Fidelity National Real Estate Solutions wanted the fastest possible time-to-market for a best-of-breed, consumer-oriented Web site for the residential real estate market. It turned to Microsoft® Gold Certified Partner Neudesic and to Microsoft technologies, including Microsoft Visual Studio® Team System 2008, Virtual Earth™, SQL Server®, Windows Server® 2008, and Silverlight™. The result—www.cyberhomes.com—went into production in just four months and cost approximately U.S.$1.4 million less to develop than it would have cost using other technologies. The site delivers customized content 10 times faster than with older technologies, and features stunning mapping imagery overlaid with rich data and visually appealing animation. Consumer response is positive: Visitors spend an average of 30 minutes per visit to the site—four times the typical visit on competitive sites.
Fidelity National Real Estate Solutions is co-owned by Fidelity National Financial (FNF) and Fidelity National Information Services (FIS), leaders in virtually every area of financial services information and processing for the U.S. residential housing industry. In 2006, FIS provided core processing for the financial institutions that handle approximately 50 percent of the U.S. residential mortgage loans. Its databases held information on about 90 percent of all U.S. residential properties. The two companies’ approximately 40 subsidiaries provided information services to industry participants, from real estate brokers and agents, to independent mortgage brokers and major financial institutions.
There was just one audience not being served directly by the company’s massive store of residential housing information: online consumers.
“There had been an explosion of online consumer interest in real estate, and we hadn’t taken advantage of that,” says Marty Frame, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Cyberhomes, Fidelity National Real Estate Solutions. “It was important for us to have an online presence for consumers, in order to help extend our market leadership, increase the return on investment in our existing data and services, and benefit our business-to-business customers by putting consumers in touch with them.”
Fidelity National wanted to establish an online consumer presence as quickly as possible—but it also wanted to produce an online site that would deliver competitive advantage over the consumer real estate sites already on the Web. And that meant implementing a distinctive approach to serving the market.
“The consumer audience for online real estate information includes more than 30 million unique users each month,” says Frame. “And our competitors were all viewing these people the same way: as imminent buyers or sellers. But we knew that no more than 600,000 were engaged in financing at any time—most were checking their own homes and communities, not actively buying or selling. We knew we could contribute to the market if we could separate the market segments and service them appropriately by personalizing their online experiences as much as possible.”
At the same time, the company knew that consumer expectations for Web sites were constantly increasing. In addition to offering more detailed and personalized information than competitors do, the Fidelity National Web site for consumers would have to be the most visually appealing, with an interface that could make large amounts of information immediately understandable—and even fun.
Fidelity National put together a team of professionals who were experienced in the high-volume, online delivery of data on the consumer real estate market. That team, headed by Frame, seemingly had a choice of technologies on which to build its new Web site. But Frame thought there was a clear winner.
||We met our deadline so easily, I was stunned. The Microsoft software enabled us to do more with a team of 20 than I ever did with 200 developers in my previous company, using other tools.
Senior Vice President and General Manager, Cyberhomes, Fidelity National Real Estate Solutions
“Our team had years of experience in building big Web sites for real estate consumers,” says Frame. “We’ve tried all the technologies and we believe strongly in Microsoft, in the people behind Microsoft technologies, and in the massive amounts of R & D that Microsoft has invested in those technologies. We were convinced that Microsoft would give us the combination of speed, cost-effectiveness, and performance that we were looking for.”
To help ensure the success of the project, Fidelity National turned to Neudesic, a Microsoft® Gold Certified Partner based in Irvine, California. Together, they created Cyberhomes—www.cyberhomes.com—which enables consumers to receive up-to-the-minute valuations for millions of homes across the United States. Visitors can perform customized searches for properties that match criteria such as price, property features, dwelling type, size, number of bedrooms, and year built, and then browse the results, which provide full access to comprehensive property reports. They can also get a bird’s-eye view of properties from north, south, east, and west. (See Figure 1.)
To create Cyberhomes, Fidelity National and Neudesic used a range of Microsoft technologies. The site was built with Microsoft Visual Studio® Team System 2008 Team Suite and Team System 2008 Team Foundation Server. The first version was also based on Microsoft SQL Server® 2005 database software, the Windows Server® 2003 operating system, and the Microsoft .NET Framework version 2.0. The developers are now upgrading the site to SQL Server 2008, Windows Server 2008 with Internet Information Services (IIS) 7.0, and the .NET Framework 3.5.
Laying the foundation for Cyberhomes is a massive database with 100 million property records and with 50,000 entries updated each hour. The data comes from tax rolls, multiple listing services, and Fidelity National’s internal information sources. The database feeds SQL Server Analysis Services cubes—with 400 million rows—that enable what Frame calls the solution’s high degree of interactivity and customization.
“Cyberhomes not only responds to visitor requests for information,” says Frame, “but also tracks how visitors use the site so it can deliver targeted information based on whether the visitor is interacting as a homeowner, a seller, or a buyer, and whether the visitor appears to be active and knowledgeable, or casual.”
That mapping imagery and the aerial views are provided by the Microsoft Virtual Earth™ mapping service. When users type an address or click a search result, a Web service pulls the requested image from the Virtual Earth service; users can then manipulate the image using customized versions of the Virtual Earth pan, zoom, and map selector controls. Tile layers display property lines, and heat maps indicate the rate of change for property values. Customized versions of Virtual Earth pushpins signify various types of properties.
Fidelity National is also using the Microsoft Silverlight™ browser plug-in to animate the presentation of financial graphs and related data. “We don’t want users to be overwhelmed by data,” says Frame. “We want to present data in a way that’s fun and attractive. Animating data using Silverlight is a great way to do that because it meets the user’s need for an enhanced experience while being easy for our developers to use.”
Microsoft technologies, components of the comprehensive software-plus-services strategy, helped Fidelity National to deliver what the company calls an unprecedented user experience. What’s more, the company was able to bring Cyberhomes to market faster than its executives thought possible. “Software-plus-services was the ideal way for us to bring this solution to market quickly, to integrate our development with the best of the Web, and to create a highly engaging service for our customers,” says Frame.
Cuts Development Time in Half, Saves $1.4 Million
“We viewed the development of Cyberhomes as a race,” says Frame. “We had to get to market quickly—and with Visual Studio 2008, the Microsoft Application Platform, and Live offerings from Microsoft, we did. We met our deadline so easily, I was stunned. The Microsoft software enabled us to do more with a team of 20 than I ever did with 200 developers in my previous company, using other tools.”
|Figure 1. Cyberhomes overlays rich data with aerial and |
mapping imagery for an appealing, interactive user experience.
Frame estimates that Fidelity National cut development time and cost in half, thanks to the Microsoft technologies, saving four months and approximately U.S.$1.4 million. The savings come from a variety of sources, according to Frame. For example, the use of LINQ eliminated the need to write significant amounts of code to manipulate data.
More generally, the use of Team System 2008 Team Foundation Server enabled the Fidelity National and Neudesic developers to work as an integrated team, despite being broadly distributed geographically. Using the continuous integration feature, developers discovered build breaks in near real time, helping to keep development momentum swift.
“The continuous integration feature in Visual Studio 2008 was a key part of the development strategy because it gave remote teams the confidence that their changes hadn’t broken the current code base,” says Tim Marshall, Chief Technology Officer, Neudesic. “The software also made it easy to integrate distributed resources into the team without having to isolate their work. Beyond that, managers had greater visibility into the true state of the project, so they could make better decisions, align with best practices, and help developers generate higher-quality code.”
Virtual Earth, which Fidelity National turned to for superior mapping imagery, facilitated development as well. “The APIs in Virtual Earth made it easy to integrate with the Cyberhomes data,” says Frame. “That’s not something you get with other mapping services, such as Google Earth, which don’t enable the level of interaction we achieved here. And the Virtual Earth team was tremendously enthusiastic and helpful to us every step of the way.”
As Fidelity National and Neudesic upgrade Cyberhomes to run on SQL Server 2008 and Windows Server 2008, they anticipate achieving further benefits. Using the geospatial data type in SQL Server, developers will be able to eliminate their custom code for integrating Cyberhomes data with Virtual Earth mapping imagery, thereby boosting developer productivity while enhancing the site’s performance. The use of IIS 7.0 for the Web servers will enable developers to remove software components that aren’t needed, which in turn will reduce the amount of time and cost required for the IT department to maintain those servers—as well as enhance security by reducing the exposed threat surface.
Delivers a Highly Customized, Interactive Experience
Fast, cost-effective development was crucial to the success of the project—and so was the ability to deliver a user experience that was richer, more interactive, and more customized than consumers could find anywhere else. “The Microsoft technologies helped us to meet our user experience goals, too,” says Frame.
“SQL Server Analysis Services was crucial to the interactivity and customization we achieved with Cyberhomes,” says Frame. “We deliver a customized user experience without requiring the user to register, which many people don’t want to do. I couldn’t envision doing this any other way.”
By minimizing the amount of data that has to travel through the Internet to present new information to users, ASP.NET AJAX also boosts the user experience. Refreshes that formerly took several seconds are now accomplished in a half-second or less, eliminating up to 90 percent of the time required to get information to users. And as Fidelity National adopts the geospatial data types and other features of SQL Server 2008—such as data management tools and partition table parallelism—it expects Cyberhomes to perform even better.
Speed isn’t the only aspect of the user experience that Fidelity National has enhanced with Microsoft technology. Virtual Earth and Silverlight both contribute to what Frame calls Cyberhomes’ “wow factor.”
“The mapping technology we get with Virtual Earth is a major part of the value we deliver to consumers,” says Frame. “Those images are on-screen for most of the time the visitor is at our site. They’re attractive and slick, a great way to help present lots of information in a way that’s appealing to the user. I think Virtual Earth has the best cartography of any product on the market.”
Users may agree. Frame says that they are spending an average of 30 minutes per site visit, up to four times as long as the typical visit on competitive sites.
Enables New Business Opportunities
Frame also sees the Microsoft technology as enabling greater extensibility than other technology environments can deliver—extensibility that he says Fidelity National intends to put to good use.
“Cyberhomes isn’t just a property information site,” says Frame. “It’s a unique combination of information and intelligence in how that information is presented. We also want to deliver the Cyberhomes experience on the desktop, through RSS feeds, through mobile devices, and through APIs on third-party sites—anywhere and in any way that consumers can take advantage of it. The .NET Framework technology is ideal for that because it gives us one set of code that we can reuse in new ways and across a growing range of platforms.”
Microsoft Visual Studio 2008
Microsoft Visual Studio 2008 is the world’s most popular development environment for designing, developing, and testing next-generation Windows®-based solutions and Web applications and services. By improving the development experience for Windows, the Web, mobile devices, and Microsoft Office, Visual Studio 2008 helps organizations deliver a variety of solutions more productively than ever before. Visual Studio Team System expands the product line with new software tools that enable greater communication and collaboration throughout the development life cycle. Interaction between developers and designers is enhanced with Visual Studio 2008 and the Microsoft Expression® Suite. With Visual Studio 2008, businesses can deliver modern service-oriented solutions more efficiently.
For more information about Visual Studio 2008, go to:
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