Finnish Open Source - Flying High from the Very Beginning

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Helsinki, 7 July, 2005 — Finnish Open Source - Flying High from the Very Beginning

Finns have been the carrying forces and figureheads in the development of open source software. The Finnish Centre for Open Source Software, COSS, aims to keep Finland in the van of development regarding the use of open source in business, too.

The Penguin Took off in Finland

Linux with its penguin logo is known as the flagship of the Finnish open source know-how. This operating system has risen to challenge Windows. Linus Torvalds who, at the time was studying computer science in the University of Helsinki, started to develop Linux in 1990.

Next year, Linus released the first version of the system on the Internet. He urged people to comment, test, and develop the software. Linus immediately got a huge amount of feedback and error reports. In 1992, almost 200 people were already actively working with Linux.

The advancement of Linux contains the focal elements of the open source success story: openness, the Internet, and innovative software, which inspires accomplished people around the world to participate in the development work.

At present, Linus lives in San José, California. He continues to coordinate the development of Linux. His example has its own influence on the fact that Finns still have a significant role in numerous other well-known open source projects, such as MySQL and IRC.

COSS Developing Business Based on Open Source

Finnish employees are often characterized as self-directed and task oriented. This Finnish disposition seems to be well suited for open source projects, in which the developers independently implement different tasks and parts of the project as a whole.

A wide foundation of knowledge and long traditions form a strong basis for developing business based on open source. COSS (Centre for Open Source Software) started at the beginning of 2004 with basic funding granted by Finland’s Ministry of the Interior.

COSS aims to improve co-operation between the companies that develop and use open source software. One of the main goals of COSS is to make different ways of utilizing open source known in different business sectors and user groups.

- There are two COSS directories on the Web site: companies and software. These directories help those who are looking for software and services for their organization to find matching solutions and corporate partners, says the Director of COSS, Petri Räsänen.

Among other things, COSS arranges meetings, organizes international co-operation, and offers various services to support business. COSS also offers legal services providing expert assistance in licensing and other juridical matters.

In Finland, COSS coordinates co-operation between various projects in different regions and lines of business, and stimulates research related to open source. One of COSS's active partners is the Häme Centre of Expertise in the city of Hämeenlinna.

- The Häme Centre of Expertise focuses on supporting research on e-learning as well as product and company development. As a partner of COSS we are responsible for developing open source based business in the field of e-learning, says Director Riikka Rahikainen.

The Häme Centre of Expertise has also studied the use and distribution of open source software in Finnish education. According to the study, there seems to be growing interest in open source software applications in the field of education. Constantly tightening budgets, growing dissatisfaction with vendor power, and the lack of innovation in the proprietary learning technologies are the main reasons behind this trend.

About 60 % of Finnish schools of all levels are using open source software to carry out their practices. The most frequently used open source learning platform is Moodle.

The study anticipates a bright future for the educational open source software usage in Finland. However, it suggests that less passion and more real life experiments are needed, in order to make open source broadly used along the proprietary software in all markets: education, government and business.

The above-mentioned Moodle is a widely used open source solution − and not only within educational institutes. This learning platform works well as a competence development tool for various businesses, for example in the world of finance, as our next case shows.
Open Source Software is Less Risky

Open source software is often associated with the images of high risk factors. A quite opposite analysis was made by some of the most significant and well-known Finnish companies in insurance, financing, and banking: Pohjola Group, Suomi-yhtiö, Savings Banks, and Ilmarinen. Moodle was selected as the platform for their common learning network.

– Our hands would have been tied far into the future by selecting a commercial closed source solution, yet the development can not be forecast reliably. In our opinion, an open source solution is less risky than a closed system, says department manager Jari Heikkurinen from Pohjola Insurance Group.

In addition to closed source code, the price would have been a restrictive factor when choosing a closed source solution. The initial costs of starting a wide commercial learning system would have required the investment to produce advantage for a long time. The corporate partners did not, however, want to bind themselves strictly to one closed source solution and its vendor.

Functionalities about the Same - Costs Vary Widely

Before this project the members of the steering group did not know much about the alternatives of open source. During discussions with Mediamaisteri Ltd, Moodle was mentioned and the steering group started to look into it.

They discovered soon that Moodle, as well as other alternatives, had both advantages and disadvantages. Promises and features varied. However, each solution worked in its own way.

The importance of the price was then emphasized. The closed source solutions did not, after all, contain anything to justify their significantly higher costs when compared to an open source solution.

The steering group estimates that a learning environment based on Moodle will cost roughly five times less than a comparable system implemented with closed source code.
Modular Solutions are Safe and Easy to Customize

– We used to have a commercial closed source platform. It was cumbersome to remove unnecessary functions from it. They disturbed the learning of the subject matter, says development manager Maija Nurmi from Suomi-yhtiö Insurance.

In Moodle, each module of a project has its own person in charge. Parts can be developed independently. The modular structure ensures that Moodle adapts easily for different clients.

One of Moodle's focal features is its customability, which was decisive in selecting the open source solution. The learning environment will be developed further, and later the companies will make customized contents and solutions according to their needs.

Every now and then, there are groundless doubts about the data security of open source software.

- We scrutinized everything together with the clients' data management departments. Their standards were strict, but we found no problems in data security or anything else, says managing Director Timo Väliharju from Mediamaisteri.

Mediamaisteri is closely involved in the Moodle project. However, the company does not strive to offer the newest applications and features to their clients at once.

The goals of these companies that produce added value to open source solutions are often different from the companies which have bound themselves to commercial software. An open source deliverer can participate in the project and simultaneously observe and evaluate the development work critically from a client's point of view. New features are profoundly tested instead of trying to vend new versions which are less than ready or only superficially improved, which sometimes happens if you try to sell products as early as possible.

COSS is the Gateway to Finnish Open Source

Open source has established itself as part of software business. Finnish open source software development has, from the very beginning, been of high quality at the grass roots, in practical software projects.

- COSS wants Finland to lead the way in developing other parts of the open source ecosystem too. COSS participates actively in international co-operation. We convey Finnish open source know-how to various partners: for example internationally operating businesses, the public sector, and research institutes, says Petri Räsänen encouraging all interested partners to contact COSS.

The writer, Mr. Jukka Matikainen is the Marketing & Communications Manager at COSS. The article is published in ICT Cluster Finland Review 2005.

More information
ICT Cluster Finland Review 2005