Before the development of Windows Server 2003, Microsoft relied on inhouse stress tests, the Rapid Deployment Program (RDP), and early adopters and beta testers to gauge how its software would meet customer needs on release. With Windows 2003, however, Microsoft instituted a much more comprehensive set of testing procedures to ensure that the OS would be as solid as possible so that enterprises could confidently roll it out before the first service pack release. An important aspect of Microsoft's new testing initiative is the Microsoft Enterprise Engineering Center (EEC).

What It Is
Microsoft uses the EEC, a facility on the Redmond campus, to interact with customers during the development of Microsoft enterprise products. The idea is to bring a customer in house, learn first-hand the customer's concerns about a product's deployment, then test the product against the customer's exact hardware and network configurations. Microsoft believes that this interaction will help make Windows 2003, Microsoft Exchange Server 2003, and future products more desirable and reliable. For customers, using the EEC offers unprecedented access to Microsoft's product teams. If a problem arises during testing, appropriate Microsoft product team members are notified and help investigate the problem.

The EEC currently consists of three Enterprise Customer Labs (ECLs) that feature IBM, Hewlett-Packard (HP), and Dell workstations and servers, plus a massive server room with banks of rack-mounted servers. Because Microsoft customers generally have heterogeneous environments, the company also maintains a collection of Sun Microsystems machines and other non-Wintel equipment so that the EEC can more readily duplicate customer configurations. If customers need hardware that isn't yet available in the EEC, Microsoft makes it available. Since the facility opened in April 2002, Microsoft has had more than 20 customers on site for Windows 2003 testing. The EEC has hosted as many as five customers at one time, and Microsoft is building new ECLs to support more concurrent testing.

Whom It's For
The EEC is open to virtually any enterprise that's rolling out Microsoft technology. George Santino, who runs the EEC at Microsoft, explained how customers come to the center. "Our account teams in the field send us referrals, while a number of customers come because they're part of the JDP \[Joint Development Program\]," he said. "And we have some that come from our OEM hardware partners. They provide us with their own customers."

The EEC costs participants nothing more than the price of sending employees to Redmond for several days. In return, Microsoft asks to use the customers' lab environments in future testing situations. "We want to understand how they use our stuff," Santino said. "And we want real data to stress the products, not a simulation.

How It Works
After Microsoft and a customer agree to conduct testing at the EEC, Microsoft establishes a schedule and builds a copy of the customer's environment in an ECL. Then, customer representatives come to the EEC and test various scenarios using actual data. This testing period typically lasts 1 to 2 weeks. "When they leave, we want to keep their environments around for at least a week so our product teams can test on it. If there are enough issues, we like to keep the environment around for a couple of months," said Santino. "We are growing an inventory of real-world environments so that, over time, when a product team is working on product X, we can test various things, go back through the inventory, and build it back up in a couple of days."

For customers, the EEC is a great opportunity to interact with the people who develop the products they use. "Any time we had a server problem, a person from the Windows Server 2003 product team would come across campus within 20 minutes, ... dig into the code, and fix the problem," Tim Cornett, the Active Directory Architect for the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), told me while discussing his December 2002 experience at the EEC. "It was pretty intense. They were willing to stay with us 24 * 7 if we wanted them to, and they were just excellent." Cornett said that he'll likely return to the EEC to test his Exchange 2003 deployment.

Recommendations
The EEC is an unprecedented opportunity for enterprise customers to use Microsoft's most recent technologies to test their environments—at virtually no cost. If you're involved with early large-scale deployment of Microsoft products in real-world environments, you owe it to yourself to contact the software giant about participating in the EEC.