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Real World Windows Azure: Xpertdoc Deploys its Hosted Document Output Automation Solution on Windows Azure

As part of the Real World Windows Azure series, we connected with Francis Dion, Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Xpertdoc Technologies to learn more about how the company used Windows Azure to…

As part of the Real World Windows Azure series, we connected with Francis Dion, Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Xpertdoc Technologies to learn more about how the company used Windows Azure to quickly deploy a hosted offering to augment its on-premises document output solution. Read Xpertdoc’s success story here. Read on to find out what he had to say.

Himanshu Kumar Singh: Tell me about Xpertdoc.

Francis Dion:  Xpertdoc Technologies provides document output automation solutions that transform Microsoft Word into an industrial-strength customer communication platform. We were one of the very first Microsoft partners to support Office Open XML for the production of Microsoft Word documents. Open XML is an XML-based file format that facilitates programmatic access to Microsoft Office documents.

HKS:  What is the Xpertdoc Solution?

FD: The Xpertdoc Solution consists of two main components: a Microsoft Word add-in for authoring document templates and a centralized, web-based portal for managing and running them. The portal reads the template and generates a web-based form for selecting the options and entering any data needed to generate a final Microsoft Word document—for example, a schedule of benefits for a health insurance policy, a sales contract, or client correspondence. The Xpertdoc Solution also integrates with other enterprise systems, such as a customer relationship management application.

HKS:  What led you to move to a hosted solution?

FD:  Unlike competing products that can require specialized training, take months to deploy, and run upwards of CAD$500,000 (US$511,000) in annual licensing fees, the Xpertdoc Solution is designed for rapid, cost-effective adoption—an area where we are always looking to further differentiate our company. To that end, in 2011, we reexamined our traditional, on-premises deployment model, where each customer ran a copy of the Xpertdoc portal within its own IT infrastructure. This on-premises approach posed several challenges, the largest being a barrier to adoption. Although the on-premises solution is deployed quickly, it still took weeks to help a customer procure and provision servers. The customer then had to manage, support, and scale its on-premises Xpertdoc Solution as its usage grew.

With cloud-based solutions rapidly growing in popularity, we knew that we needed one of our own. However, we did not want to incur the time, expense, and distractions associated with building and managing its own hosting infrastructure. More and more customers were asking for a hosted solution. We had to meet their needs but didn’t want to be in the business of building and running a scalable and resilient hosting infrastructure. Even if we used a traditional hosting provider, we still would have had to contend with issues such as system administration, scalability, redundancy, disaster recovery, and geographic latency—not to mention convincing potential customers that we had the necessary competencies in all those areas.

HKS: How did you decide on Windows Azure?

FD:  We examined cloud platforms from Amazon and Microsoft before choosing to build on Windows Azure. We’re a Microsoft .NET shop, and no other cloud platform supports .NET development better than Windows Azure. Some of our peers were using Amazon, but we felt that it was more expensive and more similar to a traditional hosting provider than Windows Azure.

HKS:  How was the development process on Windows Azure?

FD: In July 2011, we began using the Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 Professional development system to modify our code to run on Windows Azure, relying on Visual Studio Team Foundation Server 2010 for aspects of application lifecycle management. By September 2011, with one developer working part-time on the project, we were live on Windows Azure and immediately turned our attention to new product features that could help boost sales, such as offering customers a way to sign up for a free trial.

HKS:  Can you tell me about a customer who is using the new hosted solution?

FD:  Yes, Prologis, a leading global provider of industrial real estate with US$45 billion in managed assets and more than 1,000 employees, is a good example of such a customer. The company manages an operating portfolio of approximately 3,100 industrial facilities in 22 countries, leasing more than 584 million square feet of space to manufacturers, retailers, transportation companies, third-party logistics providers, and other enterprises with large-scale distribution needs.

In North America alone, the company’s market officers generate thousands of leases each year, of which about 80 percent required the attention of one of three in-house attorneys. Prologis had built an in-house solution for lease assembly by market officers several years ago, but it had been fragile and hard to maintain, and was eventually abandoned.

When the company assessed possible solutions in 2011, Jason Murphy, First Vice President and Corporate Counsel at Prologis, envisioned a solution where market officers could answer a few basic questions to have all but the most complex leases immediately assembled for them. He also needed a solution that could be deployed without the involvement of his IT team, which was busy dealing with a recent merger.

Conversations with Forrester Research led Murphy to the Xpertdoc Solution, which promised to be the most cost-effective and easiest to implement and use.  Murphy told me that if they had needed to install a server, they would have walked away. They wanted an always-on, always-current solution that would work with any desktop, which is exactly what we gave them with Xpertdoc on Windows Azure.

In December 2011, two weeks after the lease requirements were solidified, Prologis’s new solution was ready to use. The new hosted, subscription-based offering gave Prologis exactly what it wanted: rapid implementation, minimal up-front costs, and no IT involvement for an Xpertdoc Solution that saves the company’s attorneys hundreds of hours of effort per year. Just as important, Prologis transitioned its lease assembly workload to market officers in a way that ensures leases remain error free.

HKS:  What are some of the benefits you’ve seen with Windows Azure?

FD:  By building on Windows Azure, we migrated our on-premises Xpertdoc Solution to Windows Azure with only 160 hours of developer effort. Developers didn’t need any new tools or skills, and were able to come up to speed easily. Today, we support both on-premises and hosted deployments with one code base—the only difference being a compile switch and 50 lines of code.

Windows Azure also gives us a fully automated, self-service hosting and management environment, enabling us to scale up or down in minutes. We started with one extra small compute instance for development, went live with two medium instances, and now run on six medium instances. It’s great to be able to pay for any new capacity we might need when we need it, out of the revenues generated by it, instead of having to guess at what capacity we may need in six months and make a significant investment ahead of time.

And because Windows Azure is available in data centers around the world, we can deploy our applications close to customers as we grow our business in other parts of the world. For example, if Prologis wants to expand its use of Xpertdoc beyond North America, Xpertdoc can deploy to data centers in Europe or Asia to minimize any latency and performance issues.

HKS:  What benefits does Windows Azure provide to your customers?

FD: The addition of a hosted service to its portfolio enables us to offer customers greater choice and convenience, which leads to new sales opportunities. And by building on Windows Azure, we can deliver its new service with minimal distraction to the business and to clients. It’s great not to worry about backups, scalability, and so on, and to be able to extend those same benefits to our customers.

By building on Windows Azure, we quickly and cost-effectively delivered what more and more of its customers are asking for: an easily adopted, low-maintenance document output solution with strong scalability and reliable availability. Customers now have more options, and we have new ways to approach the market, without either party having to worry about servers—it’s a win-win for everyone. Some customers are even opting for a hybrid approach, with Xpertdoc running on-premises for day-to-day use and on Windows Azure for disaster recovery.

HKS:  How are sales going with the new solution?

FD: I estimate that one-third to one-half of all deals today are for the company’s new cloud-based offering. We recently closed a large deal with a major insurance company in three weeks, whereas it would have taken several months to complete an on-premises proof of concept. What’s more, when we tell customers we’re running on Windows Azure, it alleviates any potential concerns about the quality of our hosting infrastructure. Building on Windows Azure has worked out very well for us and, by extension, for our customers as well.

Read how others are using Windows Azure.