Courting Customer Comments

Last week, Microsoft released several Community Technology Previews (CTPs) for SQL Server 2005, including:

  • SQL Server 2005 Service Pack 1 (SP1) CTP
  • SQL Server 2005 Books Online SP1 CTP (March 2006)
  • SQL Server 2005 Express SP1
  • SQL Server 2005 Express with Advanced Services CTP
  • You can find download instructions and more information about these CTPs at . Some of the highlights of these CTPs include the long awaited support for Database Mirroring and the GUI administration tool for SQL 2005 Express, SQL Server Management Studio Express (SSMSE). The CTPs bring lots of other interesting features, but I'm going to hold off on discussion of the technical side of the CTPs for a future editorial.

    Instead this week, I want to focus on what Microsoft is calling its Transparent Customer Collaboration Model. Microsoft's site explains that the customer feedback its gotten from previous DTP releases has been so beneficial, the company is expanding the model and making it part of the product-development cycle.

    Microsoft says that applying the new Transparent Customer Collaboration Model to service pack releases "demonstrates our commitment to customer feedback and validation as an important aspect of a quality-focused development cycle. Also, as part of this new model, we are introducing a separate release tree for any future SQL Server security fixes, so that customers can take advantage of timely, targeted fixes that are streamlined for security specific updates."

    Who can argue with that? It sounds great--but I'm not really sure what it means. In the next few weeks, I'll be chatting with Microsoft about its new Transparent Customer Collaboration Model later this week and will provide updated thoughts in a future editorial. For now, I'm troubled by at least one aspect of this new-and-improved way Microsoft wants to interact with its customers: A CTP by any other name is still just a beta.

    Granted, I loved the idea of the CTP program before SQL Server 2005 shipped. The approach worked great and gave the community more visibility into SQL Server 2005's development than a traditional beta program would have. Learning about a major release's new features well in advance of RTM provides invaluable information for customers.

    However, I'm not sure how I feel about CTPs for service packs. I'm sure that most of my readers are incredibly brilliant, experienced SQL Server professionals who intuitively understand that a CTP is nothing more than a beta, and that they should never deploy a beta of anything in production. I'm also sure that you're well aware of the pros and cons of applying service packs when they're released, waiting for someone else to work out the bugs, or waiting simply because you don't have time to roll out a service pack across your enterprise.

    I found it interesting that sentences such as "Please note that the CTP license agreement precludes deployment of the SQL Server 2005 SP1 CTP into production" seemed like afterthoughts on the Microsoft site. I knew that those disclaimers had to be there and was looking for them, but nothing on the CTP home page jumped out me and said "Don't put this into production." I'm sure that few people would do so, but there are novices out there.

    Regardless of my reservations about possible early deployments of these CTPs, I'm pleased that Microsoft plans to have a separate release path for security fixes so that customers can get "timely targeted fixes" without deciding whether to deploy an entire service pack. Historically, Microsoft hasn't done a great job of making it easy for SQL Server customers to keep up with the latest and greatest security patches, so this is a welcome announcement that I hope Microsoft executes well.

    Providing op-ed commentary is easy and saves me from needing to make hard decisions. I can have a firm opinion this week and change my mind next week. Opinions are nice that way. But Microsoft doesn't get that kind of flexibility as it struggles with how to balance the competing needs of adding new features, fixing bugs, and providing crucial security fixes all in one easy-to-use, transparent package that op-ed pundits can't find fault with. Conceptually, I like the idea of the Transparent Customer Collaboration Model. I'm willing to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt, at least until I see how Microsoft executes this strategy. That's just my opinion--at least for this week.

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