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!

- Ewan Dalton

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Can you (generically) describe the types of businesses (size, industry, etc) that are confident enough to put pre-release software into production? Are there alternate messaging services provided simultaneously, you know, "just in case"?

I'd really like to work for a company that had that much confidence in its IT staff.
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Exchange-faq.dk - Din portal til Microsoft Exchange Server information
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I am part of a team that is an active participant in multiple TAP programs. We've had great success with all of our JDP/TAP programs. We were in the Windows 2003 (Whistler) JDP, the Windows XP SP2 TAP, and we're currently in the Windows 2003 SP1 TAP and the R2 TAP. It is critical that you have executive backing and have the resources to commit to the effort.

Our executive management has seen the benefits of participation and active encourage it. Of course we test, test and test again in the lab before we attempt to put any production resouces on beta code. Even then we start small. But we've operated our large centralized file cluter on Windows 2003 since RC1. That server services over 12,000 clients. Not one hiccup the entire time.

In my experience by the time the TAP customers get their hands on Beta code, it's already pretty solid.
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The kinds of business who get involved in the TAP vary - but mostly, they're large (several thousand users, up to several hundred thousand) organizations who can dedicate resources (time, hardware, even money to pay for external services) to being part of the program.

We have a mix of industry (manufacturing, financial services, service providers, education, IT etc etc) and a blend of geographical coverage (many multinational, some are distinct in geography - eg Japan, central Europe etc).

As for the 'just in case' scenarios - most of our TAP customers will start to implement the pre-release software in test enviornments which aren't necessarily part of the corporate messaging environment (maybe purely a test, or linked only through a separate SMTP namespace), but as confidence grows in the stability of the software they will put it into production in the live system.

At Microsoft, we run a separate 'dogfood' forest for Exchange, so the Exchange team can be testing new versions without affecting the rest of the corporate messaging environment. As we get closer to the release, the MS IT team will deploy the pre-release code into the main corporate forest environment. Only when both Dogfood and MSIT have deployed the new version (and are happy with it), will it be given out to the TAP customers and given the green light for production use.

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Hey folks,
This blog's got a lot of great technical information which is all very well and...