4-page Case Study
Posted: 3/31/2011
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Orion Energy Systems Manufacturer Uses Cloud Computing to Solve Customers’ Needs, Grow Business

Customers of Orion Energy Systems use InteLite® energy-monitoring and control software appliances to help control lighting costs at their facilities. Large customers asked for a way to compare energy consumption across sites so that they could improve facilities that aren’t performing well and save money. Orion met this need by migrating its InteLite application and customers’ data to the Windows Azure platform, and by taking advantage of Microsoft SQL Azure relational data storage services. Now customers’ InteLite appliances transmit energy consumption data to a low-cost, scalable, cloud-based database hosted at Microsoft data centers. Customers access and analyze their aggregate data by using a dashboard that Orion added to InteLite. With new insight into their facilities’ performance, many customers are expected to recoup their investment in InteLite in as little as one month.

Situation
Orion Energy Systems was founded in 1996 by its Chief Executive Officer, Neal Verfuerth, who designed and patented the Illuminator, one of the first high-intensity fluorescent technologies on the market. The Illuminator increased light levels by 50 percent and reduced electricity usage by the same amount when it replaced traditional, high-intensity discharge lighting. Over the years, Orion has expanded its product line, helping commercial and industrial customers save more than U.S.$1.1 billion in energy costs, while reducing carbon-dioxide output at 6,500 facilities by 9.5 million tons.

Today, Orion offers an energy-efficient platform that includes the company’s Compact Modular lighting solution; the InteLite® wireless control system; and the Apollo® Solar Light Pipe. An integral part of this platform, InteLite is a sensor-and-control system used by building managers to track the electrical demand of lighting fixtures and equipment throughout a facility so that they can better control energy loads. InteLite collects data from meters and motion sensors attached to Orion high-efficiency light fixtures as well as from Apollo Solar Light Pipe ambient sensors. Installed as an industrial wall panel, the InteLite appliance runs software that is configured by Orion to meet the energy consumption goals of each customer, defined by parameters that incorporate lighting zones, staff working hours, motion detection, and ambient light measurements.

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* With Windows Azure, we are seeing the power of the cloud in terms of enhancing our product and building our market share. It’s going to be the backbone of everything we do with InteLite going forward. *

Jason Young
Chief Technology Officer, Orion Energy Systems

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Raw consumption data collected by InteLite is stored by customers on-premises in Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2 Express data management software. The InteLite solution also collects relational data, such as customer-specific configuration settings and other metadata. “InteLite gives intelligence to the whole Orion system,” says Jason Young, Chief Technology Officer at Orion Energy Systems. “Customers use the InteLite solution to analyze their data to better understand their energy consumption.”

Requests for Multisite Analysis
While the InteLite solution was well received, some Orion customers expressed a desire to extend the solution’s reach from a single facility to include multiple sites. That way, by consolidating data in one location, they could perform multisite, concurrent energy consumption analysis.

“One of our customers had installed InteLite appliances that continuously collect data on more than 10,000 fixtures at five different facilities,” says Young. “This is a huge amount of very valuable information, but to consolidate the data would be a painful process. You would have to log on individually to the five different systems and manually cobble it together in an Excel spreadsheet. We needed to find an easier solution for our customers.”

However, even if Orion could find a way of consolidating all the data on its customers’ local databases, the 10-gigabyte limit for SQL Server Express would pose a serious problem. “We could have customers with 500 meters in one facility, and they would want to record and store that data indefinitely,” says Young. “Also, customers couldn’t be relied upon to back up their data. If there was a hardware failure, they could face the risk of losing valuable business information.”

Data Hosting Options
Orion needed to figure out a way to accommodate its customers’ wishes cost effectively and efficiently. The company considered using its own data center to host its customers’ aggregate data. “We quickly rejected that idea because it would have cost more than $30,000 initially to build the highly available, clustered server scenario that would be required to meet our customers’ service level agreements,” says Young. “And we didn’t want to lock ourselves into a situation where we’d have to pay for more and more infrastructure as we added more and more customers—hardly a scalable scenario for growing our business.”

Orion then looked at renting space at a traditional, third-party hoster but came up against similar problems. The company would still have to pay monthly fees for rack space and host a backup server on- premises. “We didn’t want to worry about disaster-recovery scenarios or get our IT employees involved in ongoing maintenance,” says Young. “We wanted to have more time available for our developers to work on improving our energy-monitoring software, not attending to rack-mounted servers in a data center somewhere.”

Solution
Then, Orion Energy Systems saw a demo of the Windows Azure platform and found a scalable, cost-effective way to meet its customers’ business intelligence needs. The Windows Azure platform provides developers with on-demand compute and storage services to host, scale, and manage web applications on the Internet through Microsoft data centers. The company decided to migrate its InteLite application, as well as its customers’ energy-consumption data, to the Windows Azure platform. This move would absolve Orion from purchasing and managing any physical infrastructure, either on-premises or at a third-party data center.

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* I did look at Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, but what I liked about Windows Azure was that it offered a more complete solution that took care of everything for us. *

Jason Young
Chief Technology Officer, Orion Energy Systems

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“I did look at Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, but what I liked about Windows Azure was that it offered a more complete solution that took care of everything for us,” says Young. “With Amazon, we would still have been managing our own virtual machines. Also, we do our development work in the Microsoft .NET Framework 4 environment, and InteLite runs on the Windows 7 operating system, so we felt it would be a better fit.”

Microsoft Gold Certified Partner Skyline Technologies had introduced Orion to the Windows Azure platform, so the company chose Skyline to help it make the transition to cloud computing. “Skyline came with high-end talent that helped us with a shortfall in IT staff,” says Young. “We engaged with them in the summer of 2010, and we were finished with the migration by December 2010.”

Easy Development for the Cloud
Compared to traditional hosting, Windows Azure offers simple deployment options and ongoing administration services that relieve Orion developers of everyday IT chores, such as deploying security upgrades. To re-architect InteLite to run in the cloud, Orion and Skyline developers used specialized templates in the Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 Professional development system. As part of creating the cloud application, it designated a certain number of web role and worker role instances. Web roles accept incoming HTTP requests through Internet Information Services 7.0, a feature of Windows Server 2008. Worker roles process these requests in the background. Each instance of a web role or a worker role runs in its own virtual machine. Orion can assign from one through four cores per virtual machine and add more or less running instances of worker or web roles to each core to accommodate an increase in customers and scale the solution’s performance up or down as required.

To upload InteLite to Windows Azure, Orion and Skyline simply uploaded a package with website files and web and worker role configurations. Windows Azure creates the required number of virtual machines and oversees their execution. Customers communicate with the cloud-based solution by using a simple, easy-to-remember web address.

“Developing for the cloud has allowed us to extend the functionality of our customers’ InteLite appliances without requiring that they upgrade,” says Shawn Riesterer, Software Engineering Lead at Orion Energy Systems. “This can be done while not having to worry about the scaling issues that would be encountered with traditional dedicated hosting. In addition, choosing Azure as our cloud platform fits neatly into our existing Microsoft workflow.”

Flexible Data Storage Options
Orion also liked the fact that the Windows Azure platform offers two kinds of cloud-based data storage: one for table data and one for relational data. This matched the company’s requirements. Windows Azure Storage would be suitable for the large amount of raw energy consumption data collected by InteLite. Orion could use Microsoft SQL Azure, a cloud-based relational database built on SQL Server 2008 technologies, to store its customers’ configuration information and metadata.

“Working with Windows Azure is straightforward; that’s one of the platform’s benefits,” adds Chris Fleming, Director, Business Intelligence Practices at Skyline Technologies. “It was easy to connect to SQL Azure through SQL Server Management Studio to migrate customers’ configuration data. But the majority of the data, more than 8 million rows and growing, is stored in Windows Azure. The combination of the two data storage options is a very powerful, scalable, and cost-effective solution for Orion.”

In fact, by using both the Windows Azure and SQL Azure data storage options, Orion has access to 100 terabytes of storage. That’s enough for 10 years of data collected from nearly 7,000 Orion meters.

Performance Optimization
Next, Orion began prototyping reports that it wanted to offer customers so they could take advantage of their newly consolidated data. These reports required the consolidation of large amounts of data, and Orion worked with Microsoft to ensure that InteLite performance didn’t suffer.

“Microsoft was very helpful in suggesting a way to use parallel extensions to the .NET Framework to read simultaneously from multiple partitions,” explains Young. “So, if we requested a month’s worth of data from 30 different partitions, we got the response time down to just under a second, instead of the 10 seconds it was taking before. Then I figured out that we didn’t have to do the call in parallel; we could use the asynchronous infrastructure built into the .NET Framework so that we could request data from 30 partitions, and it would take exactly the same amount of time as if we were requesting from one. We got the performance to scale up to where we were pulling 200 table-store partitions simultaneously in a fraction of a second.”

At each facility, InteLite continues to pull the data from individual meters and store it in the local SQL Server Express cache. However, from this point on, the application behaves differently. Once per minute, a new Windows service pushes the consolidated data over a Windows Communication Foundation web service to Windows Azure Storage (Figure 1). This process is repeatable at any number of facilities so that a multisite customer can gradually build up a consolidated database of enterprisewide energy consumption data.

Figure 1.
Figure 1. Orion Energy Systems turned to a Microsoft cloud-computing solution to aggregate
customers’ energy consumption data in the cloud and provide better business intelligence.
























“We had released our latest version of InteLite, version 3.0, in October 2010,” says Young. “We retrofitted our customer sites to work with the web service that pushes out data to the Windows Azure and SQL Azure databases, and they were all ‘cloud-enabled’ as of December 2010. Since then, momentum is increasing rapidly.”

Benefits
For Orion, the move to the Windows Azure platform has been the equivalent of acquiring a scalable platform for innovation. Also, the company has saved IT and support costs for its InteLite system, established a new recurring revenue stream, and increased business agility to provide customers with better service.

“With Windows Azure, we are seeing the power of the cloud in terms of enhancing our product and building our market share,” says Young. “It’s going to be the backbone of everything we do with InteLite going forward. Our CEO has a road map for the product, and I wasn’t sure how we were going to achieve his goals. However, once we had the cloud in place and could start unifying our customers’ systems, the connectivity opens up a whole new world for us.” 

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* Now we have the capability to expand the monitoring capabilities of the solution and say to customers, ‘We can collect any energy consumption data that you want, from any piece of equipment.’ *

Jason Young
Chief Technology Officer, Orion Energy Systems

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A Scalable Platform for Innovation
The developers at Orion are using the Windows Azure platform to deliver a whole new level of business intelligence to customers who have InteLite appliances installed at multiple facilities. Orion developed a new dashboard for its solution that provides a single window into performance data for all facilities, and extensive reporting that sheds new light on enterprisewide energy consumption versus individual facilities. Also, the dashboard enables trending analysis, so customers can make better forecasting decisions to reduce spikes in energy consumption.

“Customers pay for the controller, fixture transceivers, and meters upfront and then pay an ongoing fee for the cloud-reporting functionality. Once customers start understanding consumption across different facilities, we expect them to achieve a return on their metering software investment within a month in some cases,” says Young. “Now we have the capability to expand the monitoring capabilities of the solution and say to customers, ‘We can collect any energy consumption data that you want, from any piece of equipment.’”

Orion was motivated to migrate InteLite to the cloud because it wanted to respond to a particular request from its customers; however, in doing so, it gained a scalable solution that means it can provide more services for more customers using fewer resources than before. InteLite on Windows Azure is a more scalable arrangement than InteLite running on-premises because it can serve multiple customers simultaneously. The division of web and worker roles means Orion can divide the work between a web front-end and a processing back-end to increase scalability, and Windows Azure Storage is designed to hold much more data than a single, on-premises database management system. “From now on, as we add more customers, all we have to do is tell Windows Azure to add another virtual machine,” says Young.

Lower IT Costs, More Predictable Revenue
A major incentive for choosing the Windows Azure platform was the reduction in costs that it promised over the previous delivery model, even as the company aggregated and stored more data for its customers. Compared to the on-premises or traditional hosting options it considered, Orion is saving on hardware and ongoing IT maintenance costs, as well. “At the data center, the price of one regular rack would exceed what we are paying for the entire Windows Azure platform solution, and that wasn’t even including the servers,” says Young. “With the hoster, we would have had to devote the equivalent of one full-time employee for a few weeks just to set up the environment at an estimated cost of $28,000 and then pay the equivalent of $57,000 annually in labor costs for administration.”

And when Orion did the math, it discovered that the cost of hosting data on the Windows Azure platform was a bargain it could pass on to its customers. “With Windows Azure, the savings we get in data storage costs can immediately be reinvested into research and development to continue our product innovation,” says Young. “Together with the subscription-based pricing model, we can offer our customers a competitive price point for unmatched access to all their data. The subscription-based pricing is good news for us as well. Now we can enjoy a regular, predictable revenue stream where one didn’t exist before.”

Better Customer Service, Improved Data Security
Orion is using the Windows Azure platform to improve customer service by installing the solution more quickly, delivering software updates more frequently, and improving the solution’s reliability. Installing InteLite at customers’ sites used to be a manual process that required deciphering each site’s connectivity solution, loading customers’ IP addresses into the system, and assigning an IP address for the InteLite system. “Today, with the InteLite dashboard, it’s all configured automatically,” says Young.

Customers are also benefitting from more frequent software updates that improve functionality without any required downtime. Now that InteLite is running on the Windows Azure platform, it’s much easier for the Orion development team to enhance the software once, and then deploy the latest version to all customers simultaneously. “All the additional functionality that we are adding is now cloud-based,” says Young. “We can apply the updates any time we want—there have been weeks where we updated the reports or software five times. If there are bugs in the functionality, we can just fix those and then push out a new version.”

The new solution also improves the security of Orion customers’ valuable business information. Customers are no longer responsible for backing up and restoring the energy consumption data they used to hold on-premises. Instead, all the data is stored at Microsoft data centers with more than 99.9 percent uptime. Microsoft data centers meet Statement on Auditing Standards No. 70 Type II attestation. And with Windows Azure or SQL Azure storage, all customers’ data is replicated three times.

“The move to the Windows Azure platform has opened our eyes to the value of cloud computing for Orion,” concludes Young. “We are expecting to use the new platform to keep our customers happy, expand our services, and drive our competitive advantage.”

Windows Azure Platform
The Windows Azure platform provides an excellent foundation for expanding online product and service offerings. The main components include:

• Windows Azure. Windows Azure is the development, service hosting, and service management environment for the Windows Azure platform. It provides developers with on-demand compute, storage, and bandwidth, and a content delivery network to host, scale, and manage web applications through Microsoft data centers.
• Microsoft SQL Azure. Microsoft SQL Azure offers the first cloud-based relational and self-managed database service built on Microsoft SQL Server technologies.
• Windows Azure AppFabric. With Windows Azure AppFabric, developers can build and manage applications more easily both on-premises and in the cloud.
- AppFabric Service Bus connects services and applications across network boundaries to help developers build distributed applications.
- AppFabric Access Control provides federated, claims-based access control for REST web services.
• Windows Azure Marketplace DataMarket. Developers and information workers can use the new service DataMarket to easily discover, purchase, and manage premium data subscriptions in the Windows Azure platform.

To learn more, visit:

www.microsoft.com/windowsazure

For More Information
For more information about Microsoft products and services, call the Microsoft Sales Information Center at (800) 426-9400. In Canada, call the Microsoft Canada Information Centre at (877) 568-2495. Customers in the United States and Canada who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can reach Microsoft text telephone (TTY/TDD) services at (800) 892-5234. Outside the 50 United States and Canada, please contact your local Microsoft subsidiary. To access information using the World Wide Web, go to:
www.microsoft.com

For more information about Skyline Technologies products and services, call (920) 437-1360 or visit the website at:
www.skylinetechnologies.com

For more information about Orion Energy Systems products and services, call (800) 660-9340 or visit the website at:
www.oriones.com

Solution Overview



Organization Size: 250 employees

Organization Profile

Based in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, Orion Energy Systems designs, manufactures, and installs energy management systems, including energy-efficient lighting. It employs 260 people.


Business Situation

Orion needed to find a cost-effective, scalable alternative to hosting its customers’ aggregate energy consumption data on-premises or at a traditional third-party hoster.


Solution

Orion migrated its InteLite® software and its customers’ energy data to the Windows Azure cloud-computing platform, also taking advantage of Microsoft SQL Azure data storage.


Benefits

  • A scalable platform for innovation
  • Lower IT costs, predictable revenue
  • Avoids U.S.$57,000 in annual labor costs
  • Better customer service, improved data security


Software and Services
  • Microsoft Azure
  • Microsoft SQL Azure
  • Microsoft Azure Platform
  • Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 Professional
  • Windows 7
  • Microsoft .NET Framework 4
  • Microsoft Internet Information Services 7.0

Vertical Industries
Manufacturing & Resources

Country/Region
United States

Business Need
Cloud & Server Platform

IT Issue
Cloud Services

Languages
English

Partner(s)
Skyline Technologies

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