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Azure Expert Infrastructure Advice – AWOL Case Study

Azure expert

  • AWOL Adventure is a leader in Sports Photography.  This case study explains how AWOL, with the support of the European Space Agency leveraged Azure infrastructure to support its growth plans, supported by the skills and expertise of Azure Expert,  Compete366


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Business Background

AWOL was founded in 2012 with the aim of creating a social network for the outdoors, using digital photography and videos to create shared content.  Since then, the business has evolved significantly, and is now a major player in event photography.   AWOL takes photographs of athletes (both professional and amateur) as they compete in large events such as the Manchester Marathon, London Marathon Events’ Swim Serpentine and many different regional triathlons and other outdoor sporting events.

The industry had been previously dominated by two large players, but these tended to be more photography focused and had not concentrated on the e-commerce platform which is required for athletes to find, view and purchase their event photographs.

AWOL Adventure decided to make their focus the technology platform underpinning the photography service to build the best possible online engagement and user experience for competitive advantage.   Athletes are always keen to see their photos as soon as possible, so AWOL’s aim was to reduce the time lag between photos being taken at events and being made available to purchase from the website post-event.  They also decided to focus on improving the accuracy of the picture recognition, using for example vest numbers and facial recognition.  Again this makes a big impact on the end user experience, as they can easily locate their individual photograph amongst any hundreds or thousands take at each event.

COVID-19 Impact

Obviously, Covid-19 has had a major impact on all sporting events this year.  But AWOL decided to use this time wisely and continue to work to further improve its technology platform.   The team applied for funding from the UK and European Space Agencies which is available for any company who can use Space Assets to grow their business.

The project was approved and launched in September 2020 to allow them to address the challenge of getting photos uploaded and indexed quickly from remote events, using satellite communications to increase the upload speed of images.

UK Space Agency and European Space Agency: Project Overview

The funding received from the UKSA/ESA Project allows AWOL Adventure to address all three key improvement areas: speed, quality, accuracy.

The project had 3 key objectives:

Speed of upload of photographs

It is essential to upload photos quickly from the event as participants want to be able to view and purchase photos straight after an event has finished.  This requirement is addressed using satellite communications, as the events are often run in remote areas where mobile signal cannot be guaranteed, or in busy public areas where the networks are overwhelmed.  To improve on the speed and accuracy of the photo uploads, AWOL Adventure selected to work with the Microsoft Cloud platform.

All of the technology is based on the Microsoft ASP.net core – for the website and hosting on Azure Webapp service, with SQL core. In essence, one a photo is taken at an event, it is uploaded (using satellite communications) to the Azure SQL Database and is indexed (GPS, time, date location) using serverless functions. The system has been built to allow for one million photos per day to be uploaded simultaneously from multiple events.

On the day of an event, there is a requirement for huge capacity to scale-up the Microsoft Azure SQL Database resources to receive all of the uploaded photographs, and while people browse and download their photos.  But between events, there is much smaller demand for processing power. Microsoft Azure is an ideal solution, as it allows for the infrastructure resource to be scaled down when it is not needed.   It is essential for the business to keep costs to a minimum when the Azure servers are not being used, but to deliver the best experience when it is being heavily used.  The Compete366 optimisation services helped to ensure this is achieved.

Photos are uploaded into the Microsoft Azure web app hosted area, with the website front-end also Azure hosted.  The system performs some clever number recognition to match the entrant with the photo so that it can be searched for and found later.

Accuracy

It is essential to be able to identify athletes in their photos, using either number recognition or facial recognition.

Quality

The quality of the photos needs to be checked as they being uploaded – this allows for immediate feedback to be given to the photographers.

The reason AWOL Adventure chose Microsoft is that they already had some Microsoft skill sets in this area, and knew that the MS Azure stack and offering is really good.

As Matt Brocklehurst, Technical Director explains:

“The whole Azure offering is a really good fit for us – from the development language to how we deploy it makes life easier and helps us to achieve our technical objectives.”

Key Infrastructure Elements:

  • Azure WebApps – hosting front end website for AWOLAdventure.com
  • Azure SQL Database – holding details of users, and data storage
  • Storage Accounts for holding the images
  • Azure Cache for Redis – service replicates image delivery around the globe.
  • Azure Function Apps –Amazon OCR output
  • Cognitive Services –Future Image Recognition.

 Why AWOL chose to work with Azure Expert, Compete366

AWOL Adventure initially had a direct relationship with Microsoft but felt that they needed a specialist partner who could provide  the implementation support and guidance to tweak their infrastructure to make better use of the resources, and make the systems more efficient.  Microsoft put AWOL Adventure in touch with a selection of recommended Azure Experts choose from, and Compete366, Microsoft Gold Partner was selected, primarily as they offered free advice and support to help with the transition, at no additional costs to the Azure platform and hosting.

As Matt explains:

Compete366 were able to help us leverage some useful contacts in Microsoft.  We really value the expert advice and guidance that they have offered us in setting up a highly scalable infrastructure.  We are also setting in place a regular monthly meeting which will allow us to further refine our architecture and ensure we keep on track as our requirements grow and change.”

Next Steps

AWOL started as an events-focused business but is now much more aligned with the technology platform and the efficiencies and competitive edge this can bring. In the short-term AWOL will be looking to use the technology to provide photography across many more events, particularly as events come back on stream post-COVID-19.

As already stated, Facial Recognition is also a key element of the project, and AWOL is actively looking at Azure AI options, as there is always scope to improve this element of the technology solution.

awoladventure.com

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