Daxko/CSI Used Azure to Accelerate Its Development Cycle and to Enhance Its Customer Service and Performance

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Daxko/CSI Software faced a challenge: its customer base of fitness and recreation centers was growing rapidly, thanks to the success of its comprehensive enterprise-software solution, but keeping up with the IT-infrastructure needs for that growing customer base was testing the company’s IT staff. The company was increasingly constrained by rising operations overhead, particularly for managing its growing databases. Worse, that operations overhead was cutting into development resources for new initiatives, like new mobility features for the company’s software.

According to David Molina, Director of Product Development at Daxko/CSI, Azure provided CSI Software with the platform-as-a-service (PaaS) model that it needed to simplify database management, increase scalability, and free up resources to focus on software instead of ops. “Azure SQL Database was a great option for us. Not having to worry about maintaining a SQL Server, a failover cluster, and all the other infrastructure needs was ideal for us.”

Since migrating to Azure, CSI Software needs an operations staff of only two to manage over 600 customer databases. The company uses Azure SQL Database elastic pools to move customer databases based on size and need.

Molina continues, “Our customers felt the change immediately. Before elastic pools, they occasionally had timeouts and other issues during burst periods. With Azure elastic pools, they can burst as needed and use the software without issues.”

In addition to improving performance for customers, Azure elastic database pools freed up CSI Software resources to focus on developing new services and features, instead of dealing with operations and management. Those IT resources helped CSI Software improve its enterprise software offering, SpectrumNG, to help engage gym members, improve staff efficiency, and give staff and members mobile access for interactive tasks and real-time notifications.

Azure has also helped CSI Software accelerate and improve the development and quality-assurance (QA) cycle by enabling automation options. With the company’s Azure implementation, build managers can package up components with the click of a button. As Molina describes, “As part of the release cycle, QA is now able to deploy to a test environment in Azure, which closely mimics our production stack. We can deploy builds immediately to our dev environment to vet changes. That’s a big win for us, because we didn’t have parity for testing before that.”

OFFLOADING TO THE CLOUD
Before moving to the cloud, CSI Software had successfully built up its own multitenant infrastructure in a local datacenter in Houston. As the company expanded, it faced increasing growing pains from purchasing, provisioning, and maintaining all of the hardware and software needed to support its customers. IT staffing to handle operations became another bottleneck that led to a slowdown in provisioning new resources and rolling out new services to customers.

CSI Software looked into cloud options for eliminating that overhead, so that it could focus on its code, instead of its operations. The company discovered that many of the top cloud providers only offer infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) solutions that still require a large IT staff to manage the IaaS stack. In the end, CSI Software determined that the Azure PaaS solution was the best fit for its needs. Molina explains, “Azure gets the hardware and system software out of the way, so we can focus on our software offerings, while reducing our IT overhead.”

MAKING THE TRANSITION TO AZURE
After selecting Azure for its PaaS solution, CSI Software began migrating its backend infrastructure and databases to the cloud. Prior to Azure, SpectrumNG customers needed to install a client application that communicated with a Windows Communication Foundation (WCF) service on the back end. According to Molina, “Although some customers hosted everything in their own datacenters, we built out the product to be multitenant. We hosted everything in a datacenter in Houston, using SQL Server as the data store.

“Our product offering also included a member-facing web portal (written in ASP.net), which was designed to be white-labeled to match the customer’s web presence, and a SOAP API to support the online pages and any third-party integration.”

The migration to the cloud did not take long for the architecture. According to Molina, “The majority of the effort dealt with modifying the way that we read config file information, a centralized connection-string modification, and automating the packaging, uploading, and deployment of our releases.”

To develop the build automation, CSI Software engineers used Azure PowerShell and REST APIs to create packages and upload them to a staging environment for release each night. The overall transition to an Azure cloud-based deployment went quickly and smoothly for the CSI Software IT team. Molina explains, “In all, we had a beta environment in the cloud within three to four weeks of taking on the project. That was a surprising win for us.”

After configuring and testing the environment, CSI Software began migrating customers. For customers already using CSI Software hosting, the transition was nearly seamless. For customers migrating from an on-premises deployment, the migration to the cloud took some additional time, but was still primarily pain-free for both customers and CSI Software.

For new customers, CSI Software’s IT staff use the following process to on-board them to Azure:

1. Azure PowerShell scripts are used to spin up a new database for the customer; all customers start out on a premium tier to ensure enough initial throughput for the transition.
2. When possible, CSI Software uses the Azure SQL Migration Wizard to move existing data to an Azure SQL Database instance.
3. Finally, Microsoft SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS) are used to reconcile any discrepancies in the data or to perform any data cleanup as required.

Today, about 99 percent of CSI Software customers are hosted in Azure, across four regional datacenters (North Central, South Central, East, and West). By having datacenters in each customer’s geographical region, latency is kept to a minimum.

 

AZURE ELASTIC DATABASE POOLS FREE UP IT RESOURCES
Several features of Azure have helped CSI Software shift from being infrastructure and operations focused to being feature and development focused. Perhaps the biggest benefit has been from elastic database pools.

CSI Software currently provides about 550 databases for customers. Before elastic pools, it was difficult to manage that many databases within a tier structure. Ops managers had to assign performance tiers based on the burst needs of customers, which required significant IT-resource overhead. With elastic database pools, managers can assign tenants a premium or standard pool, as appropriate, and then move customers based on size and need. Customers felt the effects of the elastic database pools almost immediately; before elastic pools, customers had timeouts and other issues during burst-usage periods, but with elastic pools, customers can experience activity bursts as needed, and they can continue to use SpectrumNG without issues.

AZURE ACTIVE GEO-REPLICATION ACCELERATES REPORTING
Several CSI Software customers are also taking advantage of Azure Active Geo-Replication. With Active Geo-Replication, up to four readable secondary databases can be configured in the same or different datacenter regions. CSI Software makes use of Active Geo-Replication in two ways: first, the secondary databases are available in the case of a datacenter outage or the inability to connect to the primary database; and second, the secondary databases are readable and can be used to offload read-only workloads such as reporting jobs. Some CSI Software customers use this benefit to accelerate reporting workflows.

CSI SOFTWARE APPLICATION LOGIC AND ARCHITECTURE
SpectrumNG uses web roles. Because the application is multi-tenant, a WCF service is used to handle the initial connection request from customers. As Molina states, “The request identifies each customer, which then lets us build a connection string out to their databases to do whatever we need to do.”

For the web tier of its service, CSI Software takes advantage of Azure automatic scaling, based on day and time. Available resources are automatically increased to accommodate higher usage during business hours, according to the time zone of each regional datacenter. Resources are also set to scale down on weekends, when customer needs are lower.

Figure 1. A cloud services worker role draws structured data from Azure SQL Database and semi-structured data from table storage. SpectrumNG users interact with that data through a cloud services web role.

USING WEB APPS AND A WEB-PLAN TIER FOR MOBILE APPS
Using Azure SQL Database freed up resources for CSI Software to enable new initiatives, including a complete mobile platform based on a custom API hosted in Azure web apps. The platform enables gym members and staff to use mobile devices to check schedules, book classes, and receive messages.

The platform uses service-oriented architecture (SOA) to take a single component—like a point-of-sale system (POS) or a sales system—move it on the fly to another web plan, and then spin up a service to support that component, while leaving everything else on the original web plan. This ability gives CSI Software tremendous flexibility, and it helps keep costs down.

AZURE LETS CSI SOFTWARE DEVELOPERS FOCUS ON APPS AND SERVICES
Azure SQL Database isn’t just a boon to SpectrumNG customers, who enjoy the fast, reliable service, it’s also a big win for CSI Software’s IT staff and developers. By offloading ops to Azure in the cloud, CSI Software reduced its overhead for resources and infrastructure, greatly accelerated its development cycles, and no longer needs to micromanage databases to optimize performance for its tenants.

Customer Engagement Made Easy Using Mobile Apps

By | Engagement, Industry, Mobile | 2 Comments

Customer engagement is becoming wildly important to marketers, maybe muscling out productivity as the top growth engine for businesses in the age of personalization.

Mobile apps and the mobile devices they ride do provide a unique way to engage with your customer. However, mobile is a different game with its own set of rules and violating those rules can lead to certain death: deletion of your app, and a rude ending to a budding mobile relationship.

We must avoid this fate. Mobile is a marketing channel that can be mastered and engaging your customer with the right message, at the right place, at the right time is how you win the game.

Below are five ways to engage customers across a mobile platform, wherever they may be.

MAKE A PLAN
Many mobile campaigns fail due to lack of planning. Start by defining exactly what you want to accomplish through your mobile marketing channel, and then set a goal for your mobile campaign.
Yes, mobile is the wild beast we’re all trying to tame but it’s still only one marketing channel. Companies that treat mobile as some sort of cosmic dust from another galaxy soon realize the hard way that basic marketing fundamentals still apply.

A good plan will bake mobile into your club’s overall marketing strategy with the same consistent branding and vision you roll up into social, email and print.

KNOW YOUR CUSTOMER
Segmenting your customers enables you to personalize messages and make more profitable connections. Mass marketing is over, and buyers now expect a personal touch from companies courting their business.

Mine your database for member preferences, buying behavior, age, gender, family, and any other features that can help tailor a message to strategic segments of your club’s population.

The insights can be fascinating. You’ll find members who are addicted to MET-Rx bars, or your avocado burger. You’ll find members who can’t workout without a personal trainer, and families who log insane amounts of time together at the club on Saturday. At this level of granular detail, you can engage more effectively with targeted mobile offers, discounts and updates.

Next, as your mobile traffic grows, add more data points to your arsenal like type of mobile device, screen size, and whether a member is a heavy user of your mobile site but hasn’t downloaded your app. For those already using your app, what are they doing with it? Similar to web analytics, recognizing in-app patterns of behavior can help steer future mobile actions toward a specific high-value individual, or highlight what app features engage the most users.

EXPERIMENT WITH CONTENT
Content marketing is a proven and inexpensive method for increasing customer engagement in the web world, now it’s coming to mobile. It’s time to get your promotions, blogs, club news, and can’t-miss events out to your mobile users.

Content marketers are like scientists, always testing some new hypothesis and making real-time adjustments based on new data (user response).

Experimentation is critical in the mobile world because each user is different, and each of your locations may have a different customer base. That is, differences in user behavior and income levels, or device type and age range. These differences can yield dramatically different results. Unlike a traditional offline campaign, content marketing is agile and can be adapted to these differences.

What about delivery method? Both push notifications and in-app messaging have their place. Push notifications, however, can be intrusive and annoying so tread lightly and avoid the dreaded “push fatigue.” In-app messaging is more contextual and when done right feels like a natural part of the user experience. Your app messaging technique is directly linked to your actual content and should be, together, a reflection of your brand and target market.

INTERACT WITH SALES, TRAINERS AND INSTRUCTORS
So far we’ve only covered digital tricks, but your most powerful mobile engagement opportunity is hidden in plain sight: sales, trainers and instructors.

Apps designed for selling get your team up and moving to the same beat as your customer. The typical tour, pitch and close can now be compressed into one action, one very short sales cycle. With digital document signing and emailed contracts, a new membership can be transacted without ever sitting down.

As for the kings and queens of in-house connections, trainers and instructors stand to gain a lot from mobile apps. For example, your best trainers aren’t just fitness enthusiasts with charm, they are also savvy entrepreneurs running their own business of repeat customers and referrals. Give them the tools to maximize their return.

From scheduling to reservations, from commissions to series sales, an employee-facing app can immediately increase engagement because your trainer has more time to focus on the client.

MEASURE, OPTIMIZE, RINSE AND REPEAT
Mobile analytics are important. So pick your key metrics and start measuring.

With that said, the mobile landscape is ever-evolving and optimizing based on analytics requires constant innovation. It requires a relentless pursuit of the mobile signal – what really makes your mobile customers tick.

Again, getting closer to the truth of how and why your mobile users do what they do will help align your mobile goal with your overall marketing strategy using engagement as a measuring stick.

As a rule, mobile users have limited patience, phone space, and don’t suffer fools. So be nimble and respond to user habits with creative counterpunches. Try new things. Target user tastes with personalized content. Iterate, iterate, iterate. Engagement in the mobile world is a fluid process, and the winners find an edge in some of the most unlikely places.

The Aggressive Approach to Marketing Your Mobile App

By | Industry, Marketing, Membership, Mobile | No Comments

Club-based mobile apps are the hottest technology trend in health and fitness, according to a recent report from ACE, IHRSA and ClubIntel. And most mobile apps fail, according to anyone in the app business. Sounds like a paradox. Actually, it’s a marketing a problem, a problem that is fixable.

Experience shows us the build-it-and-they-will-come strategy for marketing your mobile app just doesn’t work. The app stores are crowded, home screens are limited, user attention is scarce, and thus apps are quickly deleted and forgotten. Passive introductions to your new app, like burying its features in the seventh article of the company newsletter will not get you downloads – the app market is too fickle, too competitive.

You must take the opposite approach and adopt an aggressive, swing-for-the-fences strategy designed for maximizing downloads of your app.

So let’s take the kid gloves off and talk about the marketing tactics that will get your club app downloaded. Although the real reason for having a mobile app is to drive content and services to your customers across a wildly popular platform, nothing happens until your app gets downloaded.

MICROTARGETING
Steal from your favorite presidential candidate and start microtargeting your members. Microtargeting is the art and science of mining voter databases for potential supporters. The goal is not just to segment voters based on certain attributes, but to get those voters most likely to vote for a particular candidate to the polls on election day.

You have a database full of members and valuable member data. Use it. Create targeted messages for niche markets.

Who is most likely to download my club app? Start by identifying the low-hanging fruit. According to comScore data, those between the ages of 25-34 spend more time on mobile apps than any other age segment, with the 18-24 crowd right on their heels. Maybe these two segments of your club population aren’t high-value customers, and not exactly loyal, but they do like apps.

After gaining traction with your younger members, look for new patterns in the data. Use your analytics chops to attack other segments of your club like heavy Group X and summer program users that would seriously benefit from the search, scheduling and reservations features of your app. Microtargeting gets voters to the polls and mobile users to the app stores.

VIDEO
A short explainer video can do wonders for your mobile app. Video is engaging, it taps emotions, and it provides an alternative learning path. Like fixing your toilet, some things just make more sense on YouTube.

A short walkthrough demo of your app does not have to be a Hollywood production. And video analytics have proven shorter is better, with 30 seconds being the sweet spot for ultimate viewing. In fact, break down each function into individual videos for users with specific questions.

Tapping the right emotions for a health and fitness app is easy. Somewhere between time savings and shameless vanity, making an emotional connection with your video audience shouldn’t be difficult.

DIGITAL CHANNELS
Using your website as a hub, direct all of your digital channels toward the same goal: app downloads. Be consistent with your message across Twitter, Facebook, and any other social channel you market in. Use strong call-to-actions (CTAs) and show members exactly how to download the app using an infographic or some type of simple flow chart.

Track where your downloads are coming from and identify the platforms and content choices that are working.

Email, email, email. McKinsey says email is a more effective way to acquire customers than social media—nearly 40 times that of Facebook and Twitter combined. So not only is email still your best online marketing tool, but guess what the largest percentage of mobile users are actually doing on their phone? Checking email.

According to IDC, checking email is the #1 most popular activity on a smartphone!

Craft and distribute emails dedicated to your mobile app – what it does, why you need it, and exactly how to download it. Make darn sure new members get the message in their welcome package.

INCENTIVES
Who said you had to earn all of your downloads the hard way? Games, giveaways and great discounts will all get your members moving to Google Play and the Apple’s App Store. You have plenty to offer, including swag, food and beverage, and training sessions.

Remember, these are exclusive offers for mobile users and can be positioned as in-app incentives. The catch is you have to download the app first.

RESEARCH
Get to know the app market, the app culture. With over three million apps in the market, and mobile data so easy to acquire, it’s no wonder market researchers have had a field day with mobile. Honestly, some of this stuff (marketing insights) they’ve uncovered is fascinating and can be used (applied analytics) to sharpen your mobile strategies.

Did you know iOS users are four times more likely to download health and fitness apps? So launch an Apple only promotion. Turns out, most app downloads occur at night and on the weekends. So organize a weekend download drive and hit your members when they are most vulnerable.

Follow the mobile market and discover how people actually connect and communicate through their apps. Use this intel to tailor your app marketing and promotion.

80 percent of your members bring their smartphones to your facility so swing for the fences.