As part of the Real World Windows Azure series, I connected with Anne Weiler, vice president of Marketing at iQmetrix to learn more about how the company uses Windows Azure to deliver marketing solutions to its customers in the retail industry.  Read iQmetrix’s success story here. Read on to find out what she had to say.

Himanshu Kumar Singh:  Tell me about iQmetrix.

Anne Weiler:  iQmetrix provides retail management solutions for specialty retailers. Our flagship product, RQ4, is a software solution that wireless retailers use to manage people, processes, and products. We offer RQ4 using a software-as-a-service (SaaS) delivery model, hosting the application from a leased data center.

HKS:  Why did you choose Windows Azure?

AW:  When we set out to develop XQ Interactive Retail, our in-store shopping service, we wanted to consider a different approach. The economics of building and managing a data center infrastructure didn’t make sense for this product and because XQ would have a much larger market potential than RQ4, we anticipated that the required infrastructure could cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. We wanted to focus our investment on building the product versus building the infrastructure to host it.

We also wanted to be able to scale the XQ service quickly and globally, provide all customers with the same levels of performance and availability, and make it easy and economical for customers to use. And we needed to get the XQ development team up and running as quickly as possible, too, which also meant shortening the deployment time and letting developers use tools of their choice. 

We considered Amazon Web Services but ultimately chose to host both the XQ development effort and the finished product in Windows Azure in order to avoid the expense of an internal IT infrastructure. We also chose to use the open source MongoDB database software, so we were pleased that Windows Azure supported it. 

HKS:  How long did it take to develop the new solution on Windows Azure?

AW:  Initial development started in May 2011, and we launched XQ Interactive Retail in September 2011. The development process was very smooth; our developers became familiar with Windows Azure in hours, without the need to requisition, wait for, and configure servers. Whenever they hit a barrier or a crunch period, they simply increased their instances of Windows Azure virtual servers—in minutes—and kept going.

HKS:  What is the XQ Interactive Retail experience from a customer perspective?

AW:  Consumers in stores access XQ from touch-screen digital media players to view and compare products, watch how-to videos, and learn about complementary products. The in-store digital media players run the Windows 7 operating system—including the Windows Touch feature—Windows Media Player, the Microsoft Surface software and touch computing platform, and Windows Presentation Foundation. 

By using XQ to display products, retailers can give customers a rich, interactive product browsing experience while reducing in-store inventory and theft. They can also update pricing and availability in multiple stores instantly, from a central location.

HKS:  How does Windows Azure support XQ’s application and database infrastructure?

AW:  The application and database infrastructure are hosted in Windows Azure using Microsoft ASP.NET MVC 3 and the MongoDB database. We use Windows Azure Blob Storage and Windows Azure Caching to improve data access and storage, and Windows Azure Media Services to deliver rich media. We use the Windows Azure Service Bus to provide messaging services and license XQ for a monthly subscription per media player.

We collect data on every customer-product interaction and send it to Windows Azure for reporting. Retailers such as fast-growing Airport Wireless can find out how frequently various products were digitally “touched” at each of their stores.

HKS:  What are some of the benefits you’ve seen with Windows Azure?

AW:  We’ve seen several:  by developing and hosting XQ Interactive Retail in Windows Azure, we were able to get XQ to market faster because our developers could use the software they already knew and felt was best for the job—open source MongoDB—to get our enterprise product to market in just six months.

We can also quickly and easily scale the XQ infrastructure to keep pace with business growth – our customers can add more XQ screens during busy periods such as the Christmas season to deal with increased store traffic, and we can double our number of servers in 10 minutes without a big financial hit. We are going after a global market, and with Windows Azure we can deliver XQ from multiple Microsoft data centers and ensure high levels of performance and availability for every customer.

From a financial perspective, we were able to lower our development and hosting costs by 30 percent because we didn’t need an on-premises development and hosting infrastructure or management staff. We have a large infrastructure team for our RQ4 product, without that need for XQ, we were able to hire more software developers to enhance the product. We feel that we have a greater competitive advantage with Windows Azure, because we can focus our resources on delivering services rather than on building and managing IT infrastructure.

And our customers save money because they don’t need on-site servers or IT expertise to run XQ, which is a savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars across a retail chain. Plus, customers can change product lineups, prices, or availability from one central location and update dozens or hundreds of stores. Windows Azure saves our customers money and makes product management more convenient.

Read how others are using Windows Azure.