In last week's column ("The Future of Exchange Conferencing," http://www.exchangeadmin.com , InstantDoc ID 39346), I talked about the new Microsoft Office Real-Time Communications (RTC) Server, which will replace Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server and Exchange 2000 Instant Messaging (IM). I claimed that the product beta was available for download, and a couple of readers asked where they could find it. As it turns out, I was wrong: There is no public beta for RTC Server, so let me begin this column by eating crow. Microsoft has a private beta release but doesn't seem to be planning a public beta, although one might happen closer to the product's Release to Manufacturing (RTM) date. Just how does Microsoft distribute products before release, and how does the company choose who has access to prerelease versions of products such as Exchange Server 2003, RTC Server, and Outlook 2003?

First, some Microsoft product group (which consists of a development team, testers, marketers, writers, and all the folks who collaborate to get a product built, documented, and shipped) comes up with the idea for a new product, such as RTC Server. Completing a new product takes quite a bit of time, but the product will be at least partially usable before it's finished. The product group typically begins using the partially built product as soon as possible, testing the finished parts without wasting effort fixing the pieces that they know are unfinished.

During the development process, a running negotiation (some might say battle) takes place between the product's development team and marketing team, each of which typically has its own views on when the product should ship and which features must be included in the RTM version. Resolving these differing viewpoints requires a lot of give and take, and the final outcome can also depend on other product releases. For example, Exchange 2003's release schedule is related to Windows 2003 and Outlook 2003: New Exchange versions usually ship within 6 months of a new Windows release, and related client and server releases are likely to correspond with each other. RTC Server and Outlook 2003 are both part of the upcoming Microsoft Office System 2003, which incorporates several products that all affect the Office System release date.

Part of the development-versus-marketing negotiation involves setting up milestones for when the product can be released to testers outside of the development team. The first of these releases is usually to internal Microsoft users; Microsoft has a large corps of willing guinea pigs who are eager to test--and try to break--new stuff. This process is colloquially known as "eating your own dogfood" or "dogfooding." The Microsoft Operations and Technology Group (OTG) works with the product group to evaluate new products for stability, performance, and security, and to identify and fix whatever's broken. OTG began dogfooding Exchange 2003 and RTC Server to a small group of Microsoft users but quickly expanded the size of the bowl to include every mailbox at Microsoft--more than 80,000 total.

In parallel with the dogfood rollout, Exchange 2003, RTC Server, and Outlook 2003 were rolled out to a select group of partners who participate in the Joint Development Program (JDP). These customers, which vary from large industrial customers to small consulting firms, get star treatment: They get prebeta builds of products, which they must use in production. JDP customers also get extensive support from the product group and Microsoft Product Support Services (PSS). The JDP participants, who receive revised builds throughout the development cycle, help find problems, limitations, or bugs that might appear only in real-world environments. Participants have a great deal of influence over the product group's determination of the software's completion. In the case of Exchange 2003, each JDP partner must agree that the product is ready for release by certifying that it meets a stringent set of uptime and performance requirements.

At some point, the product is ready for wider distribution. Usually, Microsoft hosts an early private beta program for select customers who have either applied through Microsoft's BetaPlace ( http://www.betaplace.com or beta@microsoft.com ) or have been nominated by a Microsoft employee. Microsoft encourages these technical beta users to test the product, but beta testers aren't supposed to use the product in production and the degree of support they get is usually limited to newsgroups monitored by engineers from PSS and the product group.

The next stage of the testing program is usually a wider, public beta release that takes place a few months after the initial technical beta. This phase is sometimes called a "customer preview" or "marketing beta" because its object is to get a fairly stable, mostly complete product out to a wider audience. In the case of Office 2003, that meant releasing about 600,000 product kits. At this point, the product group is generally well aware of what remains to be fixed in the product, but additional testing always helps. Still, marketing beta participants typically find less than 15 percent of the total bugs in a new product.

When the development team, the OTG, and the JDP partners determine that the product is close to readiness, the developers usually produce a release candidate (RC). The RC is designed to find out whether the product can meet the product team's quality standards. For Exchange 2003, that means that all JDP sites must be able to run the product for at least 21 days with no interruption and no new severe bugs (the 21/0 rule). If the RC seems stable enough, the development team escrows the source code used to create that particular build and doesn't make any changes to that build tree. If the team finds subsequent problems, it decides on a case-by-case basis how to address them. Depending on the number and severity of problems, the team might create additional RC builds or special builds that go only to JDP participants. Each new build must meet the same 21/0 rule as the original RC.

By the time the product hits RC status, the product group has identified an RTM date for the product, at which point the product will be available for purchase. Microsoft is tight-lipped about RTM dates because they occasionally slip if severe problems turn up in an RC. Typically, customers who have Enterprise Agreements (EAs) or other large-scale licensing deals can use the product immediately after RTM, and other volume licensing customers can get the product soon after. Retail availability takes a little longer because the boxes and CD-ROMs take some time to manufacture and ship. In the meantime, though, Microsoft's usual practice is to release a 120-day evaluation version for download so that customers can have something to play with while they wait.

In the case of RTC Server, if you want to get your hands on the product before its official release, your best bet is to get your Microsoft Technical Account Manager (TAM) or salesperson to nominate you for the private technical beta that's currently under way. Windows and .NET Magazine will also cover the product in more detail as RTM draws closer.