There was another major reason 3M chose the Azure cloud. Smyth had a limited development staff: Two developers in the SEMS Lab produced the neuroscience-based algorithms and three developers in his business unit produced the user interface and business logic. To do so, they used technologies already approved for new apps at 3M: Microsoft's Visual Studio development tools, C# language and Team Foundation Server collaborative development platform. 3M is basically a Microsoft .Net shop, Smyth noted.
The easiest way to get the team to work together was to develop it on Azure. Once produced, other parts of the company involved in visual products -- 3M produces reflective paints, reflective signage and coatings for LCD screens to make them more usable, among other things -- could work with the neuroscience-based algorithms on Azure as well. So Visual Attention Service was developed, tested and staged on Azure, as well as running its production systems there.
3M also uses Microsoft's SQL Server database system internally; Azure offers a compatible cloud system, Azure SQL, that the VAS system uses, said Smyth. "Pretty much everything that the global, Visual Attention Service business uses is available in the cloud," he said. "If you're a Microsoft shop, it's just a straightforward process to go to the [Azure] cloud."
The needs of the 3M application are in the process of changing. Single image analysis is a compute-intensive process; the first clients came to VAS to analyze one image at a time. For the last six months, 3M has been quietly offering VAS for video as well, and use of that process helped push 3M's server total to 12. One second of video often consists of 30 images, several of them requiring the compute-intensive analysis process. He's knows if VAS needs to move beyond 12 servers, Microsoft will be happy to accommodate him.
At the same time, Smyth sometimes weighs the fact that there are alternatives available. The VAS service jumped onto Azure while it was still a beta service. "The documentation was decent, but there wasn't much of a user community. In some cases, we were pretty much on our own to figure out how do some things."
Since April 16, Azure has been generally available as infrastructure-as-a-service as well as a development platform, and more users appear on it each day. However, rival Amazon Web Services has a large user community that formed during the past seven years that the Amazon service has been available. The lack of a vigorous Azure user community to consult with "probably hurt," he conceded. "Could we have moved faster on Amazon? I really can't say." It was vital to use the same tools and technologies in the cloud as 3M did internally, he said.
The service suffered an outage on Feb. 29, 2012, the day that Azure security certificates failed to recognize that the quadrennial Leap Day had arrived. The lack of a Feb. 29 date for the certificates prompted a false reading by cluster governors of a hardware failure. The cascading readings caused a spreading failure throughout Azure that stretched across an eight to 10 hour period. Other than that, there have been "a couple of short-term glitches [on Azure] that were not an issue with customers," he said.
And so far, renting Azure instances still doesn't require a capital budget or attendance at a long set of meetings. "It's a local decision that I can make independently," he noted. That's a good thing, because he believes video analysis, now generally available, will generate greater VAS usage and drive his business forward. The impact of video on the Internet is becoming a factor in website and application success. And as more video makers need to use image analysis, Smyth has no intention of cutting his ties to the highly scalable Azure.