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Real World Windows Azure: Interview with Jim Graham, Technical Manager at 3M

As part of the Real World Windows Azure series, we talked to Jim Graham, Technical Manager at 3M, about using the Windows Azure platform for the company's innovative Visual…

As part of the Real World Windows Azure series, we talked to Jim Graham, Technical Manager at 3M, about using the Windows Azure platform for the company’s innovative Visual Attention Service. Here’s what he had to say:

MSDN: Tell us about 3M-what kind of products do you develop?

Graham: We are a recognized world leader in research and development. We develop a wide range of consumer and industrial products but are most well-known for brands such as Post-it, Scotch, Thinsulate, and Scotch-Brite.

MSDN: What was the biggest challenge 3M faced prior to implementing Windows Azure?

Graham: We had a prototype Web-based application hosted in our data centers-the 3M Visual Attention Service (VAS)-which makes it possible for designers to test the effectiveness of their content using visual attention models. To make it a viable offering, the VAS application had to be available to customers in real time; be capable of processing images, returning near-immediate results, and scaling rapidly; and it had to carry a low up-front investment risk for us, especially in this economic climate.

MSDN: Can you describe how 3M used Windows Azure to make the 3M VAS application a viable product?

Graham: We built the user interface from the ground-up on Windows Azure. We used the Windows Azure development fabric, which made it very easy to run and test the VAS application before deploying it. VAS incorporates a number of unmanaged, high-performance image-processing software libraries, and by using the development fabric, we were able to perform quick iterations of code. We’re using the Windows Azure platform AppFabric Access Control Service to authenticate users, Microsoft SQL Azure to manage images that users upload, and Queues in Windows Azure to provide near real-time analysis. We launched the product in November 2009 and our growing customer base has exceeded expectations.

MSDN: What makes the 3M VAS solution unique?

Graham: 3M VAS represents decades of visual research. With Windows Azure, we’ve developed a highly innovative Web-based service that can dramatically alter and improve the process for designing images and environments that rely on how the human visual system responds.



Figure 1: 3M VAS image map indicating areas most likely to attract viewers’ attention 


MSDN: By developing with Windows Azure, are you able to offer VAS to any new customer segments or niche markets?

Graham: Our near-term focus is on designers, advertising agencies, brand owners, and media companies. However, later this year, we plan to add video processing capability, which will open up new customer segments including television, motion picture, gaming, and Web advertising design.

MSDN: What are the key benefits 3M has seen as a result of implementing Windows Azure?

Graham: Developing in Windows Azure was easy and efficient. In fact, we were able to wrap our core technology into Windows Azure in less than eight weeks. And we’ll be able to release product updates and enhancements faster than we would with any other cloud computing environment. The other great thing is that the pay-as-you-use pricing model minimizes hosting costs and maximizes profits-without the expense of establishing and maintaining our own data centers, we can still offer the VAS application to a global audience.

Learn more about 3M Visual Attention Service here: www.3m.com/vas

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Read more Windows Azure success stories here: www.windowsazure.com/evidence