Windows Azure in Action

by Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson finds out how the Grey Matter Windows Azure Helpdesk helped MetaCompliance deliver its services.

HardCopy Issue: 58 | Published: November 1, 2012

As the name might suggest, MetaCompliance is a cloud-based service that helps companies manage compliance, with tools for delivering policies, training and e-learning. Originally designed as an on-premises tool using .NET and SQL, the team behind the service came to the conclusion that it needed the capability to deliver policies to users anywhere, anytime; and that meant moving the service into a cloud, which is where Azure came in.

Robert O’Brien, MetaCompliance’s Managing Director, was quite clear on what attracted the company to Azure: “The high levels of security in Azure, which meant we could leverage off the platform. We also have tens of thousands of users, with potentially significantly large content, so we needed the scalability that Azure can provide us.” In bringing the service on to Azure, O’Brien found Microsoft’s support capabilities important, noting, “We were happy with the support from Microsoft on .NET, and we were confident that we could get support for Azure.” That turned out to be the case: “We found that we got that, and as we were working at the bleeding edge of technology, Microsoft was very open to helping.” O’Brien also visited Microsoft’s Dublin data centre where he was impressed by the investment Microsoft had made, and the quality of the infrastructure.

Azure’s global reach has proven to be an important feature: “One of the other things has been a requirement to access Azure for other regions, working on a global basis.” With Azure data centres all around the world, MetaCompliance is confident that the Azure platform gives it global capability, along with scalability, resilience and business continuity. It’s allowed MetaCompliance to launch new cloud-centric products such as MyCompliance, a tool that allows contractors to quickly see their client organisations compliance requirements, with policies and videos. This is a full e-learning platform built on Azure, and launched for new and existing customers in April 2012.

MyCompliance homepage screenshot

Helping contractors comply with their clients’ policies and procedures.

Eamonn Jennings, MetaCompliance’s CTO, detailed the technologies the company uses, which mix SQL Server and ASP.NET: “We use much of what is going, with AppFabric Caching to manage session state, AD federation for single sign-on.” He notes that Microsoft helped with developing a custom set of single sign-on tools for sites that didn’t want or couldn’t use Active Directory federation. “We did consider using AppFabric Access Control Services, but our customer base was happier using AD federation. It’s a lot easier to talk to them about on-premises ADFS.”

Development is in Visual Studio 2010 and SQL Server 2010, using their Azure toolsets to build code and debug locally. MetaCompliance needs plenty of storage as it hosts video content for its clients. “We use the Azure BLOB storage for handling user images and large file types like PDFs.” The rest of the data is stored in SQL Azure, with data synchronised from client offices to the cloud service.

While its developers did face a relatively steep learning curve, there was plenty of support from Microsoft. As Jennings says: “Microsoft support for Azure is brilliant. Any pieces that we had trouble with, we got help with very quickly from Microsoft.” The next steps for MetaCompliance are to improve the user experience, which should be a lot easier now the company has considerably more Azure experience under its belt. Jennings suggests that any company looking at working with Azure should start early: “Our main lesson is get into it and start playing with it. Get started early, investigating the platform. Building understanding is key to success.”

With the service in place, MetaCompliance finds it very easy to set up new instances on Azure, getting new clients up and running. The company is pleased with its move to the cloud, and to Azure. As O’Brien says: “For me the lessons, for our business, were that prior to using Azure we had a small level of scepticism, but once we made the jump we absolutely are convinced with the platform and the infrastructure.” O’Brien believes that, although it leveraged existing software development investments made in .NET, the switch to Azure was very important for the company as it gave the product direction: “It gives us significant competitive advantages.”