Real World Windows Azure: Interview with Adrian Gonzalez, Technology Manager for the San Diego County Public Safety Group

As part of the Real World Windows Azure series, I caught up with Adrian Gonzalez, Technology Manager for the San Diego County Public Safety Group to learn more about how the county uses Windows Azure to ensure its emergency information website is disaster-ready.  Read San Diego County Public Safety Group’s success story here. Read on to find out what he had to say.

Himanshu Kumar Singh: Tell me about the San Diego County Emergency Site.

Adrian Gonzalez:  San Diego County in California provides emergency, justice, health, and social services to its 3 million residents and municipal services to its unincorporated areas. The San Diego County Emergency Site is produced by the County of San Diego to provide information before, during and after disasters and is the official source of information from the County during a large-scale emergency, providing a variety of recovery information for people affected by a major disaster. 

HKS: How did the site perform during large-scale emergencies?

AG:  In October 2007, a firestorm ravaged Southern California, consuming 370,000 acres in San Diego County, forced the evacuation of 515,000 residents.  This firestorm challenged the county to disseminate emergency information faster and more broadly than ever before. With three major universities plus famed destination spots, San Diego attracts students and vacationers from around the world, all of whom had friends and relatives back home scouring the Internet for information about their welfare during the fires.

Many of those people went to the county’s website. Many more went there after CNN linked to it from cnn.com. The site’s traffic rose to 12,000 page views per hour and crashed, and it took several days to re-launch the site, at a time when every moment counted.

HKS:  How did these issues shape your planning for what the site needs to be built to handle?

AG: We were determined not to be caught in a similar bind again. We wanted an online presence that could scale to handle those 12,000 page views and more because we couldn’t know how much traffic we’d get the next time, but we knew it would be more.  Mobile phones hadn’t been a major factor in 2007, but they were quickly becoming an ever-larger one. We had to be ready for the future.

We also wanted to address other limitations, such as a lack of visual features and a time-consuming update process – which is the opposite of what we needed in an emergency services site.

HKS:  What solutions did you evaluate?

AG:  To close these gaps, we looked at building out our two-server site to support 120,000 page views per hour—10 times the load that had brought down the original site. The cost was high: around US$350,000 to build a data center, plus $80,000 per year to maintain it.

We also considered a cloud-computing platform hosted in data centers across the Internet, which could mitigate the capital expense and scalability issues and first looked at Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud but realized we would still be responsible for continuing maintenance if we chose that service.

Then I saw a demonstration of the Miami-Dade County 311 information system, which was hosted on Windows Azure. They had solved the same workflow and traffic-spike issues that we faced using Microsoft cloud services, and the operating costs appeared to be minimal.

HKS:  How did you proceed with Windows Azure?

AG:  We engaged Adxstudio, a Microsoft Partner Network member with multiple Gold competencies to test the ability of Windows Azure to support the county’s scalability goals on a simulated site, even hitting that site from third-party sources around the world. Windows Azure passed the test easily, and the county commissioned Adxstudio to build its new emergency services website on the Microsoft cloud platform.

HKS:  Tell me more about the solution Adxstudio built.

AG:  Adxstudio used its flagship product—Adxstudio Portals for Microsoft Dynamics CRM, built on the Microsoft .NET Framework—to construct the scalable, content-managed website. The new emergency services website supports live, streaming video; Twitter and RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds; Bing Maps for navigating threats and resources; and location-based information on, for example, the nearest shelters.

HKS: What are some of the benefits you’ve seen from moving to Windows Azure?

AG: With Windows Azure, we got the scalability we sought, and then some. We’ve achieved our goal to support 120,000 page views per hour and use only three Windows Azure instances to do so. When we saw Windows Azure exceeding our scalability goals by a factor of 162 times, we thought that would be high enough. We’re completely comfortable with the ability of Windows Azure to meet our needs, no matter how fast those needs grow.

In addition, the portal delivers more information than the previous website did, while making that information easier for county personnel to update and users to find. Because the portal is hosted in the cloud, it can be updated from anywhere with an Internet connection, without needing virtual private network connections to the county network.

Online maps and data such as shelter status can be updated automatically and in near real time; these formerly manual processes used to take anywhere from minutes to hours to implement.

HKS:  What about the cost savings?

AG:  We needed Windows Azure to be as cost-effective as it is scalable, and it is. In contrast to the $350,000 we might have spent to build an on-premises solution, we’ve avoided capital investment with Windows Azure but instead pay only for what we use. This comes to about $18,000 a year for non-emergency use, compared to $80,000 a year to maintain an on-premises solution: a savings of about 78 percent. I estimate that emergency use would bring the fee up to only about $7,000 for the month in which the emergency occurred.

Read how others are using Windows Azure.