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Software Provider Adopts Cloud Services, Triples Customer Base Monthly
Founded in 2009, Connect2Field focuses exclusively on its namesake product, an application that customers use to coordinate field service jobs. It asked its developers to maintain the Connect2Field application on servers at third-party data centers, but this decreased productivity. The company sought a scalable cloud solution to make its offering available globally. In January 2010, Connect2Field moved its application to Windows Azure, using multitenant databases on Microsoft SQL Azure and employing Windows Azure Blob Storage to store customer data. Thanks to the Content Distribution Network, customers around the world get fast access to the application. Since moving Connect2Field to Windows Azure, the company has tripled its customer base monthly. It avoids spending thousands of dollars annually on maintenance and benefits from a reliable, scalable, and highly secure cloud platform.
"Since we moved our application to Windows Azure, our customer base has been doubling, if not tripling, on a monthly basis. Within two years, we expect to have tens of thousands of customer using our product."
Founded in 2009 and headquartered in Sydney, Australia, Connect2Field is an independent software vendor that develops its namesake product, Connect2Field, an application that enables customers to administer and dispatch field service jobs with ease. “We developed Connect2Field as a job management, scheduling, and monitoring application for small service companies,” says Steven Orenstein, Chief Executive Officer at Connect2Field. “Our customers rely very heavily on our product. They use it every single day.”
Connect2Field has hundreds of customers in 15 countries, often small businesses of 30 or fewer employees. Its customer base includes electricians, plumbers, landscapers, property maintenance companies, repair services, crane operators, and security companies—any entity that sends workers into the field. Field workers use the browser-based application to receive and send job information from their mobile devices.
Customers use Connect2Field to replace paper-based job management with streamlined and automated processes. They employ the application’s tools to create jobs, process invoices, check field workers’ schedules, dispatch jobs, manage inventories and quotes, and communicate easily by using email and text messages. For example, from within the application, field workers can click “Start” when they begin a job and click “Finish” when it is completed—and the job’s status is updated in real time at the main office.
In addition, customers can customize the application to create maintenance or safety procedures, capture details such as serial numbers, or query field workers using dropdown menus, text boxes, or date boxes, for example. “The system is really flexible and powerful,” says Orenstein.
From July 2007 to January 2010, Connect2Field set up individual instances of the Connect2Field application for each customer on servers hosted at third-party data centers in Sydney and Melbourne. The company’s five full-time developers spent an average of four hours a week on infrastructure maintenance, but they still could not avoid server problems that would cause the Connect2Field service to fail. “Sometimes we had outages that occurred at 3 A.M. and we’d work until 10 A.M. to resolve the issue,” says Orenstein. “Our developers would lose an entire day of productivity because they’d been up all night. It was destroying our business.”
When Connect2Field needed more hard drive space or memory, it had to source it and implement it. Its developers also had to manage the replication of the data to ensure that the service was available at all times. The company was still in the startup stage, but its customer base was growing. “We saw an opportunity to sell the product in the global marketplace,” says Orenstein. “From that point of view, we knew that our application had to be scalable, secure, highly reliable, and highly available.”
In November 2009, Connect2Field began to evaluate options for moving its application to a cloud platform. It sought to eliminate in-house management of tasks, including software updates and hardware maintenance. Says Orenstein, “We wanted to focus our developers’ efforts on delivering the best job management and dispatch application available.”
Connect2Field considered hosting its application on the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud web service, which provides compute capacity as a cloud service. “We evaluated Amazon, but it doesn’t actually provide a proper platform,” says Orenstein. “You can install your application, but you still have to manage everything that’s on the server.”
In December 2009, the company decided to move its application, which functions as a web service, to Windows Azure, a general purpose cloud platform. The company had built the Connect2Field application by using Microsoft ASP.NET 4, a framework for building dynamic websites, web applications, and web services. It discovered that its product could easily fit into the Windows Azure model with minimal changes. “We chose the Windows Azure platform because our developers use Microsoft development tools and we needed a way to move our existing code base to the cloud,” says Orenstein. “Plus, knowing that the infrastructure was backed by Microsoft was really important.”
Windows Azure provides developers with on-demand compute, storage, bandwidth, content delivery, middleware, and marketplace capabilities to build, host, and scale web applications through Microsoft data centers. Connect2Field intended to take advantage of the platform’s capabilities to make it simple to perform complicated tasks—such as data replication, the process of copying data from one location to another and ensuring consistency between redundant resources—across a dynamic environment.
Two of the company’s senior developers, using the Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 Ultimate development system, did the work of adapting Connect2Field code for Windows Azure. The learning curve for developing for Windows Azure was minimal, and the application needed only a modest number of modifications to run as a cloud service. By January 2010, the company had launched two instances of Connect2Field on the Windows Azure operating system. “We run a minimum of two instances,” says Orenstein. “That’s one thing we learned quickly. And if we see a high demand from our customers, we can easily increase the number of instances and scale in a matter of minutes.”
The company now runs eight instances of the Connect2Field application using Windows Azure. All instances connect to customer data stored on Microsoft SQL Azure, a cloud-based relational and self-managed database service. The company had written the original application for a traditional database by using Microsoft SQL Server 2008 database management software and it had launched one web-service instance—and one database instance—on its servers for each customer.
With SQL Azure, the company takes advantage of a multitenant database architecture. Multitenancy means supporting multiple customers from the same application and infrastructure. This approach safeguards customer information while enabling the sharing of compute resources. “Previously, each of our customers had a single database,” says Orenstein. “Now the data for our entire customer base resides on two databases, with each tenant’s data set isolated from data that belongs to other tenants.”
Database administration in SQL Azure differs most from SQL Server in terms of physical administration. SQL Azure automatically replicates all data to provide high availability. (It also manages load balancing and, in case of a server failure, transparent failover.) “With SQL Azure, the replication of data happens automatically,” says Orenstein. “For an individual company to run its own data replication is really complicated. We tried doing it ourselves and it was really difficult. If we were to lose any one of our customer’s data, we would lose so much credibility that we wouldn’t be able to get any more customers. Data loss would destroy our customers’ businesses too.”
Besides automatically replicating its customers’ data using SQL Azure, the company saves another copy of the data on a third-party hosted server for backup purposes. The company also uses Microsoft SQL Azure Data Sync to create and schedule regular synchronizations between SQL Azure databases at two different Microsoft data centers. By using this cloud-based data synchronization service, Connect2Field can manage data in two directions. “With SQL Azure Data Sync, we ensure that we’ve always got a copy of our data in a secondary location,” says Orenstein. “Our main data center is in Singapore, and we synchronize data to a data center in the United States, too.”
The company adopted Blob Storage, part of Windows Azure, to provide persistent and durable cloud-based storage for its customers’ text and binary data. Using unstructured Blob Storage is the equivalent of using a local file system. “The nice thing about Blob Storage is that is highly reliable,” says Orenstein. “Our customers can upload documents—such as invoices or contracts—related to a job, and those items are automatically stored in Blob Storage and easily accessible.”
Customers can use the Connect2Field application without setting up any infrastructure. “Literally, from the moment a customer signs up on our website for Connect2Field, they get instant access to it,” says Orenstein. “In addition, when we update the application—which we do almost weekly—the new version is provisioned within minutes on Windows Azure and the process is invisible to customers.”
The company subscribes to Windows Azure on a pay-as-you-go basis; it pays a monthly fee and then pre-purchases a number of server hours. Its customers pay for Connect2Field service on a subscription basis, too, for each administrator license (for people inside the office managing field staff) and each mobile license (for field workers).
Since moving its application to Windows Azure, Connect2Field has benefited from an expanded market and an increasing customer base worldwide. It has reduced costs and increased the productivity of its development staff. The company has been able to provide customers with a highly secure, reliable, and robust solution that can scale on demand. “The ability to deliver an application running on Windows Azure gives development companies like Connect2Field a complete platform on which to run our business in the cloud,” says Orenstein. “No one in the cloud marketplace is offering anything like what Windows Azure offers in terms of agility, efficiency, and trustworthiness.”
Expanded Customer Base
Because of the global nature of Windows Azure data centers, Connect2Field has been able to expand its customer base exponentially. The ability to run its entire customer base by using two database instances marks a major change for the Connect2Field business model. The company is using Windows Azure to scale its business dramatically, which it couldn’t do before.
“Since we moved our application to Windows Azure, our customer base has been doubling, if not tripling, on a monthly basis,” says Orenstein. “Within two years, we expect to have tens of thousands of customers using our product. The cost of running our application on Windows Azure is insignificant compared to the revenue that it generates for us in terms of getting new customers.”
Also, due to CDN in Windows Azure, customers all over the globe can take advantage of Connect2Field functionality in a fast, streamlined way because the application’s static objects are cached in locations around the world. Says Orenstein, “CDN is a bonus for us because it means that we can deliver our application in the fastest possible way to customers everywhere.”
Increased Productivity and Reduced Costs
Connect2Field no longer has to manage a local server infrastructure, which gives its developers a minimum of four extra hours each week that can be focused on continually improving the product. The company estimates that it has saved thousands of dollars annually by increasing developer productivity. It has also eliminated thousands of dollars in capital expenses and costs associated with maintenance tasks, including replicating customer data across servers. “We’ve reduced the time we spend maintaining infrastructure by 95 percent,” says Orenstein. “If there’s an outage, Microsoft takes care of it.”
In addition, the company avoids AUD$2,500 (US$2,603) in monthly costs by using the CDN capabilities in Windows Azure, compared to adopting an alternate solution from a third-party provider. “We were looking at quotes of $5,000 [US$5,206] a month or higher to get the same functionality that’s available with the Content Distribution Network,” says Orenstein. “With Windows Azure, it’s just included.”
Enhanced Reliability and Security
Connect2Field uses a third-party performance monitoring service to get automatic downtime alerts for its application and to demonstrate the availability of its cloud-based service with uptime reports. “When a customer asks about the availability of Connect2Field, we provide them with a third-party report that showcases our system’s reliability,” says Orenstein. “We have had 99.9 percent uptime since we moved Connect2Field to Windows Azure.”
With its application running on Windows Azure, Connect2Field has confidence that it can rely on the stability and security of the platform while it expands its business. “It gives me great peace of mind to know that Windows Azure is really robust and reliable,” says Orenstein. “We can very comfortably acquire customers around the world at a rapid rate. Our data is safe and our customers’ data is safe; even if there’s a hardware failure, it’s still going to be available.”