3M Uses Azure For Image Analysis Service - InformationWeek

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3M Uses Azure For Image Analysis Service

3M Manager Bill Smyth wanted to launch a new business without plunging into the company's capital budget allocation process. So he used Microsoft's Azure cloud services.

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When Bill Smyth wanted to launch a new business at 3M two-and-a-half years ago, he faced the daunting prospect of plunging into the $29.9 billion company's capital budgeting process. Or, he could circumvent that process and go straight to Microsoft's Azure cloud.

As a 14-year veteran at 3M with product responsibilities, he had been through the capital budget process several times. "I've got the scars on my back to prove it," he said in an interview.

Applying for capital funds puts an executive "into the competitive environment of capital money allocation," with repetitive meetings and discussions over how to divide up 3M's $1 billion capital budget. He only needed a few servers, but to get them, "I would be competing with executives building $100 million coating factories," he recalled. The budget process is the same whether someone needs three servers or a whole factory. And even if he received an allocation in one round of discussions, he could lose it in the next when a higher priority project was shown to be over budget and coming up short.

"I had a million things I knew I had to do" to launch 3M's Visual Attention Service (VAS), an image analysis service that advises clients which parts of their images or video will gain the greatest share of audience attention. Smyth only needed a handful of servers; going to the cloud gave him those servers quickly, along with one less thing to do.

"The concept of avoiding the countless budget meetings versus firing up more instances. It was a no brainer for me," he said.

[ Want to learn more about Microsoft's Windows Azure cloud services? See Microsoft Azure Public Cloud Matches Amazon Prices. ]

In another sense, Smyth also was circumventing IT as well as the capital budget. Rather than relying on on-premises servers, he was going outside the data center, and that posed data management challenges. But he had an internal ally, the 3M Software, Electronics and Mechanical Systems Lab, one of the central labs that serve the whole company. It was SEMS that had the neuroscience expertise to establish how the human brain perceives light and images. "SEMS played a key role in much of our software-related decision making," recalled Smyth. "They proposed using Azure."

Smyth was in a hurry to get his systems up and running because 3M realized two-and-a-half years ago that one of its underutilized, core competencies -- the neuroscience of image perception -- could be converted into a digital service. Two programmers from the lab became part of Smyth's five-person development team and were responsible for expressing the findings of the research in algorithms. And those algorithms became the foundation of his unit's VAS, which launched with Smyth as global business manager.

One early recognizer of the value of the service was Adobe, which offered the service through its Photoshop marketplace in 2010. The service was termed effective, if pricey, in a review by InformationWeek's sister publication CRN in April 2011.

Smyth felt sure many parties, from advertising agencies and marketing units to independent video makers, would want to use a service that could tell them what parts of their images were going to attract the most interest. Two-and-a-half years later, he's been proven right. VAS has logged 8,000 users, including 10 of the leading advertisers in the U.S. It turned out that fast food restaurants wanted to analyze the imagery on their digital menu boards to ensure they attracted customer attention to the right places. Television advertisers used it to figure out what parts of their commercials were attention getters. The same applies to makers of banner ads and display ads.

"Predicting the volume of traffic in the early days was difficult," he recalled. He knew he needed a compute infrastructure that scaled upward easily, in case growth took off. But he didn't want to over-invest as word was first getting out on the availability of the service. Smyth realized Azure fit his flexible scalability requirement also. The initial three virtual servers grew into a 12-server set of extra-large instances. That is, each virtual server has 14 GBs of RAM and eight virtual cores.

But these decisions weren't made entirely in the absence of IT, Smyth said. On the contrary, he kept the staff informed and solicited its support. In part, that's the culture at 3M. "People here like to work with and understand new technologies. IT knew what we were doing. They were interested in us as an early adopter and wanted to help," he said.

That help would be needed when it came to keeping VAS data secure. As companies started using the service, "they were developing things like new marketing materials and new packaging, [content] they view as sensitive company secrets."

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