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When Eric and Liz Hedstrom were married, they decided that the world needed a better way to manage all the details that go into a wedding. So they created WeddingHappy, one the most popular wedding planning applications in the Apple App Store. Initially, all data from the app was stored locally on the device. To ensure a consistent experience across devices and help customers to share data with family members (present and future), the rapidly expanding company chose Windows Azure.
"We were quickly impressed with Windows Azure and how easy it was to set up and get going."
WeddingHappy is one of the top wedding planning applications in the Apple App Store. Created by Fuphie, LLC, an emerging mobile application development company, WeddingHappy can be used to create wedding task lists, set deadlines, and get automatic reminders. The app also integrates a vendor management system so users can keep vendors’ contact information in one place as well as assign tasks to specific vendors.
Until recently, all data associated with the app was stored locally on a user’s smartphone. This limited data accessibility, however. “The challenge is that many of our customers have more than one device, and they want to be able to access data across devices and share with it their fiancé and family members,” says Eric Hedstrom, Chief Technology Officer, Fuphie, LLC. “We've known for a long time that we needed to build a server storage solution so we could enable this functionality.”
Initially, the Hedstroms set out to create their own data service. They quickly realized, however, that this would draw them away from their core business activities. “We didn't want to have to maintain the servers and the operating system on the servers, as well as the databases and everything else such as security and scaling. That's why we started looking at services that were already built out,” says Eric Hedstrom.
The company’s search for a cloud service began with smaller providers such as Parse, which offered many of the storage features that the company required. But Parse had just been acquired by Facebook, and that raised concerns. Eric Hedstrom says, “We wanted to be sure we were entering a long-term business relationship. We simply didn’t know what Facebook’s plans were for the service.”
The Hedstroms also looked at StackMob. But reliability posed an issue. The free service plan offered by StackMob did not offer a service level agreement, and the fee-based plans were too expensive, especially for a startup. “We're not at the point where we can afford thousands of dollars a month for an SLA,” says Eric Hedstrom. There were technical issues as well, including an overly complicated backup process. As he says, “We discovered that StackMob didn’t offer backup of data without us having to create a whole database by hand. It doesn't offer any way to back up the whole set of data.”
During these investigations, it became clear to the company that reliability was a top priority for choosing a service provider. “We are gathering data for wedding planning, which for some people is the most expensive day of their life to-date,” says Liz Hedstrom, CEO of Fuphie, LLC. Put simply, they needed a cloud service with a solid track record of service and reliability. And that’s when they came across Windows Azure.
Windows Azure addressed all the concerns that WeddingHappy had with smaller cloud services. Along with a comprehensive service level agreement, Windows Azure offers an extensive suite of additional services that could support WeddingHappy’s long-term development plans.
“We were quickly impressed with Windows Azure and how easy it was to set up and get going. After all, we were already working with SQL Server, Windows, IIS, and many other related Microsoft products,” says Eric Hedstrom. In fact, as a one-man development team, Eric was able complete the core integration work in less than two weeks.
With Windows Azure, WeddingHappy had finally found a cloud service that it could trust to store its customers’ valuable data. The company was also pleased with the overall pricing structure as well as a wide range of integrated services that would reduce their dependency on services from different providers.
To reduce costs, WeddingHappy was able to take advantage of a valuable Windows Azure discount offered through the Microsoft BizSpark program. BizSpark, a free Microsoft program dedicated to startups, provides three years of free software and support as well as valuable networking opportunities. The program also includes US$150 monthly credits toward Windows Azure, lower rates, and no additional charge for using MSDN software on Windows Azure.
Along with the data storage account, the availability of an integrated backup service was a key reason that WeddingHappy chose Windows Azure. Windows Azure Backup provides a simple way to back up the company’s customer data on Windows Azure Storage. It’s a fully automated system that also uses incremental backups to help ensure efficient use of storage and reduced bandwidth consumption, while ensuring point-in-time recovery of multiple versions of the data.
Another aspect of Windows Azure that the company values is the ability to use a standard SQL tool to query its data. “We’re using Windows Azure SQL Database for all of our data storage, and Azure blob storage for backups of the SQL database,” says Eric Hedstrom. This has made it easy to develop detailed records for each device that uses the app, which, in turn, has generated valuable customer data. For example, the company can find out exactly how many days prior to a wedding that people start using the app and how often they continue using it. Insights into this kind of customer behavior have helped the company refine the app to develop longer-term customer relationships.
The WeddingHappy application integrates with Yelp, making it possible for users to find local wedding vendors—a feature that was made easier by using Windows Azure Websites. As Liz Hedstrom explains, “We have PHP pages hosted on Azure Websites that are formatted to look like the app. When the user accesses the vendor search feature, the app calls the webpage with the user’s location and type of vendor (venue, florist, caterer, etc.). We have PHP functions to call the Yelp API and format the results appropriately.”
With its core Windows Azure infrastructure now in place, WeddingHappy is now focusing on the next phase of development using additional Windows Azure services. This includes taking advantage of user authentication in Windows Azure Mobile Services so that multiple people can use the wedding planning data at the same time.
The Windows Azure platform is also ideal for the company’s rapid international expansion. Eric Hedstrom says, “We now have users all over the world. So Windows Azure services in Australia or China may well be part of our future plans.”