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CERN’s headquarters in Switzerland. (CERN Photo)

Citing unbearable price increases after Microsoft decided it was no longer eligible for an academic discount, CERN announced this week that it has embarked on a “Microsoft Alternatives” project to embrace open-source software.

In the blog post, the renowned European research institution said it created the project a year ago after Microsoft informed CERN that it would have to start paying up to ten times more for Microsoft software on a commercial per-user basis. CERN was able to spread those increases out over a ten-year period, but “such costs are not sustainable.”

After a prolonged delay, Microsoft responded to an inquiry regarding its relationship with CERN with the following statement:

We are committed to a consistent application of eligibility requirements for our different licensing options. When we find exceptions to this policy during our ongoing audit processes for compliance, we work directly with customers to ensure their transition to new licensing programs is as seamless as possible.

Non-profits and research institutions are usually coveted customers for big enterprise tech companies that want to show a softer side, and financial incentives are often employed by all types of companies selling into those markets. CERN has been using Microsoft products for 20 years, it said in the blog post.

Satya Nadella opens the 2019 Microsoft Build conference in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

That means a generation’s worth of technology practices and custom applications at CERN center around Microsoft products, which was affordable over that time because Microsoft considered CERN an “academic institution” eligible for substantial discounts. But at some point last year, Microsoft decided that distinction no longer applied and proposed a new commercial license based on usage.

It takes years to execute a major technology shift inside an organization like CERN, but after that decision the group felt it had no choice to start evaluating open-source alternatives it can ensure won’t be subject to abrupt, steep prices increases at some point down the road.

“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,” wrote Emmanuel Ormancey of CERN in the blog post.

“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,” he wrote.

Implementing and managing open-source software across an entire technology organization is quite an undertaking, which is why there has been such drama over the development of managed open-source services by cloud vendors and software companies founded around open-source projects over the last year. It takes a fair amount of skill to operate enterprise open-source projects at scale, but at least the licensing terms are crystal clear.

[Editor’s note: The headline and this post were updated after Microsoft finally responded with a statement.]

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