Have you ever needed to make an important infrastructure planning decision, but device maintenance information is missing or incomplete? Frustrating, isn’t it. Finding the information takes time – and there are a hundred things you’d rather be doing.
This was one of the key challenges I set out to overcome in the development of Data#3’s Maintenance HUB. Here we are, two years later, with quarter of a million devices and almost 500 registered users, and an Azure-based platform that would win over anyone to the benefits of cloud.
Like many of our projects, the HUB came from suggestions from two of our customers. Such input is invaluable – so please keep it coming!
The idea of the HUB is to empower our customers. When we increase visibility of contracts and device information, you can get information quickly and get on with your day. No more endless searches for contract details for devices acquired by your predecessor.
When all our VIP customers were quick to sign up to the HUB, we knew this was a service that meant something. Viewing up-to-date hardware and associated software licensing details of multi-vendors, in a single place, saves a lot of legwork.
The HUB uses a traffic light-style system, with maintenance showing up orange if renewal is due within 120 days and red when it expires. You can mark a device as spare, or as ‘do not renew’ to make it easier for you to keep track.
We follow the status of maintenance contracts. Typically, near the end of a contract a comparison will be drawn up to show you the different options, ranging from renewal to upgrades. We can show, for example, the suggested Cisco upgrade path of a piece of Cisco kit that is nearing end-of-life, and compare it with the cost of maintaining legacy hardware, to see what works out least costly and most effective.
The HUB was custom-built on an in-house platform, but as the project approached its first public preview at Cisco Live two years ago, we realised the extent of scalability we would need to keep up with customer demand. Microsoft Azure offered the ability to customise the data layer and storage services, and enabled analytics that help us understand how customers use the platform.
Azure’s Platform as a Service (PaaS) gives us easy access to a lot of functionality to meet customer needs. We can assign dynamically to the web server to support more customers as more sign up – and it is just as easy as the Microsoft people promise. I just slide a bar across the screen to increase capacity – it takes less than twenty seconds.
In the case of the HUB, any slow-down in application delivery is a trigger to expand capacity. To manually set up and expand a new web server would be a time-consuming effort that could impact customer experience. A request would be sent to IT for a hardware resource to set up a virtual machine (VM), then copy across the web server, configure security, and test, all elements that would slow improvements.
As it is, Microsoft Azure gives us the elasticity that makes your experience every bit as exceptional as you would want it to be. A recurring theme at Data#3 is customer empowerment, and I see quality service as a valuable element in making good on our promise. We set out to stand out.
While Azure was a logical choice ahead of other options – the HUB was initially built on MS.NET – there were other considerations. Having Australian-based datacentres (Microsoft has one each in Melbourne and Sydney) was important, given many of our customers have very good reason to be sensitive around data sovereignty.
The tools, though, were a real attraction, and proving their worth. The HUB employs SQL Server Azure database management system to store device install-base information, so that it can be accessed quickly.
Security is, not surprisingly, a priority. Transparent data encryption is used, with the database encrypted on the fly, and stored in a fully encrypted form. Service requests use a range of security methods, including shared access signatures to add an additional layer of authentication. In fact, the system security is sufficient for approved government use.
From the moment I began designing the HUB maximising the options for interacting with our customers was always a key priority and the HUB today offers integration opportunities. What this means is not only can our customers leverage the rich front-end experience we provide through the application but also build integration between their own ERP systems and the wide range of web services provided by the HUB.
Support requests are built into the HUB, and Azure’s file storage capabilities allow for some exciting improvements. Instead of an email template, requests can be made in the HUB in a few clicks – complete with securely uploaded diagnostic logs. These automatically prompt service response, without waiting for an email to be opened.
The automated support request system has a very high accuracy compared to email-based systems, and it takes away the pain of uploading files. Not to mention the possibility of something important ending up in a junk mail folder.
This is another place Azure really shows its worth – it is the Azure file storage service that allows for all those logs to be uploaded with the service request. It keeps the cost of developing the service low, and lets us focus our resources on fine-tuning the HUB to make it even better.
The feedback has been tremendously positive.
No other technology partner offers this type of service, and customers are telling us that they are happy to have easier access to information and support. Based on feedback, we have continued to make improvements – you can now even add devices purchased elsewhere to help you keep track of everything in a single location.
In the end, keeping you informed of maintenance issues proactively, and acting as an extra tool to reduce your administration time will, we hope, save you a lot of time and worry.