Headquartered in Aachen, Germany, INFORM develops software solutions that help companies optimize operations in various industries. The Microsoft Gold Certified Partner developed a web-based interface for its INVENT Xpert inventory sampling application and wanted to extend the application to the cloud to save deployment time and costs for customers. After evaluating Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud and Google App Engine, neither of which easily supports the Microsoft SQL Server database management software upon which its data-driven application is based, INFORM chose the Windows Azure platform, including Microsoft SQL Azure. INFORM quickly extended its application to the cloud, reduced deployment time for customers by 50 percent, and lowered capital and operational costs for customers by 85 percent. Plus, INFORM believes that having a cloud-based solution increases its competitive advantage.
INFORM, the Institute for Operations Research and Management, offers IT optimization solutions for midsize and large organizations in a variety of industries, including discrete manufacturing, wholesale, and process industries. The solutions that the Microsoft Gold Certified Partner creates work with its customers’ existing enterprise resource planning (ERP) software to automate work sequences, job schedules, resource allocation, and other operational tasks—minimizing customers’ costs while maximizing efficiency and service. Typically, organizations that use INFORM solutions realize a financial return on investment within 12 months of implementation, which is a testament to the dedication the more than 350 employees at INFORM have to help customers improve operations.
One of the company’s products, INVENT Xpert, is an inventory sampling software application that has been deployed to more than 1,200 customers. Certified by renowned auditing companies, the inventory software rationalizes stocktaking through proven, statistical sampling procedures so that customers can accurately assess inventory levels without counting individual products. Data-driven by definition, INVENT Xpert relies on Microsoft SQL Server database software to store inventory data such as item numbers, item descriptions, prices, and stock levels. The inventory sampling software runs on the Windows Server operating system, which was deployed at a customer’s site, and was built using the Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 development system.
“It is not uncommon for customers to contact us on December 1, requiring an inventory sampling solution be put in place quickly in order to meet December 31 inventory reporting requirements,” says Karsten Horn, Director of International Sales in the Materials Management Division at INFORM. “With a traditional on-premises model, this can be difficult to execute.”
Proud of its web-based user interface that enables customers to use handheld devices, such as those warehouse managers typically use while taking inventory, and that also offers anywhere, anytime access through an Internet connection, INFORM wanted to further improve its inventory sampling software by offering it as a cloud-based solution. “If we could offer INVENT Xpert in a cloud environment, we could give our customers the anywhere, anytime access to inventory software that they need, but without the added hardware and software costs that are required to run web servers,” explains Andreas Falter, Head of Developments in the Materials Management Division at INFORM.
As the company began exploring cloud services providers to host INVENT Xpert, it sought a solution that would meet two important criteria. First, INFORM needed a cloud solution that would not require extraordinary development efforts and would interoperate with multiple technologies. For instance, it wanted to keep its Java-based user interface. It also wanted to keep its relational database structure and simply migrate its SQL Server database to the cloud. Second, the company wanted a cloud services provider with data centers in Europe, where most of its customers are located. “It is important to our customers, and therefore to us, that their data is stored in a data center near them,” says Horn. Solution
In July 2010, INFORM started exploring cloud services, evaluating Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, Google App Engine, and the Windows Azure platform. “We didn’t need to evaluate our options for long, because neither Amazon nor Google offered a platform that worked with our existing SQL Server–based solution,” says Falter. “Windows Azure and Microsoft SQL Azure do. Plus, the Windows Azure platform supports multiple technologies, such as Java. It was a simple decision.”
||By using SQL Azure, and taking advantage of Microsoft data centers, our customers can save 85 percent in capital and operational costs compared to the on-premises model.
Director of International Sales, Materials Management Division, INFORM
The Windows Azure platform includes the Windows Azure cloud services operating system, its development, service hosting, and service management environment. Windows Azure provides developers with on-demand compute and storage, and a content distribution network, to host, scale, and manage web applications through Microsoft data centers. The platform also includes Microsoft SQL Azure, a cloud-based relational database service that is based on SQL Server technologies and also hosted at Microsoft data centers.
In addition to providing INFORM with a cloud platform that works with its existing application architecture, the Windows Azure platform also offers globally dispersed data centers, helping to ensure that data is located as close as possible to the company’s customers, no matter where they are located. “Microsoft offers a level of transparency that is critical for our customers,” explains Horn. “With Amazon and Google, you don’t get any information about where servers are located; but with Microsoft, we’re assured that there are data centers in Europe—where most of our customers have operations.”Familiar Environment, Interoperable Architecture
Two developers at INFORM worked to migrate INVENT Xpert to Windows Azure, including migrating the SQL Server database to SQL Azure. The straightforward process required little development effort, and the two developers were able to use their existing skills and familiar tools, such as Visual Studio 2010, to migrate INVENT Xpert to the cloud in less than two weeks.
INFORM uses SQL Azure to store customers’ inventory data in the cloud, as well as the computational results that INVENT Xpert provides based on that data. The company used the same database schema and data structures for SQL Azure that it did for the on-premises version of its software application. The SQL Azure database is deployed in a multitenant environment, so customers share the INVENT Xpert application, but their data is safeguarded and kept separate from each other. To retrieve data from SQL Azure and populate it to the INVENT Xpert user interface, the company uses Java Database Connectivity (JDBC) and SQL Statements—the same technologies it used with its on-premises version of the inventory sampling software. Future Plans
Developers at INFORM were able to use their existing skills and existing programming models to move the INVENT Xpert inventory sampling solution to the cloud on the Windows Azure platform. By moving its solution to the Windows Azure platform, INFORM reduced the deployment time it takes to get customers up and running with INVENT Xpert and lowered the capital and operational expenses required from the customer compared to an on-premises solution. INFORM is one of the first companies in its industry to offer a cloud-based inventory sampling solution and, combined with the quick deployment and lower costs it can offer customers, is primed to increase its competitive advantage.
Used Existing Skills for Quick Development Time
Developers at INFORM used their existing skills and familiar tools to migrate the company’s inventory sampling solution to the Windows Azure platform—in less than three weeks. “We thought that delivering a cloud-based version of our software would require significant development effort, but with Windows Azure and SQL Azure, we were pleasantly surprised,” says Falter. “We were able to use Visual Studio and our existing relational database structure, and everything worked seamlessly with our rich, Java-based web client that we had already spent several months developing.”
Reduced Deployment Time
Whereas IT administrators from INFORM previously had to visit customer locations to configure server hardware and install INVENT Xpert, now, with the Windows Azure platform, they can avoid the on-premises installation process by offering a web-based application that is hosted in Microsoft data centers, and which customers can simply access from any Internet browser. Even taking into consideration data synchronization and training efforts, which are a part of any customer deployment, INFORM can get customers up and running with INVENT Xpert more than 50 percent faster using the Windows Azure platform. This is critical for the often short lead-time that the company has to install INVENT Xpert to meet customers’ critical inventory deadlines.
||By using SQL Azure, we can take our solution, easily put it in the cloud on the Windows Azure platform, and offer customers an even lower-cost solution with faster ROI [return on investment].
Director of International Sales, Materials Management Division, INFORM
“We have significantly reduced deployment time for customers with the Windows Azure platform,” explains Falter. “We can deploy a new tenant to SQL Azure in less than one day; and, in total, the entire deployment process is more than 50 percent quicker than it was with our on-premises model.”Lowered Costs for Customers
In addition to reducing deployment time, INFORM is using the Windows Azure platform to help customers reduce costs. Now, instead of requiring that customers purchase, configure, and maintain additional, designated server hardware and software to run INVENT Xpert, INFORM relies on servers hosted at Microsoft data centers. “By using SQL Azure and taking advantage of Microsoft data centers, our customers can save 85 percent in capital and operational costs compared to the on-premises model,” says Horn. “For us, saving our customers money is one of the most important benefits of using Windows Azure and SQL Azure.”
Increased Competitive Advantage
INFORM recognizes that by offering its customers an easy-to-deploy, lower-cost solution, its inventory sampling application is even more appealing to customers. “As an on-premises application, INVENT Xpert typically offers customers a return on investment [ROI] in less than 12 months,” explains Horn. “By using SQL Azure, we can take our solution, easily put it in the cloud on the Windows Azure platform, and offer customers an even lower-cost solution with faster ROI. It makes our solutions more attractive to customers and gives us the competitive advantage in an industry where other companies aren’t yet offering cloud-based solutions.”
Windows Azure Platform
The Windows Azure platform provides an excellent foundation for expanding online product and service offerings. The main components include:
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. Windows Azure is the development, service hosting, and service management environment for the Windows Azure platform. Windows Azure provides developers with on-demand compute and storage to host, scale, and manage web applications on the Internet through Microsoft data centers.
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 ser-vices 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 DataMakret to easily discover, purchase, and manage premium data subscription in the Windows Azure platform.
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