As part of the Real World Windows Azure series, we talked to Richard Prodger, Technical Director at Active Web Solutions (AWS), about using the Windows Azure platform to deliver the company’s search-and-rescue application and the benefits that Windows Azure provides. Here’s what he had to say:
MSDN: Tell us about Active Web Solutions and the services you offer.
Prodger: AWS specializes in Web application and custom software development. In 2006, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution contracted AWS to build an automated alerting system for fishing vessels in the United Kingdom. We developed a location-based service infrastructure, code-named GeoPoint, that transmits position data to a centralized tracking and alerting system. We then used GeoPoint to build MOB Guardian, a search-and-rescue application for fishing vessels (MOB stands for “man overboard”).
MSDN: What was the biggest challenge Active Web Solutions faced with GeoPoint and MOB Guardian before migrating to the Windows Azure platform?
Prodger: Our original infrastructure could handle approximately 10,000 boats, but we wanted to offer MOB Guardian to the 500,000 leisure craft in the U.K. and the millions of marine users worldwide. However, as a small company, we would find it hard to accommodate the massive infrastructure that would be required to offer MOB Guardian more broadly.
MSDN: Can you describe the solution you built with Windows Azure and Windows Azure platform AppFabric to help address your need for a cost-effective, scalable solution?
Prodger: We migrated our existing application to Windows Azure very quickly. Now, instead of passing emergency messages by satellite to physical servers, messages are transferred by satellite using the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) and delivered to a number of message queues. Multiple service instances read from the queues, process the messages, and store the data using Table storage in Windows Azure. Emergency alarms are then relayed through the AppFabric Service Bus to the end-user monitoring application in the search-and-rescue operations center. We also used the AppFabric Service Bus to connect cloud-based GeoPoint to on-premises databases without exposing the data to the public Internet.
Figure 1. Search-and-rescue teams use a graphical user interface created by AWS to locate troubled boats.
MSDN: What makes your solution unique?
Prodger: In the waters surrounding the United Kingdom, an estimated 350 fishing crew lost their lives at sea between 1996 and 2007. However, in our first 18 months of operation, MOB Guardian helped to save nine lives. Our original architecture supported 10,000 vessels, but with Windows Azure and AppFabric, we can support hundreds of thousands or even millions of vessels, without any capital expenses, and help save more lives.
MSDN: Are you offering MOB Guardian to any new customer segments or niche markets?
Prodger: By using the Windows Azure platform, we’ve been able to transform the original fishing vessel-focused MOB Guardian application into a broader geolocation services platform that has more extensive capabilities and can be marketed to many more customers. There are also new market opportunities for GeoPoint where pleasure sailors might access GeoPoint from Facebook, for example, to see a map of where they’ve been or to log their trip once they get home. With AppFabric Access Control, we wouldn’t have to force users to create another set of authentication credentials; they could use their Facebook credentials as their GeoPoint ID.
MSDN: What are some of the key benefits Active Web Solutions has seen since migrating to the Windows Azure platform?
Prodger: The ability to scale up without capital expenditures is key. To scale, we simply provision more computing capacity and add more message queues from the Windows Azure platform Web portal. With AppFabric Service Bus, we can manage requests and message volumes globally with massive scale. We’re also able to avoid additional IT staffing costs because Microsoft handles all operating system updates and upgrades, which occur without downtime. In addition, we slashed development time and costs-Windows Azure saved us three to six months of development effort.
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