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Tales From The Cloud - by Matt Weinberger - citeworld.com

The place: Salesforce's annual Dreamforce user conference.

The time: Late 2012. Ken Grady, CIO of New England Biolabs (NEB) -- a forty-year-old vendor of over a thousand different specialized enzymes, reagants, and the like for life sciences laboratories -- had made the trek with a few members of his team to San Francisco to learn more about how his company could leverage Salesforce's cloud-based CRM, which it had recently adopted.

After a long day of conference sessions, Grady returned to his hotel room with his head in the clouds. His team had recently tasked itself with coming up with a better way of distributing the vials of reagents to the scientists who make use of it. Under the current system, researchers would go to a NEB-owned freezer in their own institution, take out a vial, and mark what they took on a clipboard. An administrator would tally up what was taken and send New England Biolabs an invoice. Grady knew that there was a smarter way that would generate better insight into what was taken, when, and why.

"We were looking for the Apple Store experience," Grady says.

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He reached for a beer from the hotel's minibar. Which is when the penny dropped -- just as the hotel staff would notice the beer was gone the next day and charge him accordingly, the solution was a smarter freezer. Grady took his team to the bar that night and they sketched out their solution on a cocktail napkin.

Today, New England Biolabs' solution is made manifest in the form of a self-service experience. Scientists use a Dell Windows tablet embedded in the freezer and powered by a cloud app to scan their badge's barcode, scan the barcodes of whatever products they take, and complete the order. It enables NEB to keep better track of which scientists needed which products how often, and makes sure that stocks were being replenished and special requests ordered in a timely fashion, keeping users happy, says Grady.

In other words, these "talking freezers" report back to home base when they need to be refilled. It's a pretty cool example of how the Internet of Things will shape business.

If these freezers sound simple, that's because they was designed to be. The old clipboard-centric model worked for making sure New England Biolabs was paid whatever profits from the consignment it was due, but didn't have any clue about buying habits or rate of depletion. The company was at the mercy of research lab administrator to find out when they needed to come back and reload the freezer.

"It was a real arm's-length understanding of who's using our products," Grady says.

Just like any other commercial enterprise, NEB is looking for insights into and deeper engagement with its customers. There are plenty of other companies that sell enzymes and reagents, Grady says, and by making it simple for users to browse and special-order a reagent directly from the source, it speeds up the pace of the scientist's research while ensuring NEB maintains the customer's business. It's a win-win, Grady says. And since the interface is designed to be as close to a smartphone or tablet app as possible, Grady says that it's required virtually zero user training. You can see it in action in a video produced by Salesforce here.

According to Grady, there are two pillars that keep this system up behind the scenes.

The first is Heroku, the platform-as-a-service (PaaS) public cloud that Salesforce pitches as perfect for building and scaling customer-facing apps. Because New England Biolabs were Salesforce customers already, using Heroku to power the application made perfect sense: It hooks into the CRM they were already using to maintain customer relationships (especially important since different research institutions negotiate different discounts for NEB's products), while still enabling the all-important user-friendly experience for the researchers who make use of them. Grady says they tried other PaaS solutions, but Heroku was the obvious choice once they realized how well it fit into what they'd already built.

"Choosing Heroku was half natural evolution and half 'a-ha!' moment," Grady says.

The second pillar is a willingness to use consumer-grade hardware. The first version of the "talking freezer" project was built over only 100 days in early 2013. They were able to get it done relatively quickly by using Dell Windows tablets and servers you can buy in most electronics stores. By circumventing the need to go through a traditional enterprise procurement cycle, Grady's team was able to hack early and hack often, drastically shortening development.

Those first versions resembled an airport ticket kiosk, with a fair measure of the user-unfriendliness that implies, Grady says. But my maintaining the team's "willingness to hack" on the hardware, they were able to take a second hundred days and come up with a new revision that got much closer to the simple, intuitive interface they were looking for. Now, NEB's IT team expects to deliver new versions of the freezer solution every further hundred days going forward.

The project still has a way to go before it's ready for all of their hundreds of customer sites, Grady says. For instance, in some government research facilities, the freezers aren't allowed on to the local WiFi for security reasons. But by taking lessons from other early Internet of Things success stories, especially the FitBit, which stores data locally until it can do a Bluetooth sync with a device, Grady anticipates a solution isn't far off.

Similarly, in some international markets, New England Biolabs places their products in other companies' freezers, meaning they can't deploy the tablet. Solution? Make a downloadable smartphone app that does the same thing. Since it's all on Heroku anyway, building a mobile app that connects up to it is relatively trivial.

It's that approach that basically sums this project up, Grady says: if you're going to try to do what New England Biolabs has done and use the Internet of Things to deepen your relationships with your retail customers, "you have to do it in the cloud



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