REDMOND, Wash., March 23, 2004 — In the high-velocity world of IndyCar auto racing, the rivalries on the track aren’t the only racing going on. Behind the scenes, state-of-the-art technology engages in a high-speed race of its own — against time.
In a lightning-quick flow of information, timing systems report the times at which cars cross sensors positioned around the track, servers calculate car speeds, and a wireless network delivers the data — in real-time — to computers used by race teams in the pits, race officials and car manufacturers. Getting the data is especially critical at the end of the race.
“As soon as the car crosses the finish line, the updated information must appear instantaneously on the screen,” says Jon Koskey, director of timing and scoring for Indy Racing League (IRL), a racing division that includes the Indy 500 and other high-profile, open-wheel races.
Indianapolis-based IRL recently developed an application that gathers and analyzes this real-time racetrack data using Microsoft Visual Studio .NET 2003, a powerful toolset which enables developers to rapidly build a broad range of applications for the Microsoft Windows operating system, the Web and mobile devices.
Other organizations have used Visual Studio .NET 2003 to similar effect and, by deploying Web services, have built new applications that leave older ones in the proverbial dust. They include industry publishing giant McGraw-Hill Construction, electronics manufacturer Samsung Electronics Corp. and interactive educational product developer Riverdeep. All cite such benefits as a fast, streamlined development process, reduced costs, increased productivity and outstanding performance.
Indy Racing League Faces Narrow Development Window
In the case of IRL, speed was of the essence in more senses than one. Because of the short off-season for racing, the league’s small team of developers had less than five weeks last winter to create the new application. The new application was needed because the old one was hard to maintain and update, could not be configured in ways the teams needed and was nearing its performance limits, league officials say.
Given the short time frame, IRL needed a toolset that would allow quick development with minimal training. Working with Clarity Consulting, a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner, IRL used Visual Studio .NET 2003 Enterprise Architect development system, Visual Basic and the .NET Framework with Microsoft SQL Server to build a fully customizable display application — within the deadline — that exceeded the league’s specifications. It also used Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server to create a collaborative portal with significantly reduced maintenance requirements.
Koskey says he’s extremely pleased with the performance and processing power of the new solution, which includes a SQL Server that easily handles the more than 80,000 data points gathered in a typical IndyCar race and the 300 to 600 simultaneous server connections per second.
“We’ve greatly minimized the time required to move the data from the database to the client application,” Koskey says. “The Framework-based solution is easily 50 percent faster than the application that we used in the past.”
Business Challenges Met with Microsoft Web Solutions
McGraw-Hill Construction, a business unit of McGraw-Hill Publishing, used Visual Studio .NET to develop a distributed Web services solution that represents a sea change in the way the company does business. The solution, dubbed the McGraw-Hill Construction Network, launched last summer after a development cycle of only one year.
McGraw-Hill Construction, based in New York City, saw an opportunity to add value for their customers by delivering content over the Web. Traditionally, the company has offered printed information products for the construction industry, such as catalogs, and architectural and engineering periodicals.
But with more users using the Internet to access construction industry information, the company needed to radically change the way it offered industry information. The data was stored in unconnected databases, using different applications and often outdated computing systems. The lack of integration made it virtually impossible to provide all the data in a single view and group it in a way that was relevant, timely, usable and most importantly salable to customers.
The decision to make a distributed Web services platform the centerpiece of McGraw-Hill Construction’s modus operandi was a business decision as well as a technology one, says Jim King, chief information officer for the information and media division of McGraw-Hill Publishing. So was the decision to use Microsoft tools.
“We said let’s partner with a technology platform provider that can give us a great new set of tools that also map to how we envision delivering products in the future,” King says. “That vision was a set of subscribable Web services that delivered our products and content in new, innovative ways that were integrated with the customer environment.”
The resulting solution, built on the Microsoft .NET Framework in the Visual Studio .NET development environment, offers numerous benefits to users. Information is more timely, as, for example, when bid dates change or plans get updated. General contractors and other businesses get to connect with suppliers and subcontractors directly. Contractors can access plans, search specs and bid on construction projects — all from their desks.
The solution sets the stage for the company’s continued future growth, King says: “We see the momentum on the Microsoft .NET side as really being a positive to help the McGraw-Hill Construction business move forward, especially since a lot of the partners and the third-party Visual Studio .NET world — the Microsoft .NET world — are building things that we can use for small and medium businesses as well as large enterprises.”
Samsung Unites Partners and Customers Around the World
Another big company that developed a Microsoft-based Web portal solution using Visual Studio .NET 2003 is Samsung, Korea’s leading electronics manufacturer.
Samsung turned to a Web services solution because of shortcomings in its existing integrated enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. Samsung and Microsoft Consulting Services conceived and built the Global Samsung Business Network (GSBN), a worldwide collaborative portal system that enables Samsung and its overseas subsidiaries, partners and customers to have a clear and real-time view of the status of purchase orders, sales, shipping and inventory.
The portal, which includes a customer collaboration area and a business area for internal audiences such as subsidiaries, has resulted in annual gains to Samsung of US$2.9 million, with annual return on investment of 235 percent, company officials say.
Company officials credit Visual Studio .NET with streamlining the development process and contributing to cost savings.
“What impressed us the most was the extraordinary speed in bringing the data through the interface from SAP R/3,” says Jong Hwan Sa, general manager of Samsung Electronics. “Using the advanced tools and drag-and-drop visual environment of Microsoft Visual Studio .NET 2003, we could implement the Web development and Microsoft Windows-based application development with a single tool.”
Samsung rejected other portal options because of their cost and projected length of deployment. In contrast, the Microsoft portal solution delivered rapid time-to-benefit and reduced maintenance costs, for lower total cost of ownership (TCO) both at the start of the project and projected over its useful life – in part because of Visual Studio .NET.
Visual Studio .NET development system helped the company reduce the amount of code needed for the portal solution, not only making the solution faster to create but also requiring less maintenance over time, company officials say. Samsung also will save in ongoing maintenance in other ways — for example, by using Web services to extend the solution to new partners without having to write additional code — resulting in additional TCO savings over the life of the solution.
Visual Studio .NET Helps Revitalize Old Favorite
Developers at Riverdeep, a leading publisher of interactive products, also faced the challenge of preparing a product, The Print Shop, for the future.
First released in 1983, The Print Shop — a popular application that helps users create greeting cards, calendars, photo projects and crafts — is one of the oldest continuously developed products now available for Windows. The old code base had lots of useful functionality, but it was complex and posed a formidable task to developers.
Riverdeep wanted to add new features to The Print Shop 20th Anniversary Edition using managed C# code, without having to convert the entire 20-year-old C++ code base into managed code all at once. To solve the problem, the company hit on the unorthodox approach of making the C++ portion of Print Shop a hosting environment for the Microsoft .NET Common Language Runtime (CLR), and wrote C# application domains to run in that environment.
Visual Studio .NET 2003 was “a nice transition point,” says Grant BlahaErath, chief architect at Riverdeep, which has offices in Dublin, Ireland and Novato, Calif. “I doubt we could have done it with any old programming model.”
He says it streamlined the development process in a number of ways: “The reason we went with the Visual Studio .NET 2003 was because we needed to revitalize our product line and it was the easiest way to do so. The whole thing about .NET was that we had started out just planning to do one little feature and then we found that every feature we wanted to do was encapsulated in .NET right away.”
BlahaErath says the Visual Studio .NET integrated development environment (IDE) included several “crucial features” that helped promote productivity during development, such as the ability to automatically generate help files for the team’s C# methods, and the enhanced debugging features. In addition, Microsoft IntelliSense — a collection of technologies that simplify or automate complex or routine tasks — allowed developers to quickly share API (application programming interface) changes and other details with each other, BlahaErath says.
“Before, every time we rolled out new functionality, it would take a little longer for other people who were using that functionality to pick it up,” he says. “In this round of engineering development, we had much faster uptake of all kinds of new things.”
Developers Quick to Adopt Visual Studio
For some companies, using Visual Studio .NET 2003 resulted in more than a great new application with bottom-line benefits. One often-overlooked benefit is the new level of expertise it gives to first-time Visual Studio .NET programmers themselves, customers say.
“We knew that we needed to raise the level of skill set within our development organization,” says McGraw-Hill’s King. “Visual Studio .NET has been an awesome environment for our developers to literally grow into from their previous development tool sets.”
BlahaErath agrees, although he says there was some initial resistance to the idea from Riverdeep’s development team.
“It’s the first time they have used .NET,” he says. “But we introduced it and then pretty soon every programmer was using it and couldn’t dream of using anything else.”