Wednesday, November 23, 2011

TEDx Adelaide Talk Is Now On Youtube

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently presented at TEDx Adelaide, which had the theme "On The Edge".  They have now put the videos up on YouTube, so here it is:

The bottom line? 

Just as MP3 files and digital music distribution has changed the market place for the recording industry, so to decentralised digital mobile communications is on the verge of similarly disrupting the mobile telecommunications industry, by similarly adding value to the everyday experience of many people. 

The question is, will the mobile carriers see the opportunities that change brings, or will they work against their own interests by failing to embrace the change?

Only time will tell.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Demonstrating the Serval Rhizome Store-and-Forward MeshMS SMS Service

(Please take a look at our crowd-funding campaign at

Update: We trialled Rhizome on a training exercise in New Zealand recently.  Follow the link to read the blog post about it.

SMS messages on a cellular network get delivered via the cell towers and message centre infrastructure.

On a mesh, it is possible for us to deliver messages to other phones that are reachable on the mesh at the same time.  This works great, and we have had this capability in the Serval BatPhone software for a while now.

However, it does have some limitations, in particular, if there is no link all the way from the sender to the receiver on the mesh at the instant the message is sent.  This is rather unfortunate, as we usually think of SMS as being the most reliable fall-back on a mobile communications network.

So we set about replicating this resilience by creating a store-and-forward SMS-like service on top of the Serval Rhizome mesh file distribution framework.  We call this MeshMS, for Mesh Message Service.

This service uses direct mesh links if they are available by making use of the existing SMS capability in the Serval BatPhone software.  However, if there is no direct link, then it uses a store-and-forward scheme, that asks any passing phones to copy the message and distribute it to other phones on the mesh, until it (hopefully) eventually reaches its intended destination.  The cartoon below shows how this works.

The man wishes to send the message "Prepare the Zeppelin" to his hench-person, but there is no direct mesh link at that time due to the challenging topology.  The message gets picked up (stored) by the compatible phone in the pram, without any action on the part of the woman.  The woman then keeps walking along, and eventually the phone in the pram is able to automatically deliver (forward) the message to the ultimate destination, whereupon the minion knows to ready his master's zeppelin, to do the weekly grocery shopping, one trusts. Of course, there could be many intermediate steps, instead of just the one shown here.

The great thing about this approach is that it doesn't require a complete path to the destination at the time of sending, but can propagate progressively across the mesh as it is able, and can make use of nodes that move between otherwise isolated mesh networks, creating an asynchronous link between them where it would not otherwise be possible.

While the delay in such a service is huge, the bandwidth is also great, as potentially gigabytes of data can be transferred between nodes.  One side use of this protocol that we intend to exploit is to provide an efficient means of distributing updates to the Serval software suite, so that field updates can occur without dependence on infrastructure, and with much greater aggregate bandwidth than any single-cast cellular or wireless approach.  In fact, this will even allow the update of software, maps and other resources during a disaster.

We have even demonstrated it to deliver an SMS message between South Africa and Australia, using nothing but compatible phones to carry the message more than 10,000km:

This feature has profound utility in allowing the exchange of messages, files, and all manner of data in what are otherwise very difficult settings.

It also provides the capabilities required to enable disadvantaged communities, perhaps in remote locations, war zones or informal settlements, to create their own infrastructure, carrier and cost-free SMS networks using compatible handsets, so that they can enjoy the benefits of digital communications that many of us take for granted.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Building The Serval BatPhone Software

We have been putting some significant effort into making the Serval BatPhone software easier to build from scratch, especially first time around.

The procedure for Mac/Linux has now been reduced to (assuming you want the wifi-autodetect branch, which for now you probably do):

1. git clone git:// -b wifi-autodetect
2. cd batphone
3. ./BUILD.txt

After that, you should be able to compile the software from in Eclipse without difficulty, as all the messy stuff has been taken care of (git sub-modules, JNI/NDK compilation, NaCl preparation, among others).

This easy build process will be pushed up to the master branch fairly soon, but for now, it is only available with the wifi-autodetect branch.

Note that building on Windows remains unsupported, as end of line markers in files get messed up if great care is not taken.  If you want to build on Windows, we recommend you install a Linux virtual machine, e.g., using the free VirtualBox software, and run the build process from in there.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Serval Project Progress Report

It is time to reflect on the past six months of Serval, and where we intend to head in the next six months.

Six months ago we did not have a developer software offering, or even a single Android application that contained all the components for Serval. Today we do.

On-site in South Africa after testing the Serval MeshMS store-and-forward SMS Service, delivering files and SMS messages up to 11,000km without infrastructure, or a continuously connected mesh.
Six months ago we did not have MeshMS (Mesh SMS service), interactive mapping,  Rhizome file distribution or store-and-forward SMS working.  Today, we do, and have even sent photos and SMS messages more then 10,000km between Australia and South Africa using mobile phones as the only infrastructure (more on this in a blog post and video in the next few days).  See this blog entry for an infographic and video showing the sending and receiving of this first inter-continental mesh SMS message.

Demonstration of the Serval Rhizome Mesh-Based Infrastructure-Free File Distribution System, which is also the basis of the store-and-forward MeshMS/SMS service.

Six months ago we had a number of legal issues to work through with regard to giving Flinders University an appropriate holding in the Serval Project's commercial arm, and the Shuttleworth Foundation had not yet come on board.  Today, we have just about finalised the details for these arrangements, with the final execution to occur in the coming weeks.  It will be fantastic to get this settled.

TEDxAdelaide Presentation November 2011. (Video coming soon) “The democratisation of online music is one example where the internet has eroded the monopoly power of music labels returning some portion of that power to the general public, without bankrupting those enterprises.” Paul will explore what is essentially a Napster equivalent that will compete with the mobile telecommunication giants. He believes that the advent of powerful, programmable, portable digital devices (e.g. smartphones) are a key factor in this eventual democratisation of mobile telecommunications.
Six months ago we were not greatly recognised internationally for our work on mesh communications.  Today, we are increasingly recognised as the leaders internationally in this space, which is a tremendous honour and also acts to spur us along to deliver on all the potential that mesh networking offers.  Recognition has included support by the Shuttleworth Foundation (South Africa), reaching the finals of the World Embedded Software Competition for University students (South Korea), strong engagement by and with the IEEE 802.11 standards process (USA and international), presenting at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas and TEDx Adelaide (Australia), and also reaching the finals of the Ashoka Foundation World Changer's Citizen Media competition (international) from a field of more than 400 entrants.  We are also seeing university and other partnership opportunities in Australia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the Americas, and Asia begin to take shape.  Now all we need is to be able to clone ourselves a few times over so that we can engage fully with the various opportunities!

Our plans for the next six months are to fill out the feature set that we have generated (voice, SMS, MMS, interactive mapping, file and software distribution), and add in the missing pieces, primarily the security and authenticity components that we have planned from the outset.  This will take us to mid-2012 when we hope to focus on maturing all of this into a general public release, as compared to the early-access developer software we have released to date.

Adelaide Festival of Ideas, 2011, JIM BETTISON ORATION: KICKING THE INFRASTRUCTURE HABIT: [listen to MP3]  "Modern communications systems use extensive and expensive infrastructure to deliver services we could only dream of a few decades ago. This works for those who enjoy peace and sufficient wealth, but fails to reach the last billion people in poorer countries, as well as those in remote, emergency or disaster situations. Now modern mobile phones have the potential to communicate directly, to form networks without reliance on any infrastructure. The Serval Project based at Flinders University is turning this dream into a reality. It is working to make communications available to everyone, anywhere, any time especially to those who need it most."

We are also looking seriously about getting advanced mesh support built into one or more models of mobile phone to offer energy efficiency and/or range improvements over the basic service.

Simultaneously, we are beginning to explore appropriate trials of the technology that if they go ahead will gain us valuable feedback, and refine the software to maximise it's utility for the general community, including in South Africa (assisting in the distribution of educational material without cost or dependence on cellular or school IT infrastructure), North America and Australia.

So all in all, the next six months should keep us fairly busy.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Serval is in finals for the Ashoka Foundation Change Makers Citizen Media Competition!

It seems that this last month has been one of the Serval Project gaining international recognition as leading the mesh communications space.  First some thoughts on that, and then some of the exciting things that have been happening.

This is incredibly gratifying and humbling, and I think also says something about the value of the open development and free software model, and also about the value of pragmatism and choosing the right applications and approach.  Ultimately it must spur us onto continuing to advance not only the technology, but also its use.

We are quite aware that there are other more experienced players in this space, who have in some cases invested many millions of dollars into mesh networking.  However, the closed-handed commercial approach that many such group have taken means that many innovations in the mesh networking space do not get well known, and that people feel isolated from what is happening in this space -- which is quite counterproductive, since mesh is by it's nature a word-of-mouth and peer-to-peer technology, and that character bleeds over into how it is best used, valued, evangelised and adopted.

We are also quite aware that there have been significant efforts put into making robust mesh routing protocols and standards, for example 802.11s, and yet in a short space of time we seem to be accelerating our traction at a much faster rate.  I think that there are a few interrelated causes for this.  First, we are extremely pragmatic in our approach, and this is partly enabled by us driving a vision forward, rather than seeking consensus to generate a moderated output.

The unfortunate reality for mesh networking is that it is still in such infancy that the various components have to be well matched to perform well, and thus the traditional compromise approach to standards generation, without an working example to inform the standard, is prone to produce a sub-optimal result, and take a very long time to produce.

This is also related to the lack of clear commercial application (or more specifically, of commercial return) of mesh networking in the eyes of many companies.  This is because when viewed as a traditional network, mesh networks are very poor cousins; they have poor reliability, poor bandwidth, poor quality of service, limited range and so on. All these make it very difficult to layer existing commercial models over a mesh network.  For example, adapting Google's advertising model onto a mesh network has trouble getting the advertisements over the mesh to each device, let alone the search data.

It takes a fresh approach to mesh networking to understand where the substantial commercial opportunities are hiding.  This requires gaining an understanding of the strengths of mesh networks, rather than their weaknesses.  The natural broadcast nature of wireless networks actually works well for broad dissemination of data.  The ability of these networks to operate without supporting infrastructure allows the provision of services when not ordinarily possible.

These services do not need to be data-poor services, either.  Serval has already created a prototype mapping application that could easily support navigation, geotagged advertising by businesses, crowd sourcing of points of interest and a variety of other features -- and would continue to be available when infrastructure is not available.

In this kind of setting, the limitations of mesh networking become strengths. The limited range of mesh networks means that locally relevant data is available where it is relevant, and doesn't flood the rest of the world or distant parts of the mesh.  The broadcast nature of wireless communications allows multiple receivers to receive these locally relevant data, whether it be advertisements, maps, communications between nearby friends or otherwise.  Also, by focussing on hop-by-hop dissemination of data, the traditional bandwidth degradation of mesh networks can be significantly avoided -- at the extreme it is single-hop communications which can be performed at the order of 100mbit between nearby WiFi enabled devices, which is way faster than my home ADSL internet connection.

But back to some of the recent successes we have had in our work and leadership being recognised, including the headline of this post:

The Serval Project is one of 11 finalists from a field of around 500 entries in the Ashoka Foundation's Change Maker Citizen Media competition.  This is tremendous recognition of the value of our work in the citizen empowerment space, and we are delighted to engage with this community, and with the other amazing finalists.  We'd also love you to vote for us if you think we should be one of the winners.  You can see the other finalists and vote using the links below:

We have also made it to the finals of the World Embedded Software Competition in Korea, for the second year running.

Meanwhile, we have begun to engage with the IEEE 802.11 standards process, with Romana in Atlanta at their meeting as I type.  It continues to amaze me the generally positive reception and voice that we are granted at events such as this, and we are hopeful that we can effect positive change in the standards to better support mesh networking.

We are also beginning to form partnerships with Universities, companies, not-for-profit and other entities, not just in Australia, but around the world.  More on some of those as they mature, but it is exciting for me to see our efforts multiplied as we gain partners.  As I have previously mentioned, we are keen to not only create resilient software, but produce it in a resilient manner, and that means with multiple teams in multiple countries around the world.  While this process has begun, we would love to expand this even further, so if you are interested, drop me a line.

Closer to home, but from my perspective very satisfying is that two of our students won their sections of the departmental end of term student expo.  Congratulations to both Swapna Palaniswamy and Corey Wallis for your great work. Swapna's work has also resulted in an upcoming publication at the International Conference on Wireless Technology for Humanitarian Relief later this year, which is an unusual achievement for a student in her course.  Corey has similarly had a presentation based on his work accepted  at Linux Conference Australia in January (we also have another talk at LCA on our Rhizome mesh file distribution protocol).

So it is a tremendously exciting time, and we are incredibly grateful to the Shuttleworth Foundation, Flinders University, NLnet and the Awesome Foundation for their enabling support of our activities.

So now it is back to driving the technology side of our activities so that we can deliver on the promise.

We have two primary areas of activity on this front at present.  First, we are working to consolidate the existing software to make it generally more usable and stable.  Second, we are working on incorporating the Rhizome file and messaging system so that we can provide what we think will be a very powerful mesh messaging service, that will even make possible the delivery of messages when there is no path immediately available through the mesh, and for the sender to receive confirmation when the message has been received.  But more on that when we have something concrete to show.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Simple Illustration of A Multi-Hop Telephone Call

From time to time I get asked to provide a simple explanation of what the Serval Project actually does.

It allows you to make multi-hop phone calls using only phones, with the signal bouncing from phone to phone 

What does a multi-hop mobile mesh telephone call look like?  

Well, it can look a bit like this:

Of course this photo is a bit staged, and in reality the people in the middle of the call don't have to have their phones out, or do anything -- the mesh routing software automatically works out how to get the call between the parties.  

The only limitation is that their be a path between the calling parties.

Also, the phones can be quite a bit further apart than shown here, around 100 - 200m with line of sight at present, and potentially kilometres apart once we get the ISM915 band meshing happening in the future.

In a future post I will explain how we can enable SMS type services, even when there isn't a reliable path.