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A view on VS 2008: On-line agency sees reasons to upgrade

Internet ad agency Spot Runner cites strong incentives to upgrade to Visual Studio 2008. Improvements in Team Foundation Server are among the benefits seen in the new version of the Microsoft tool suite.

As Microsoft Visual Studio 2008 formally rolls out this week along with Windows Server 2008, more development groups will begin to consider a move from existing Visual Studio versions. For its part Internet ad agency Spot Runner has upgraded to VS 2008, citing improvements in the .NET runtime framework and VS tooling.

"Visual Studio 2008 brought some key fixes and enhancements, in the areas of reporting, automation and built-in frameworks that we were using separately," said Marco DeMello, vice president of engineering at the Los Angeles-based company. "These distinct benefits combined were strong incentive to upgrade."

Spot Runner was founded in 2004 and launched its online production, media planning and media buying services in 2006. Customers choose from a library of video ads they can personalize. They can also create customized media plans by entering information about their industry, target audience and budget into Spot Runner's media planning engine. Spot Runner manages the account, buying and tracking ads and analyzing viewership and demographics.

VS 2008 brought some key fixes and enhancements, in the areas of reporting, automation and built-in frameworks.
Marco DeMello
DeMello described their technology and applications as "very data centric and profit centric; a lot of engineering goes into it." He said the sophisticated system is based on a service-oriented architecture utilizing Web 2.0 technology. In the middle tier is all the business logic and applications that "handle everything from understanding the nature of the customer's business to generating media plans that make the most sense for them, including demographics, budgets, etc." Spot Runner's technology also integrates with different systems for purchasing and tracking media, he said.

In addition, DeMello said there are a number of automated systems for the creative team and a large library of ad templates. "We have applications that deal with all the financial pieces that handle customer accounts. We can create an ad that runs on 20 different cable channels, and submit a digital copy to all stations with instructions. It's a very large surface that runs on the middle tier system and the [Microsoft SQL Server 2005] back-end database."

Spot Runner is primarily a Microsoft development environment, according to DeMello, working with Visual Studio.NET, Visual Studio 2005, and then with the Visual Studio 2008 "Orcas" beta. Spot Runner was an early adopter of Team Foundation Server (TSS), which helps with the development group's push to automate as much as possible and which DeMello calls "the cornerstone of our source control." The company's Microsoft roots are fairly deep -- co-founders Nick Grouf and David Waxman co-founded Firefly Network, which Microsoft acquired. The Firefly Passport was the foundation for Microsoft's Passport and .NET initiatives.

DeMello said Spot Runner tested and adopted Visual Studio 2008 and Windows Server 2008 "fairly aggressively." According to DeMello, a key reason was "some performance issues with TFS and Visual Studio 2005." In particular, DeMello's group is pleased with new features/enhancements in TFS, such as built-in continuous integration. Previously, Spot Runner had homegrown CI. Also, DeMello said the automation within TFS is improved, which is important to the company because all of its tests are automated. He said the reporting with TFS is substantially better, with the ability to report on overall and individual performance.

Spot Runner uses ASP.NET and Windows Communication Foundation heavily, "since before Orcas," DeMello said. "Windows Communication Foundation is employed heavily between the presentation layer and the service tier." They also started using Windows Workflow Foundation to orchestrate and codify several key workflows, for both engineering and business processes, he said. Before, developers used a homegrown workflow system with disparate methods for each type of workflow. "Now we stand on clearly defined XML workflows that can be orchestrated and driven by WF. The benefit is predictability, flexibility and visibility. You can see what's going on with the workflow very clearly, and drill into the workflow if anything goes wrong. It increases our efficiency and helps with accuracy. Accurate reporting is very important. We have to have timely response to any issue."

DeMello said Spot Runner is also employing the Ajax framework, and said overall it was good but there were a "few bumps," such as losing states on pages, "but overall it gives us tremendous benefit."

Currently, Spot Runner does not use Microsoft Silverlight, a cross-browser, cross-platform plug-in for delivering rich Internet applications, but the company is doing some prototyping with it. "A key consideration will be client-side adoption," DeMello said. "There needs to be a fairly well-installed base before we can use the technology. We have features under development now for our website; we're starting without Silverlight, but we can see in the future adopting it."

DeMello said the upgrade to 2008 for his organization was "overall pretty painless." While he's happy with the performance improvements, "every shop using .NET will say they want more performance, [for us] specifically build times. But the truth is performance has increased. Application runtime execution performance has also increased tremendously. But like with money, you can never have too much."

New features Spot Runner has been able to build with Visual Studio 2008 include a geospatial-based user interface for selecting local areas of advertisement and radius of coverage. And the workflow piece, he said, "improves the whole experience for the user."

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