Price performance-wise, AWS stood out because it provides a better service at a lower cost. AWS offers specific tools that evaluate our existing environment before determining the best cost-efficient solution
Marco van den Berg Chief Information Officer

Founded in 1960 and located in Los Baños, the Philippines, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) develops rice varieties that can withstand drought, flooding, disease, and other potentially damaging events. IRRI is a nonprofit organization with more than one thousand staff spread across 17 rice-growing countries in Asia and Africa. It is also a member of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a consortium that aims to eradicate hunger and poverty in developing countries.

Until 2012, IRRI had used locally configured enterprise resource-planning (ERP) systems to complete administration activities. However, these on-premises systems were not integrated and therefore restricted CGIAR partners from gaining a single view of agriculture operations around the world. IRRI and other member organizations decided to create a common ERP system to reduce costs, collaborate more closely, and enable coordinated training and software-development activities. “If one of our donors wants a specific type of progress report on one of the research projects, and a member organization develops a module that can deliver this, that functionality should be made available to the other participating bodies,” says Marco van den Berg, chief information officer for IRRI.

The unified system needed to be available and accessible to partners and offices worldwide. “IRRI has offices in 18 countries, with 150 staff in Bangladesh and 120 in India. Our staff needed access to update financial, human resources, and project management systems to allow us to operate efficiently,” explains van den Berg. The system also had to be supported by a flexible, agile infrastructure to enable rapid development of new features, and needed to be easily expandable to new regions and organizations.

In 2012, CGIAR partners considered a range of vendors to provide a hosted infrastructure to deliver the common ERP system. The team completed its evaluation at the beginning of 2013 and found that Amazon Web Services (AWS) exceeded the competition when it came to price and performance. “Price-performance-wise, AWS stood out because it provides a better service at a lower cost. AWS offers specific tools that evaluate our existing environment before determining the best cost-efficient solution,” says van den Berg.

For the ERP system project, IRRI and the other partners deployed a new environment on AWS to test a new software release, a new database version, or an operating system upgrade. The partners set up and funded a shared services team made up of AWS architects and experts and started the implementation in 2013.

The team and partners adopted a phased approach to keep the project manageable. WorldFish, an international organization based in Penang, Malaysia that researches how fisheries and aquaculture can reduce hunger, was first to go live on the combined ERP system, followed by IRRI and the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru. The team used an “assisted build” approach that found common ground between the three organizations to standardize systems and processes, with complementary solutions developed to meet partners’ individual requirements. “Moving to the combined enterprise resource planning system required IRRI to replace all of its legacy finance, human resources, project, and materials-management modules, and migrate its historical data across,” says van den Berg. “The first three partners were live on the new system by the end of 2014.”

The project did experience some challenges. Some partners had relied heavily on on-premises equipment and a capital expenditure-based budgeting approach. They had to upgrade their networks, bandwidth, and budgeting processes to support a cloud-based, operating-expenditure model.

The ERP system runs in an Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC) to provide separation and security on the shared AWS infrastructure. Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) provides compute resources to run web, application, and database servers, while Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) and Amazon Elastic Block Storage (Amazon EBS) provide storage and short-term archiving for operational data. Amazon Glacier enables the organizations to archive data for the longer term. The partners continue to modify and optimize their infrastructure to reduce costs, improve performance, and support expansion of the ERP system. “We’ve been able to reduce our infrastructure costs for the enterprise resource planning system several times by using the AWS Trusted Advisor service,” says van den Berg. “In addition, we are looking at Amazon Route 53 to provide domain name services, and are considering running our database in Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) to improve scalability and performance.”

The business has recently upgraded to AWS Support with the Business Support Plan, which connects the businesses with AWS technical team members to help solve problems and provide training to the teams. 

IRRI and other partners have enjoyed several benefits from running their combined ERP system on AWS. If the partners need to test a new software release or version, they can spin up a specialized test environment in two hours. “I can provide someone within the organization a virtual server and operating system within minutes rather than waiting several weeks for a vendor to supply hardware,” says van den Berg.

To date, the partners have saved up to 30 percent in overall technology infrastructure costs by running their combined ERP system on AWS. For IRRI, deploying this system, a library system, and other applications on AWS has freed up funds now allocated to research activities such as genomics analysis.

Accessibility has also improved. The cloud-based ERP system can be accessed by partner staff members from any location where Internet connectivity is available. “By offering a cloud-based enterprise resource planning system on AWS, we can now better support and engage people who are travelling throughout the world and in our country offices. The service is also accessible and available regardless of fluctuations in the availability of power in the Philippines, or infrastructure damage caused by the multiple typhoons that hit the region every year,” says van den Berg.

CGIAR partners achieve 99.999 percent availability for the ERP system with the help of AWS tools and technologies, giving staff confidence that critical business data will be accessible when they need it.

While moving to AWS was initially a hard sell for IRRI and other CGIAR partners, according to van den Berg, the rewards have been worthwhile. “Our auditor asked to visit the server room, and I had to tell him I did not know where it was. They were satisfied once we provided the relevant certifications and statements from AWS,” says van den Berg. Moving to AWS has also prompted some partners to invest more in bandwidth and connectivity, enabling them to ramp up research projects more quickly.

For IRRI and other partners, the ERP project is far from complete. IRRI is using AWS tools and technologies on a project to map and release the complete sequence of genomes for three thousand different types of rice, and to process satellite data to determine the status of rice crops in Asia. “AWS has performed extremely well for us to date, and we look forward to using the platform to drive further efficiencies and launch new projects in the future,” says van den Berg.

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