One of the obvious attractions of the Software-plus-Services approach is that it can provide a best-of-both-worlds way to deliver great software value. On the client-side, you can offer a rich user experience, the right balance between ease-of-deployment and use of desktop capabilities, and a comfortable level of trust and security for each application. At the same time, you can delegate complexity or intense computational workloads, or stringent scalability and availability requirements to powerful services in the cloud. These benefits seem pretty compelling, but where will those powerful services actually live?
This question is especially pressing for small- and medium-sized organizations who must work within budgetary constraints and/or more limited IT capabilities. The question may also be urgently important for anyone who wants to provide powerful and complex services and make them easily accessible to less savvy users or users with diminished capacities. In these situations, S+S can be a very potent model if there is a manageable and affordable place to house those services. Perhaps the unspoken promise of those who have already embraced this model is that it will be possible, and hopefully a little easier, to exploit the Windows Azure platform.
If S+S helps you to be Azure-ready, there should be concrete evidence of that—and there is! Over the last year of so, I have had the opportunity to work with ITNAmerica who is in the process of furnishing just such evidence. ITNAmerica is a non-profit organization with a very important and truly unique social mission. It provides dignified transportation options for seniors. As the baby boomers approach retirement age, the social need for these services is growing rapidly and ITNAmerica must keep pace. Workloads grow in a stair step fashion as each new affiliate is brought onboard.
As you can imagine, this growth pattern creates some fairly extreme technical challenges; challenges which are vital to supporting this important social mission. Software must be available to each local affiliate that is easy-to-use and that does not require sophisticated IT capabilities. ITNAmerica also has to provide core services to each local affiliate, such as scheduling rides, on-boarding seniors who need rides, and the volunteers who can provide them, tracking special needs of seniors who may have diminished capacities; not to mention a sophisticated scheduling engine for coordinating all this. These challenges are compounded by truly mission critical architectural requirements. If these services aren’t reliable 7 x 24, the consequences may be life threatening. Moreover, the growth of the local affiliate network creates capacity and scaling requirements that would give the most seasoned CIO some new gray hairs.
ITNAmerica saw fairly early in the game, that an S+S approach could help meet some of these challenges. They are currently rolling out a new version of the ITNRides system based on an S+S model—even while on-boarding their newest local affiliate in Cincinnati-- and this has helped enormously, but big challenges still exist. Take a look:
ITNAmerica must build and host some very complex technology and they have to do this all within the constraints of a non-profit IT budget. An S+S architecture alone does not ensure that these core services can be hosted, managed, and monitored in an efficient and affordable way. Traditional hosting services do not provide the platform and underlying services that will make this possible. Initially, ITNAmerica has had to create its own private little cloud to host its core services. But this can quickly become prohibitively expensive to manage regardless of whether services are hosted on-premise or off.
This is where Windows Azure can help. By embracing an S+S architecture ITNAmerica is in a good position to begin to migrating some of their core services into the Azure cloud environment where it will be easier to meet some of these challenges. Since the ITNAmerica services are already implemented on .NET, SQL Server 2008 and Windows Server 2008, the transition to an Azure infrastructure will not require radical redesign. Instead, it will make their transition into Azure smoother, reduce much of the cost of maintaining a private cloud, and leverage the efficiencies of Azure.
My take away from this story is that S+S and Windows Azure are proving to be a potent combination because, together, they are enabling innovative new business models. These models have proven technically difficult or impossible with more traditional, Web 1.0 approaches—at any price. As in the case of ITNAmerica, some of this innovation is being pioneered by small, nimble, forward thinking organizations. To the extent that this innovation is empowered by S+S and Azure, and it addresses a pervasive and pressing social issue that we all face sooner or later; I think it gives everyone something to stand up and cheer about. Go ITNAmerica!