Interview with Joanne Lang, Founder and CEO of AboutOne.

Web site: www.aboutone.com.

Tell us who you are and your role in the company:

Founder and CEO.

What is your company’s mission?

Our mission is to have AboutOne become the global de facto standard for family organization tools. (AboutOne’s online organizing game turns your phone into a remote control for your life. Enhancing your existing calendar and contact tools, it gives you fast, easy access to the information you need to take care of your family and home. Now, getting organized, saving time and being prepared is fun with AboutOne guiding and rewarding you along the way.)

In 140 characters or less, tell us what your company does:

AboutOne enhances  calendar & contact tools to provide fast access to paperwork you need to take care of your family, contacts & possessions.

Tell us about your Azure based solution.

AboutOne’s minimum viable product was built with Ruby on Rails and MySQL using Engine Yard to deploy to an Amazon EC2 cloud.  In January 2012 we began migration from our current architecture to Azure.

How is Azure implemented in your solution?

We have three distributed environments (Development, QA, and Production) that support parallel development and support.  We have an MVC 3 site, using the Razor view engine.  AboutOne has a service-oriented architecture using an SQL Azure server and CQRS design pattern, implemented on the Azure message queue, using a dispatcher system for the queue handling.  We leverage Blob storage for attachments and Table storage for data.  We built our own secure token service to leverage Windows Identity Foundation, and in the future, we will be leveraging Windows Federated login for our shareable(s) access.   We are using Web roles for the MVC website and a Web role for our REST based API (for the mobile applications).  The Worker role is being used to handle background processing.

How did you get excited about Azure?

We first heard of Microsoft’s Azure cloud when they presented at VentureBeat DEMO Spring 2011.

Microsoft’s Platform as a Service, including automated load balancing, persistent storage, a dashboard for system monitoring, and automated backups, allowed our developers to focus on developing our application rather than managing the environment.  The reasons we migrated from Amazon are highlighted below:

  • We pay only for what we use, and there were no set up fees.  AboutOne is well on its way to becoming a billion dollar company. With a goal of over 1 million users, the ability to pay as we grow without additional coding was critical.  It’s really easy to add more processors. 
  • Azure reduced administration headcounts for us (e.g. we do not have to run our own backups), and because it is based on Windows, we could find experienced developers quickly and cost effectively because they can develop for Azure in tools such as: Visual Basic, C++, C#, ASP.NET and other familiar Windows technologies.  It was very difficult to find equivalent skill sets for Ruby on Rails.
  • Because the developers focus only on the code and not managing the hardware, we had architecture up and running with a demo within two weeks.
  • By switching on the Azure Diagnostics Monitor, we’re able to run load testing and analysis to ensure we have the performance required from our various applications.
  • The open standards and Internet protocol such as REST allowed us to develop APIs for our web application and multiple mobile applications in parallel.
  • Security is critical for AboutOne, Microsoft’s attention to security and a fail-safe environment gives AboutOne a competitive advantage.
  • The ability to decouple aspects is important because it allows us to quickly and cost-effectively co-brand with corporations.

What were the Azure features that prompted you to decide to build on Azure?

  • No headcount required for a system administrator and/or a network administrator - The Azure SDK tools are managed by a developer 20% of his time, when we deploy code to the servers there is less need to configure anything on the machine, the Azure SDK components do all the work instead of our team
  • Networking, load balancing and firewalling:  On the Ruby installation we had to  set up and manage all three, but Azure handles these without our teams intervention, it makes changes as we need them without having to configure the servers directly
  • Automated server management: Security patches and software upgrades are handled by Azure itself, not requiring a system administrator to install and deploy them.
  • Closer connection with our data storage: Right now, we store user uploaded assets (pictures, photos, documents, etc.) in Amazon's S3 cloud.  This is a good solution be we run into problems with "latency" (delays): to upload a new document, the user first uploads it to our servers and then our server sends it to the amazon S3 could.  Under Azure Block Storage there is no requirement for the intermediary step. When a user uploads a file it goes right to the location it needs to be with no delay.
  • Automatic load scaling: While in amazon we can currently add more servers if our load (number of simultaneous users) increases, we have to do that by hand when a human notices the increase.  Azure can handle that for us by adding server capacity when it senses an increased site load (and remove capacity when it senses the load has gone away).  This should reduce server costs by only using what we need, but still being able to increase our capacity when we need it.
  • Mobile Apps:  Our market is consumer (parents) and mobile solutions are critical for success, leveraging .NET structure on Azure gives us speed to develop mobile apps.  Azure and .NET include APIs (application program interfaces) that would be used for mobile app development; this was not available on the ruby/amazon application.
  • Database performance: Traditional database servers need to be tuned for optimal performance; SQL Azure (the database server portion of Azure) doesn't need -- and doesn't even allow -- performance optimization.  It is handled automatically.

What specific value are you getting from BizSpark beyond the technology?

  • Guidance and support for load testing
  • Security design review
  • Marketing and online visibility via the BizSpark start-up company of the day.
  • Free attendance at local technical events for windows phone 7, for networking and training
  • Early testers and feedback on the windows phone and web application
  • Technical newsgroups and an online library of help information and communities for developers
  • Network of partners and developers to ask a question to the forum for support.

What has been your biggest “aha” moment since founding your company?

  • Organic and mobile traffic is critical –
    • Organic traffic is easily supported as Azure supports Federated access. This Federated identity allows us to let users login to their shareables using their Facebook/ Twitter ids, which allows fast organic traffic, which in turn lowers our marketing costs.
    • Building mobile applications quickly opens up tremendous market opportunities for AboutOne, but targeting numerous mobile platforms can be costly and difficult to support. The Windows Azure toolkits for Windows, iOS, and Android platforms make it easier and less expensive for us to extend AboutOne across multiple platforms.

What advice do you have for companies that are thinking about building in the cloud?

Make sure you have a mentor company – someone who has done this before to share tips and tricks.  Ensure you have both Azure specific skills in the areas of architecture, security design and code deployment.  Take full advantage of TFS to manage your development projects.

What is the one thing that you would like readers to take away about your Azure app?

There is a learning curve but we believe it is worth the investment in the long term to gain scalability and optimal performance.  Leverage your relationship with Microsoft – they have invested in this platform and support your success.

We are releasing our Windows Phone companion app this month. AboutOne Family Organizer turns your phone into a remote control for your life, working with your calendar and contact tools to give you fast and easy access to the information you need to take care of your family and home.

Get Organized - Use AboutOne to instantly organize memories and milestones, plus health, possessions, and education events and paperwork.

Save Time - Use your phone to quickly and easily upload receipts and other paperwork, photos, videos, artwork, and notes to your account so this information is organized and available, whenever you need it.

Be Prepared - Keep your family safe with quick access to your emergency information, both online and offline.

AboutOne has been featured by ABC News, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and PC Magazine, and recognized as the ultimate organizational tool that provides a private, secure application to help organize home life.