Build fast, scalable data system on Azure SQL Database Hyperscale

Clearent

How to build a fast, scalable data system on Azure SQL Database Hyperscale. Hyperscale’s flexible architecture scales with the pace of your business to process large amounts of data with a small amount of compute in just minutes, and allows you to back up data almost instantaneously.

Azure SQL Database Hyperscale

Zach Fransen, VP of data and AI at Xplor, joins Jeremy Chapman to share how credit card processing firm, Clearent by Xplor, built a fast, scalable merchant transaction reporting system on Azure SQL Database Hyperscale. Take a deep dive on their Hyperscale implementation, from their approach with micro-batching to continuously bring in billions of rows of transactional data, from their on-premises payment fulfillment system at scale, as well as their optimizations for near real-time query performance using clustered column store indexing for data aggregation.

00:35 — Intro to Clearent

01:33 — Starting point and challenges

03:12 — Clearant’s shift to Hyperscale

04:53 — Near real-time reporting/micro-batching

06:25 — See it in action

08:28 — Processing large amounts of data

09:42 — Namd replicas

10:34 — Query speed ups — clustered column store indexing

11:45 — What’s next for Clearent by Xplor?

12:26 — Wrap up

Learn more about Clearent by Xplor and what they’re doing with Hyperscale at https://aka.ms/ClearentMechanics

For more guidance on implementing Azure SQL Database Hyperscale, check out https://aka.ms/MechanicsHyperscale

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- Up next, we meet with credit card processing firm Clearent by Xplor to see how they built a fast, scalable merchant transaction reporting system on Azure SQL Database Hyperscale. From their approach with micro-batching to continuously bring in billions of rows of transactional data from their on-premises payment fulfillment system at scale, as well as their optimizations for near real-time query performance using clustered columnstore indexing for data aggregation and much more. So today, I’m joined by Zach Fransen, who’s the VP of data and AI at Xplor. So welcome to Microsoft Mechanics.

- Thanks. It’s great to be on the show.

- Thanks so much for joining us today. It’s really great to have you on. So if you’re new to Clearent by Xplor, they’re a US-based payment solution provider that enables merchants and retailers to accept credit card payments from anywhere. They process over 500 million transactions per year. And since their inception in 2005, they’ve built several intelligent solutions to reduce credit card processing fees and significantly speed up the fulfillment of credit card payments with next day funding. Now key to this has been connecting their back-end payment fulfillment system with their transaction reporting system. In fact, they’ve recently completed an app and data modernization effort using Azure SQL Database Hyperscale. Their new Compass Online Reporting Suite gives their customers unprecedented and concurrent access to sales transaction data stored on Azure SQL Hyperscale for near real-time views of revenue, sales trends, and much more. So Zach, to put this effort into context, can you help us understand where you were coming from?

- Sure. So when we started this effort, we were fully on-premises. We had two monolithic legacy apps, Horizon and Compass, running off the same Clearent database. Payments from merchants came in from a legacy third-party mainframe payment gateway and landed in Horizon as flat files. Horizon takes care of qualification, billing, and settling merchant payments. Part of our value add is to pay our merchant customers ahead of the credit agencies. When merchants batch in their sales at the end of the day, the system qualifies the nature of the transaction by checking things like if the transaction was made online or from a card reader via a chip, magnetic strip, or a rewards card. These are all things that determine the cost of the transaction and the fees charged by Visa, Mastercard, Amex and other credit agencies. We also charge a derivative fee based on that, so this is an intricate process to get right. In parallel, our Compass reporting system running on IIS had a SQL Server always on cluster on the same Clearent database back-end that would pull data from Horizon using a stored procedure to transform the data into reporting schemas for merchants to get visibility into their transactions.

- Okay, so how often were you able to pull the data for reporting?

- Well, we did a two-day lookback once a day, so we were having to process two full days of data every day for reporting and we were always a day behind. There was also contention because we were using the same database for processing transactions and reporting. And as our data and customers grew, our run times for processing the data coming into Horizon took longer. Also, concurrent customer queries in Compass would sometimes fail.

- That’s not too surprising. Large database operations like these are prone to performance issues and storage limitations. Plus, you had to find a better way to aggregate the data and make it more available for reporting as well. So what approach then did you take to remediate some of these issues?

- Well, we adopted a hybrid approach which allowed us to keep our data on-premises but migrate the data that we needed for reporting into the Cloud. As our foundation was SQL Server, we wanted to continue to use that skill set and choose an option where we didn’t have to worry about storage limits or syntax changes. We went with the Azure SQL Database Hyperscale service tier that scales to up to 100TB of storage as the reporting back-end for our new Compass Online Reporting Suite. We also modernized the Compass App, taking an extensible microservices-based approach. We built an angular app that calls dozens of services that sit both on-prem and in the Cloud, depending on what it’s trying to do. And we also fragmented our data model to match our service topology. Then, to more consistency bring data in, we built our own payment gateway called Quest, which comprises a consistent set of APIs to pull in merchant data from physical credit card terminals, e-commerce, or integrated payment systems in use by our merchant customers. In fact, as we made it easier to bring data in and broke the Compass app and data monolith apart, Hyperscale’s role in providing a single hub pulling all the data together became even more important. Additionally, we only keep active data on premises, so Hyperscale is critical in keeping a persistent record of all our historical data and to maintaining a lower data footprint on-prem in those transactional systems.

- Okay, so now you’ve got a more scalable and agile app and data layer, but with so many transactions that are happening at any one time, how would you solve for getting the data then into Hyperscale fast enough to support near real-time reporting for your merchants?

- So the game changer for us was adopting low-latency, intraday batch processing, and data streaming. We’ve split our Hyperscale instance into two logical layers, comprising an Operational Data Store and an Enterprise Data Warehouse. And we shifted from once-a-day batch processing to micro-batch processing where we use SQL Server’s Change Data Capture feature to poll our disparate systems for the latest change in data every two minutes. We have data extractors running on our on-premises databases reading our change capture tables, and we have a set of configuration tables sitting in our operational data store that tells it what columns to read. The raw data along with the change history for every table is then loaded into Hyperscale over Express Route into our ODS. And we only extract and load the delta tables in our Enterprise Data Warehouse for reporting and analytics. At the same time, as a credit card transaction is made, Quest immediately places it on a queue, and we use the SQL Server JSON parsing capability to extract out the pieces of information from the message that we are interested in, such as the date, time, and amount of the transaction, and then stream it directly into our star schemas in Hyperscale for reporting so that the data is available to merchants right away.

- This really sounds like a great solution. Can we see it in action?

- Sure. So here is the Compass Online Reporting Suite. On the homepage, you get a quick summary of all of your activity from the last recent deposit through to trends in sales volume. From there, you can drill in to see the detail. I’ll click into one of my deposits. For example, one thing that is useful for merchants is being able to deconstruct a deposit that may just show up as one line item on their bank account statement. In Compass, they can drill in to see the detail behind the deposit whether that’s multiple terminals or multiple batches because Hyperscale is bringing all that data together. Now let me show you what happens as soon as the transaction is made. We’re in the transaction view within a batch. I can see all my recent transactions in this batch. Now I’ll show the process of running a transaction along with where we can view it. I’m in the virtual terminal built on Quest, but this could be a physical terminal or another integrated payment system. I’ll make a credit card transaction. And you’ll see it succeeds in the virtual terminal in under a second. Now I’ll hop over to Compass into our batch view, hit refresh, and you’ll see the payment is pending right away. That’s made possible by Hyperscale instantaneously consuming the data from our messaging queue. Finally, I’ll hop over to my query in SQL Server Management Studio and I’ll query this batch in our Hyperscale database, and you’ll see the results are also instantly available. Next, if we look into our list of settled transactions, you’ll see that once the merchant batches in at the end of the day if they click into a deposit, it shows the amounts and fees along with the net deposit amount and when payment will be posted. I’ll click in to see transactions in this batch. Transaction data is also enriched by the data from our micro-batch processing, as you can see here by optional column views available. I’ll select Product and POS Entry Mode. You’ll see that information show up in our view and these are critical elements that determine the fees for the transaction.

- Okay, so this is an example then of just one transaction, but what if you have maybe 50,000 or more merchants that are running millions of transactions a day?

- Yeah. We process around 1 billion rows of data per month on our Hyperscale implementation right now. As you can see here in the portal, this has amounted to over 28TB. And a big advantage of Hyperscale is that the compute is independent to the size of your data. Let me give you another view from our monitoring tool. Here, the green chart represents Hyperscale. It’s processing a large quantity of billing information as the micro-batch comes in at intervals. It’s actually spiking up to almost 100% utilization, which is around 200,000 IOPS, and incidentally this is only using 8 cores right now which is a relatively small amount of compute. We can elastically scale compute when we need to process a large amount of data or build an index on a giant table with all the history and to scale it up. It only takes a few minutes. Also in Hyperscale, backups are near instantaneous. It’s constantly taking snapshots of your data, which helps significantly with data restore. Through PowerShell, we’ve automated restore when we do full-scale load testing, and that only takes like an hour, even though it’s a 28TB database.

- Okay, so how else then have you configured your Hyperscale implementation?

- Secondary replicas. Not just read-only replicas, but named replicas have been game changing for us. This allowed us to keep our primary instance for our compute intensive ETL and data processing. We can then assign name replicas for specific purposes like analytics and reporting. These tap into a copy of the same data, but have their own dedicated compute. If you recall, when I showed you the slider screen, we had a secondary replica configured for customer traffic, which is part of a scalable pool of replicas for load balancing. If I switch tabs, you can see that we also have a named replica configured to handle analytics traffic. Routing traffic to these replicas is as simple as changing the connection string. This means that critical customer workloads are not interrupted by our compute intensive analytic operations.

- So with such massive amounts of data that are coming in, beyond assigning the right amount of compute, are you doing anything special then to speed up query operations?

- Yes, we do a few things. For example, one of the things we’ve really taken advantage of is clustered columnstore index for data aggregation. A big advantage of Azure SQL Hyperscale is that it’s very flexible. It can handle a variety of different types of traffic and does really rapid aggregation. Here, we have an example of an analytical workload where we are going to take a very large number of records and produce some aggregates. In this particular table, we have a little over 3 billion rows of data. To see some trending, I have a query that will produce a time series by collecting data from different months, which in this case, are in different partitions in a clustered columnstore index. When I run it, you can see it is able to aggregate records across three months in 2021, and it’s almost instantaneous. Another way to look at the data is to look at a cross-section using dimensional slices, like a state. And here, we see the total number of transactions in New York and Washington. So we’re able to look across billions of rows of data and pull these aggregates together in fractions of a second.

- That’s super impressive. And now you’ve transformed then your app and data stack for reporting with Azure SQL Database Hyperscale, but what’s next then for Clearent by Xplor?

- So given our recent merger with the transaction services group to form Xplor, we are taking our Clearent platform international to deliver a service called Xplor Pay with Azure SQL Database Hyperscale as our reporting back-end. And now that we’ve got our data infrastructure to this level of maturity, the next logical step is to leverage Azure Machine Learning. This will help offer additional value-added services to our customers, such as helping them to understand when to run specific promotions based on existing sales.

- Thanks so much, Zach, for joining us today and also giving us the deep dive on your Hyperscale implementation. In fact, to learn more about Clearent by Xplor and what they’re doing with Hyperscale, check out, aka.ms/ClearentMechanics. And for more guidance on implementing Azure SQL Database Hyperscale, check out aka.ms/MechanicsHyperscale. Of course, don’t forget to subscribe to our channel if you haven’t already. Thanks so much for watching. We’ll see you next time.

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