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Real World SQL Azure: Interview with Andreas Falter, Head of Developments, Materials Management Division at INFORM and Karsten Horn, Director of International Sales, Materials Management Division at INFORM

[This article was contributed by the SQL Azure team.] As part of the Real World SQL Azure series, we talked to Andreas Falter, Head of Developments, and Karsten Horn, Director of International…

[This article was contributed by the SQL Azure team.]

As part of the Real World SQL Azure series, we talked to Andreas Falter, Head of Developments, and Karsten Horn, Director of International Sales, both in the Materials Management Division at INFORM, about using the Windows Azure platform, including SQL Azure, to extend its inventory sampling solution to the cloud. Here’s what they had to say: 


MSDN: Can you tell us about INFORM and the services you offer?

Horn: INFORM is the Institute for Operations Research and Management. We are a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner that develops IT solutions based on advanced decision support technologies and that complement customers’ existing enterprise resource systems to optimize planning and control of business processes. Our customers come from various industries, including discrete manufacturing, wholesale, and process industries.  

MSDN: What were some of the challenges that INFORM faced prior to adopting SQL Azure? 

Falter: In 2009, we made significant efforts to update the user interface for one of our applications: INVENT Xpert. For the data-intensive inventory sampling solution, we developed a web-based interface using JavaScript. It gave INVENT Xpert a face-lift-it gave us a modern user interface and, because it was web-based, also gave us the ability to offer INVENT Xpert with anywhere, anytime access through any Java-enabled Internet browser. But we didn’t want to stop there. We wanted to take the application completely to the cloud, and give customers the ability to use INVENT Xpert, but without adding designated web and database servers to their on-premises infrastructure, as these can be costly and time consuming to deploy.


MSDN: Why did you choose the Windows Azure platform as your solution?

Falter: Deciding on Windows Azure and Microsoft SQL Azure was a quick decision for us. Of course, we looked at Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud and Google App Engine, but neither offered a solution that worked well with Microsoft SQL Server databases, which INVENT Xpert uses extensively. The Windows Azure platform does, plus it supports multiple technologies, such as Java, which is important for our development model. Plus, Microsoft is transparent about its data center locations-our customers want to know that their data is close in proximity to their physical location and with Amazon or Google, we simply couldn’t guarantee that it was. 

MSDN: Can you describe how INFORM is using SQL Azure to help address your need to provide lower-cost deployment of INVENT Xpert for customers? 

Falter: We use a Tomcat web server from Apache to connect through HTTPS protocol to the web-based user interface for INVENT Xpert, which is built on a JavaScript framework. Then, we used worker roles in Windows Azure to deploy the Tomcat web server to the cloud. Our application relies on a relational database structure to manage our customers’ inventory data and computational results of inventory sampling. We use SQL Azure for that data, using the same database schema and data structures that we did for the on-premises version of the software. We deployed the SQL Azure database in a multitenant environment, so customers share the INVENT Xpert application, but their data is isolated and protected from each other. We used most of our existing program code and architecture, so moving to Windows Azure and SQL Azure was very easy. We planned on six months, but we completed the migration process in two weeks.


MSDN: What makes your solution unique? 

Horn: To our knowledge, we are the only company in our industry segment to offer an inventory sampling solution in the cloud. Our customers want these kinds of cloud-based solutions; we are unique in that we can offer them that. Because we are the first to market, that means we also get the competitive advantage. 


MSDN: What kinds of benefits is INFORM realizing with SQL Azure? 

Falter: Our customers are important to us, and anything we can offer them to improve operations or their bottom line is a benefit to us. With SQL Azure and Windows Azure, we can offer them a 100-percent cloud-based inventory sampling solution that is faster and less expensive to deploy. We can deploy a new customer and provision a database to SQL Azure in a day, and the entire deployment process is 50 percent faster than previously. Plus, customers do not have to purchase additional hardware and software-an 85-percent savings compared to an on-premises version. What’s really great to think about is that as we bring more of our solutions to the cloud, and fine-tune our processes, we expect those savings to grow even more.  


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