CERN bails on Facebook’s Workplace, cites cost

The research organization, which operates the large hadron collider, will instead opt for open-source messaging app Mattermost to replace its trial test of Workplace.

Facebook Workplace

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information about CERN's rationale for moving away from Facebook Workplace.

Research organization CERN will replace Facebook’s Workplace with an open-source alternative after deciding not to move to a new free version of the collaboration software that would eliminate enterprise management features.

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, first rolled out Workplace’s free Standard version in 2016.

The organization has since been testing the premium version of the enterprise social network with staff, including CERN’s HR and IT teams. About 1,000 staffers currently use Workplace, with around 150 active weekly users on the platform. 

Facebook initially waived the costs of Workplace Premium, but then unveiled new payment plans last July. CERN was told to either begin paying for the full service or move to the free “Essential” version of the app. That change would have ended access to single sign-on and other enterprise features, CERN said.

“Paying for such features, for a tool that was not part of our core offering for the CERN community and where the existing level of control of our data did not correspond to CERN's needs, was not suitable. Therefore, we will end the trial of this platform,” the organization said in a blog post.

CERN now plans to use Mattermost, an open-source tool, for instant messaging; it will join several other internal communications tools already available to staffers. It requested that all content hosted on Facebook’s servers be removed.

CERN had initially said it planned to ditch Workplace because moving to the Essential tier would result in the loss of control of its data, which it said would be sent to Facebook. That statement was changed on Friday, with that claim retracted.

According to Facebook, a customer retains control over their data. “A community admin manages the community and the company owns and controls the data. The community admin can modify, delete or export your data at any time.”

Facebook called CERN’s fears about data control “inaccurate” and argued that cost was the primary reason CERN opted for Mattermost.

 “Last year we announced an update to our pricing and packaging,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “As part of this we moved from two tier offerings (one free, one paid) to three (one free, two paid). CERN [was] originally on our Premium tier for free, and we asked them to either pay for the technology or downgrade to our free tier. They declined for cost reasons….”

Alongside the free tier, Workplace now has two paid plans: Workplace Enterprise, which costs $8 per user per month, and Workplace Advanced, at $4 per user per month. The latter has limits on certain features such as storage and the number of people who can join group calls.

On all three tiers, “Facebook acts as the data processor, and our customers act as the data controller,” the spokesperson said. “Our customers retain all rights, title and interest (including intellectual property rights) to their data.

“CERN saying that they were given a choice to pay or lose their administrative and data rights to Workplace is not accurate. They could join Workplace today on our Essential tier, which would allow them to use Workplace for free and retain the same admin and data rights.”

CERN declined to discuss the move to replace Workplace in more detail.

Concerns over Facebook’s use of data

There are 3 million paid Workplace customers, according to the most recent data on the app. That number includes deployments at large enterprise such as Nestle and the Royal Bank of Scotland. 

However, concerns have arisen in the past about how controversies around handling of data in Facebook’s consumer business might affect its enterprise operations. A survey by CCS Insight last year showed that 42% of employees felt their trust in Facebook had decreased in the last 12 months.

“…This is something we’ve seen become an increasing issue over the last couple of years following the Cambridge Analytica scandal,” Angela Ashenden, a principal analyst at CCS Insight, said before CERN changed its explanation for the move to Mattermost. 

“Overall, the Workplace team has done well to manage the impact of this on its enterprise business, but it’s inevitable that there will be some fallout as a result…,” she said.

Ashenden added that, while the Workplace free trial attracted a lot of interest from a range of companies and helped to kick-start its traction in the collaboration market, a move to a revenue model was inevitable, with most organizations accepting they have to pay for enterprise-grade security, governance and full control.

Raúl Castañón-Martínez, senior analyst at 451 Research, said it’s not unusual to see data management concerns among large organizations. 

“This highlights that … SaaS services like Workplace might not be a good fit for every company; this is further reinforced by the fact that CERN stated they are relying on services like Mattermost, which does provide companies with full control of their data.

“It is also notable that several members publicly stated that they did not trust Facebook in terms of data privacy,” he said. “While Facebook has stated that its enterprise solution functions as a separate entity to their consumer services, they could benefit from expanding their efforts to address these concerns.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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