Quosal wanted to offer a hosted version of its quote and proposal software to customers around the world, but this would require building three new data centers. After Microsoft launched Windows Azure, Quosal turned to Microsoft SQL Azure, a cloud-based, relational database built on Microsoft SQL Server technologies, as an alternative to building its own global hosting infrastructure. Almost overnight this 10-person company gained access to a worldwide market of customers who benefit from having their Quosal databases hosted in the cloud, rather than managing their own on-premises servers. In two years, Quosal increased its hosted client base by 50 percent and global sales by 50 percent—while avoiding a planned US$300,000 in infrastructure costs and ongoing monthly maintenance costs of $6,000.
In 2005, Quosal founders created a company to take advantage of the fact that approximately 40 percent of business transacted around the world is achieved through quote and proposal. With a combined 20 years of sales and IT experience between them, Kent McNall, Stephen Yu, and a handful of developers worked to build and market quote and proposal automation software based on leading-edge technologies.
||SQL Azure is one of the most tangible ways I’ve seen the cloud touch our customers and our business. Every hosted sale I’ve made in Europe, Australia, and South Africa, I’ve made because of SQL Azure.
Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, Quosal
“This market has been stagnant for some time, so we started Quosal with a goal to move the science of quote automation forward,” says McNall, Chief Executive Officer of Quosal. “That’s why we decided to build our products from the ground up with Microsoft technologies.”
Sales professionals use the company’s flagship product, also called Quosal, to create high-quality and attractive quotes and proposals electronically, taking advantage of built-in pricing and availability, promotions, product specifications, and images. Quosal is an enterprise-level, database-centric application built on the Microsoft .NET Framework and developed using the Microsoft Visual Studio Team System 2008 Team Suite development system that runs on the Windows Vista and Windows 7 operating systems. McNall and Yu chose Windows Presentation Foundation as the graphical framework for the application, a move that McNall describes as “the best experience we’ve had with the Microsoft development tools in a combined 50 years of development.”
On the back end, the application uses either Microsoft SQL Server 2005 or Microsoft SQL Server 2008 data management software to store information about all aspects of a customer’s quote and proposal activities. “SQL Server is the cornerstone of Quosal, and after two years of development, we’ve architected a database that’s optimized for what we do,” says McNall. “Thanks to the interoperability of Microsoft technologies, we can use the smart client capability of Windows Presentation Foundation to dynamically update SQL Server every time we make changes to our product.”
Demand for Software-as-a-Service
Quosal offers two license methods: a perpetual license where a customer owns the license and installs the application on a desktop to run against a local database, and a hosted scenario where customers pay a monthly fee for each user and Quosal hosts the data in its data center in Seattle. The only difference between the two models is that customers opting for the software-as-a-service model use a thin client–based version and must be online to use the product.
In the two years since Quosal was released, the company has seen an increasing demand for the hosted version. With a growing awareness of the cost savings and flexibility of cloud-based services, more businesses are deciding that they would rather spend their time and money on core competencies than building their own infrastructure.
“Quosal needs a central database, but for many of our customers this requirement was a barrier to deployment,” says McNall. “If I have a small enterprise with 12 sales people working across a large geographical area, but I can’t afford to acquire a license for SQL Server or I don’t want to set up and manage a virtual private network for my distributed sales reps to access the database, then I’m a perfect customer for the hosted version. And there are lots of customers in that position.”
Limited Hosting Capabilities
However, with a staff of 10 people and a limited IT and marketing budget, Quosal faced a challenge in satisfying the growing demand for a software-as-a-service deployment approach. To maintain its high service level agreement for application performance, the company only offered the hosted option to customers who work close enough to its data center to ensure that latency on the network does not result in degradation of performance.
“We had a huge potential market for our hosted customers—virtually a global market—and no way to satisfy them,” says McNall. “If we wanted to ensure a reliable, scalable product with good performance for these global customers, we would have to build regional hosting centers, incurring large upfront labor and infrastructure costs, not to mention ongoing maintenance.”
McNall and Yu were actually finalizing the plans to build regional centers in three global markets when Microsoft introduced Windows Azure, a cloud services development, hosting, and management environment. Suddenly, it looked like they might have a far better solution to their problem.
Quosal was particularly interested in Microsoft SQL Azure, a cloud-based, relational database built on SQL Server technologies. Windows Azure serves as the development, run-time, and control environment and provides cloud services for connecting applications running in the cloud or on-premises.
Global Market Potential
Even though they evaluated other cloud-based solutions, it didn’t take long for McNall and Yu to see the potential that SQL Azure held for their company. “We looked at Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, [Amazon EC2] and the salesforce platform but decided in favor of SQL Azure for several reasons,” says Yu. “SQL Azure is based on .NET technology and because we are already integrated with SQL Server database software, the transition to the cloud would be very easy. Second, the price point for SQL Azure is more compelling. With Amazon, we would have to charge our customers on a specific usage and computing basis, versus SQL Azure, which is on a storage and transfer basis.”
||We had a huge potential market for our hosted customers—virtually a global market—and no way to satisfy them.
Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, Quosal
This decision was not taken lightly. Amazon EC2 uses MySQL database software and Quosal has an option for customers to use its software running on MySQL. So the company decided to pilot an integration project with Amazon EC2. “We ran into problems right away,” says Sam Demulling, Senior Engineer at Quosal. “There was no chance to preview the software: you had to purchase it to try it as a developer. We also ran into performance problems: our software took an enormously long time to launch, which would not work well with our customers.”
By taking advantage of SQL Azure, Quosal could give global customers the choice to use the hosted version of the solution and store their quote and proposal data on servers in Microsoft data centers around the world. And with Microsoft hosting their data, Quosal customers benefit from a highly available, scalable, multitenant database service. SQL Azure behaves almost exactly like SQL Server—complete with indexes, views, stored procedures, and triggers—except that it offers a cloud-based infrastructure that is virtually transparent to Quosal customers.
“SQL Azure gave us an instant, super-reliable, high-performance worldwide infrastructure for our hosted offering,” says McNall. “It was like being given sudden access to a global marketplace at zero cost to the company.”
Seamless Migration to the Cloud
McNall and Yu were thrilled at how easy it was to fine tune their self-maintaining database to run in the cloud environment. Because SQL Azure provides the same Tabular Data Stream protocol used for communicating between client and server, developers can use the same tools and libraries that they use to store data in the on-premises version of Quosal. And thanks to the similarity between SQL Azure and SQL Server, Yu and the development team applied their existing programming skills. They also used Microsoft SQL Server Management Studio to simplify the process of migrating the on-premises database version of Quosal to SQL Azure. “We were able to use SQL Server Management Studio to export the data from a local SQL Server 2005 instance and move it seamlessly into a SQL Azure instance,” says Yu.
The company’s developers only needed to make a few adjustments before getting the Quosal solution to run in the SQL Azure environment. “Because the on-premises instance of SQL Server has slightly different connection information than the SQL Azure database, we tweaked our connection strings,” explains Yu. “And because some of our installation processes assumed that we were working with a local instance of SQL Server, we had to change our installers in order to handle remote connecting via the different connection strengths. We changed the Quosal installer to create a connection file that allowed us to access the SQL Azure database rather than our own hosted infrastructure.”
The team used object-relational mapping (ORM), a programming technique for translating data between incompatible type systems, to automatically convert changes in Quosal’s business objects into schema changes in the SQL Azure databases. Going forward, the team can still continue to update the product automatically, using ORM to perform quarterly updates and hotfixes.
“This was such an easy move to the cloud for us because Microsoft did a brilliant job making SQL Azure look like a local database,” says McNall. “It only took a couple of hours to migrate the data into SQL Azure, then we did our quality assurance, and we were good to go.”
Quosal signed its first customer on SQL Azure in December 2009, when the offering was still in its beta version. “The whole deployment was a plug-and-play experience,” recalls McNall. “Customers who sign up for the hosted Quosal solution simply set up their own SQL Azure account and are off and running.”
For Quosal, SQL Azure helped open the doors to a global marketplace almost overnight. It took less than a day’s worth of effort for Quosal to reduce the cost of doing business, improve the reliability of its hosted offering, and simplify application deployment. And now that customers around the world can choose a software-as-a-service approach for their Quosal application and experience all the benefits of running Quosal against a SQL Azure database, the company is further differentiating itself from competitors to build its business, adding approximately 75 new companies since it deployed the solution 10 months ago.
||SQL Azure gave us an instant, super-reliable, high-performance worldwide infrastructure for our hosted offering.
Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, Quosal
“SQL Azure is one of the most tangible ways I’ve seen the cloud touch our customers and our business,” says McNall. “Every hosted sale I’ve made in Europe, Australia, and South Africa, I’ve made because of SQL Azure. We’ve increased our hosted client base by 50 percent to almost 25 percent of our overall clients. Those are the results we were really hoping for.”
Reduced Cost of Doing Business
Before SQL Azure, Quosal planned to open its own data centers in three global markets, a significant undertaking for a company with 10 employees. Building a worldwide data hosting infrastructure would have required a large upfront cost, including expensive hardware and the administration necessary to hire and train new employees to manage the facilities.
By using SQL Azure, Quosal can rely on Microsoft to manage the data centers, relieving the company of the support costs and burden of hosting its applications for customers. Instead, Quosal can focus on what it does best, developing quote and proposal software. “We are saving [US]$300,000 immediately by not having to build those three data centers,” says McNall. “And we are avoiding ongoing maintenance costs of $6,000 a month. At the same time, the market opportunity that we gain is immeasurable.”
Improved Reliability and Scalability
While Quosal maintained a high service level agreement for its customers, the company is happy to offload that responsibility to Microsoft going forward. SQL Azure maintains three copies of the data and ensures database consistency when actions are performed against the database. And in the case of a hardware failure, SQL Azure provides automatic failover to optimize availability for every Quosal customer.
“We have approximately 200 customers on SQL Azure, and in the 24 months since going live with the solution, I can count on one hand the number of support calls that we have received,” says McNall.
By using SQL Azure, Quosal also avoids overextending valuable infrastructure resources to accommodate expected demand. Instead, the company can take advantage of the elastic, scalable infrastructure offered by SQL Azure, with customers signing up for the services using a flexible pay-as-you-go format. And as with other cloud technologies, customers pay only for what they use. Now Quosal can grow its business without the challenges of demand forecasting and scaling resources up and down to meet a changing customer base.
Simplified Application Deployment
As Quosal no longer needs to provision databases for customers who choose the hosted deployment option, the company can set them up 33 percent more quickly. Instead of spending time on IT administration to service a new customer, Quosal simply helps them quickly set up a SQL Azure account. “SQL Azure dramatically changes the deployment time frames and ease of management for thousands of small, medium, and large businesses,” says McNall. “It only takes minutes for a Quosal customer to gain an enterprise-class database. Our customers love the ease of deployment so much that about 33 percent of our licensed customers opt to run their database in SQL Azure rather than on-premises.”
Builds a Competitive Advantage
The hosted Quosal solution is attractive to customers for many reasons, and every one of them helps to differentiate the company from its competitors. Customers benefit from a cost-effective, highly secure, turnkey alternative to maintaining their data on-premises. “We wouldn’t be excited about SQL Azure if our customers weren’t excited about it. We keep getting the same feedback, ‘What’s not to like?’, and that’s reflected in the growth of our hosted customer base,” concludes McNall. “All I can say is that SQL Azure is one of the finest Microsoft product offerings I’ve ever been involved with.”
Windows Azure provides developers the functionality to build applications that span from consumer to enterprise scenarios. The key components of Windows Azure are:
Windows Azure. Windows Azure is a development, service hosting, and service management environment. It provides developers with on-demand compute, storage, bandwidth, content delivery, middleware, and marketplace capabilities to build, host, and scale web applications through Microsoft data centers.
Microsoft SQL Azure. Microsoft SQL Azure is a self-managed, multitenant relational cloud database service built on Microsoft SQL Server technologies. It provides built-in high availability, fault tolerance, and scale-out database capabilities, as well as cloud-based data synchronization and reporting, to build custom enterprise and web applications and extend the reach of data assets.
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