Systems integrator and custom developer iLink Systems wanted to enter the fast-growing market for cloud computing. It saw the potential of using the Microsoft “three screens and a cloud” vision to create PC, web, and mobile-based applications run from the cloud and based on a single, reusable, set of code. But could the Windows Azure platform on which this vision was based really deliver? iLink partnered with medical content provider A.D.A.M. in a proof of concept to find out. The results: iLink saw time-to-market drop, with the time and cost of multiplatform development dropping by 83 percent compared to development in an alternative environment, such as Google. iLink now has the confidence that Windows Azure–based development will support its customers’ needs for fast and cost-effective delivery of massive resources, and client-applications targeting multiple platforms.
Can the Windows Azure platform really deliver what it promises?
That was the question facing iLink Systems, a global software solutions provider. Windows Azure is the Microsoft entry in the fast-growing market for cloud computing, in which computing resources are hosted at data centers and delivered over the Internet. Cloud computing promises to deliver virtually unlimited scalability on demand and to give companies the global reach they could never afford to build on their own.
The Microsoft cloud computing platform promises something more. Providing back-end resources certainly is part of the equation that many companies seek to solve—but so is finding an effective way to target cloud applications for the growing range of devices and platforms. Microsoft promotes a technology vision it calls “three screens and a cloud”—shorthand for the idea that Windows Azure enables highly reusable code that gives an application at least three lives: on a desktop PC, on the web, and on mobile devices, all with minimal recoding for each new “screen.”
Was “three screens and a cloud” real or just smoke? iLink had a tremendous amount riding on the answer. It would help determine how iLink approached the cloud-computing market, and how much it hitched the Microsoft vision to its own. To find out, iLink looked for a company that was already interested in cloud computing, with which it could partner to conduct a proof of concept based on Windows Azure.
||When we want to develop solutions for complex technology problems in challenging time frames, we are confident that Microsoft will be there to support us. We are confident that deployment on Windows Azure will work well.
Group Manager, iLink Systems
The company that agreed to partner with iLink for the proof of concept was A.D.A.M. The 20-year-old company licenses its online healthcare information to hospitals, health plans, and healthcare websites, to help educate their patients, members, and other audiences. To increase its usefulness both to its institutional customers and to consumers, A.D.A.M. had begun complementing its core-consumer information with interactive content and tools. A disease-assessment tool, for example, could use interactive content to determine a person’s chances of having or getting a specific medical condition, and then advise that person on helpful next steps.
A.D.A.M. had its own hosting facilities that it deemed sufficient for all but the largest workloads. But those “largest workloads” could come at any time—especially in the form of responses to a global pandemic. The time was mid- 2009, and the primary health risk on the horizon was the H1N1, or “swine flu,” virus. It was the natural subject for the company’s investigation into interactive disease assessment and cloud computing.
The company was willing to work with iLink on a Windows Azure proof of concept of the same interactive disease assessment engine—but how would the result stack up against other cloud computing options?Solution
The two companies set several business and technology requirements for the new proof of concept on the Windows Azure platform:
- Time-to-market. Virtually every company faces increasing competition, making fast time-to-market crucial.
Fast and easy updates. Creating an application is often the beginning, not the end, to product development. How readily could Windows Azure accommodate fast, easy, and frequent application updates?
“Given the Microsoft vision and our experience with Microsoft technologies, engaging with iLink on a proof of concept using Windows Azure was an easy decision,” says Leach. “Instead of creating a single assessment tool, we might have a platform for broad development of assessment tools, and that was intriguing to us.”
|Figure 1: The assessment tool architecture runs central services in |
Windows Azure, and streams them directly to Silverlight controls on
desktop PCs running Windows 7, in applications for Windows Phone 7,
and web browsers.
In the proof of concept, the companies created an assessment engine platform that met all of the requirements they had set. It was developed using the Microsoft .NET Framework 4 and a set of tools available through Windows Azure, including Microsoft Expression Blend 3 for user interface design and development, Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 Ultimate as the primary development environment, and Visual Studio 2010 Express for mobile application development.
The assessment engine platform architecture has the key components shown in Figure 1, including the following:
Assessment processing, which processes each viewer assessment for a given assessment tool. The engine for each assessment uses branching logic to choose follow-up questions to each answer provided by the viewer and, on the basis of all the answers, to deliver an actionable healthcare plan.
To mitigate bandwidth issues related to mobile devices, the model designed by iLink includes a downloadable mobile application for Windows Phone 7, which communicates over the Internet with the cloud-based components. This is an example of the Microsoft software-plus-services approach, which uses both Internet-based and local resources as appropriate to deliver maximum advantage to the computer user.Benefits
Through its use of Windows Azure, iLink ran what it called a highly successful proof of concept. iLink produced not just one but three versions of the A.D.A.M. assessment tool in 20 days, for the web, PCs, and mobile devices. Development costs were vastly reduced over those of alternatives. iLink expects that the development time that A.D.A.M. might incur for future applications will shrink from months to days. iLink also demonstrated that Windows Azure will support potentially massive resource needs.
Multiplatform Development Reduces Development Time, Cost by 83 Percent
According to Ravi Mallikarjuniah, Group Manager at iLink Systems, the development advantages of Windows Azure only multiply with the number of assessment applications that A.D.A.M. creates and the number of platforms targeted.
For example, the 20-day development schedule for the proof of concept included not just developing the web-based assessment tool, but also versions for the desktop PC and for mobile devices—achieving the Microsoft “three screens and a cloud” vision (see Figure 2). Mallikarjuniah estimates that developing three such applications using another cloud platform would have taken more than 120 days. “By using Windows Azure,” he says, “iLink saved 83 percent of the time and the cost of application development across multiple target platforms.”
“With Windows Azure, we have all content coming from a single SQL Azure database, over a single set of web services, and rendered with a single, reusable Silverlight control that can be dropped anywhere—on the web, on a desktop, or on a Windows Phone app,” says Mallikarjuniah. “It’s almost like writing one application and getting three. This is truly three screens and a cloud.”
That’s not the case with other development platforms with which iLink has experience. “We used a single, consistent set of tools to develop the multiple applications for the proof of concept,” Mallikarjuniah says. “With other platforms, we’d use a different toolset as we went from web to desktop to mobile device. That would only add time, cost, and complexity to the project.”
Deployments Can be Slashed from “Months to Minutes”
The reuse of code and components for Windows Azure also extends in another dimension—to other assessment tools that A.D.A.M. might create. For example, if A.D.A.M. were to productize the Silverlight control at the heart of the proof of concept application, it could then use that same code to serve the same purpose in assessment engines for sleep disorders, obesity, or any other medical risk.
|Figure 2c. Using Windows Azure and |
Silverlight, iLink demonstrated the
Microsoft vision of “three screens and
a cloud” to A.D.A.M.—a single,
cloud-based set of application resources
feeding three streams for web browsers
(Figure 2a), desktop PCs (Figure 2b),
and mobile devices (Figure 2c).
“If we were developing in any other cloud environment, it could take months to create and deploy applications from scratch for the web, desktop, and mobile device,” says Mallikarjuniah. “With Windows Azure, we can do these complex deployments in minutes.”
Updates Implemented Quickly, Easily by Business Analysts
Another goal of the proof of concept was to be able to implement updates quickly and easily. “The success of a Windows Azure-based business model would depend in part on the ability of business analysts—not IT staff—to go into an app and update assessment questions, change branching logic, or make any other content changes that reflect the evolving understanding of medical issues,” says Leach. “We saw the ability to do that with Windows Azure.”
The process is easy: a business analyst opens a configuration script and makes the desired change using plain English. The script implements the change in the SQL Azure database, which holds all content, and in the code on the application page. The change is immediately reflected in the web client, PC client, and mobile client.
Trustworthy Platform Delivers Confidence
iLink is placing considerable trust in Windows Azure—trust that it will scale on demand to support the changing needs of its customers; trust that the platform will deliver the reliability that customers need to support their businesses; trust that the Microsoft roadmap for Windows Azure will deliver a continually enhanced platform for years to come.
Mallikarjuniah says it is trust well placed. “When we want to develop solutions for complex technology problems in challenging time frames, we are confident that Microsoft will be there to support us,” he says. “We are confident that deployment on Windows Azure will work well.”Microsoft Cloud Services
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