Today large companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft, that have extensive experience managing large data centers, are offering customers to “rent” data capacity. This is great news for companies that want to focus on their core business application and not worry about the underlying platform. Microsoft’s cloud platform offering is called Windows Azure. In this article you’ll get an overview of how companies have been able to leverage this service to improve their productivity and reliability and how you can benefit from it.
A typical scenario:
Imagine that you just started a new business providing an environmentally friendly carpooling service. For the business to flourish you need a modern, flexible online application that allows your customers to choose and book vehicles, see a map of the currently available cars, manage their booking history and connect with their friends using social media. Since you are convinced that your business will be a great success you want to make sure that the online booking application can handle hundreds of thousands of customers. No matter what type of application you want to build, you need to have a basic platform in place. This includes an operating system that needs to be patched and up to date, the network, including load-balancers and routers, storage of your data. The platform needs to be scalable to support all your customers worldwide. Since you are a startup with limited funds, you don’t want to pay for such capacity up front. In addition, you don’t want to have to worry about hiring people to look after servers, network appliances, software updates and backup. Luckily, in this day of age you don’t have to! This is the beauty of cloud based platform services. You can rent a data platform and pay for it as you go, just like you do for utilities like water or electricity. That is why it’s called utility computing – you only pay for what you use.
The business benefits:
Using a cloud computing platform service like Windows Azure provides companies with numerous benefits. Faster time to market- Since you don’t have to worry about the underlying infrastructure or platform and only focus on developing the functionality of your business application it can be completed in a fraction of the time, thus reducing your time to market. Reduced costs- Since you are only paying for what you are using, the pay-as-you-grow model, reduces the upfront costs. Since Microsoft can pass on volume discounts to their customers the ongoing costs are also lower than if you were to host the full platform yourself. Increased scalability – As your customer base grows and the usage of your application increases you can just add additional capacity to make sure your application is running smoothly. You don’t ever have to worry about running out of server capacity. More flexibility and creativity – Applications can very quickly be deployed to the Windows Azure platform which means that changes can be applied without any downtime. This makes it an ideal platform for your developers to let their creative minds run wild and for them to add functionality to your application that you would otherwise not have dared to implement.
Toyota redesigned its web portal using scalable cloud solutions and content management systems
Toyota’s portal, GAZOO.COM, which serves as a portal where users find vehicle information, can network with other owners, find news etc. It gets an average of 100 Million page views per month. To cope with this traffic and make it more scalable, Toyota decided to rebuild its site using the Windows Azure cloud service and Microsoft Sharepoint.
Quoting Hidehiko Sasaki (General Manager, Internet Planning Department, Toyota), “Windows Azure lets us maintain around-the-clock uptime, which is crucial for a global business…. It gives us a flexibility that was unthinkable in the era of on-premises deployments.”
As part of its efforts to reach younger consumers, car enthusiasts, and even people who don’t own a car, Toyota offers the GAZOO.com web portal. The portal provides news, blogs, shopping, vehicle information, and even a three-dimensional virtual city, GAZOO Metapolis, where users can drive virtual cars and chat with fellow passengers.
The company added consumer features, along with functionality used by Toyota employees for publishing and analyzing corporate content and sales campaigns. GAZOO.com was originally built on an ASP-based web architecture, and over the years there were many expansions and modifications that significantly increased the IT management burden and total cost of running the site.
In January 2012, Toyota began working on a redesigned architecture for GAZOO.com to help the company reduce site maintenance and costs, make information on the site more dynamic, and enhance social networking, community building, and mobile access opportunities.
“We felt that a cloud-based solution made the most sense, because it would dramatically reduce hardware and management costs and increase scalability,” says Hidehiko Sasaki. “And it was important that the new site have a content management system that can quickly and accurately deliver customized information to meet users’ specific needs.”
Toyota evaluated cloud and content solutions from several companies, including Microsoft, Salesforce.com, and Sitecore. In the end, Toyota chose Windows Azure from Microsoft as its cloud development environment, and Microsoft SharePoint 2013 for content management and blogs. “With Windows Azure, we can provision server resources dynamically to meet fluctuating demand,” says Mr. Sasaki. “And SharePoint 2013 contains highly customizable functionality combined with very efficient features, which made it the best solution for us.”
Toyota is taking advantage of the customizability of SharePoint 2013 to help improve customers’ experience with GAZOO.com. “Toyota has 300,000 pages of content, and the SharePoint 2013 search capability lets us quickly retrieve the information that customers really want and recommend content that they’ll enjoy,” says Mr. Sasaki. “We are also using blogs—and, in future releases, other social features like Yammer—and SharePoint 2013 makes it easy to customize all of our content and templates to meet the requirements of different stakeholders.”
Benefits of the redesigned web portal include:
- Scalability and reliability. Toyota is one of the first companies to create an external website with SharePoint 2013 running on Windows Azure Virtual Machines, and the combination will help Toyota respond to the challenges of a high-volume global site. “Toyota websites have more than 100 million monthly page views, and Windows Azure lets us maintain around-the-clock uptime, which is crucial for a global business,” says Mr. Sasaki. “Because we don’t have to worry about things like taking a server offline to install a software update, it gives us a flexibility that was unthinkable in the era of on-premises deployments.”
- Lower cost of operation. By running its site in a hosted cloud environment, Toyota significantly reduces the cost of maintaining and expanding the site. “With SharePoint 2013 running in Windows Azure, we can deliver infrastructure as a service and eliminate the need to buy and maintain on-site hardware,” says Mr. Sasaki. “And as site membership grows, we can easily add additional computing resources without needing to purchase physical servers.”
- High degree of customizability. The new GAZOO.com helped Toyota address the needs of the different departments that provide content for the site. “It can be hard to get all parts of a company to agree on the details of templates, but with SharePoint 2013 we tailor our content management system according to user demand,” says Mr. Sasaki. “And we can easily customize site features to serve the needs of a diverse, global user base and spread the joys of ‘car life’.”
When BMW Latin America had to promote the launch of two new model lines, it wanted to kick off an interactive marketing campaign through the Facebook social network that would support the launch and collect audience data. BMW used Windows Azure to support a solution that integrated the Facebook promotion with its internal Microsoft Dynamics CRM environment, engaged 90,000 consumers, and converted 900 campaign participants into sales prospects.
“By using Windows Azure to make audience data available in Microsoft Dynamics CRM, we enhanced the business continuity of our marketing campaign and developed more than 900 new sales prospects.” – Beata Bujalska, E-Marketing Analyst, BMW Latin America
In 2011, to promote its launch of two new lines in BMW 1 series, they decided to utilise Facebook to kick off the marketing campaign since the target audience matched the profile of a typical Facebook user. Utilising the interactive social media BMW could collect information about the campaign audience such as Age, Gender, and Email etc. The basic motive was to drive interest in the newly launched products among the right group of audience along with collecting audience data.
The usual way for BMW to kick off a marketing campaign is by utilising corporate resources. But since they had no program that took advantage of the social networking for this model, BMW Latin America had to come up with its own dynamic solution.
The company wanted to utilise the social network for delivering content and collect user data, but at the same time wanted to manage the solution through its own in house backend interface that is integrated with its CRM system. The need was to create an integrated solution that was scalable to meet any kind of demand, in a small IT investment. This meant an in house solution could potentially turn out to be costly as the demand was to get higher.
To keep the IT investments as low as possible, BMW decided to use cloud services delivered over the internet. Utilising a solution called HG Social Marketing Accelerator, built in Windows Azure.
BMW launched an interactive campaign on Facebook where users could the Facebook page without the need to login to evaluate different option packages and complete a form to receive information, photos and videos featuring the product.
BMW used Web Roles in Windows Azure to connect to Facebook and enter content. The user data from the form was then stored in Microsoft SQL database hosted on Windows Azure platform and delivered through worker roles to BMWs on-site CRM and its call center.
The company reached 10 markets in two languages without making a large infrastructure investment or relying on any corporate support. While the consumer participation varied by markets, BMW was able to easily scale the Windows Azure resources when and where needed dynamically.
In two months, more than 90,000 people participated in the Facebook promotion and by integrating the user information with its internal CRM, BMW converted more than 900 participants into prequalified leads and sales prospects.
BMW delivered the campaign through the popular social networks interface. This helped keep costs down. Also, they maintained a high level of administrative control and autonomy. With the vast capacity of Windows Azure, BMW had the flexibility to shrink or grow its resources without having to pay for unused resources.
“The Windows Azure subscription and pricing model is more flexible and costs BMW two-thirds less than traditional server hosting,” says Perez, (BMW Account Manager at the solution provider)
By using Windows Azure, BMW Latin America deployed a social marketing solution without having to rely on corporate support or make a large infrastructure investment. “We used Windows Azure to independently implement a dynamic and innovative marketing solution, without needing any resources from our corporate offices in Germany,” says Bujalska (E-Marketing Analyst, BMW Latin America). “Instead of waiting half a year, we had a solution in two months.”
Sopima, creator of an online solution for managing business contract life cycles, needed to minimize its investment to deliver a viable offering. It also wanted to offer a monthly subscription service to gain new customers.
With the solution developed on Windows Azure, Sopima has been able to enter the competitive market and get a foothold of its own. Using the Windows Azure™ platform, the company hosts its application in Microsoft data centers, providing customers with fast response times and high scalability. The company limited its investment in infrastructure and can focus on development rather than hardware administration.
Sopima estimates that, without the Windows Azure platform, it would have had to hire additional full-time staff members at an annual cost of approximately $500,000.
Sopima, a software development firm based in Finland had to simplify and streamline the process of creation, management and storage of business contracts for its client companies.
Given the large number of contracts that a company manages each year for customers, clients, suppliers and partners etc. and the large number of people involved in the contract creation process, it can be very time consuming and mostly inefficient. This requires close collaboration between individuals and departments, as well as with external business partners. Often, these documents are shared via Email and thus are prone to being stolen or compromised. Version control of the documents is a big problem on its own. In addition , its difficult for companies to control contributors access to various parts of the contract.
Archiving of contracts can also be challenging.
Being a small company with limited investment capital and onlu five full time employees, Sopima decided to base its software solution on the cloud in which the solution would be hosted on the internet on some external partners data centers. This was specifically done to minimize its hardware infrastructure and administration costs.
The main goal of the model was to get smaller companies signed up as quick as possible so as to get an immediate cash flow. This was to be achieved through a low cost subscription service.
The scalability of the solution was of utmost importance here as even the smallest of customers would usually upload hundreds of contracts, as the customer base grows the company would need to increase its storage and other resources accordingly.
After evaluating services from various vendors, Sopima choose Windows Azure platform, since no other platform was able to provide the full scale platform and services management capabilities.
The companies developers were able to easily implement a scalable solution on Windows Azure since they were already developing on the .NET framework, which is also a part of Windows Azure platform. The familiarity with Microsoft products helped make the transition to the cloud very easy. Sopima also chose the Windows Azure platform because of the marketing advantage it believed it would gain through achieving status as a Microsoft Certified Partner.
Sopima used the Microsoft Visual Studio 2008 development system to develop its contract management application on the Windows Azure platform, including Microsoft Visual Studio Team System 2008 Team Foundation Server. It also used the Microsoft Silverlight™ 3.0 browser plug-in as the basis for the user interface.
Sopima customers who use its contract management application can easily manage different users’ access rights to various parts of each contract through the authentication capabilities of the .NET Framework. Sopima uses Microsoft SQL Azure to manage contracts and contract information that helps customers track the commitments within the contracts based on any chosen criteria including expiration date, company name, contract owner, value of a contract, or assessed risk levels. Using SQL Azure, Sopima also stores all deadline and project milestone reminders for users involved in the contract creation process. As part of the Windows Azure platform, SQL Azure provides automated management capabilities, including built-in data protection, self-healing, and disaster recovery.
By using a hosted infrastructure, Sopima kept its investments low, which is very critical for a small start-up. The windows azure platform was perfect because Sopima was able to take advantage of its expertise in Microsoft technologies for a rapid deployment.
Sopima would have had to spend approximately $20,000 annually in server licensing, and pay several support salaries amounting to roughly $300,000 in savings.