From Viral Onions to Flight Maps: Businesses Use Windows Azure to Create Flexible Services in the Cloud

REDMOND, Wash. — Aug. 2, 2010 — For devotees of the Outback Steakhouse chain, a meal of horseradish-crusted filet mignon is seldom complete without the restaurant’s signature offering — “the Bloomin’ Onion” — a large, deep-fried onion, artfully sliced to resemble a flower in bloom. Last year, when Outback’s marketing team brainstormed a social networking campaign to expand the restaurant’s customer base, it seemed logical to lure diners with free samples of the pièce de résistance on their menu. It was time for the Bloomin’ Onion to go viral.

Screenshot of Outback’s Facebook application developed by Thuzi, a Florida-based social media marketing company and member of Microsoft’s partner network.

Outback partnered with Thuzi, a Florida-based social media marketing company and a member of Microsoft’s partner network, to build an application that would offer a free Bloomin’ Onion coupon to the first 500,000 people to sign up as fans on the restaurant’s Facebook page. Thuzi searched extensively for a solution that would meet all the needs of the viral campaign and found one in Windows Azure.

Jim Zimmerman, chief technology officer at Thuzi, says he considered hosting Outback’s application in one of Thuzi’s datacenters, but quickly overruled that option because the viral campaign needed a highly scalable infrastructure to meet the anticipated spikes in demand. Thuzi took less than two months to develop Outback’s Facebook application. According to Zimmerman, the smooth deployment process stemmed from the decision to deploy to the cloud with the Windows Azure platform.

“Deployments are a cinch with Windows Azure,” says Zimmerman. “With alternatives like Amazon or Google, we would have struggled to build virtual images, set up servers and get comfortable with their programming interface. By going the Windows Azure route, our learning curve was minimal and we didn’t have to worry about scaling issues or provisioning additional hardware.”

When Thuzi launched the Facebook application in November last year, Outback’s goal was to capture 500,000 fans in 30 days. It met that mark in just 18 days. While some Facebook users limited their activity to signing up as fans on the restaurant’s page, the Bloomin’ Onion campaign went truly viral when fans started to post links and invite their friends to sign up for the promotion.

From 10 to 10 million: Dynamic Scalability

Zimmerman attributes much of the application’s success to its ability to instantly scale up to ensure coverage during peak usage periods, and then scale back again when the extra capacity isn’t needed. Using Windows Azure, developers can easily create applications that can scale from 10 users to 10 million users without any additional coding. Since the Outback Facebook application has its own cloud-based database, it is also much easier for the company to run queries and produce reports.

Prashant Ketkar, director of product marketing for Windows Azure.

Prashant Ketkar, director of product marketing for Windows Azure at Microsoft, says scalability and adaptability are among a growing list of attributes that distinguishes Windows Azure from its competitors.

“Windows Azure is truly differentiated in terms of the enterprise-class service options that it offers. The ease of development and adaptability is unmatched. With Windows Azure, you supply only a Windows application, along with instructions about how many instances to run. The platform takes care of everything else,” says Ketkar.

Ketkar adds that the Windows Azure platform manages the entire maintenance lifecycle, including updating system software when required. This enables Windows Azure customers to focus on addressing business needs instead of resolving operational challenges. Windows Azure also enables partners and customers to utilize their existing skills in familiar languages such as Microsoft.NET, Java and PHP, and familiar tools such as Visual Studio and Eclipse, to create and manage Web applications and services.

Keeping Costs Down

Deploying applications with Windows Azure is also more cost-effective for businesses, since the Windows Azure model lets customers “rent” resources that reside in Microsoft datacenters and the amount they pay depends on how much of those resources they use. This was the motivation behind 3M’s decision to use Windows Azure to host an innovative Web-based application last year.

Jonathan Gandrud, software developer at 3M’s worldwide headquarters in St. Paul, Minn., uses 3M VAS to optimize the layout of a Web page.

The 3M Visual Attention Service (VAS) application lets designers, marketers and advertisers know where people’s eyes are drawn when they look at an image. Since the initial beta test in November last year, customers have successfully used the VAS service to optimize the design of websites, in-store signage and billboards.

Terry Collier, business development manager of 3M’s commercial graphics division, says the company wanted to provide the application as a service to customers worldwide without having to open datacenters around the world.

“The real challenge was keeping the cost of operating the VAS tool low considering the computing-intensive nature of our image-processing algorithms.” says Collier. “With the pay-as-you-go structure of Windows Azure, we only need to budget for the resources we use.”

Collier adds that in addition to requiring a low up-front investment, the Windows Azure platform aligns seamlessly with the Microsoft-based development tools and processes deployed throughout 3M.

“The fact that Windows Azure integrated well with our Visual Studio development environment made Windows Azure a clear front-runner for our application,” says Collier.

Minimum Bandwidth Needed

For many of the 10 million passengers that Dublin, Ireland-based Aer Lingus flies every year to destinations as far-flung as Marrakech and Dubai, the first step in booking a flight starts at the airline’s website. While some customers already have a destination in mind and can proceed directly to purchasing tickets, Aer Lingus recognized that a sizeable number of the visitors to its site are still evaluating travel options. Until recently, the website offered those customers only a static route map.

Ronan Fitzpatrick, director of Network Distribution at Aer Lingus, says that by lacking an online call-to-action to visually guide passengers from the map to the reservations system, the airline was missing out on an opportunity to drive revenue.

“We saw an untapped opportunity to drive ticket sales by making our route map more interactive and connecting it to our booking system,” says Fitzpatrick. He adds that to succeed in its goal, the application would need to scale up quickly at peak traffic times, such as during the holiday season, while taking up minimum bandwidth and computing resources on the airline’s existing infrastructure.

For help, Aer Lingus turned to iPlanit, a Microsoft Certified Partner that specializes in interactive website design. iPlanit recognized that a hosted Web application using cloud services was the best solution to meet the airline’s scalability and low-bandwidth criteria. After evaluating other hosting options, including Rackspace, iPlanit decided to build the Aer Lingus Web application on the Windows Azure platform.

Chad Gilmer, co-founder and chief executive officer at iPlanit, says that his team developed Dynamic Route Maps, which extends the static route map by including interactive pop-up menus for each route and providing the ability to book an airline ticket directly from the map. Customers can now explore destinations, find inspiration for vacations, and book their airline tickets in the same interactive Web application. At the same time, the new app ensures easy and direct capture of customers’ orders.

Gilmer adds that, by going the Windows Azure route, Aer Lingus has been able to serve Web-site traffic from across the globe without having to add any bandwidth to its network, and without impacting the performance of its Web site.

“By using datacenters here in Dublin that feed through Windows Azure to the nearest location to the user, we truly enjoy global reach and bandwidth isn’t a concern at all,” says Gilmer.

With the initial success of Dynamic Route Maps, iPlanit plans to extend the functionality of the Aer Lingus application. Plans include integrating Bing Maps into the application so that passengers can easily access additional information about their destination, such as maps of hotels and other attractions.

What’s Next for Windows Azure?

Microsoft’s Ketkar says customers can expect to see a host of new features added to the Windows Azure platform within the next year. Topping that list is virtual machine deployment functionality, a key forthcoming feature announced at last year’s Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles, which will enable customers to migrate existing Windows Server applications.

“We’re on track to fulfill our commitment from PDC 2009 and empower customers to run a wide range of Windows applications in Windows Azure, while taking full advantage of the built- in automated service management,” says Ketkar. “And that’s just the first step. Almost every feature in Windows Server is on the list of things for us to consider bringing up to the cloud.”

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