War Horse, the new Steven Spielberg film, opens on Christmas Day in the USA and early in January here in the UK. It is the story of a horse’s journey from Devon to the battlefields of Flanders in World War I. Shropshire-based developers, Shoothill have created a website to promote the film: The War Horse Journey.

The War Horse Journey

The site has two parts, a gallery and the TimeMap. The Gallery uses Deep Zoom technology to let the user explore a patchwork of historical images, maps and shots from the film. It’s an interactive exploration of the world of War Horse.

The TimeMap uses Bing Maps and Map Cruncher to overlay today’s map of the WWI battle area with historical maps and photos. You can scroll a viewer around to see, for example, where the front line ran and the pockmarked landscape.

It’s a powerful use of Microsoft technology to bring history to life and add depth and context to the film. In both regards, it’s a break from the normal run of film promotion sites. “It’s a labour of love,” says Shoothill’s Rod Plummer, “We’re creating a real journey for the user around the fictional horse’s story from the film.”

Concentrate on the site, not on the hosting

From a technical perspective, hosting the site using Windows Azure is a “fabulous alternative to conventional hosting,” according to Plummer. With a traditional approach, you could pay hundreds of pounds a month for bandwidth, storage and hosting and use a tiny fraction of the capacity. But then you get slashdotted or a spike in traffic hits the site, as when a film is released, and you don’t have enough capacity. So you end up paying for far more capacity than you normally use or risk serious (if occasional) performance hits.

Traffic spikes? No problem.

With Azure, says Plummer, “Microsoft take care of all the back end software so we can concentrate on code performance, usability and the visitor’s total experience.” Azure lets you pay for the storage, processing and bandwidth that you actually use. If there’s a big spike, it’s no problem: just add extra capacity automatically.

For example, Shoothill built a site for the royal wedding and got very little traffic in the days and weeks before the event but millions of hits on the day itself. Azure took it in its stride and site performance was consistently good. “Because we were on Azure, we didn’t have any worries about performance,” according to Plummer, “it puts you in complete control.”