VRX Studios provides content production and management services to more than 10,000 hotels around the world. Faced with having to replace its decade old, server-based content management system with a new system that could scale to handle tens of thousands of users and hundreds of terabytes of data, VRX Studios turned to Windows Azure. The company developed a cloud-based, digital asset management system that it now uses for its own customers and offers separately as a stand-alone online service. As a result, the company reduced operating costs and eliminated capital expenses; increased the performance, scalability, and reliability of its digital asset management system; reduced development time by 40 percent; and created a new line of business.Situation
is a full-service photography company and Microsoft Certified Partner. It provides content production, licensing, hosting, and distribution services to the global travel and hospitality industries. The company serves more than 10,000 hotels across the globe, including those under Hilton Worldwide, Wyndham Worldwide, Choice Hotels, Best Western, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, and Hyatt Corporation.
To support its operations, VRX Studios requires a digital asset management system that is highly scalable, globally accessible, and cost effective to maintain and grow. Previously, the company used a system that it developed internally in 2000 when the company was founded. At that time, VRX Studios built its own system because there were no off-the-shelf products that could archive images, virtual tours, videos, and interactive maps, let alone handle licensing, hosting, and distribution of such content.
||Windows Azure enabled us to develop a highly scalable, globally-accessible, digital asset management solution—and an entirely new line of business.
President and Chief Executive Officer,VRX Studios
Since then, as VRX Studios has continued to grow its business, attracting new customers and adding additional services, the number of digital assets that it had to manage increased exponentially. As a result of these demands, the architecture of its homegrown content management system became too complex to support the size, scale, and growth rate of the company’s image archive. “Over the years, as we developed new lines of business and grew our customer base, we had to continually adjust and manipulate our system by bolting on new modules of custom-built software,” explains David MacLaren, President and Chief Executive Officer at VRX Studios. “This resulted in a system that lacked an elegant architecture and was difficult to use.”
In addition to the ungainly architecture of the company’s content management system, it was also collocated at a data center in Houston, Texas. With its computing and storage needs frequently surpassing the ability of its servers, VRX Studios regularly added and configured new server hardware, which sometimes took days or weeks to complete. These growing pains were further complicated by the erratic and unpredictable storage and processing requirements that the company had. These recurring issues prevented physical servers from being a viable option going forward. “Media production, processing, and day-to-day management requires a lot of computing power and it’s been our experience that managing the unpredictable needs of thousands of clients requires our system to be highly flexible and scalable at the drop of a hat,” says Jean Lozano, Chief Technology Officer at VRX Studios. “It doesn’t make sense for us to keep ourselves locked into an inflexible infrastructure model, continually investing in the resources to scale and manage our system, if there’s a variable, cost-effective solution available.” In addition, with customers around the globe, VRX Studios needed to geo-locate its server infrastructure in order to address latency issues. Unfortunately, adding physical servers in Africa, Asia, and Europe was expensive to set up, manage, and maintain.
At the same time, VRX Studios recognized that many of its hotel and travel industry customers were also experiencing similar problems with managing and accessing their own content. For instance, many of its customers had large amounts of content dispersed in various locations without an easy way to locate and access it. In addition, many of the systems that customers used had limits on the number of users that could access the system, storage limits that did not support the amount of data they needed to store, and limits on the number of assets that could be uploaded or downloaded. Reliability was also critical for customers—if their own customers could not access a virtual tour or still image of a hotel because a server was down, for instance, the chance that the consumer would book a reservation at a competing hotel increased.
The company needed a new, highly scalable, content management system and explored several off-the-shelf, licensed digital asset management solutions, but found none that met its needs. After an exhaustive search for an off-the-shelf solution for managing its assets, VRX Studios decided to again develop its own solution internally. “We realized that building a custom solution was the only way to get what we needed, but we also realized that we did not have the resources or time to build the system the traditional way—we had to think outside the box and consider new technologies,” explains MacLaren. Solution
After its experience with server-based systems, VRX Studios knew that it needed to develop its new digital asset management system as a cloud-based solution. The company evaluated both Amazon Web Services and Google App Engine, but found that neither offered a development platform, the support programs, or the reliable service levels offered by Microsoft. “We knew that we needed to build a system that was 100 percent cloud-based, so having a cloud-based development platform was a key differentiator for us when we were evaluating services,” says Lozano. After careful analysis, VRX Studios decided to implement its new digital asset management system on Windows Azure.
Windows Azure serves as the Microsoft cloud services development, hosting, and management environment. Windows. It provides developers with on-demand compute, storage, and bandwidth, and a content distribution network to host, scale, and manage web applications through Microsoft data centers. An Enterprise-Class Digital Asset Management System
In August 2010, VRX Studios developed MediaValet,
a completely cloud-based, enterprise-class, multi-repository, digital asset management system. The development team used the Microsoft .NET Framework 4.0
and the Microsoft Visual Studio 2010
The application layer is implemented through web roles and worker roles in Windows Azure. It includes class library references for data management, content management, file management, configuration management, identity management, and logging. Worker roles in the application layer manage events in each class library, such as when a file is uploaded to MediaValet.
VRX Studios uses Windows Azure storage services in the storage layer component of MediaValet, including Blob storage, Table storage, and Queue storage. There are multiple Blob storage containers for the media libraries. The system also creates an additional Blob store with a rendition of the asset that is then mapped to the Windows Azure Content Delivery Network, which distributes copies of the data closer to the user. Digital asset metadata is stored in Table storage, which contains all data entities used by MediaValet and, thereby, enables users to search for digital assets and receive quick, relevant results. Finally, when events are triggered, such as a user uploading an asset, they are stored in Queue storage until a rules engine can send the event to a worker role for execution.
|MediaValet, a 100 percent cloud-based, enterprise-class digital asset management system, helps VRX Studios and its customers manage terabytes of media assets. |
In addition to using MediaValet for its own needs, VRX Studios is making the digital asset management system available to companies across all industries as a stand-alone, web-based application. Unlike other digital asset management solutions, MediaValet is accessible from every corner of the globe, through any Internet browser; offers an unlimited number of users; and an unlimited number of uploads and downloads for digital assets with each license.
The company also developed the MediaValet Presentation Engine, which enables customers to display their digital assets on websites in image galleries and media viewers. The data from the MediaValet Presentation Engine is written to Microsoft SQL Azure, a fully-relational database that is built on SQL Server 2008 capabilities and hosted on the Internet in Microsoft data centers, and used to produce analytics that provide customers insight on how their digital assets are being used on each respective website.Plans for Future Enhancements
With the highly scalable and flexible architecture of its new digital asset management system now in place for its own use and for third-parties to license, VRX Studios plans to continue adding new capabilities to MediaValet in the future— all of which are enabled through Windows Azure.
The company also plans to use the Windows Azure Service Bus as a way to connect MediaValet with customers’ applications. For example, some of the ad agencies that MediaValet works with want to work with content locally and in their own third-party or proprietary content management systems. By using Service Bus, VRX Studios can establish security-enhanced connections to other applications and easily navigate firewalls and other network boundaries.
Finally, VRX Studios is considering implementing Windows Azure Marketplace DataMarket, part of the Windows Azure Marketplace. DataMarket is an information marketplace within Windows Azure that brings data, imagery, and real-time web services from leading commercial data providers and authoritative public data sources together into a single location, under a unified provisioning and billing framework. Currently, VRX Studios distributes the hotel, cruise, and destination content it creates and licenses using a “push” model, that is, the content is distributed by VRX Studios to various channels. By using DataMarket, the company can establish a subscription-based model for distribution where customers can subscribe to a data set in DataMarket and purchase the content from VRX Studios. Also, by integrating DataMarket into MediaValet, customers will also be able to make their digital assets available through DataMarket.
As a result of using Windows Azure to develop and host its new digital asset management system, MediaValet, VRX Studios dramatically improved its ability to scale up and scale down as it needs to, while doing so with a cost-efficient model that eliminated capital expenditures and reduced operating costs. The company reduced its development time compared to other cloud services providers, yet still produced a solution that boasts improved performance, access, and reliability. One of the most exciting benefits was that VRX Studios developed a solution that it can not only use to improve its existing content production, licensing, and distribution business, but that it can also offer as a stand-alone product through a new line of business for its parent company, VRX Worldwide.
Improved Ability to Scale Up and Down
||If we had used Amazon Web Services or Google App Engine, we would have had to increase our developer resources by at least 40 percent.
Chief Technology Officer, VRX Studios
Each of the Windows Azure components that VRX Studios uses for MediaValet are easily and quickly scalable. Instead of adding new physical servers each time it needs more computing power or increased storage capacity, the company can add additional web roles, Blob storage containers, and Table storage. At the same time, the company can scale down just as quickly when it does not need the extra computing power or storage capacity. Being able to scale up and scale down quickly helps VRX Studios ensure it does not over-build its infrastructure or underutilize existing computing and storage resources. “In cases where we are bringing on a new customer or ramping up for a major project, we can quickly add the resources we need and scale up to meet demand,” says Lozano. “At the same time, when a temporary need for those resources has been fulfilled, we can easily turn off the added capacity and power.”
Eliminated Capital Expenses and Reduced Operating Costs
With Windows Azure, VRX Studios can scale on-demand, and also reduce costs. By using a cloud computing environment, VRX Studios no longer has to obtain physical servers to be hosted in a data center, which eliminates capital expenditures. The company can also rely on the service management that Microsoft provides and reduce the costs associated with managing its infrastructure. Now, with the cost-effective, pay-as-you-go model that Windows Azure offers, VRX Studios pays only for the computing and storage resources that it uses. “With VRX Studios’ specific infrastructure and production requirements, we save up to 40 percent on hosting and maintenance costs,” explains MacLaren. “Third parties who implement MediaValet will reap varying cost benefits of the cloud-based system, depending on their previous digital asset management solution, system architecture, and business requirements.”
Increased Performance and Reliability
As a result of implementing Windows Azure, VRX Studios increased performance and reliability of its digital asset management solution. Reliable access to digital assets, especially when a customers’ website points directly to an asset hosted by VRX Studios, is critical to the company’s and its customers’ successes. For instance, if someone visits a hotel website with the intention of making a reservation, yet cannot access a virtual tour or video, or if the performance of the media is slow, they are more likely to abandon the reservation and choose another hotel. By using Windows Azure, however, VRX Studios trusts the 99.99 percent availability that Microsoft offers, in addition to the service-level commitments.
VRX Studios can also deploy its solution closer to its customers’ locations, which are spread across the globe. It can not only deploy MediaValet at strategically-placed data centers across North America, Europe, and Asia, with each customer accessing the application deployed at the closest data center, it can also cache and distribute digital assets in Blob storage containers using Content Delivery Network.
“As a company that serves millions of images to users who are widely dispersed across the world, the ability to geo-locate MediaValet and our digital assets is critical for us and our customers,” says MacLaren. “By using Windows Azure and the Content Delivery Network, we can meet this need and deliver the performance and reliability that our customers—and theirs—expect.”
Reduced Development Time
By using existing development tools and a familiar development environment, such as Visual Studio and the .NET Framework, VRX Studios improved its developer productivity compared to using Amazon Web Services or Google App Engine. Though developing for a cloud environment compared to an environment of physical, on-premises servers required a development-paradigm shift for the developers at VRX Studios, the ramp-up time was quick. In addition, using other cloud services providers would require VRX Studios to dedicate additional development efforts to the project because other providers do not offer a development platform and do not enable the use of existing development tools and expertise. “By using Windows Azure, we were able to use the same development resources as we would for other projects that use the .NET Framework,” explains Lozano. “If we had used Amazon Web Services or Google App Engine, we would have had to replace and increase our developer resources by at least 40 percent.”
Created a Viable New Line of Business
Prior to implementing Windows Azure, VRX Studios had only envisioned building a digital asset management system that it could use to process, distribute, manage, and archive media assets for its customers in the hotel and travel industries. However, as it researched possible solutions, the company discovered that it was not alone in the challenges it faced with managing media content — its customers and companies in other industries also struggled with scalability, geographic access, reliability, and maintenance cost issues. As VRX Studios honed in on Windows Azure and explored the features it provided, the company kept expanding its vision for MediaValet and its market potential.
“Previously, we were not able to build or even contemplate building such a robust digital asset management solution. Windows Azure enabled us to develop a highly scalable, globally-accessible, digital asset management solution—and an entirely new line of business. We now have an enterprise-level product that meets the unique needs of global companies that have geographically-dispersed offices, thousands of users, and terabytes of digital assets,” says MacLaren. “We are now able to offer digital asset management services to any company, in any industry, in any country—no matter their size or the amount of data they need managed.”
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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For more information about VRX Studios products and services, call (604) 605-0050 or visit the company’s websites at: