It has been almost two years since I blogged my last entry, and lots of changes have taken place:

  • I’ve taken on a different role in the Microsoft consulting services organization and had the opportunities to do some really interesting work in emerging markets.
  • you’ll notice that many links to diagrams and photos in my previous blog entries are no longer valid. This is the consequence of me ignoring my blog for a while and the fact that the old file server for those links has been retired. When time permits, I’ll try to fix up the links again for the more interesting posts.
  • The world of SaaS (which I used to blog about) has moved on. Now, there are the new IaaS, PaaS and cloud computing monikers to reckon with.

I’m really excited to start blogging again, as there is so much to say about the new opportunities and architecture of cloud computing, and my ICT4D projects in emerging markets.

In this post, I want to share about the cloud computing pilot that I’ve been involved with at the Nghe An Tate & Lyle (NATL)sugar factory in Vietnam.

Vietnam News NATL

As many of you may already know, the number of mobile phone subscribers in emerging markets is growing at astounding rate, and Vietnam is one of such developing countries.

Another interesting data point is that mobile phone communication and applications play key roles in driving the economic development agenda in these nations. Here we are not talking about mobile applications that use high speed 2G/3G/4G mobile networks for sending and receiving data. Instead, we are referring to content services that use plain old SMS text messaging for transmitting information.

So why is SMS text messaging the preferred mechanism in those places? The reasons are quite simple:

  • Mobile data communication infrastructure is just starting to get deployed in developing countries and the signal coverage is very spotty – often only available in the larger cities.

 

  • Many developing countries have agriculture-based economy, which means that huge proportions of the population live in rural areas where there are no Internet or mobile data network. However, basic cellular network infrastructure is almost available everywhere, and signal coverage often reach remote farming sites as well.

 

  • The cost of sending SMS text messages is very cheap in developing nations, often at a fraction of the cost in developed countries. Therefore, SMS is relatively affordable as a communication tool.

 

  • Although Internet coverage may be more readily available than mobile data network, PCs are still not as affordable as basic phones. As power blackouts occur very frequently in rural areas, mobile phone batteries are able to yield longer service cycles. And finally, compared to desktop computers, portable phone are more convenient and better suited for roaming and rugged agriculture lifestyles.

At this point you may be wondering: “what does mobile phones and SMS text messaging has to do with improving quality of life”? Well, it turns out that SMS is a relatively simple protocol which can be used to enable many different applications that have query-response, update and notification-multicast messaging semantics.

For example:

To query for the current weather forecast for the Vietnam coastal city “Nha Trang”, the user could send a text message with this syntax: “weather Nha Trang”. The response could look something like “Stormy; 26 degree Celsius; strong wind and ocean waves; small boats advisory”. Fishermen living in that city may use such a SMS weather service to decide if it is safe to be out fishing in the sea on that day.

There are numerous examples of how SMS-text messaging enables just-in-time information services that could save lives and improve economic well-being:

  • subsistence farmers may use SMS to look up average prices of fruits and vegetables sold in various markets. They can use the average price information to decide on the market to sell their produce so they can fetch the highest income.

 

  • micro-finance customers may use text messaging to check their current loan balances, as there are usually no bank branches and ATM machines in rural areas.

 

  • the ministry of health may broadcast avian flu alerts to chicken farmers so that preventive health measures can be quickly implemented in affected areas.

The next example shall take us to my project with NATL in Vietnam, and the video below is probably the best way for me to introduce the project:

 

As you can see from the video, text messaging satisfies a business need for the sugar factory and the farmers – it helps streamline the business communication between the factory and the sugar cane farming communities. The truck arrival schedule is critical information that enables farmers to time their harvesting activity properly, which results in better quality sugar for the factory and higher level of profits for the farmers.

So what does the project has to do with cloud computing, and especially Microsoft Software + Services (S+S) architecture model?

The following diagram shows the conceptual architecture of the NATL sugar factory solution. It should enlighten us on the question above:

image

When a sugar cane farmer sends SMS messages to query for truck arrival information, the messages are routed through local telco and SMS aggregator infrastructure deployed in Vietnam. In addition, the content of the SMS messages should all begin with a reserved keyword, for example: “NATL”.

During the pilot testing with farmers, Microsoft made commercial arrangements with a local SMS aggregator to reserve a mobile short code (that the farmers dial to send SMS messages) and keyword for the text messages to be routed to the Mobile Web Gateway (MWG) cloud service hosted in Microsoft data center.

In order to bridge the differences in communication protocols used by telco-centric SMS infrastructure and the Internet, my team has developed the MWG service to translate and route SMS messages between the two kinds of networks. For the NATL pilot, the MWG service is connected with the SMS gateway in Vietnam using the SMPP protocol. To retrieve content, the MWG service used SOAP protocol (it could also use REST) to communicate with the Supply Chain Management Web service hosted in the NATL private cloud. The SMS request is sent to the NATL Web service as a payload in the SOAP body.

When the NATL Web service receives a SOAP request, the service logic parses through the parameters of the SMS requests (keyword, farmer identification number etc…) and makes a SQL request to the content database that has the truck schedule information.

The application response gets sent in the reverse order, starting as a SOAP response with the requested information in the SOAP body. Next, the MWG service reformats the SOAP response into an SMS message and routes the reply back to the farmer’s mobile phone through the SMS aggregator.

The core S+S architecture model that integrates public cloud services with on-premises private cloud services, and  provides value-added content through ubiquitous SMS mobile channel, has enabled us to change lives in a developing country.

Since we completed the pilot last year, I have spoken to a number of other government agencies and NGO in emerging countries who are interested in adopting the same architecture model in their ICT4D initiatives. The scenarios are wide ranging from agriculture marketplace to education content.

The NATL sugar factory pilot is definitely one of the most fulfilling computing projects I’ve ever done, and sugar-coating it with an S+S architecture pitch has made it a double sweet success…