is playing a pioneering role among public research institutions, most of whom have recently been faced with the same dilemma.

MAlt is a multi-year effort and it will now enter a new phase with the first migrations.

The project’s principles of engagement are to:

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
Coming in 2019

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.

Many other products and services are being worked on: evaluations of alternative solutions for various software packages used for IT core services, prototypes and pilots will emerge along the course of the next few years.

How will MAlt impact you and how to contribute?

You will find all the details and progress on the project site and more particularly the list of products addressed in the project.

The new computing newsletter blog will communicate on general items, and in addition, a general presentation will be provided in the Main Auditorium on 10 September at 2.30 p.m.

Needless to say, isolated initiatives will waste effort and resources. Instead, if you or your team are willing to participate, if you have ideas, the best way is to join the coordinated Microsoft Alternatives effort by checking the project site and contributing to the discussion channel.

Interesting times ahead! 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 and finally that CERN can inspire its partners by collaborating around a new range of products. “


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