Like many of the product groups within Microsoft, Exchange relies heavily on a fairly small but dedicated set of our customers who make up the Technology Adoption Program (or TAP). TAPs exist in varying sizes and flavors, but the basic idea is that they replace the former array of early-adopter, joint-developer or rapid-deployment programs which we used to run at different stages of a product cycle. The Exchange development team runs a customer ‘Product Validation’ variant TAP, which allows us to work closely with a small number of customers throughout the world, and with our support they put the code into production before its release, and give us feedback.
When Exchange 2003 RTMed, we already had over 170,000 users around the world running in production on pre-release code (outside of Microsoft’s own Exchange deployment which was already 100% at 2003 code). When we launched Exchange 2003 Service Pack 1, we had customers running a total of 127 servers in production (some of which had been on various builds for months). Some had already collapsed remote Exchange 5.5 sites into new 2003 central Admin Groups, by using the cross-site mailbox moves that were introduced in SP1. In every major development release (new version, Service Pack, hotfix rollup etc), we actually have ‘release criteria’ defined, stating that a certain number of mailboxes and/or servers need to have been running on one of the final builds, for a period of time - typically 3 weeks - with no server downtime that is attributable to Exchange (ie. Power failure or taking the server down to apply security patches to the OS don’t count in the downtime measurement for this purpose).
One of the big benefits to customers is they develop a closer relationship with the product group and get early access to information about the future development of Exchange - and regularly get asked to influence that direction too. Microsoft receives the benefits that we receive candid and valued feedback, validate that the product works as expected, and gets help to find and fix bugs early in the development cycle. When the program gets into full swing, we have regular conference calls with all the participants (weekly or so), and talk in detail on each call about some specific area of the new technologies and features in the product that’s being developed. We will also periodically bring TAP customer to our Redmond campus to meet the product groups face to face, and to attend focused summits on Exchange as it develops into the new release.
We’re in the process of starting up the next evolution of the Exchange TAP. This program is a lot more in-depth than the standard technical beta, and can only accommodate a very small number of participants. Due to the resources required at the early stages to test the software, we typically work with organizations who already have a Technical Account Manager from Microsoft Premier Support and other Microsoft people who look after the relationship. As time progresses we’ll look for ways to make information and code more widely available.
If you and your organization are interested in being part of the TAP, have an appropriate support relationship already, can consistently dedicate appropriate resources to testing software in labs, putting test code into production before it’s released and working with us closely to provide detailed feedback, then now is the time to talk with your Microsoft TAM, TS or Account Executive... and ask them to nominate you!