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Real World Windows Azure: Interview with Wayne Houlden, Chief Executive Officer at Janison

Posted on December 22, 2010

As part of the Real World Windows Azure series, we talked to Wayne Houlden, CEO at Janison, about using the Windows Azure platform for the online science testing system at the Department of Education & Training of New South Wales. Here's what he had to say:

MSDN: Tell us about Janison and the services you offer.

Houlden: Janison provides an online learning management system and custom learning portals to customers throughout Australia. We offer our innovative learning solutions to a wide variety of organizations that provide online learning services to their staff, students, and customers.

MSDN: What were the biggest challenges that you faced prior to implementing the Windows Azure platform?

Houlden: We have been working on a project with the Department of Education of New South Wales, Australia, to transform the Essential Secondary Science Assessment that high school students take from a paper-based test to an online multimedia assessment. The challenge is to deliver a system that can scale quickly to handle more than 80,000 students across nearly 600 schools in a single day. However, a redundant, highly-available, and load-balanced system with physical servers would require extensive procurement, configuration, and maintenance work, and would be too costly for the department.

MSDN: Can you describe the solution you built with the Windows Azure platform to address your need for cost-effective scalability?

Houlden: Our developers have been working with the Microsoft .NET Framework and other Microsoft technologies for more than a decade, so the Windows Azure platform was a natural fit for Janison. We created a set of multimedia, animated virtual assessments for students and an administration portal for staff and teachers that use Web roles and Worker roles in Windows Azure for compute processing. We populate Table storage with assessment data and use the Windows Azure Content Delivery Network to store multimedia assets. Students have authenticated access to the assessment and their answers are recorded in Table storage and then replicated in an on-premises server running Microsoft SQL Server 2008 data management software.

Built on the Windows Azure platform, the Essential Secondary Science Assessment includes a portal for administrators to track students' progress on the test.

MSDN: What makes your solution unique?

Houlden: We were able to demonstrate the value of multimedia-rich online assessments. Students not only found the test interesting, enjoyable, and engaging, but the Department of Education of New South Wales also found that it was an educationally-sound alternative to the written test. The Windows Azure platform, with its scaling capabilities to handle an enormous compute load, was a critical component.

MSDN: What kinds of benefits are you realizing with the Windows Azure platform?

Houlden: The key benefits for us are the scalability and cost-effectiveness of the Windows Azure platform. We can deliver a solution that can quickly scale to handle a massive amount of users for a short period of time, and only pay for what we use and without having the cost of a physical infrastructure. For example, to support 40,000 students we used 250 instances of Windows Azure for a period of 12 hours. With a traditional approach for the same performance, we would have needed 20 physical servers-which, all told, would be 100 times more expensive than using the Windows Azure platform.

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