Microsoft Proceeds Cautiously Through Beta Testing of Windows NT

Windows NT 5.0 has entered its second phase of beta testing, and is currently being used by 250,000 technical beta sites, developers and channel partners. However, instead of proceeding along the normal route of beta testing, and advancing from beta 2 to the final version, Microsoft Corp. announced that there will be a third beta phase before the product reaches completion.

Windows NT 5.0 has entered its second phase of beta testing, and is currently being used by 250,000 technical beta sites, developers and channel partners. However, instead of proceeding along the normal route of beta testing, and advancing from beta 2 to the final version, Microsoft Corp. announced that there will be a third beta phase before the product reaches completion.

Microsoft appears to be exercising caution because there are more implications for the company with Windows NT 5.0 than there have been with past products. "It’s very important for the future of NT that Microsoft gets the final release right," says Jean S. Bozman, software analyst, International Data Corp. (IDC, Mountain View, Calif.). "NT 5.0 may take on more enterprise tasks. To that extent, it has to be more reliable, and that means it will take longer to develop."

Between betas 1 and 2, Microsoft released to its testers five or six interim builds. "The decision to rename another interim build beta 3 was months in the making. Microsoft considered labeling it several things, but it always came back to beta 3," says Bozman. Unlike interim builds, which are given to the companies already testing the product, the third beta will be open to the public and Microsoft expects 500,000 participants.

The manner in which Microsoft is testing Windows NT 5.0 is a radical departure from how the company has traditionally tested software. "We have NT 5.0 beta 2 up and running in production environments with mission-critical apps in more than 100 Fortune 1,000 companies," says Jonathan Perera, lead product manager for Windows NT Server, Microsoft. "We fix bugs for these companies every day. This gives us a clear understanding of how the product works in day-to-day operations."

The point is not only to test the code; Microsoft also wants as many purchasers to be familiar with the product as possible by the time it ships. "Microsoft is paving a migration path. The more people that are familiar with NT 5.0, the easier that migration will be," says IDC’s Bozman.

Adding a third beta may delay the final shipping date, but analysts and beta testers agree that it’s better for everyone if Microsoft takes its time. "I’d rather have Microsoft extend the development process and get the product polished than have to deal with a lot of bugs and glitches in the final version," says Jeff Pulver, president, Intercomp Design Inc. (Neshanic Station, N.J.), a technical consulting firm and Microsoft beta testing site.

Along with all the preparation that goes into perfecting the software, Microsoft is under pressure from the ticking clock. If the beta takes too long, the company will run into the second half of next year, when most IT departments will be focused on the millennium crunch. "Nobody’s going to be migrating in the second half of next year," says IDC’s Bozman. "That’s the risk Microsoft takes in delaying too long. Most companies will want to see what happens after January 1, 2000, before bringing in a new server OS."

However, spilling into the latter half of next year to ship gold code doesn’t mean that Microsoft is likely to lose many customers. "Companies that are already into the NT environment will stick with 4.0 instead of jumping ship to another vendor," adds Bozman. "But Microsoft obviously wants to avoid being in the situation where NT 5.0 sales don’t take off until after 2000."

As for the final release, Microsoft’s Perera won’t promise a time frame for delivery. "We’re waiting to see what the feedback from beta 2 is," he says. Judging from past versions of Windows NT, including 3.1, 3.51 and 4.0, it generally takes about 5 to 7 months to progress from beta 2 to the shipping version. "I suspect NT 5.0 will come along in a time frame similar to past versions," says Perera. "But we will not ship NT 5.0 until our customers tell us it is ready."

Although Microsoft seems to be taking a long time to develop Windows NT 5.0, in the grand scheme of operating system development, points out Intercomp Design’s Pulver, who has more than 20 years of mainframe experience, the development period has been relatively short. "Windows products aren’t as bad as testing mainframes was in terms of taking a long time. And with NT 5.0 we’re talking about more than 30 million lines of code," he says.