As part of the Real World Windows Azure series, I connected with Scott Caulk, vice president of Product Management at IDV Solutions to learn more about how the company uses Windows Azure. Read IDV Solution’s success story here. Read on to find out what he had to say.
Himanshu Kumar Singh: Tell me about IDV Solutions.
Scott Caulk: We provide large organizations with business intelligence, security, and risk visualization solutions. Our flagship product, Visual Fusion, is a business intelligence software solution that helps organizations unite content from virtually any data source and then deliver it to end users in a visual, interactive context for better business insights. Visual Fusion and our other products have helped us establish a strong presence among major organizations in government and private industry sectors, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Transportation, Pfizer, Pacific Hydro, BP, and the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
HKS: What led you to develop Fetch! on Windows Azure?
SC: In 2010, one of our customers asked us for an application that would make it easy for their mobile employees to access the organization’s large data collection. The prototype we created turned out to work really well, and the customer liked it. The application was first deployed entirely on the customer’s servers and was accessed by end users though mobile email; however, our development team decided that a more interactive experience was necessary. To create a more interactive version that maintained device compatibility, we built it as a rich web application.
What we discovered is that getting the solution to run in an enterprise infrastructure but also exposing it to the Internet began to create risks. We had the foundation of a good idea that could be marketed to other customers as well, but realized that IT departments would worry about data security issues and opening up ports in their firewalls so mobile devices could use the Internet to access internal data.
So we began looking for a cloud platform that could help provide the essential functionality of providing data access to mobile users while minimizing the exposure risk for corporate data. We chose Windows Azure as the cloud platform on which to develop the app. Called Fetch!, its a hybrid solution that uses cloud capabilities to link mobile users with on-premises enterprise data. As a platform-agnostic mobile app, Fetch! supports the broadest range of common mobile operating systems, including Windows Phone, Android, and iOS, as well as any device capable of sending and receiving email.
HKS: What capabilities does Fetch! deliver?
SC: Fetch! allows mobile corporate employees to access a wide range of information such as data grids and text, charts and graphs, documents and images, scorecards, and maps. It supports full access to systems such as IDV Solutions Visual Fusion; Microsoft SharePoint and related PerformancePoint services; Microsoft SQL Server databases; Oracle databases; Salesforce.com; and custom line-of-business systems and web services.
HKS: What factors led you to choose Windows Azure?
SC: We’re a member of the Microsoft Partner Network, and have expertise with Windows development tools such as the .NET Framework the Microsoft Visual Studio development system, and ASP.NET. This [experience] gave Windows Azure an advantage in our evaluation process. The tight integration of Windows Azure with our existing development environment made our development efforts go more smoothly.
Windows Azure also provided a key feature that was invaluable during the development cycle: the Windows Azure Service Bus. The Service Bus provides a hosted, secure, and widely available infrastructure for secure messaging and communications relay capabilities. It offers connectivity options for service endpoints that in other cloud solutions would be difficult or impossible to reach. The Service Bus relay service also eliminates the need to set up a new connection for each communications instance, resulting in faster and more reliable connections for mobile users.
With Windows Azure, we could jump into the project using our .NET expertise, quickly ramp up, and then deploy a solid app, whether for a smartphone or tablet device. Time to deployment went quickly, and any modifications we have for Fetch! Will be very fast. If we had gone for a non-Microsoft cloud platform, our development time probably would have been slowed by weeks, if not months.
HKS: How does Fetch! work?
SC: When accessing data through Fetch!, mobile employees use an email address and password to log on, and a web application provides the means for requesting data. After the user enters a command to query data, the command is processed in Windows Azure and then sent via the Windows Azure Service Bus to a service running within the corporation’s on-premises IT infrastructure. The on-premises service uses “connectors” that are part of the Fetch! solution to link to variety of data sources. The relevant data is collected and then returned using a web service, which formats it and presents it to the user. The speed of the process depends on the particular IT infrastructure, but it typically occurs in just a few seconds.
Other platform components used in the solution include Windows Azure Storage, which provides scalable and easily accessible data storage services, and Windows Azure Compute, which lets us run application code in the cloud. Each Windows Azure Compute instance runs as a virtual machine that is isolated from other Windows Azure customers and handles activities such as network load balancing and failover for continuous availability. Additionally, Fetch! can connect to data hosted on SQL Azure.
HKS: What are some of the advantages of using Windows Azure for Fetch!?
SC: By using Windows Azure as an integral part of Fetch! we were able to use features that ease enterprise customers’ concerns about the security of data accessed from mobile devices. And with Windows Azure Service Bus, our customers can have the Fetch! service running inside their infrastructure without the need to poke holes in their firewall to get data in and out. This is especially important for customers in security fields, where the safety of data is critical. With Service Bus, our customers’ mobile users can connect to rich enterprise information without exposing the network to any additional security concerns.
HKS: What are some of the benefits of using Windows Azure for your business?
SC: When developing Fetch!, we weren’t sure if we would have just a few customers or many, including large customers that might add thousands of users at a time to the solution. Windows Azure gives us the scalability to very quickly add large volumes of users as the product is adopted across more and more of our customer base.
Furthermore, due to their large size, the enterprise customers in our target markets can cause sharp spikes in traffic—sometimes overnight in cases where they add entire groups or departments. This means that Fetch! needs to run on a cloud platform that can deliver enormous scalability at a moment’s notice. That’s one of the big benefits of Windows Azure. We have customers with tens of thousands of users, and we can click a button to go from having two load-balanced web servers to having a dozen or more in a matter of minutes is a very powerful feature for us—and for our customers.
We also benefit from end-to-end development tools that provide a seamless environment for innovations and upgrades. Windows Azure was key in helping our company build and deliver a mobile, data access app that meets the security and scalability needs of our large customers.
Read how others are using Windows Azure.