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Real-World Windows Azure: Interview with Michael Ross, VP of Delivery at Aidmatrix

As part of the Real World Windows Azure interview series, I talked to Michael Ross, vice president for Delivery at Aidmatrix, about using Windows Azure to help power its humanitarian aid delivery…

As part of the Real World Windows Azure interview series, I talked to Michael Ross, vice president for Delivery at Aidmatrix, about using Windows Azure to help power its humanitarian aid delivery solutions.  Here’s what he had to say.

Himanshu Kumar Singh: Tell me about the Aidmatrix Foundation.

Michael Ross:  Well, we create web-based supply-chain management (SCM) solutions that help our partners optimize distributing humanitarian relief. We started in 2001 and are headquartered in Dallas, with offices in Wisconsin, Washington D.C., Germany and India. More than 40,000 leading nonprofit, business, and government partners leverage our solutions to mobilize more than $1.5 billion in aid annually, worldwide. The donated goods, money and services impact the lives of more than 65 million people.

HKS: How does Aidmatrix leverage technology to deliver humanitarian aid?

MR:  Increasingly, technology plays a vital role in enabling the rapid, targeted distribution of relief supplies to those in need. Our solutions  help NGOs procure, manage and deliver humanitarian relief more efficiently by having real-time access to know what inventory is on hand and what unmet needs still exist. In this way, NGOs can save money in their purchasing, be more efficient in their distribution, and more responsive and transparent with their donors. .

HKS: Are there also technology challenges you face?

MR:  To perform optimally both in daily humanitarian relief and unplanned disasters, we need to ensure that our applications can consistently deliver the highest levels of stability and throughput performance. And because we work with so many different kinds of partner organizations, our solutions need to synchronize with business systems that run on diverse operating system platforms. They also need to flexibly scale to handle massive bursts in demand. Following several recent natural disasters, our applications have experienced usage spikes on the order of 1,000 times the standard rate.

HKS:  How much demand is there for technology for humanitarian aid from Aidmatrix?

MR:  In 2010, we noted a 20 percent year-over-year increase in the number of people who used our applications. And as more NGOs adopt technology as a strategic part of their global operational success, the demand will continue to grow.

HKS:  How has this increase in demand impacted your ability to meet global needs?

MR:  This rapid growth has only compounded the challenges that we face in deploying, configuring, and scaling online relief management solutions. For example, for several years, we hosted our applications in data centers in the United States but in response to recent requests for services from humanitarian organizations in Europe, we’ve needed to locate additional server resources overseas. Setting up and maintaining data centers around the globe can be expensive and time-consuming.  In a few cases, we’ve needed to pre-position assets and leave them turned off. Instead of paying for what we use, we’ve ended up investing up front for resources that we may or may not eventually need. But that’s all part of being ready for unplanned disasters.

We also found that the time required to source and deploy new hardware impacted our agility. In mid-2010, we began a partnership with a large food bank network that has locations spread across the United Kingdom. After a few weeks, we noticed that the distance between our servers and end users caused the application to run slowly and even time out before people could complete their donations.

HKS:  What was the solution?

MR: To empower more partners to help more people around the world, we needed the ability to scale applications at a moment’s notice while maintaining reliable performance. With an eye on keeping operating costs as low as possible, we began to investigate the advantages of moving to the cloud. In considering this change, we wanted to minimize the time needed to migrate existing applications and placed a priority on a cloud technology platform that would support the agile development of new functionality, along with the creation of new solutions to meet the unforeseen demands of future humanitarian crises.

HKS:  What led you to choose Windows Azure?

MR: After evaluating several cloud services technologies, including Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), we decided to adopt Windows Azure because, simply put, Windows Azure gives us all the tools we need to be more agile. It offers platform-as-a-service capabilities, so we don’t have to push out updates or worry about building out our own redundancy system. Plus, it incorporates a familiar development environment, so we can maximize productivity.

HKS:  Which of your solutions did you move to Windows Azure first?

MR: The first solution we moved to Windows Azure was the Aidmatrix Program Metrics and Evaluation, which one of our U.S. partners uses to track the services delivered to clients at more than 1,000 locations. Moving the database component to Microsoft SQL Azure took five minutes, and we instantly gained high availability, along with reliable fault tolerance and security, at a fraction of what it would cost to build out those capabilities ourselves.

In early 2011, working with Accenture and Avanade, we also moved our Online Warehouse solution, which provides end-to-end inventory management tools for tracking relief supplies, to Windows Azure. The conversion process for each of these applications took approximately six weeks to complete.

We also recently used Windows Azure to configure and deploy a web portal application built by Microsoft to assist Second Harvest Japan, the Japanese food banking network. I deployed the application to the Microsoft data center in Hong Kong from home following the tsunami and I didn’t need to worry about how many instances to deploy because I could quickly scale out server resources if needed.

HKS:  Are you using any other Windows Azure technologies?

MR:  We take advantage of several Windows Azure technologies to ensure reliable, scalable performance. For example, we will use Windows Azure Connect to enable data sharing between our Online Warehouse solution and the on-premises operational systems used by our partners, including Oracle and SAP enterprise resource planning systems. And we rely on Windows Azure storage services to collect data on session state management so our staff can monitor application performance and troubleshoot issues in near real time.

HKS:  What are some of the benefits you’ve seen from your move to Windows Azure?

MR:  One of the key benefits has been noticeable cost savings. Because we no longer need to purchase, set up, and maintain database management and web servers, we expect to save 20 percent on data center costs, which could mean up to $100,000 in savings. We will be able to redirect the time and money we save toward creating and enhancing applications that help save lives. And instead of spending valuable resources on server upkeep, we can redirect time and cost savings to higher-value tasks, like developing a new module for one of our applications.

Another benefit is the global availability of Microsoft data centers and the pay-as-you-go model, which enables us to ensure cost-efficient dynamic scalability for our solutions. Our applications need to handle usages spikes of 1,000 times the normal load. With Windows Azure, we can scale up or down in a very agile and efficient way, which is essential for the kind of work we do.

Finally, the growing ecosystem of ISVs that have adopted Windows Azure allows us to accelerate our own development lifecycle. Taking advantage of functionality from other ISVs speeds our development and ultimately increases the value of our solutions. This is a major benefit of working with a cloud provider like Microsoft that has a large and growing network of partners.

Read the full case study.  Learn how others are using Windows Azure.