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Pitney Bowes Enables Customers to Print Shipping Labels and Stamps from the Cloud
To continue its long tradition of mail solution innovation, Pitney Bowes wanted to offer small businesses an easy way to print shipping labels and stamps from the web. Pitney Bowes recently launched pbSmartPostage™, the first cloud-based stamp printing service approved by the United States Postal Service. By using pbSmartPostage, mobile workers can print shipping labels and stamps when in the office or on the go. Pitney Bowes runs the commerce portions of the service on existing data center systems and hosts the presentation layer on the Windows Azure platform. Hosting part of pbSmartPostage in the cloud contributed to a rapid six-month time-to-market and helps the development team roll out new features faster. With the flexible “pay-as-you-go” payment model of Windows Azure, Pitney Bowes can scale the service up or down at a moment’s notice, leaving infrastructure concerns to Microsoft.
"With Windows Azure, we don’t have to worry about data center infrastructure. Microsoft takes care of … maintenance tasks so we can focus on what we do best—designing innovative mailing solutions."
Pitney Bowes was founded in 1920 as a postage meter manufacturer, and it has been creating innovative mailing services ever since. Today, Pitney Bowes is a U.S.$5.4 billion company that employs 30,000 people worldwide. It provides software, hardware, and services that enhance customer communications by integrating physical and digital communications channels. A member of the S&P 500 since 1957, Pitney Bowes has a record of strong financial performance.
In mid-2009, Pitney Bowes started researching cloud computing—using groups of servers and scalable resources to provide a computing platform, applications, or both over the Internet. “We were hearing more and more about cloud computing and wanted to get some experience working in the cloud,” says Paul Kovlakas, Director of SMB (Small and Midsize Business) Product Line Management at Pitney Bowes. “We wanted to increase our pace of development by eliminating the burden of deploying development, test, and production servers for every project. Cloud computing could also help us scale our infrastructure as needed, provide services on demand, and eliminate the need for customers to manage on-premises infrastructures.”
From a market reach perspective, moving to the cloud would help Pitney Bowes reach small and midsize businesses that were not well served by its large direct-sales organization. “Small businesses use the web for just about everything,” Kovlakas says. “We recognized that we needed to be on the web with innovative services and innovative ways of delivering them.”
One idea emerged as a natural fit for the cloud: web-based postage printing. Pitney Bowes observed that employees of most small businesses spent a great deal of their time outside of the office yet still needed to mail proposals, contracts, and other documents. It envisioned a mobile shipping and mailing service that small businesses could use to print shipping labels and stamps virtually anywhere, anytime, and manage their mailing expenditures from a web-based portal.
“Small businesses need a way to conduct business when outside the office and extend mailing and shipping processes beyond the mail room,” Kovlakas says. “We wanted to get an application to market quickly by taking advantage of existing back-end commerce and user authentication systems in our data center and moving front-end application elements into the cloud.”
The Pitney Bowes IT organization has a great deal of experience with Microsoft software and technologies, so it looked at Windows Azure, the Microsoft cloud services development, hosting, and management environment. Windows Azure provides on-demand compute, storage, networking, and content delivery capabilities through Microsoft data centers. “We started thinking about Windows Azure in mid-2009 and joined the Windows Azure Technology Adoption Program in late 2009,” says Paul Aronson, Director of Engineering at Pitney Bowes. “Microsoft made a big commitment to us and worked very closely with us to make sure that the project was a success for both of us.”
Pitney Bowes also wanted to capitalize on its staff’s experience. “Our team was familiar with Microsoft tools such as the .NET Framework and Microsoft Visual Studio, so we knew that the Microsoft development environment would provide the fastest development track,” says Manu Sarin, Technical Lead on the project. “The thing I liked best about Windows Azure is its packaging and deployment model, which is very flexible and easy-to-use. We were able to use the same tools that we use in development for our on-premises systems.”
Shipping Labels and Stamps Printed from the Cloud
Pitney Bowes started development of its cloud-based postage printing service, called pbSmartPostage™, in late 2009 and launched a beta version in July 2010 after just six months of development by a team of five people. While most other web-based stamp printing services on the market require that users download software to their PCs, pbSmartPostage is a browser based service with all presentation-layer processing performed in Windows Azure. It is the first cloud-based shipping label and stamp printing service approved by the United States Postal Service (USPS).
All that customers need in order to print postage and ship and track packages is an Internet connection. They log on to the pbSmartPostage website (www.pb.com/pbsmartpostage) and sign up for the service using one of several monthly subscription plans. They can then import addresses from their contact information and prepare shipping labels from their desktop or portable computer.
Customers can print United States Postal Service First Class, Priority Mail, and Express Mail labels. Because Pitney Bowes is an approved USPS PC Postage™ Product vendor, pbSmartPostage customers receive reduced rates for packages sent to U.S. destinations, compared to rates that they would otherwise receive from the USPS. Customers can track packages online and view and print reports about their postage spending.
Behind the Scenes: Hybrid Cloud Architecture
Part of the pbSmartPostage service is running in the Pitney Bowes data center and part on Windows Azure. “We already had established back-end systems in our data center for performing e-commerce and authentication, so it made sense to take advantage of those,” Aronson says. “Plus, when postage is issued and printed, it’s considered evidence of payment, and the Postal Service requires that we maintain those financial transactions behind our firewall. The piece of the application that didn’t exist was the user presentation layer—everything users see in their interactions with pbSmartPostage, actual customer transactions, and their address books. It made sense to put all that data in the cloud.”
When customers sign in to their pbSmartPostage accounts, they are authenticated against a user directory in the Pitney Bowes data center. Authentication involves the creation of a federated identity token, which can then be used to authorize subsequent access to other pbSmartPostage services that run in the Pitney Bowes data center.
If a user renews a pbSmartPostage subscription or purchases anything—conducting any transaction that requires credit card data—Windows Azure directs the transaction to an e-commerce system running in the Pitney Bowes data center. Pitney Bowes uses web services to exchange information between Windows Azure and Pitney Bowes data center servers. Even though financial transactions take place in the Pitney Bowes data center, all nonfinancial transaction data, along with user address books and reports, is stored in Windows Azure Table Storage, with sensitive data encrypted for safety. Pitney Bowes also uses Windows Azure Blob Storage for session management.
By developing pbSmartPostage as a hybrid application—running in both the Pitney Bowes data center and the cloud—Pitney Bowes reduced its time-to-market and gained greater development agility and cost-effective, on-demand scalability. pbSmartPostage gives small business customers an easy way to print shipping labels and postage from any location.
Always-Available Postage Printing for Customers On the Go
By running the pbSmartPostage presentation layer in Windows Azure, Pitney Bowes was able to deliver a full-featured shipping label and postage-printing solution to customers without requiring that they download any software to their computers. “More business users today visit the office infrequently or don’t even have an office,” Kovlakas says. “They do everything from a laptop computer or their smartphone. pbSmartPostage is a very lightweight application that requires no processing power or software management from the customer; everything takes place in Windows Azure or our data center. Small and midsize businesses can print and manage their shipping needs from anywhere.”
Additionally, with their postage accounts and data running in Windows Azure, customers always have access to that data. “We have a load-balanced infrastructure in the Microsoft data center so that if one server fails, another will take over for it,” Sarin says. “Availability is simply not a concern—for us or our customers.”
Six-Month Time-to-Market, Faster Updates
By running the presentation layer of pbSmartPostage in Windows Azure, Pitney Bowes was able to get the service to market in just six months. “With Windows Azure, we don’t have to worry about data center infrastructure,” Aronson says. “Microsoft takes care of backing up our application and user data, deploying servers, applying security updates, and all those other time-consuming maintenance tasks so we can focus on what we do best—designing innovative mailing solutions.”
Pitney Bowes can roll out new pbSmartPostage features faster for the same reason: There’s no need to set up development and test servers and manage an on-premises development infrastructure.
With the pbSmartPostage presentation layer running in Windows Azure, Pitney Bowes has instant, on-demand scalability of the underlying infrastructure. “When we launched the service, we were not sure how many customers we would have,” Sarin says. “As our customer base grows, we can easily add more web servers running as new virtual machines in the Microsoft data center, and we are only paying for the servers that we use. Getting servers up and running quickly is always a challenge for an IT organization, and this problem goes away completely in the cloud.”
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